Behold the man alive in me: The life and legacy of Witter Bynner

Illustration of artist's rendition of former Berkeley professor Witter Bynner and his partner
Jericho Tang/Staff

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In 1918, much about UC Berkeley would have appeared familiar to the modern eye. The Hearst Greek Theatre still stood tall off of Piedmont Avenue, a stroll through campus still revealed grassy hillsides and a collage of buildings still reflected the various eras of architecture the UC Berkeley has seen.

There were also, however, some substantial differences. The campus housed the Students’ Army Training Corps to train future soldiers for World War I raging on in Europe. It was nearing its end, after four bloody years, but the soldiers didn’t know that yet. So, a conscientious objector found himself moving to Berkeley to teach young college cadets, supporting the American wartime cause from home. This man was Witter Bynner, a professor of Oral English, enlisted by the American Army to ensure that its men would be well-spoken.

Bynner settled into the Carlton Hotel on the corner of Durant and Telegraph avenues, and began his stint as a professor for the Army just months before the war ended. An eccentric man, Bynner was known then for his collection of poetry, “An Ode to Harvard,” in honor of his alma mater, and for his co-authorship of “Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments,” a satire of imagism so dryly sardonic that even Brynner’s publisher didn’t at first realize it was parody. Perhaps, Bynner was unlikely to find success as a professor. What’s more, he was a gay man, living as openly as one can expect of the early 20th century.

Yet, just after a month of teaching, Bynner found himself adored. He was asked to compose a poem to be read at the Greek Theatre as a celebration of the end of the war. Bynner presented a “Canticle of Praise,” an elaborate piece that required six men and a chorus of 500 Berkeley children. The Daily Californian reported that it “was effective and quite new for California.” Quite new for California was an understatement.

In the year that followed, Bynner was invited to join the English department at UC Berkeley as a professor of poetry.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his tenure was a strange one.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his tenure was a strange one. He preferred to teach his classes outside, often in the grass slope just beneath the Greek Theatre. Bynner would also invite students back to his hotel rooms, where, during Prohibition, he and his colleague William Lyeman would offer drinks to students who were as young as freshmen. Although he was quite popular with his students, Bynner ran into trouble with the campus administration, and his teaching contract was not renewed for the following year.

Despite the fact that he taught for only one year, Bynner left quite the impression on his students. They continued to meet as a group, and occasionally Bynner himself would stop by. His students appreciated Bynner so much that they collected a book of poems entitled “W.B. in California: A Tribute.”

It was during this time that Bynner met UC Berkeley student Willard “Spud” Johnson. Bynner, no longer teaching, left California to move to Santa Fe in 1922 after a few years of traveling in China to pursue translation work. Johnson accompanied him, and the two lived together as lovers for years as part of the thriving artist community, which included figures such as Georgia O’Keeffe and D.H. Lawrence. Bynner and Johnson appear in Lawrence’s book, “The Plumed Serpent,” as the fictional characters, Owen and Villiers.

Bynner and Johnson split by the end of the 1920s, but both continued to live in New Mexico, with Johnson moving to Taos to join the community forged by Mabel Dodge Luhan, and Bynner remaining in Santa Fe, where he would spend the rest of his life.

In 1930, Bynner began a relationship with poet Robert Hunt, who would become his lifelong partner. They had met initially in 1924 and then a few times between, but it wasn’t until Hunt settled in Santa Fe to recover from an illness that their relationship began to take root. Remarkably, Bynner and Hunt lived openly together as a married couple. Bynner’s book, “Eden Tree,” written in the year after he and Hunt began their relationship, works through his grappling with his sexuality, and when the book was published, Bynner came out publicly.

Remarkably, Bynner and Hunt lived openly together as a married couple.

Bynner and Hunt spent the rest of their lives moving between their Santa Fe home and a house they bought and renovated together in Chapala, Mexico.

Bynner is an extraordinary figure in the American poetic canon for a number of reasons. His whirlwind career as a professor at UC Berkeley left a mark on many future renowned poets, such as Hildegarde Flanner, Stanton Coblentz, David Greenhood, Genevieve Taggard and Idella Purnell. Bynner worked under Wallace Stevens when he was a student at Harvard University writing for the Harvard Advocate. Carl Sandburg was one of the many illustrious guests Bynner and Hunt hosted at their Santa Fe home. Bynner clearly ran in circles with many influential figures, and it’s not as if Bynner himself wasn’t a prolific writer. In addition to his translation work, Bynner wrote many collections of his own poetry, including “The Beloved Stranger” (1919), “Indian Earth” (1929) and “New Poems” (1960).

Yet, even on the UC Berkeley campus, where Bynner earned a mixed reputation as a moving yet controversial professor and talented writer, Bynner is largely unknown. His contemporaries became the names every student in any variation of English 1A would recognize, yet his poetry remains absent from anthologies of American literature; his story as a creative powerhouse in his own right, as well as a teacher who impacted his students immensely, remains untold.

Bynner was far from perfect, but his legacy deserves more than a scant mention on a Bancroft Library relic dating back to the 2000s. Bynner is a name that all UC Berkeley students and lovers of poetry should at the very least recognize, if not for his absolutely fascinating life story, then at least for the vast collection of stunning poetry he left behind.

So let us behold Bynner indeed, and when it comes to the subject of his legacy, I think he said it best in his poem, “Ecce homo”:

I have been waiting long enough.

Old silent gods, good-by!

I wait no more. The way is rough—

But the god who climbs is I.

— Witter Bynner, “Ecce homo”

Paige is the Weekender Editor. Contact Paige Prudhon at [email protected].