We announce with pleasure that The Collected Works of James Wyatt Oates are now published in the Comstock House digital library.

Oates wrote 20 essays and short stories between 1879 and 1915 that he collected in a 3-ring binder. He apparently kept it close at hand, rereading and editing his works over the years; the cover of the binder is stained with coffee cup and glass rings showing it was used frequently as a coaster. Thankfully it was preserved by the Comstock family and handed down to us, 92 years later, and we are particularly grateful to Martha Comstock Keegan for recognizing its historical merits.

Oates was a very good writer, and apparently considered himself a professional journalist for a few years. He was a part-time editor of a “country newspaper” in Arizona and occasional contributor to The Californian, then the top literary journal in the Western U.S. There Oates rubbed shoulders with literary giants such as Bret Harte, John Muir, Frank Norris and Joaquin Miller.

There are no lost masterpieces to be discovered between those stained covers. But there are several things well worth reading, particularly if you have an interest in the Civil War era as viewed by someone who grew up in the South, living there ten years on either side of the war. Here are summaries and commentary of his most interesting writings:

* WAR AND PREPARATION   (1915)   A  memoir of June, 1861 and the start of the Civil War.

* THE SOUTHERN STATES   (1910)   A remarkable short essay, both profound and personal, touching on the root cause of the Civil War. It wasn’t a struggle over noble principles such as states’ rights or preserving the Union, Oates writes; it was simply about prying slaves away from the clutches of slaveholders. Also, it was the hypocritical way Southerners justified slavery using the Bible that brought Oates to loathe religion at an early age. He writes, “I was raised in Alabama in the midst of slavery and slaves. While a boy of eight to twelve years of age I heard ministers of the Gospel, honest, noble men, many times, from the pulpit announce with absoluteness that slavery was morally right, ordained of God, and cite passages from the Bible to sustain them. Though a child and surrounded by intense pro-slavery influences, deep down in my heart I felt that they were wrong. I could not refute their biblical citations nor explain away any of those proofs, but I felt that in some way they could be answered, and then and there was implanted in my very nature a distrust of religion and the Bible, from which I have never been able to escape.”

* GANDER PULLING   (1878)   This early short story is Oates’ best work, but be forewarned that it contains graphic descriptions of extreme animal cruelty.

* THE “HARDSHELL”   (1889)   An amusing character sketch about a backwoodsman’s relationship with his “Hardshell” church. Oates describes his odd views on children’s names: “The oldest girl was named Martha – plain, Biblical Martha – but he called her ‘Pid.’ The oldest boy was named Mathew – plain and again Biblical – and he called him ‘Bud’. The next boy, named George Washington, he called ‘Coot’. And so on down. How the old chap supposed a man could get on in life with ‘Coot’ for a name has never been explained.”

* A THEOLOGICAL PUZZLE   (1913)   If an all-powerful God exists, there is no such thing as free will because God knows everything that has or will happen. Therefore, God cannot judge us on our actions or morality. “We in fairness should not be punished in any way for doing a thing we can not help doing.” It probably goes without saying that there were no clergy found among Oates’ social circle.

* LINCOLN   (1905)   Here Oates comes out as firmly belonging to “The War of Northern Aggression” camp. While he admired Lincoln, the president didn’t grasp that the South had a right to secede because the whole North-South relationship just wasn’t working out. In particular, Oates writes Lincoln wronged the South in the Gettysburg Address by implying Southerners were less patriotic Americans, pointing to the passage where Lincoln said the dead had not died in vain, but to ensure our government “of the people, for the people, by the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Oates counters: “The South was equally zealous, was as devoted to government of, for and by the people as was any Northern man who fought in that contest…the question in issue was rather whether there should be one government by, of and for the people North and another government by, of and for the people South or one government for both.” In sum: Oates believes the president betrayed the Founding Fathers by keeping the United States united.

* THE SOUTHERN CRACKER   (1913)   A character sketch of an old fellow who went off to fight in the Civil War, motivated by rumors and fuzzy ideals.

* THE INDIAN PROBLEM–MR. SCHURZ REVIEWED   (1881)   One of (at least) four essays published in The Californian, Oates is commenting on an article by Carl Schurz, “Present Aspects of the Indian Problem.” Schurz wrote with some authority; he had been Secretary of the Interior in the Hayes administration, which had ended just a few months earlier. Per Indian matters, Schurz had progressive views for his day. He wanted to keep tribes together, opposed permanent reservations, encouraged assimilation through the establishment of Indian schools (particularly education for girls), and wanted Indian families to become farmers by giving them small plots of land that were protected by federal law against theft by whites. Oates offers a far more radical proposal: Ship every Indian in the United States to Indian Territory (which in 1881 might have meant all of modern-day Oklahoma or just the southeast corner) where they would be given plots of land and farm tools and seed. U.S. troops would patrol this mega-reservation. Plus, it would be a very cost-effective solution, Oates argues without a hint of irony, because whites would now be able to obtain valuable mineral rights on their former reservation lands. This was his last essay to appear in the magazine; 1881 was the year he settled in Santa Rosa and perhaps he became too busy to continue writing. Or perhaps there was such outrage over his ridiculous Indian proposal that the editor was forced to drop him as a correspondent.

