by Gelett Burgess





Richard A. Lupoff


April 18, 1906, was a Wednesday. At 5:12 AM on that spring morning, most of San Francisco was asleep. The city’s 450,000 residents were awakened by a rumbling and shaking. Minor earthquakes are not uncommon in this seismically active region, but the earthquake that struck San Francisco that day was no minor temblor. It was the bringer of death and destruction.

The devastation caused by the earthquake itself was only the opening act of a horror story. Gas mains burst and flames roared through the city. Firefighters strove to contain the damage, but the city burned for three days and smoldered for weeks afterward.

Some 250,000 people became homeless. An estimated 3,000 died. Looters ran rampant. Police were instructed to shoot them on sight and more than 500 looters died. Tens of thousands of panic-stricken people fled in all directions—by ferry and sailboat across San Francisco Bay to Oakland and Berkeley or northward across the Golden Gate to bucolic Marin County, or by land conveyance southward toward San Mateo County and San Jose, the only land route from a city surrounded on three sides by water. The cruiser USS Chicago alone is reported to have rescued some 20,000 survivors of the quake and fire.

I have tried without success to learn where Gelett Burgess was on that terrible Wednesday. A native New Englander, Burgess (1866-1951) had already established himself as a brilliantly creative—and eccentric—bohemian. He had migrated to northern California, become a professor at the University of California in Berkeley, got himself discharged for his hijinx and irreverent conduct, and become a hugely successful writer, editor, and cartoonist.

Was he in San Francisco when the earth shook and the sky burned? I would like to know. Clearly, by this point in his life, he had fallen in love. In love with a city. And when San Francisco shook and tumbled and burned, his heart was broken.

A year after the calamity, Burgess’s elegiac love letter to the city of his heart was published, not in San Francisco but in the distant city of Indianapolis, Indiana. The publisher was the then-mighty Bobbs-Merrill Company. The love letter was 584 pages in length. The current edition does not omit a word of the original. The smaller page count reflects only changes in typography.

The book takes place in the bohemian demimonde of pre-quake San Francisco. Burgess gave his characters symbolic names. The suave semi-gigolo, palm reader Francis Granthope, does indeed grant hope to his desperate or grief-stricken clients. Granthope’s charmingly boisterous secretary is Fancy Gray. Granthope’s sometime colleague, sometime rival, is Madam Spoil. The spiritualist quack physician is Doctor Masterson. There are more.

This very long novel shifts gears frequently. Burgess alternates rhapsodic descriptions of the city he loved and its surrounding waterways and countryside with comedic descriptions of occultists, mediums and séances. Granthope himself is a thoroughly mysterious character, and a complex one. The love interests of Granthope are varied, the puzzles of identity and the machinations of scoundrels—some of them endearing, others far from it—twist and swirl among the characters and the reader alike.

Burgess was so flamboyant and so multifaceted an individual, it is dangerous to draw comparisons, but the reader familiar with the works of Burgess’s contemporary, Edith Wharton (1862-1937), will surely detect certain similarities of theme and style between The Heart Line and The House of Mirth.

When the Heart Line was published, Burgess was already well established in the world of literature, and he would continue his career for several further decades. Some of the elements in The Heart Line are foreshadowed in The Picaroons (1904) which Burgess co-authored with his fellow prankster Will Irwin.

In Master of Mysteries (1912), while removing his locale from San Francisco to New York, Burgess returned to some of the notions and images of the Heart Line. Astrogon Kerby can be seen as an alternate version of Francis Granthope. Valeska Wynne seems to combine the qualities of Fancy Gray and Clytie Payson. But Master of Mysteries is a cycle of essentially light-hearted entertainments while The Heart Line is a far deeper and far more serious book.

Surinam Turtle Press was inaugurated with the publication of Burgess’s Master of Mysteries. We close a cycle of seven Burgess volumes with The Heart Line. It is our heartfelt hope that these seven books—by no means Burgess’s complete works!—will stimulate new interest in this brilliant, eccentric, boisterously creative American author.