Sunday, May 19, 2019     Volume: 20, Issue: 11

Santa Maria Sun / Art

The following article was posted on September 7th, 2010, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 11, Issue 26 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 11, Issue 26

When life hands you clams ...

Delve into a world of Oceano mystics, bootleggers, and artists


Happy as a you-know-what
A young Jane Whiteman digs for clams in Oceano alongside her father, Luther Whiteman, author of The Face of the Clam.
If you’ve been looking for a copy of Luther Whiteman’s Central Coast classic The Face of the Clam, you should know you could expect to shell out at least $148. The book, originally published by Random House in 1947, enjoyed a second printing after its initial release: an edition printed by the military during the Korean War to give soldiers something to read.

“You can go to the library to read it, but you can’t check it out,” said Pete Kelley, a researcher for the South County Historical Society. “That’s how rare it is—until Sept. 18.”

On that day, the South County Historical Society will be host to a launch party to commemorate the book’s first reprint in more than half a century. For the uninitiated, Whiteman’s book is a fictional account of the exploits, adventures, and philosophies of the Dunites, a community of revolutionaries, thinkers, poets, wanderers, and bootleggers who lived in the Oceano dunes during the ’20s and ’30s.

Gavin Arthur, grandson of the United States’ 21st president, Chester Alan Arthur, acted as the Dunites’ unspoken leader. It was his idea to print The Dune Forum, a publication that ran for seven issues in 1934. Another heavy-hitter was Irish poet John Varian, who had a hand in building the Dunites’ primary residence, a lodge called Moy Mell—Gaelic for “pasture of honey.” Irish culture and figures had a powerful influence on the lodge; poet Ella Young was forced to flee her native country after she was caught smuggling guns for the IRA, and she settled in Oceano and established herself as a speaker, poet, and mystic of some prominence.

The characters who drank and philosophized in the Oceano dunes extended their influence far beyond the sand banks, beyond even the state of California. Ansel Adams was a Dunite for a time, as was Edward Weston. Arthur taught a philosophy class at San Quentin; among his students was Neal Cassady, the inspiration for the character of Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

Whiteman lived in Oceano from 1923 to 1924. He was an Englishman who had been studying at Stanford University when an earthquake reduced it to rubble in 1906. Whiteman wandered away from the
devastation—and his education—and began adventuring around the state.

In conjunction with the re-release of The Face of the Clam, the South County Historical Society will be host to a party at 2 p.m. at the Odd Fellows Hall at 128 Bridge St. in Arroyo Grande. Cost to attend is $5, which includes a glass of wine and bowl of clam chowder. For more information, visit A soft-cover copy of the book sells for $18, and a hardcover sells for $35.
Kelley compares The Face of the Clam to John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. The book begins as the protagonist is released from jail—where a fellow inmate mentioned an organization called the Brotherhood of the Light, which only accepted vegetarians as members—and is hitchhiking to Oceano. The protagonist visits a local poet and asks how to determine what a vegetarian can and cannot eat. The poet replies that vegetarians can’t eat anything that has a face, prompting a long discussion as to whether clams have faces—hence the book’s title.

“It’s kind of like the Central Coast’s vernacular,” Kelley explained of the book’s appeal. “It mentions different kinds of ethnic groups and their lifestyles, everything from the Portuguese moonshiner to the Mexican grocery store. There’s the Japanese vegetable farmers. There’s the county sheriff, the game warden. They go off looking for a beehive and end up east of Santa Maria.”

The reprint project began when Exhibit Hall Director Craig Rock invited Kelley to help research the history society’s exhibit about the Dunites. Kelley readily assented and began by reading Norm Hammond’s The Dunites. When he began looking for a copy of The Face of the Clam and couldn’t find one cheaper than $185, he began contacting friends to see if anyone had an edition they’d be willing to loan. As it turned out, one of his friends from Cal Poly, Jan Garrod, was the author’s grandson. Kelley developed a relationship with the family, which owns the rights to Whiteman’s book, and eventually he requested permission for the South County Historical Society to reprint the novel.

The author’s daughter, Jane Garrod Whiteman, wrote an account of growing up in Oceano during the ’20s, which will be included in the new edition. Now in her 90s, Garrod Whiteman was an essential player in the reprint effort.

“Part of the agreement was that we wouldn’t edit anything,” said Kelley, who wrote the introduction to the reprint. “Things like commas were added, but I said, ‘We’re not changing any words.’”

The age of the Dunites finally drew to a close at the end of the ’30s, shuttered by the onset of World War II and the termination of the Dune Forum. But their legend as a community of mystics, bootleggers, artists, and freethinkers who retreated from the world into the 18-mile expanse of coastline and rollicking sand lingers.

“Gavin [Arthur] laid the brickwork for the whole beatnik and hippie movement in San Francisco,” Kelley said.

Ashley Schwellenbach is managing editor of New Times, the Sun’s sister paper to the north. She’s also a Dunite, in spirit. Send clambake invitations to

Weekly Poll
How should the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District improve its A-G completion rates?

Align graduation requirements with university entrance requirements.
Ensure that students and parents are well aware of A-Gs and what they are before high school.
Improve support services and summer school classes for students who fall behind.
Completion rates are fine as is. Not everyone wants to go to a four-year college!

| Poll Results