* THE BOOK OF JOB   (1914)   Oates dismantles the story of Job in an enjoyable essay worthy of Mark Twain. “No God of whom I can conceive would do the petty, mean, onery things that story says he did…This puts both God and the Devil on the same plane as two boys, one with a chip on his shoulder daring the other to knock it off. That was a pretty undignified attitude for the Devil to say nothing of the great Master of the Universe, and also to say nothing of the outrage on Job.” Another favorite passage: “Whatever made man made a botched job. When we consider our limitations, our pains and aches, our blunders, our inherent nonsense, when we see the millions dragging out a few years of sordid and sodden existences, we are forced to admit that. Glory in that? He could just as easily have made man a perfect thing; He might, in a mild sense, have derived satisfaction from so doing, but ‘glory’ never.”

* WHAT OF THE AGES?   (1914)   An odd Malthusian essay on the need for war to keep the world’s population down. Originally written in March, 1914, Oates adds a postscript in December that bemoans the destruction of war and nightmare of combat. Between the time of writing the article and the postscript his wife died and WWI began.

* BRYANISM   (1908)   Oates disliked William Jennings Bryan before he made a third run for the White House in 1908, but here he denounces Bryan as a demagogue and radical determined to destroy what’s left of the Democratic Party. Along the way Oates howls about the demise of states’ rights and the horror that is organized labor. (In short, it reads like most of the commentary found on the Internet today.) What’s interesting is that we can trace Oates’ opinions of Bryan over his entire career. Oates wrote a letter that appeared in the Oct. 23, 1900 San Francisco Call stating he wouldn’t be voting for Bryan because he was too academic and had a wimpy foreign policy. Yet before that, in 1896 Oates was an enthusiastic leader of the “Bryan Free Silver Club” in Santa Rosa. Quite the pendulum swing.

* BURKE, THE COLOR-BEARER   (1914)   Short story about a good-for-nothing who found redemption in the Civil War.

* THE NEGRO AS HE IS   (1915)   Regrettably, Oates’ last work is a racist essay, complete with plantation dialect. If he had written it around the time of the Civil War it wouldn’t have raised eyebrows, but to author such a thing in 1915 is just deplorable. Given the other uncharacteristic acts that Oates did in the last months of his life (see biography linked above), one wonders if he might have been suffering mental problems.

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It was the most ridiculous of ideas, it was the best of ideas, it was another exercise of male privilege, it was an innovative approach to a social problem. It was certainly a fine example of why historical context is so important for modern readers to understand.

At issue was the 1907 proposal to turn a room at the Santa Rosa public library into a “club room for men, where they can spend a quiet hour after supper when their day’s work is done, read the papers and periodicals and, if they are so inclined, enjoy a smoke.” On the face of it, the proposal sounded outrageous – there were no shortage of places around town where “sons of toil [could] go after supper, enjoy a smoke, and read the papers.” The problem was that the men also drank beer in those establishments.

This was the year that the temperance movement first began to exercise its muscle in Sonoma County (see following post) and although none of the articles or letters-to-the-editor mention drinking or gambling, the only possible reason for surrendering part of the library to a men’s lounge – with smoking allowed, no less – was to offer gents an alternative dry hangout.

Nothing came of the idea, but a correspondent to the Republican suggested library room should instead become a woman’s lounge: “Before the awful 18th there was always a waiting room in some livery stable, but now even that comfort is very limited.” The point was apt: Women were not allowed to enter saloons, and until the Overton and Occidental Hotels were opened at the end of the year, there was nothing like a “Little Tiny Petit Pheasant Feather Tea Shoppe” in Santa Rosa that was inviting to ladies to sit awhile and freshen up. And so the library basement became the “Rest Room,” which was furnished with “low rocking chairs to which women are partial,” couches, and tables “stocked with feminine literature.”

(RIGHT: A postcard showing the damage to Santa Rosa’s library after the 1906 earthquake. Library repairs were funded by Andrew Carnegie, who had paid for the construction of the building two years before. The building was at the same location as the current Sonoma County Library main building, at the corner of E and Third Streets. Image courtesy Larry Lapeere)

Place Where Sons of Toil Can Go After Supper, Enjoy a Smoke and Read the Papers

A club room for men, where they can spend a quiet hour after supper when their day’s work is done, read the papers and periodicals and, if they are so inclined, enjoy a smoke. Such is the idea the Public Library Trustees have in mind at the present time, and it will be carried out in all probability.

