Excerpts From A Biography Of Robert Duncan

Essay, Research Paper

Lisa Jarnot

from Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus

"At dawn in Oakland in the cold of the year I was

born, January 7th, with the sun before rising or just below the horizon in the false dawn

and Saturn in his own house, in Capricorn. But that is according to the old astrological

convention. Actually, the sun has advanced; the winter solstice has progresst to the sign

of Sagittarius. I was born in the head of the archer."

–Robert Duncan, "A Sequence of Poems for H.D.’s


Robert Duncan knew the story of his adoption. Before his birth, his

step-parents had become involved in a theosophical group in the Bay Area, a hermetic

brotherhood modelled after late-nineteen-century occult groups such as London’s Hermetic

Order of the Golden Dawn and Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society of New York and

India. The Symmeses had discovered Robert Duncan, or more accurately, he had been sent to

them. By the reckoning of their religion, his astrological chart indicated that he

had, in a past life, lived on the mythological continent of Atlantis as one of its great

innovators. He was of the ancient generation that had turned their knowledge to ill-means

and subsequently destroyed their own world. Born under the sign of Capricorn, with the

moon in the sign of Pisces, his ascendant sign was in Sagittarius, and the presence of

Gemini in his sixth house suggested that he had acted as a messenger in a previous

incarnation.[19] According to hermetic doctrine, his mother Marguerite Duncan’s role had

been simply that of a "vehicle" of his birth. She was an agent of his

reincarnation and she had died so that he might be handed over to his rightful parents.

The preparation for the child’s arrival began some time before 1919. For the Symmeses the

terms of the adoption were threefold. The baby would be born at the time and place

appointed by the astrologers, the natural mother would die shortly thereafter, and

the child would be of Anglo-Saxon protestant descent. [20]

In Celtic tradition, August 1 marks the Lammas Tide, a

celebration of the first harvest of the autumn. It was a date that fascinated Robert

Duncan, and a date that appeared in more than one of his poems.[21] It had been on August

1, 1919 that Fayetta Philip told her sister Minnehaha Symmes of the conversation that had

transpired in the Philip & Philip pharmacy on that day. The following day the Symmeses

made arrangements to see the Duncan child for the first time, and on August 4,

six-month-old Edward Howe Duncan was placed in the custody of Minnehaha and Edwin Symmes

through an arrangement with Edward Duncan, Sr. and the Native Sons and Daughters Central

Committee on Homeless Children of San Francisco. Minnehaha and Edwin took the baby home to

their apartment in Oakland, at 914 Taylor Avenue and he was soon renamed Robert Edward

Symmes, apparently after a friend of his stepfather.[22] Seven months later, on March 10,

1920, the Superior Court of the State of California named the Symmeses the child’s legal

parents. During October, 1920, they adopted a baby girl and named her Barbara Eleanor

Symmes. She had been born in Oakland almost exactly a year after Robert, on the

evening of January 6, 1920. A reading of her astrological chart also played into her

adoption. She was to introduce "good karma" into the household; she was to be

her brother Robert’s better half.

The Symmeses, aside from their interests in the occult,

were in many ways a typical middle-class couple, conservative in their political views,

and seriously invested in projecting an image of the all-American family. Both Edwin

and Minnehaha would be remembered as upstanding California citizens–he, as a prominent

public works architect and she as a busy socialite who served on committees, chaired

community council meetings, and volunteered her time to a range of organizations, from the

Children’s Home Society of California to the Kern County Council of Campfire Girls.[23]

Writing of his stepfather’s family, the Symmeses, in The

HD Book, Robert Duncan reported that they "had moved West?first into Ohio at the

beginning of the nineteenth century, and then on, at the frontier or beyond the frontier

of America, into California."[24] Symmes, and its variation Semmes are Anglo-Saxon

names; several members of the clan descended upon the American colonies from England

during the mid-1600s. Duncan’s tale of the family’s trek through Ohio seems fairly

accurate. The migration of one branch of the Symmeses began in St. George’s, Maryland

during the mid-seventeenth century, continued into Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Short Creek,

West Virginia; and finally into Ohio. There were a large number of Symmeses in East

Liverpool, Ohio as of the early 1800s. Those who settled in that part of the country were

potters and farmers, and descendants of the lineage still exist there today.[25] What

seems less accurate is Robert Duncan’s wish to merge the Symmeses of Ohio with yet another

branch of the family who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the early 1600s and

slowly migrated West from there. In what could very well be an embellishment of his

adoptive father’s lineage, Duncan once wrote in a journal entry:

In my father’s line American origins went back to the

Calvinism of the Massachusetts Colony where the ancestral patriarch oldest son to oldest

son to my adoptive father had been Reverend Zackariah Symmes.[26]

If this version of the story is true, then Edwin Symmes’s

ancestors were not at all linked to the Symmeses of Maryland and Ohio. Instead, they had

arrived in America on a ship called the Griffin on September 18, 1634, disembarking in

Boston. The ship’s passenger list includes not only the Reverend Zackariah Symmes, but

also the religious dissenter Anne Hutchinson.[27] Symmes, upon arriving in the colonies,

would make a name for himself as one of the patriarchs who testified against Hutchinson in

her trials for sedition and heresy.[28] Regardless of whether or not Robert Duncan’s

stepfather was a direct descendant of the Reverend Symmes, Duncan had enough interest in

the story to incorporate it into his early sketches toward an autobiographical novel

composed during 1941:

We are descended from witches and burners of witches. How

my ancestors gave witness that she, Anne Hutchinson, had talked on deck at night with a

Dark Stranger who had a covenant between them, and by the Governor of Massachusetts given

birth of two monsters out of wedlock.[29]

Edwin Symmes was a frail and studious man. What he lacked

in the adventurousness of his ancestors, he made up for with an obsessive Protestant work

ethic. By middle age he was wiry, nervous, and chronically ill, chain-smoking cigarettes

and spending long days in the offices of Symmes and Willard, Architects. He had been

born on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1883, in Livermore, California to Charles O.

