Interpreter of the American Southwest
Here is a well-researched biography of Ross Randall Calvin, an Episcopal minister who also studied and wrote about New Mexico’s landscape and people. Born in 1889, Calvin grew up on the family farm in Illinois and was fascinated by wild animals and plants. He went on to earn a master’s degree in English and a Ph.D. in English philology at Harvard University. In 1920 he entered a New York City seminary and subsequently served as curate at St. Agnes’ Chapel. At the beginning of 1927, he assumed a post as rector of Church of the Good Shepherd in Silver City— the Southwest relocation was sought to relieve his chronic throat problems, which it soon did.
In 1934, Macmillan published his first book, Sky Determines: An Interpretation of the Southwest. The central theme, in line with Calvin’s dedication to the philosophy of determinism, is that everything in this part of the world is a result of the sky and its heat and water.
Sky Determines is a wonderfully detailed book, especially in his favorite field of botany, but the minister was not thoroughly open-minded. During the Great Depression years, Calvin admired the hundreds of Civilian Conservation Corps workers active on tree-thinning and erosion-control projects around Silver City, but he had little patience with welfare recipients, whom he called “shovel-leaners.” He admired the Spanish explorers, but not their descendants. Likewise he denigrated cowmen, but he held in high esteem what he perceived as the racially pure Apache, the “falcons of the desert.”
Calvin was a properly dedicated pastor — at one point, he counters his bishop’s uneasiness about time spent on literary pursuits by reminding him that he has only missed two Sundays in the pulpit in 10 years — but some church women thought he spent too much time at his typewriter, and ministering to prisoners, and not enough with his flock. After 15 years in Silver City, he was assigned to a new post at Clovis. In a 1947 paper, “The People of New Mexico,” Calvin contrasts the two sides of the state, and his biases are clear. The Clovis folks’ world appears barren when put up against Silver City’s Spanish influence, its saloons full of miners and soldiers, and its health-seekers, who added a “sophisticated gaiety.”
However, he dove into his new life in Curry County, a major accomplishment being the building of a wonderful church designed by John Gaw Meem. The new St. James Episcopal Church (consecrated in 1950) was built “for the exaltation of religion and the delight of those who love beauty.”
Calvin’s reputation as a prolific and discerning writer and a dedicated clergyman were offset by decades of insomniac miseries, persistent dark thoughts, and private bitterness with God, including about his second wife’s descent into madness. His grandson, John Randall Calvin, said Calvin’s sermons were “almost like music,” but added that the man was “extremely demanding and egocentric” and “only a poor parson that had difficulty with everyone he loved.”
Ross Calvin retired to Albuquerque, where he enjoyed nurturing his garden until his uneasy death at eighty.
—Pasatiempo, The Santa Fe New Mexican, 27 May 2016
“Ron Hamm’s fine new biography of Ross Calvin would seem too slight, at least according to its brief page count. Calvin was almost a half-century ahead of modern ecological interpreters. He observed with an outdoorsman’s keen sight; he thought with a scholar’s mind; he wrote with the balance and delicacy of Cicero. His Sky Determines, first published in 1934, remains one of the classic texts of New Mexican literature. Yet, Hamm creates with lapidary techniques, and his biography stands as a gem of concision. I closed the book sure that Hamm had uncovered as much information as his complex, contrary, secretive subject permitted.
“Only child of an Indiana farm couple, Calvin was precocious in two ways: He excelled at academics and he was a steady admirer of nature, recording his observations in a Log Book, as he called it, from age 12. Off to DePauw University, at great sacrifice to his parents, Calvin majored in English and Latin. (Other, more recent graduates of DePauw, located in the rural reaches of Indiana, include Dan Quayle, Vernon Jordan and Barbara Kingsolver.) His great campus love and first wife, Adine Chilton, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, majoring in German and Latin.
