Latest

LITERARY CALIFORNIA

Follow my blog with Bloglovin
Robert Louis Stevenson, author of  Treasure Island
Robert Louis Stevenson, author of  Treasure Island

As journalist Carey McWilliams remarked in 1946, “What America is, California is, with accents, in italics.” The chance to study the nation in microcosm has been especially appealing to authors. Many, such as Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94), have simply passed through. He arrived in Monterey in 1879 and later based scenes in Treasure Island on the surrounding coastline. But California has not lacked for resident wordsmiths. This, after all, is where Henry Miller (1891–1980) blended erotic and verbal inventiveness and William Saroyan (1908–81) found his eccentric rural characters. Nobel prize-winning Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953) produced some of his best plays at Tao House in the Ramon Valley  and John Steinbeck (1902–68) based many of his novels on the people and places in Salinas. California is also where several major contemporary writers, such as Amy Tan (born in 1952), now chase their muse.


The Pioneers 
Steinbeck on the Californian coast
Steinbeck on the Californian coast

Much of the very early writing about California was unsophisticated, satisfying readers who simply wanted a taste of the frontier environment. But the Gold Rush created a market for prose that captured the poignancy, romance, and raw humor of life in the West. Bay Area literary journals such as The Golden Era and The Overland Monthly nurtured many local fiction writers. These included Bret Harte (1836–1902), the author of The Luck of Roaring Camp, essayist Henry George (1839–97), and bards ranging from Joaquin Miller (1837–1913) to Ina Coolbrith (the nation’s first poet laureate in 1915). The literary journals also provided an apprenticeship for San Franciscan writer Samuel Clemens (1835–1910). His 1865 publication of the Gold Country yarn, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” introduced him to a national readership as Mark Twain.

The Social Critics 
jack london his sonoma valley ranch
jack london his sonoma valley ranch


Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914) ranked among the first of many California writers who used their art to advocate wide-ranging political and social reforms. During the late  19th century, Bierce filled his San Francisco Examiner column with tirades against hypocrites and bureaucrats. His poisonous articles of biting criticism helped to trim the overweening influence of the vast Southern Pacific Railroad Company. Frank Norris (1870–1902) attacked America’s greed in his novel, McTeague (1899). In The Octopus, Norris also lashed out at the Southern Pacific, this time for its mono polistic mistreatment of ranchers in the San Joaquin Valley. Back from the Klondike Gold Rush (setting for The Call of the Wild), working-class author Jack London alternated between writing adventure novels and stories – such as The Iron Heel – that showed his faith in Marxism. Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) had already published The Jungle, his exposé of the Chicago stockyards when he moved to California after World War I. But it was in Pasadena that he wrote most of his novels, campaigning against poverty and inequality. Social injustice was a frequent theme for Salinasborn novelist John Steinbeck (1902–68)  Tortilla Flat (1935), about a band of Mexican-American outcasts, was his first success. It was The Grapes of Wrath (1939), however, that brought him the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Steinbeck’s book so powerfully portrayed the miseries endured by migratory laborers that it was banned from public libraries in some parts of the state.

The Crime Writers 
Beat writers and friends, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady
Beat writers and friends, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady


Three California writers established the American school of private-eye fiction. The first of these was Dashiell Hammett (1884–1961), a tubercular former Pinkerton Agency detective and San Francisco resident. He began writing for Black Mask and other “pulp” crime-fiction magazines in the 1920s. He then went on to produce five novels, including The Maltese Falcon (1930). Hammett’s work boasted a grim realism not found in either British whodunits or more venal tales by pulp writers lacking his investigative credentials. Raymond Chandler (1888– 1959) was less intimate with urban “mean streets,” but was a more lyrical storyteller. Chandler was an oil company executive in Los Angeles until he was sacked for drunkenness. He went on to create the quintessential American detective – Philip Marlowe, star of seven novels, the best being Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye. But it was  Ross Macdonald (né Kenneth Millar) who finally rounded off his genre’s rough edges and confirmed LA as its ideal setting. Macdonald was also the most prolific of this trio of crime fiction writers. He wrote 19 novels about tough sleuth Lew Archer, including The Underground Man.

The Beats 
Novelist Amy Tan
Novelist Amy Tan


Protest against the political conservatism of President Eisenhower’s America and against the conventions of society and art combined to produce San Francisco’s  “Beat Movement” of the 1950s. The Beats (or “Beatniks,” as  San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen labeled them) were led by the writers Allen Ginsberg (1926–97),  Jack Kerouac (1922–69), and William Burroughs (1914–97). They extolled poetry made up of random word usages, produced stream-of-consciousness, drug-assisted narratives, and shunned social, literary, and sexual restraints. The Beatniks’ rebellion officially began in December 1955, when Ginsberg gave a public reading of his poem “Howl,” which was more like shouting. Despite protests that “Howl” was obscene, it was subsequently published by San Franciscan Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, and owner of City Lights, the first paperbacks only bookshop in the  United States. Two years later, Kerouac’s novel On the Road spread the Beats’ bohemian ethic nationwide. The most influential of the Beat writers, Kerouac also wrote Desolation Angels and The Dharma Bums, both novels set in California. By 1960 the Beat movement was waning, but not before it had paved the way for that decade’s hippie movement.

The Moderns 
Poster for the film adaptation of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon
Poster for the film adaptation of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon

Today, most best-seller lists feature at least one novel by a California author. The state has produced many distinctive voices, such as Ethan Canin (The Palace Thief, 1988), Michael Chabon (The Wonder Boys, 1995), and Ron Hansen (Mariette in Ecstasy, 1991).  More established authors,  such as Joan Didion (A Book  of Common Prayer, 1977), Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club, 1989, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, 2001), and Alice Walker (The Color Purple, 1985 and Possessing the Secret of Joy, 1992), are still shining as brightly as ever. California is the inspiration for many top writers in this genre, including Michael Connelly (the Harry Bosch series), James Ellroy  (LA Confidential, 1990), Dean Koontz (Sole Survivor, 2000), and Sue Grafton (U is for Undertow, 2009).

No comments