One of the great influences on the literary resurgence in San Francisco at the turn of the 19th Century, Gelett Burgess was born in 1866 in Boston. He was most widely known for his humorous verses and produced a wide body of work as well as creating the small magazine The Lark which led to a number of spinoffs over the years.
Burgess initially went to Boston’s MIT for his education and graduated from there in 1887. Fed up with the rather conservative nature of the Massachusetts elite, he yearned for a more eclectic existence and headed for San Francisco in 1891 where he initially worked putting his artistic skills to good use as a draftsman. Shortly after that he found himself employed by Berkley University though the job did not last long when he was suspected of being involved in the vandalism of a water fountain and asked to resign.
The sudden lack of work afforded Burgess the chance to look at something new. Over the four or five years since he had been in San Francisco he had got to know a number of literary types. With them in 1895 he started to produce The Lark, although with no real aspirations. Burgess wrote most of the first edition himself but the publication was more successful than he had could have hoped for – reaching a circulation of nearly 3,000.
This attracted the attentions of a local bookseller who agreed to come on board as the official publisher. The first issue contained mostly the nonsense verse Burgess had written, including the fondly remembered Purple Cow. In that issue, because Burgess was doing most of the writing, his works appeared under several different pseudonyms.
It wasn’t long, however, before The Lark was beginning to attract its fair share of contributions from the likes of Carolyn Wells and Maynard Dixon who all helped to make the small magazine even more successful. Although it only lasted a few years, and the last issue was published in 1897, spin offs appeared up until the turn of the century including Le Petit Journal des Refusées, a proposed quarterly which was noted for the fact that it only ever had one issue.
Whilst his heyday was probably in the 1890s when he helped to revitalize the San Francisco literary scene, he later went onto write and publish The Goops Books which were often seen as a humorous way to teach young children good manners. The collection included Goops and How to be Them and Goops and How Not to be Them which were essentially four line verses about things such as playing gently and being good to each other.
Burgess eventually moved to New York where he continued to write and contributed a number of articles to several well-known literary magazines such as Colliers and The Smart Set. He married and settled down in the city, traveling occasionally to Europe and producing more serious works such as his article introducing the Proto-cubist movement to America. In his later years, Burgess returned to California where he eventually passed away at the age of 85 in 1951.