“Calvin went off to Harvard while Adine taught school. After earning a master’s in English, Calvin taught at Syracuse University for a year before returning to Harvard and Ph.D. study in English philology. Philology, which Calvin called ‘possibly the most interesting and pretty certainly the most useless science known to man,’ studies the derivation of words and required Calvin’s proficiency in all antique and modern European languages. His classical studies furnished Calvin models for investigating a topic and an elegant syntax that some, including his biographer, find occasionally difficult to unpack. When I spoke to Calvin’s son-in-law several years ago, he recalled in a not affectionate way that Calvin was a ‘man who loved his own words.’ In 1917 Calvin and Adine married in Pittsburgh where Calvin was teaching at Carnegie Technical Institute. Calvin already knew that he would be leaving teaching for the ministry. He chose the Episcopal church supposedly because he ‘had decided the best people in [Pittsburgh] were Episcopalians.’
“Hamm wisely has shown, without attempting to disentangle the contradictions, a man who relished the friendship of ranchers and miners but criticized the ‘backwardness’ of rural life, who was ‘high’ church while preferring free-wheeling Silver City to church-besotted Clovis, who denigrated the jobless but ministered to prisoners, who admired ‘Spanish’ and Apache cultures while characterizing Mexican Americans with bigoted stereotypes. Neither Harvard nor the seminary had flushed out small-mindedness and prejudice. Another strong asset of the biography, the photographs, allow a reader to see those incompatibilities and to form his or her own interpretation of the life the pictures recorded.
“In 1918 Adine gave birth to a son but in December died of the Spanish flu. Calvin was prostrated. He soon abandoned his infant to his in-laws and then to his own parents, opening a breach with the son enduring to Calvin’s death. For hidden reasons Calvin harbored a bitter judgmentalism against Ross, Junior, and also, at the end of his life, against a son by his second wife, Grace. Grace, a member of the Pittsburgh ‘best,’ had married Calvin and moved with him to Geneva, New York, where he served as rector of St. Peter’s Church until a persistent throat ailment left him voiceless and forced him to seek New Mexico’s sun. The mission at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Silver City was supposed to be temporary but lasted from 1927 till 1942, when the Calvins moved to Clovis.
“Calvin, who wrote for the Silver City Enterprise as well as other publications, secular and religious, scrimped to survive the Great Depression. Nevertheless, he paid Macmillan half of the publication cost for Sky Determines, issued in April 1934. It was a smart investment. By today’s measures the book received rave reviews in important publications. Hamm rightfully devotes four chapters to its themes, style and reception. [Full disclosure: Hamm quotes me. The quotations are accurate and fortunately don’t detract too much from the high standards that Hamm otherwise applies.]
“The most touching passage in the biography deals with Eugene Manlove Rhodes, the New Mexico novelist whose Pasó por Aquí describes the Tularosa basin in terms that Calvin also wielded so adroitly. Rhodes wrote Calvin that Sky was ‘the only book that I have seen about New Mexico which admits that the world does not end suddenly just south of Albuquerque. Give us some more.’ Rhodes’ review of the book for the San Diego Union appeared on June 24 and his message to Calvin was the last of his life on June 27. Almost illegibly at the end of the note Rhodes penned, ‘Very sick. Excuse scrawl. Ave et vale. Good luck.’
“We don’t have more such accounts because Calvin chose to scrub his papers. It’s only thanks to the diligent research of a talented biographer that we possess this insight into a literary relationship. (In passing I almost wish that Hamm had abandoned professional scruples to imagine a meeting at the Silver City post office between the dog-collared priest and Hattie Cosgrove, lover of the Mimbres people and future Harvard curator of New Mexican shards and pots.) Any reader with interests in writing about Southwestern mountains and deserts or about Silver City history should now have at the top of the next-to-be-read list Ron Hamm’s Ross Calvin: Interpreter of the American Southwest. That reader will not be disappointed.”
—Tom Hester, The Silver City Daily Press and Independent