Ina Donna Coolbrith (March 10, 1841 – February 29, 1928) was an American poet, writer, librarian, and a prominent figure in the San Francisco Bay Area literary community. Called the "Sweet Singer of California", she was the first California Poet Laureate and the first poet laureate of any American state.
Coolbrith, born the niece of Latter Day Saint movement founder Joseph Smith, left the Mormon community as a child to enter her teens in Los Angeles, California, where she began to publish poetry. She terminated a youthful failed marriage to make her home in San Francisco, and met writers Bret Harte and Charles Warren Stoddard with whom she formed the "Golden Gate Trinity" closely associated with the literary journal Overland Monthly. Her poetry received positive notice from critics and established poets such as Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and Alfred Lord Tennyson. She held literary salons at her home—in this way she introduced new writers to publishers. Coolbrith befriended the poet Joaquin Miller and helped him gain global fame.
While Miller toured Europe and lived out their mutual dream of visiting Lord Byron's tomb, Coolbrith was saddled with custody of his daughter, and the care of members of her own family, so she set up house in Oakland and accepted the position of city librarian. Her poetry suffered as a result of her long work hours, but she mentored a generation of young readers including Jack London and Isadora Duncan. After she served for 19 years, Oakland's library patrons called for reorganization, and Coolbrith was fired. She moved back to San Francisco and was invited by members of the Bohemian Club to be their librarian.
Coolbrith began to write a history of California literature, including much autobiographical material, but the fire following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake consumed her work. Author Gertrude Atherton and Coolbrith's Bohemian Club friends helped set her up again in a new house, and she resumed writing and holding literary salons. She traveled by train to New York City several times and, with fewer worldly cares, greatly increased her poetry output. On June 30, 1915, Coolbrith was named California's poet laureate, and she continued to write poetry for eight more years. Her style was more than the usual melancholic or uplifting themes expected of women—she included a wide variety of subjects in her poems, which were noted as being "singularly sympathetic" and "palpably spontaneous". Her sensuous descriptions of natural scenes advanced the art of Victorian poetry to incorporate greater accuracy without trite sentiment, foreshadowing the Imagist school and the work of Robert Frost. California poet laureate Carol Muske-Dukes wrote of Coolbrith's poems that, though they "were steeped in a high tea lavender style", influenced by a British stateliness, "California remained her inspiration."
Ina Coolbrith was born Josephine Donna Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois, the last of three daughters of Agnes Moulton Coolbrith and Don Carlos Smith, brother to Joseph Smith Coolbrith's father died of malarial fever four months after her birth, and a sister died one month after that; Coolbrith's mother then married Joseph Smith, in 1842, becoming his sixth or seventh wife, depending on whether Fanny Alger is counted as a wife or as a lover. No children came of the union—Agnes felt neglected in her unfruitful Levirate marriage, the only such marriage of Smith. Over the next two years, Smith married some 20 to 30 more wives, angering non-Mormons in the area. In June 1844, Smith was killed at the hands of an anti-Mormon, anti-polygamist mob. Losing her faith and fearful of her life, Coolbrith's mother left the Latter-day Saint community and moved to Saint Louis, Missouri, where she married a printer and lawyer named William Pickett. Twin sons were born to the couple, and in 1851 Pickett traveled overland with his new family to California in a wagon train. On the long trek, the young Ina read from a book of Shakespeare's works and from a collection of Byron's poems.As a ten-year-old girl, Ina entered California in front of the wagon train with the famous African-American scout Jim Beckwourth, riding with him on his horse, through what would later be named Beckwourth Pass. The family settled in Los Angeles, California, and Pickett established a law practice.
To avoid identification with her former family or with Mormonism, Ina's mother reverted to using her maiden name, Coolbrith. The family resolved not to speak of their Mormon past, and it was only after Ina Coolbrith's death that the public learned of her origin.