The matter was informally discussed at the meeting of the library board on Thursday night. It is proposed to partition off the large room in the basement of the library building, not occupied for city hall purposes, and to fit it up as a reading room for men. In this way the trustees believe the evenings can be made pleasant for the men.

– Press Democrat, January 4, 1907


To the Editor of the Republican: We would like to express sour opinion regarding the smoking room to be opened up in the public library building. Every good citizen in Santa Rosa ought to send in a loud protest against opening up a room for any such purpose.

We would like to express our opin [sic] to make the use of tobacco popular. I have no need to state the evil resulting from its use. Every one knows, or ought to, for it is conceded by nearly every one. Its tendencies are to gradually demoralize and draw the unsuspecting young man into something worse. Who ever knew of a drinking man that did not use tobacco? I never did. I have been a soldier and sailor for nearly twenty years before the mast and as first officer, and during all these years and since never had any use for the stuff, and will say I have not stood alone on this question. I have known a great many whose principles were the same. I have found men wherever I have been that were abstainers and who were able to put such foolishness behind them.

If a man will and must smoke, there are plenty of places already without setting apart a room in the public library or any other public building. Everything objectionable should be entirely eliminated where our wives and daughters and young men go.

Libraries, as well as schools and churches, are educational and we hope the library trustees will see what a mistake they are making and reconsider their smoking room proposition by annulling it altogether. Would like to hear from others through these columns, especially the ladies, if they are for or against the smoking room.
Yours truly, GRAND ARMY MAN.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 2, 1907

The plan to convert a portion of the basement of the library building into a men’s department, where they could smoke while enjoying literary pursuits, has been abandoned for the present. The basement is occupied by many hundreds of volumes of government reports, which in the near future will be classified and those of value placed on the library book racks. The remainder will be destroyed.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 7, 1907

The Grand Army Man who raises his voice in protest against the idea of a smoking room in our public library, must have touched a sympathetic chord in the hearts of all right thinking people. He must have had (being a Grand Army Man) the best experience for an advocate of the right on this question.

Our library stands for influences the most elevating for the youth of our town. Who could want such a model set before them as a smoking room?

What parent wants his children to learn to smoke? Even if they are themselves handicapped by use of the pernicious weed.

Did Andrew Carnegie intend his noble gift to Santa Rosa to represent a smoking room?

Forbid it, all ye Christian citizens!

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 8, 1907


Editor Republican: The communication in the Republican of February 2d concerning the proposed smoking room in the library by the Grand Army Man interests me.

Has the city of Santa Rosa any public waiting room for women? If it has, please let us know where it is located. If it has not, there should be such a room.

Santa Rosa is more or less indebted to the country round about for a somewhat extensive trade. When a country woman has arrived in Santa Rosa after riding for several miles over the roads of Imperial Sonoma, through the mud or dust, in the rain, wind or glaring sunshine, as the case may be, she is usually in a somewhat disheveled condition; she does not like to go about her shopping with her hair stringing about her face or neck and with mud or dust clinging to her dress, yet what is she to do? Before the awful 18th there was always a waiting room in some livery stable, but now even that comfort is very limited.

If the public library has a room to spare, let it be fitted as a woman’s waiting room. Until there is some such room to benefit the women, surely we do not need another smoking rom for the men, and certainly not in the public library.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 8, 1907

The “Children’s Hour,” and the Children’s Room–Also the Rest Room For Women–The Winged Victory

When Miss Barnett, the librarian, returns from her attendance upon the summer school in Berkeley, “The Children’s Story Hour” will be made a regular event for Saturday afternoons at the public library. The boys and girls will be invited to meet there on Saturday afternoon each week to hear Miss Barnett and Miss McMeans read and explain the stories that have been written for children by the world’s best authors of juvenile literature…


Other new features have given the library an added degree of comfort for the women as well as for the children. The “Rest Room” has been furnished by the Women’s Improvement Club. There are low rocking chairs to which women are partial; there are comfortable couches; the tables are stocked with feminine literature, and there is the privacy which the general reading room does not afford. No man may invade the “Rest Room,” which is sacred to femininity.

The trustees have procured a proper pedestal for the statue of the “Winged Victory” of Samothrace, presented to the library two months ago by the Saturday Afternoon Club…those who otherwise glance unheeding at its graceful lines, and its significant attitude, and who might in ignorance look only at the stumps of its broken arms, and think of it–if they thought of it at all–as merely a pitiful ruin. Grown-up people sometimes ask the librarian if the statue was broken in the earthquake; and the little ones have often turned to her with the wondering query, “Haint the lady got no arms?”

– Press Democrat, July 20, 1907

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