California Roads Scholar on Central Coast Writing

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September 1, 2013 · Posted in California Roads Scholar 


 “It wasn’t Indians that were important nor adventures, nor even getting out here.  It was a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling beast.  And I was the head.  It was westering and westering.  Every man wanted something for himself, but the big beast that was all of them wanted only westering.  I was the leader, but if I hadn’t been there, someone else would have been the head.  The thing had to have a head.”  Grandfather’s speech to Jody in The Red Pony.

The Central Coast roughly spans the area between the Monterey Bay and Point Conception in Santa Barbara County.   Robert Louis Stevenson’s background for Treasure Island may be the Monterey Bay Coast; at any rate, Pt. Lobos was the location for the 1934 film of the book.   Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony,” is set on his grandfather Hamilton’s farm near King City, and the other The Long Valley (1938) stories are set in the Salinas Valley, as is Of Mice and Men (1937) and East of Eden (1952 – in his letters, Steinbeck referred to East of Eden as the “autobiography of the valley.”) is set in the Salinas Valley.   Jolon  — 17 miles south of King City –is the primary setting of To A God Unknown (1933).    Artists and writers from San Francisco moved to Carmel after the 1906 earthquake and – further down the coast—an Ur Beat movement thrived in Big Sur for a time.  Robinson Jeffers’ poetry is about the Central Coast.   James D. Houston’s Continental Drift explores the dark changes in the lives of paradisiac Santa Cruz at the end of the hippie era.

Of the many Central Coast writers, Steinbeck’s writing is the purest expression of love of place and of compassionate understanding of those ordinary people who lived in that place.  Steinbeck is California’s Tolstoy.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing about Monterey is the more intimate story of a traveler with no stake in any political struggle.  His writing is clearer than Steinbeck’s but also much less dangerous.  Steinbeck shakes you up.

Other writers lived in the Central Coast’s extraordinarily beautiful landscape and they left us a literary legacy of the Chumash people, Pedro Fages, diarist for the Gaspar de Portola expedition, American pioneers, nature, and the price paid by those who live in earthly paradise.

From a Chumash myth collected by Alfred Kroeber:

“After the flood the Coyoto of the Sky, Sun, Moon, Morning Star and Slo:w (the great eagle that knows what is to be) were discussin how they were going to make man, and Slo:w and Coyote kept arguing about whether or not the new people should have hands like Coyote.  Coyote announced that there would be people in this world and they should all be in his image, since he had the finest hands.  Lizard was there also, but he just listened night after night and said nothing.  At last Coyote won the argument, and it was agreed that people were to have hands just like his.  The next day they all gathered around a beautiful table-like rock that was there in the sky, a very fine white rock that was perfectly symmetrical and flat on top, and of such fine texture that whatever touched it left an exact impression.  Coyote was just about to stamp his hand down on the rock when Lizard, who had been standing silently just behind, quickly reached out and pressed a perfect handprint into the rock himself.  Coyote was enraged and wanted to kill Lizard, but Lizard ran down into a deep crevice and so escaped.  And Slo:w and Sun approved of Lizard’s actions, so what could Coyote do?  They say that the mark is still impressed on that rock in the sky.  If Lizard had not done what he did, we might have hands like a coyote today.” (Published in The Literature of California, edited by Jack Hicks, James D. Houston, Maxine Hong Kingston and Al Young (2000).

Pedro Fages, writing on the Indians at the mission of San Luis Obispo and for a radius of about twelve leagues around it. (1769)

“Their dress and clothing are like those of the Indians of San Gabriel, except that here one sees the hair often worn flowing, and is of fine texture.  The women wear toupes made by burning, and their coiffure is of shells…On their cloaks or skirts, stained a handsome red, they put as trimming or decoration various fabrications made from tips of shells and small snail shells, leaving numerous pendants hanging from the margins, after the style of the trinkets of our children.  For an ornament and as protection from the sun, they cover their heads with little woven trays or baskets, decorated with handsome patterns and shaped like the crown of a hat.  Both men and women like to go painted with various colors, the former especially when they go on a campaign, and the latter when the are having a festal occasion, to give a dance.”  (The Literature of California, ibid).