Coolbrith, sometimes called "Josephina" or just "Ina", wrote poems beginning at age 11, first publishing "My Ideal Home" in a newspaper in 1856, writing as Ina Donna Coolbrith. Her work appeared in the Poetry Corner of the Los Angeles Star, and in the California Home Journal. As she grew into young womanhood, Coolbrith was renowned for her beauty; she was selected to open a ball with Pío Pico, the last Mexican governor of California. In April 1858 at the age of 17, she married Robert Bruce Carsley, an iron-worker and part-time actor, but she suffered abuse at his hands, and further emotional pain came from the death of the couple's infant son. An altercation between Pickett and Carsley resulted in a bullet mutilating Carsley's hand, requiring amputation. Carsley accused Coolbrith of infidelity, and she divorced him in a sensational public trial; the dissolution was final on December 30, 1861. Her later poem, "The Mother's Grief", was a eulogy to her lost son, but she never publicly explained its meaning—it was only upon Coolbrith's death that her literary friends discovered she had ever been a mother. In 1862, Coolbrith moved with her mother, stepfather and twin half-brothers to San Francisco to ward off depression, and changed her name from Josephine Donna Carsley to Ina Coolbrith.
Coolbrith soon met Bret Harte and Samuel Langhorne Clemens, writing as Mark Twain, in San Francisco. In 1867, four of Coolbrith's poems appeared in The Galaxy. In July 1868, Coolbrith supplied a poem, "Longing", for the first issue of the Overland Monthly, and served unofficially as co-editor with Harte in selecting poems, articles and stories for the periodical. She became a friend of actress and poet Adah Menken,adding to Menken's credibility as an intellectual, but was unable to impress Harte of Menken's worth.Coolbrith also worked as a schoolteacher for extra income. For a decade, Coolbrith supplied one poem for each new issue of the Overland Monthly. After the 1866 publication of four of her poems in an anthology edited by Harte, Coolbrith's "The Mother's Grief" was positively reviewed in The New York Times. Another poem, "When the Grass Shall Cover Me", appeared unattributed in an anthology of John Greenleaf Whittier's favorite works by other poets, entitled Songs of Three Centuries (1875); Coolbrith's poem was judged the best of that group. In 1867, recently widowed Josephine Clifford arrived at the Overland Monthly to take a position as secretary. She formed a lifetime friendship with Coolbrith.
Coolbrith's literary work connected her with poet Alfred Lord Tennyson and naturalist John Muir, as well as Charles Warren Stoddard who also helped Harte edit the Overland Monthly. As editors and arbiters of literary taste, Harte, Stoddard and Coolbrith were known as the "Golden Gate Trinity". Stoddard once said that Coolbrith never had any of her literary submissions returned from a publisher. Coolbrith met writer and critic Ambrose Bierce in 1869, and by 1871 when he was courting Mary Ellen Day, Bierce organized friendly card games between himself, Day, Coolbrith and Stoddard. Bierce felt that Coolbrith's best poems were "California", the commencement ode she wrote for the University of California in 1871, and "Beside the Dead", written in 1875.
A finely detailed monochrome photograph portrait of a bearded and mustachioed man in his 30s or 40s, shown from the waist up, wearing a jacket and vest over a white shirt with its collar closed by a cravat secured by a jeweled finger ring, a multi-corded watch fob hanging from a vest button, decorated by another ring, the man's hands together in his lap, his body leaning to the left and the head turned to the right, his dark hair full and long in the back, long but thin on top, revealing a high forehead
In mid-1870, Coolbrith met the eccentric poet Cincinnatus Hiner Miller, newly divorced from his second wife, and introduced him to the San Francisco literary circle at the suggestion of Stoddard. Miller quoted Tennyson in describing Coolbrith as "divinely tall, and most divinely fair". Coolbrith discovered that Miller was appreciative of the heroic, tragic life of Joaquin Murrieta, and she suggested that Miller take the name Joaquin Miller as his pen name, and that he dress the part with longer hair and a more-pronounced mountain man costume.Coolbrith helped Miller prepare for his trip to England, where he would lay a laurel wreath on the tomb of Lord Byron, a poet they both greatly admired. The two gathered California Bay Laurel branches in Sausalito and took portrait photographs together. Coolbrith wrote "With a Wreath of Laurel" about this enterprise.Miller went to New York by train, calling himself "Joaquin Miller" for the first time, and was in London by August 1870. When he placed the wreath at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Hucknall, it caused a stir among the English clergy who did not see any connection between California poets and the late lord. They sent to Constantine I, the King of Greece for another laurel wreath from that country of Byron's heroic death, accompanied by some Greek funding which was joined in kind from the purse of the Bishop of Norwich to rebuild and refurbish the 500-year-old church. The two wreaths were hung side by side over Byron's tomb.