Friday, January 25, 2019

Robert Baker Elder

Robert Baker Elder (b. Auburn, California, 7 July 1915; d. Auburn, California, 18 June 2008)

Robert Baker Elder was the younger of two sons of Joseph Lillard Elder (1869-1958), an Auburn Mayor, and his wife Sarah Elizabeth "Bessie" Baker (1874-1960).  He was a lifelong resident of Auburn, California, save for the time he spent in the military, from February 1942 through October 1945, during World War II.  His service was in the Pacific.

After graduating from high school in the early 1930s, he went to work for the local newspaper, The Auburn Journal.  He resumed this job after his war service.  He also contributed to the National Parks Magazine, and published four novels through vanity publishers.  These include The Sheriff of Sycamore Flat (published in July 1952), Whom the Gods Destroy (April 1953), Rattlesnake Dick (August 1954), and Banner House (August 2002). Rattlesnake Dick was reissued by a trade publisher, Dembner Books, in 1982.

The Sheriff of Sycamore Flat is a comedy set in a small western town, where a young woman, educated in Boston, returns with notions of new women's rights that cause turmoil.  Whom the Gods Destroy is a short novel about a misanthropic veteran named John Fielden Spencer, returned from the recent war, who wants only to live alone in the mountains away from people. The book has little plot, but is filled mainly with dialogue about concepts such as freedom and individuality, as Spencer argues with his well-meaning friends before removing himself from human society.  Rattlesnake Dick is about an Auburn historical figure who masterminded a 1856 robbery of a Wells Fargo mule train. Banner House is a novel of the Gold Rush era. 

Elder had long known of Auburn's other writer, poet and Weird Tales writer Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961), but he didn't become friends with Smith until after he covered Smith's November 1954 marriage to Carol Jones Dorman for the local newspaper.  Smith, he discovered, identified with the protagonist of Elder's novel Whom the Gods Destroy, and called the book his "soul biography." Significantly, in the late 1950s, Elder recorded Smith readings some of his own poems—these tapes are the only known surviving recordings of Smith's voice. The poems were chosen at random from Smith's recent collections, The Dark Chateau (1951) and Spells and Philtres (1958). In 1995 Necronomicon Press issued a selection of the recordings as a cassette titled Live from Auburn: The Elder Tapes, with a recorded introduction by Elder himself about his friendship with Smith. In his later years, Elder was known for welcoming Smith aficionados when they visited Auburn. He died a few week shy of his ninety-third birthday. 

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