Richard Henry Dana arrived on the California Coast in 1841.  He wrote:

“The bay of Monterey is very wide at the entrance, being about twenty-four miles between the two points, Año Nuevo at the north, and Pinos at the south, but narrows gradually as you approach the town, which is situated in a bend, or large cove, at the south-eastern extremity, and about eighteen miles from the points, which makes the whole depth of the bay. The shores are extremely well wooded, (the pine abounding upon them,) and as it was now the rainy season, everything was as green as nature could make it,–the grass, the leaves, and all; the birds were singing in the woods, and great numbers of wild-fowl were flying over our heads. Here we could lie safe from the south-easters. We came to anchor within two cable lengths of the shore, and the town lay directly before us, making a very pretty appearance; its houses being plastered, which gives a much better effect than those of Santa Barbara, which are of a mud-color. The red tiles, too, on the roofs, contrasted well with the white plastered sides and with the extreme greenness of the lawn upon which the houses–about an hundred in number–were dotted about, here and there, irregularly. There are in this place, and in every other town which I saw in California, no streets, or fences, (except here and there a small patch was fenced in for a garden,) so that the houses are placed at random upon the green, which, as they are of one story and of the cottage form, gives them a pretty effect when seen from a little distance.”

Among the pioneers was an English woman, Georgiana Bruce (after her marriage to a Santa Cruz tanner, Georgiana Kirby).  Kirby joined the famous experimental farm of Brook Farm in Massachusetts and followed the philosophy of the Transcendentalists.   In 1848, she and her brother took a steamer to California, but their California stake – everything they owned, and all their money was stolen.   She took a steamship again, this time alone, in 1850, and arrived in San Francisco at the age of 32.  Her friend Eliza Farnham later joined her here and the two published numerous writings on a variety of subjects including the abolition of slavery and women’s rights.  She taught French and music, and she continued to write.  She died at the age of 68, and is buried in the Felton Cemetery.  The cemetery is on the northwest corner of Felton Empire Road and Love Street.

Transcendentalists believed that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupted the purity of the individual. They had faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community could be formed.  Donald Worster, in his Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (1977) finds the beginnings of American nature and environmentalist writing to this philosophy, and it is the beginning of a powerful view of America that has maintained counterpoint to Capitalism and industrialization to this day, and which underlies Rachel Carson’s work, the national and state park system, and the counter-culture of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Kirby’s “A Tale of the Redwoods,” first published in the Overland Monthly in 1872 – but written in December 1852 – sketches her life on the farm she and her friend Eliza established on a Santa Cruz farm.   About Santa Cruz, she writes:

“When I came down here (from San Francisco) a little more than two years ago, there were scarcely any buildings in the mission but the old adobe ones, no fences up the coast or down with the exception of a bit of Spanish fencing by Rodriguez or Majors, which had to be rebuilt every year.  Now from the mission fully up to Moore’s, the land is taken up and fenced well as a general thing.  Several families raise a variety of vegetables but as yet no orchard or nursery has been planted in this region.  There is no wild fruit but the strawberries twelve miles up the coast.  The pears in the mission orchard are tasteless things and the apples from San Juan a slight improvement on the crab, and yet this will one day be the finest fruit region in California.”

Josephine Woempner Clifford McCrackin was born in Petershagen, Germany in 1839.  In 1864, she married Army Lieutenant James A. Clifford in New Mexico.  Clifford’s sanity unraveled, and he confessed to her he had killed a man in Mexico.  He told her that he would kill her if she revealed his secret.  She appealed to his superiors and made sure he was under guard and fled to her family in San Francisco.  She eventually became a respected literary figure in San Francisco, writing for Harper Brothers, Out West and Western Field.  She earned enough to buy 26 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the community of Summit.

