James D. Phelan

U.S. Senator (1915-1921), Endowed the Phelan Award at SJSU

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Legacy of Poetry
Biography Selected Poems Additional Links


  • 1861 - 1930; California native

  • Mayor of San Francisco from 1897 - 1902

  • U.S. Senator from 1915 - 1921

  • The May 1934 El Portal was dedicated to Senator Phelan, the sponsor of the literary contest highlighted in the journal. The journal notes that Phelan made a $10,000 bequest to the Teachers College so the income could be used for awards for excellence in poetry and the Montalvo Contest sponsored by Phelan. The journal also noted that the prizes had increased student interest in creative writing. El Portal was a journal published by students of the San Jose State Teachers College and contained their creative writing. It was replaced by Reed Magazine in 1948.

  • Phelan was an honorary member of the English Club of the San Jose State Teachers College per the 1924 La Torre yearbook.

  • Hosted some literary events for the College at his Villa Montalvo home in Saratoga. He gifted this estate to the State of California at his death.

    • "A Day in the Hills" - September 18, 1926 - "A Poetical Competition of the Edwin Markham Chapter of the English Poetry Society Held at Villa Montalvo, Saratoga" (As described in A Day in the Hills, a book of poetry edited by Dr. Bland, printed in 1926. Copyright 1926 by James D. Phelan. This was the second annual meeting of the Chapter at Villa Montalvo.

    • Photo of the event from the Phelan Photograph Albums at The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

    • Photo of the members and attendees taken that day; also from The Bancroft Library.

  • Occasional poet: Comment from Edwin Markham in a letter to Professor Henry Meade Bland dated September 2, 1926 about an upcoming meeting of the Edwin Markham Chapter of the English Poetry Society to be held at Villa Montalvo:

    • "Of course you will have among you that good friend and comrade of all poets, the Honorable James D. Phelan, him who is ever ready to lend a helping hand to all causes poetical and progressive. He not only handles a skillful pen himself, but he is also ever unselfishly hospitable to the pens of others. May the immortal Muses let the light of their faces shine upon him."

    • Source: A Day in the Hills (1926) pages xv - xvi. Also included in The Laureate's Wreath - An Anthology in Honor of Dr. Henry Meade Bland (1934), page10.

  • Photo August 1906 from The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

Selected Poems

  • "The Poet"
    • From A Day in the Hills, a book of poetry edited by Dr. Bland, printed in 1926. Copyright 1926 by James D. Phelan, page 57.

The Poet

GEORGE STERLING, valiant Son of Song,
Thy singing shall survive thee long.

No gentler poet ever trod
Bohemia's pathway up to God.

The Earth deplores thy early fate,
But Heaven's dome's illuminate.

Companion of the stars above,
Thou taught us loveliness to love.

The subtile essence of thy Art
Preserves thee in our world apart.

Ecstatic we shall greet thee when
We weary of the ways of men.

  • "The Desert"
    • From The Laureate's Wreath - An Anthology in Honor of Dr. Henry Meade Bland (1934), page 100.

The Desert


All life is alien where no water springs,
And man is stranger to a sterile ground.
The very source of life, as well, may slay:
The solar tyrant drives his fiery car,
And blasts the path that leads to liberty.
There, tortured bones of unsung caravans;
Mortality�the slime of slow decay!
No cinerary urns encompass dust;
No sepulture, nor hope of fair renown;
A monumental void, save for the Sun,
Whose withering glare shall deaden deathless day;
Eternity of stillness, burning night!
For men no hibernation�living death!
No springtime resurrection when he falls;
His portion madness, when he trespass far
Upon forbidden wastes where Nature sleeps.
Is a man a babe upon this barren breast,
Upheaved from cataclysmic pits of hell?
Yet so, the Desert, spurning sacrifice,
Implacable, disdains the puny gift,
And fiercely strikes her foe with whirlwind force�
The sand-storm mantling her distress and wrath.
The vast, unheeding ocean stands aloof.
Allies of cloud and mountain fail response.
The bastard brother of a noble house,
Outcast, unfriended, still shall cumber earth:
Is not the Father's curse the desert dearth?

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Legacy of Poetry

Additional Links

  • Information from U.S. Congress with photo

  • James D. Phelan California Authors Collection at the San Francisco Public Library

  • Montalvo Arts Center

  • History of the James Phelan Literary Award at SJSU

    • Per 1947/1948 San Jose State College Bulletin, pg 50: "Cash prizes are awarded annually for superiority in the Phelan literary contest. In each of the six divisions: sonnet, lyric, free verse, essay, short story, and play, the prizes are $18 for first prize, $10 for second prize, and $5 for third prize."  At this time, tuition was $7 per quarter.

  • Books and articles by James P. Walsh, SJSU Emeritus Professor of History:

    • �Into Dust Thou Shalt Return,� Pacific Historian, Fall 1971, 53-58.

    • �James Phelan: Creating the Fortune, Creating the Family,� Journal of the West, April 1992, 17-23.

    • �James Phelan�s Montalvo: Many Accepted, One Declined,� Southern California Quarterly, Spring 1976, 95-111.

    • Legacy of a Native Son: James Duval Phelan & Villa Montalvo (1993), Los Gatos, CA: Forbes Mill Press. 

  • Information on the Olympiad of the Arts event which Phelan started in 1928 with Dr. Bland (which continues to this day by the West Valley/Mission Colleges Foundation.  Contest information (open to lower division students).

Legacy of SJSU Poets

This page last updated January 25, 2007

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Last Modified: Feb 22, 2023