Symmes and Elizabeth Johnson. Edwin probably spent part of his youth in Oakland,

where his father was employed as a railroad engineer on the Southern Pacific line during

the 1890s. Coincidentally, both Robert Duncan’s biological father Edward and his

grandfather George Duncan worked as brakemen and conductors for the Central and Southern

Pacific lines during the same time period that Charles O. Symmes was employed there.

Edwin Symmes’s later battles with ill health were

foreshadowed on more than one occasion during his youth–his education being interrupted

first by an injury to his foot, and later by unspecified illnesses in 1904 and 1905.[30]

It was around 1904 that he met his future wife, Minnehaha Harris, during the year before

he began college. And in 1905 at the age of twenty-two he registered as an undergraduate

student at the University of California at Berkeley. Symmes completed his studies there in

May of 1909, having earned a degree in architecture and engineering. He soon found

work in San Francisco as a draftsman, and beginning in January of 1913 contributed to the

construction of San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts under the direction of the master

architect Bernard Maybeck. The Palace of Fine Arts would be one of the wonders of San

Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition which opened on February 20, 1915. It

was Edwin Symmes’s first real acknowledgement in his field, for which he received public

honors that year.[31]

Edwin Symmes and Minnehaha Harris were married on the

evening of July 9, 1913, in Oakland, some nine years after their first meeting and some

four months after their engagement. It would never be a difficult partnership, but

it would not be extraordinary either, despite the fact that they had been careful to

arrange the date, time, and latitude of their union on a favorable astrological

alignment.[32] Their lengthy pre-marriage flirtations had been interrupted on several

occasions, such as in 1906 when Minnehaha moved to Oregon to teach in a one-room

schoolhouse in the wake of that spring’s earthquake in San Francisco. During that time she

wrote extensively in journals, and like her sister Fayetta, developed a curious

autobiographical writing style which bears parallels to Robert Duncan’s later writing in

The H.D. Book and elsewhere. In one such entry, she recalled the events of her

nineteenth year:

I was torn from my city life, my companions, my

studies…. I watched the autumn colorings come and go, but the rains, cold and bleak beat

upon the roof and the wind thru the trees sighed and moaned, sometimes almost shrieked in

its impotency to change the conditions….The birds had flown–yet still I stayed and time

went on.[33]

She was a thin woman; some described her as resembling a

sparrow. Her stepson Robert would write of her:

She was a beautiful woman I suppose. She had black hair

that was wild and naturally waving about her head and a fine delicate nose, nostrilled

like a nervous horse…but we could see her irrational angers in those eyes…. She was

perhaps in this even a magnificent creature, tyrannical with the beauty of will that the

tyrant has.[34]

Duncan’s ambivalence toward her, and his fascination with

her authority would surface in the poetry that he wrote as an adult. But part of what he

perceived as the oppressiveness of his stepmother’s personality certainly came as a result

of her own upbringing. Abandoned by her father at the age of two, and raised in the

company of several strong-minded women, Minnehaha Harris, by early adulthood, was willful,

controlling, and never without resource. The youngest of three daughters, she often found

herself playing the role of a peacemaker between her equally willful older sisters Dee and

Fayetta. When she met Edwin Symmes in 1904 she was attracted to his shy manner and to his

professional ambitions–he was a resource she could depend on. In photographs he posed

with the rigid stance of a prep school cadet, but his lanky awkward figure and his boyish

face betrayed his resolve to appear stern. There was a basic gentleness about him,

reflected also in the inscriptions he left in the Symmes family children’s books,

some including short rhymed couplets penned by Edwin Symmes for his wife and "the


Between their marriage in 1913, and the adoption of Robert

in 1919, Edwin and Minnehaha Symmes lived variously in San Francisco, Oakland, Yosemite,

and Alameda, California. They stayed close to relatives on both sides of the

family–to Edwin’s siblings Charles and Alvie Symmes who lived in Oakland, and to

Minnehaha’s mother and sister Fayetta, who lived in Berkeley and Fruitvale, respectively.

It was during the early 1920s that the Symmeses settled in Alameda, the place that would

be Robert Duncan’s home for the first seven years of his life. Alameda was then, as it is

today, a sleepy island town appended to the southernmost part of the city of Oakland.

Originally a peninsula of the city, later separated by a man-made estuary, Alameda in its

early days had been a peach orchard settled by the Spanish. The house that Edwin Symmes

designed and saw built there in 1922 was at 1700 Pearl Street, some blocks away from a

narrow sandy beach with a view of the San Francisco skyline across the bay. A typical

Northern California town, Alameda was marked by mild coastal weather and a foliage which

changed very little seasonally–palm and fruit trees yellowed during the summer droughts

and blossomed into deep shades of green during the winter rains. The blocks of pink and

beige adobe houses landscaped with lemon trees and several varieties of flowering plants

contributed to Alameda’s orderly suburban atmosphere.

Please refer to Chicago Review 45:2 (1999) for note

references. Online Source



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