McCrackin also drew on Transcendentalist ideas in her successful effort to save the Santa Cruz Mountains from over-timbering, and to establish Big Basin national park in the mountains.  Her fiction, however, reflects the unthinking racism of her time.

Her Overland Tales (1877—free digital copy available on-line) are stories about women’s lives in California and Nevada.  “La Graciosa” tells the story of Nora, a divorced woman who arrives in Salinas on the train.  Nora wears widow’s weeds on her visit to the Salinas Valley as if her former drunken husband were dead.  That she wore a disguise reveals her readers’ assumed disapproval of divorced women.  The young woman’s ardent Ranchero suitor abandons her when he learns she is divorced, which allows her to find love with a young man who is half Anglo but looks American, evidently a better choice for her because he is not entirely ethnically “Spanish.”  (Her “Spaniards” were dark skinned and dark-eyed descendants of Mexican citizens.)

By the time Steinbeck wrote Tortilla Flat (1935), men of Mexican descent had become acceptable when drawn as comical poor “paesanos” instead of the wealthy landowners in McCracken’s sketch. Yankee Spencer Tracy, Russian Akim Tamiroff , John Garfield – born Jacob Garfinkle in Manhattan’s lower east side – and Viennese Hedy Lammar played the “paesanos” in the film.

Below is an excerpt from “La Graciosa.”

“He had brought the spring with him; mountain and valley both had clothed itself in brightest green, in which the brown spots on the Gabilan Range were really a relief to the satiated eye.  In the deep clefts of the Loma Prieta lay the blackish shade of the chemesal, (scrub oak, low chaparral) and only one degree less somber appeared the foliage of the live oak against the tender green of the fresh grass.  Again did Nora all day long watch the sun lying on the mountains – a clear golden haze in the daytime; pink and violet, and purplish gray in the evening mist.”

In 1850, when McCrackin was eleven years old, the City of Salinas evolved from the purchase of two ranchos – Rancho Nacional and Rancho Sausal. During the 1860s, Salinas began to take on the characteristics of a real largely Anglo town.  The Southern Pacific Railroad did not reach Salinas until 1872, when the author was forty-one years old, so the time McCracken wrote about in “La Graciosa” – a time when a very large rancho existed at the same time as her character Nora arrived by train — was a fantasy time into which she imported her younger doppelganger, the divorced woman Nora.   There was a “La Graciosa,” but it was located a little south of Santa Maria, in San Luis Obispo County near what is now the Vandenberg air base.

A little before Kirby came to California, William Henry Brewer (1828-1910) arrived in California as the botanist for the first California Geological Survey.  He kept a journal of the expedition in Up and Down California, which is available in its entirety on-line.    The natural word he describes in his journal entries are the canvas on which the Central Coast’s literary history is painted.

June 4, 1861, Brewer wrote:  “First I passed through a wild canyon, then over hills covered with oats, with here and there trees—oaks and pines.  Some of these oaks were noble ones indeed. … One species, called encina, with dark green foliage, was not extra fine, but another, el roble, was very fine.  I measured one of the latter, with wide spreading and cragged branches that was twenty-six and a half feet in circumference.  Another had a diameter of over six feet, and the branches spread over seventy-five feet each way.  I lay beneath its shade a little while before going on.  Two half-grown deer sprang up close to me, but got out of pistol shot before I, in my flurry, had the pistol ready.  Up, still up, I toiled, got above the grass and oats and trees into the chaparral that covers the high peaks.  I struck for the highest peak, but backed out before quite reaching it, for the traces of grizzlies and lions became entirely too thick for anything like safety.  Both are very numerous here.  Finch killed three a few days before we arrived.

