Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook

By Denise D. Knight | Go to book overview

INA DONNA COOLBRITH (1841-1928)

Gary Scharnhorst


BIOGRAPHY

Poet Ina Coolbrith was born in Nauvoo, Illinois, to Mormon parents. In 1851, ten years after the death of her natural father, her stepfather, St. Louis journalist and lawyer William Pickett, moved the family west to California. Her first published poem, "My Childhood's Home," appeared in the Los Angeles Star in August 1856.

In 1862, after a brief marriage and divorce, Coolbrith settled in San Francisco, where, mentored by Bret Harte, she soon began to earn a local literary reputation. After the founding of the Overland Monthly, with Harte as its first editor, in 1868, the verse of Coolbrith, Harte, and Charles Warren Stoddard was featured so often in its pages they were nicknamed "the Golden State Trinity."

By the 1870s, Coolbrith had won national renown. Her poetry regularly appeared over the course of her career in such magazines as the Galaxy, Century, Harper's Weekly, Putnam's, Lippincott's, Munsey's, and Scribner's. Though never prolific, Coolbrith had a facile style. She wrote a poem, as she once explained, "on her feet, going about her affairs until her poem is complete, and then writing it down exactly as she framed it in her mind" ("General Gossip"). In fall 1884 Coolbrith traveled to New England, where she met John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and E. C. Stedman. In 1893 she visited the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and traveled to Boston and New York; and throughout the 1890s her home in the East Bay area was famous as a salon for writers and artists.

Coolbrith served as librarian of the Oakland Free Public Library from 1874 until 1893. There she met and encouraged the young Isadora Duncan, Jack London, and Mary Austin. As Austin reminisced later, "She had a low, pleasant

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