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Excerpts from a Biography of Robert Duncan

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 Birthday"

asachild.jpg (53696 bytes)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 WestÖfirst 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 kiddies."[35]

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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