“But what a magnificent view I had!  A range of hills two thousand to three thousand feet to Soledad.  It is part of the mountains, yet there is a system of valleys behind, up which we had passed.  The Carmelo River follows this a part of the way.  I was higher than these hills.  Over them, to the northwest, lay the Bay of Monterey, calm, blue and beautiful.  Beyond were blue mountains, dim in the haze; to the east was the great Salinas plain, with the mountains beyond, dim in the blue distance.  Behind lay a wilderness of mountains, rugged, covered with chaparral, forbidding and desolate.  They are nearly inaccessible, and a large region in there has never been explored by white men. (Big Sur)

Brewer, July 14, 1861, near the Carmelo mission:  “Birds scream in the air—gulls, pelicans, birds large and birds small, in flocks like clouds.  Seals and sea lions bask on the rocky islands close to the shore; their voices can be heard night and day.  Buzzards strive for offal on the beach, crows and ravens ‘caw’ from the trees, while hawks, eagles, owls, vultures, etc., abound.  These last are enormous birds, like the condor, and nearly as large…A whale was stranded on the beach, and tracks of grizzlies were thick about it.

Santa Cruz, August 4, 1861:  “We camped about three miles from Watsonville and came on here to Santa Cruz yesterday, Saturday.  Santa Cruz is a pretty little place.  We camped at a farmhouse about a mile from town, near the seashore…The mountains back of Santa Cruz are partially covered with magnificent forests of redwood, pine, and fir – tall, straight and beautiful.   Many of the redwoods are from ten to twelve feet in diameter; one is nineteen or twenty feet in diameter….The town stands on a terrace about sixty feet above the sea, a table that runs back a mile, where another terrace rises—an old sea beach about 180 feet higher, which may be traced for miles….The town is prettily situated on a clear stream, the San Lorenzo River.  The place looks quite American—neat homes, trees in the yards, gardens, flowers, and American farms around.  Even the old adobe mission church is nearly torn down and a neat wooden church stands by its side, the old adobe walls and ruins telling of another race of builders.  There are some Spanish people and Indians left yet, but the town is American.”

Robert Louis Stevenson arrived in Monterey in the summer of 1879.  His poor health became worse on his sea voyage to the United States and the train trip across the prairie to California.   The goal of his trip had been to be close to the older married woman he fell in love with when he visited an artist’s colony in France, Fanny de Grift Osbourne.   The house where Fanny and her children lived in is approximately where the parking lot to the Wells Fargo Bank is at 399 Alvarado Street.  Stevenson stayed in Monterey at the Swiss businessman, Griadin’s French Hotel, now the Stevenson House Adobe (530 Houston Street).  Manuela Girardin’s son-in-law, Dr J.P.E. Heintz.  Heintz and his wife took Stevenson into their care.  They cared for him during the worst of his health crisis.  He and Fanny married in 1880.

When he was living in Monterey, Stevenson worked on The Amateur Emigrant (1895), The Pavilion on the Links (1880), and A Vendetta in the West, a novel that was never published.   Long after he moved away, he published descriptions of places he had visited.

“The Bay of Monterey has been compared by no less a person than General Sherman as a bent fishing hook: and the comparison … still shows the eye of the soldier for topography.  Santa Cruz sits exposed at the shank; the mouth of the Salinas River is at the middle of the bend; and Monterey itself is cozily ensconced beside the barb.  Thus the ancient capital of California faces across the bay, while the Pacific Ocean, though hidden by low hills and forest, bombards her left flank and rear with never-dying surf.”  (RLS, “The Old Pacific Capital”, in Across the Plains with Other Memories and Essays {London, Chatto and Windus, 1892], p.77)

“A great faint sound of breakers follows you high up into the inland canons; the roar of water dwells in the clean, empty rooms of Monterey as in a shell upon the chimney; go where you will, you have but to pause and listen to hear the voice of the Pacific.”

….. “You follow winding sandy tracks that lead nowhither. You see a deer; a multitude of quail arises. But the sound of the sea still follows you as you advance, like that of wind among the trees, only harsher and stranger to the ear; and when at length you gain the summit, out breaks on every hand and with freshened vigor that same unending, distant, whispering rumble of the ocean; for now you are on the top of Monterey peninsula, and the noise no longer only mounts to you from behind along the beach towards Santa Cruz, but from your right also, round by Chinatown and lighthouse, and from down before you to the mouth of the Carmello river. The whole woodland is begirt with thundering surges “ (From his essay, “ The Old Capitol”)

“The town, when I was there, was a place of two or three streets, economically paved with sea-sand, and two or three lanes, which were watercourses in the rainy season, and were, at all times, rent up by fissures four or five feet deep. There were no streetlights. Short sections of wooden sidewalk only added to the dangers of the night, for they were often high above the level of the roadway, and no one could tell where they would be likely to begin or end. The houses were, for the most part, built of unbaked adobe brick, many of them old for so new a country, some of very elegant proportions, with low, spacious, shapely rooms, and walls so thick that the heat of summer never dried them to the heart. At the approach of the rainy season a deathly chill and a graveyard smell began to hang about the lower floors; and diseases of the chest are common and fatal among house-keeping people of either sex.”

“….the praisers of times past will fix upon the Indians of Carmel. The valley drained by the river so named is a true Californian valley, bare, dotted with chaparral, overlooked by quaint, unfinished hills. The Carmel runs by many pleasant farms, a clear and shallow river, loved by wading kine; and at last, as it is falling towards a quicksand and the great Pacific, passes a ruined mission on a hill. From the mission church the eye embraces a great field of ocean, and the ear is filled with a continuous sound of distant breakers on the shore. But the day of the Jesuit has gone by, the day of the Yankee has succeeded, and there is no one left to care for the converted savage. The church is roofless and ruinous, sea breezes and sea fogs, and the alternation of the rain and sunshine, daily widening the breaches and casting the crockets from the wall. As an antiquity in this new land, a quaint specimen of missionary architecture, and a memorial of good deeds, it had a triple claim to preservation from all thinking people; but neglect and abuse has been its portion. There is no sign of American interference, save where a headboard has been torn from a grave to be a mark for pistol bullets. So it is with the Indians for whom it was erected. Their lands, I was told, are being yearly encroached upon by the neighboring American proprietor, and with that exception no man troubles his head for the Indians of Carmel.”

There are various incompatible theories about the island in Stevenson’s Treasure Island (First published as a book in 1883, but originally serialized in 1881 in Young Folks magazine.)   The 1934 movie version was filmed at Pt. Lobos State Reserve in Monterey.   Robert Louis Stevenson made up the story when he lived in Monterey as a tale meant to enchant Fanny’s little boy Sammy.   He and Sammy often walked along the beach together, and while it is probable RLS never set foot on Pt. Lobos, the description of the island’s rugged coast with its seal lions is a close fit for Pt. Lobos, and that he was looking at that coast when he wrote Treasure Island.

Mary Hunter Austin’s (1868-1934) The Land of Little Rain (1903) was the seminal nature book on the California deserts.  Austin and her husband were involved in the local California Water Wars, in which the water of Owens Valley was eventually drained to supply Los Angeles. When their battle was lost, he moved to Death Valley, California, and she moved to Carmel.  There, she was part of a social circle that included Ambrose Bierce and George Sterling.

Austin supported herself by writing.  For a sustained period of time, California women’s writing found an audience.   Jack London’s wife Charmian had been raised by her aunt Ninetta Eames, who wrote travel stories about California and became one of the editors of the Overland Monthly.   Ida Rae Egli’s No Rooms of Their Own (1992) contains writings on California by other women.   Ina Coolbrith (1841-1928) California’s first Poet Laureate and an editor of the Overland Monthly with Brett Harte and Mark Twain, one of two women who were members of the Bohemian Club, was the first librarian of the Oakland Free Library – where she met and instructed Jack London when he was a small boy — and fired without a pension.  There was no social security system in those days. Her friend author Josephine McCracken complained bitterly in her old age to Coolbrith about her struggle to survive.   Josephine D. Rhodehemal, in Ina Coolbrith: Laureate and Librarian of California (1973), describes a gathering of Coolbrith fans. A woman gushed, “Oh, Miss Coolbrith, I live on your poetry!”  Ina responded: “I’m glad someone can.”

Jack London described his visits to see his friends in Carmel in his Valley of the Moon (1913).   The novel treated freedom in California.  It enacted the traditional American themes of the search for a middle landscape of pastoral harmony and the urge for individual freedom within community.   From Chapter VI:

“They had taken the direct county road across the hills from Monterey, instead of the Seventeen Mile Drive around by the coast, so that Carmel Bay came upon them without any fore-glimmerings of its beauty. Dropping down through the pungent pines, they passed woods-embowered cottages, quaint and rustic, of artists and writers, and went on across wind-blown rolling sandhills held to place by sturdy lupine and nodding with pale California poppies. Saxon screamed in sudden wonder of delight, then caught her breath and gazed at the amazing peacock-blue of a breaker, shot through with golden sunlight, overfalling in a mile-long sweep and thundering into white ruin of foam on a crescent beach of sand scarcely less white.

“How long they stood and watched the stately procession of breakers, rising from out the deep and wind-capped sea to froth and thunder at their feet, Saxon did not know. She was recalled to herself when Billy, laughing, tried to remove the telescope basket from her shoulders.

“”You kind of look as though you was goin’ to stop a while,” he said. “So we might as well get comfortable.”

“”I never dreamed it, I never dreamed it,” she repeated, with passionately clasped hands. “I. .. I thought the surf at the Cliff House was wonderful, but it gave no idea of this.–Oh! Look! Look! Did you ever see such an unspeakable color? And the sunlight flashing right through it! Oh! Oh! Oh!”

“At last she was able to take her eyes from the surf and gaze at the sea-horizon of deepest peacock-blue and piled with cloud-masses, at the curve of the beach south to the jagged point of rocks, and at the rugged blue mountains seen across soft low hills, landward, up Carmel Valley.

“”Might as well sit down an’ take it easy,” Billy indulged her. “This is too good to want to run away from all at once.”

“Saxon assented, but began immediately to unlace her shoes.

“”You ain’t a-goin’ to?” Billy asked in surprised delight, then began unlacing his own.

“But before they were ready to run barefooted on the perilous fringe of cream-wet sand where land and ocean met, a new and wonderful thing attracted their attention. Down from the dark pines and across the sandhills ran a man, naked save for narrow trunks. He was smooth and rosy-skinned, cherubic-faced, with a thatch of curly yellow hair, but his body was hugely thewed as a Hercules’.”

In 1927, Mary Austin looked back at her Carmel years:

” The Mission San Carlos Borromeo looks inshore up the valley of Carmel to the lilac-colored crests of Santa Lucia; off shore, the view just clears the jaws of Lobos along the sun path between it and Cypress Point.  Full in the crescent bay the sea lifts in a hollow curve of chrysoprase (Chyrsoprase is a green gem.  I think she meant the plant, the beautiful native narcotic blue Ceonathus) which whose edge goes up in smoking foam along the hard packed beaches –ever and ever, disregardful of the nondescript shacks, the redwood bungalows and pseudo-Spanish haciendas crowding one another between the beach and the high road.  But when I first came to this land, a virgin thicket of buckthorn sage and sea-blue lilac spread between well-spaced, long-leaves pines. The dunes glistened white with violet shadows, and in warm hollows, between live oaks, the wine of light had mellowed undisturbed a thousand years … We achieved, all of who flocked there within the ensuing two or three years, especially after the fire of 1906 had made San Francisco uninhabitable to the creative worker, a settled habit of morning work … But by the early afternoon one and another of the painted and writer folk could be seen sauntering by piney trails … there would be tea beside driftwood fires, or mussel roasts by moonlight — or the lost of us would pound abalone for chowder … And talk -ambrosial, unquotable talk … There was beauty and strangeness; beauty of Greek quality, but not too Greek, ‘green fires, and billows tremulous with light,’ but not wanting the indispensable touch of grief; strangeness of bearded men from Tassajara with bear meat and wild-honey to sell; great teams from the Sur, going by on the high road with the sound of bells; and shadowy recesses within the wood, white with the droppings of night-haunting birds. But I think that the memorable and now vanished charm of Carmel lay, perhaps, most in the reality of the simplicity attained, a simplicity factually adjusted to the quest of blood and fuel and housing as it can never be in any ‘quarter’ of city life.” (American Mercury Magazine, “George Sterling in Carmel,” May to August 1927)

Mary’s friend in Carmel– and London’s best friend – George Sterling (1869-1926.  He committed suicide, as had his wife. Kevin Starr wrote that “When George Sterling’s corpse was discovered in his room at the Bohemian Club… the golden age of San Francisco’s bohemia had definitely come to a miserable end.”) wrote terrible poetry. California Victorian poetry, including much of Coolbrith’s, is today unpalatable.  Robert Louis Stevenson was a Victorian, and his prose was humorous, gentle, compassionate and sometimes mystical.  The following is Sterling’s poem “Autumn in Carmel.”  I find it cringe-making.

“Now with a sigh November comes to the brooding land. Yellowing now toward winter the willows of Carmel stand. Under the pine her needles lie redder with the rain. Gipsy birds from the northland visit our woods again.

“Hunters wait on the hillside, watching the plowman pass And the red hawk’s shadow gliding over the new-born grass. Purple and white the sea-gulls swarm at the river-mouth. Pearl of mutable heavens towers upon the south.

“Westward pine and cypress stand in a sadder light. Flocks of the veering curlew flash for an instant white. Wreaths of the mallard, shifting, melt on the vacant blue. Over the hard horizon dreams are calling anew.

“Dumb with the sense of wonder hidden from hand and eye/ Wistful yet for the Secret ocean and earth deny — Baffled for Beauty’s haunting, hearts are peaceless today, Seeing the dusk of sapphire deepen within the bay.

“Far on the kelp the heron stands for awhile at rest. The lichen-colored breaker hollows a leaning breast. Desolate, hard and tawny, the sands lie clean and wide, Dry with the wafted sea-wind, wet with the fallen tide.

“Early the autumn sunset tinges to mauve the foam; Shyly the rabbit, feeding, crosses the road to home.’ Daylight, lingering golden, touches the tallest tree, Ere the rain, like silver harp-strings, comes slanting in from sea.”

Following Sterling to the coast to write poetry – and admired by Sterling – was Robinson Jeffers.  Robert Zaller writes, “….(T)he ecology movement of that era found encouragement in the poet who repeatedly raised his voice in the battle for a balanced relationship with nature.  Those who deplored the urbanization of America and the spreading uniformity of a culture that destroyed its natural beauty responded to the (sic) Jeffers who, in poem after poem, struck out against the reckless spoliation of the environment.”

In include here Jeffers’ “Bixby’s Landing” because that is near where Jack Kerouac stood when he wrote his poem “Sea” thirty-three years later.

“They burned lime on the hill and dropped it down here in an iron car
On a long cable; here the ships warped in
And took their loads from the engine, the water is deep to the cliff.  The car
Hangs half way over in the gape of the gorge,
Stationed like a north star above the peaks of the redwoods, iron perch
For the little red hawks when they cease from hovering
When they’ve struck prey; the spider’s fling of a cable rut-glued to the
The laborers are gone, but what a good multitude
Is here in return: the rich-lichened rock, the rose-tipped stone-crop, the
Ocean’s voices, the cloud lighted space.
The kilns are cold on the hill but here in the rust of the broken boiler
Quick lizards lighten, and a rattlesnake flows
Down the cracked masonry, over the crumbled fire brick.  In the rotting
And roofless platforms all the free companies
Of windy grasses have root and make seed; wild buckwheat blooms in the
Weather-slacked lime from the bursted barrels.
Two duckhawks darting in the sky of their cliff-hung nest are the voice of
The headland.
Wine-hearted solitude, our mother the wilderness,
Men’s failures are often as beautiful as men’s triumphs, but your returnings
Are even more precious than your first presence.”

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) was the writing giant of California: lots of people read his books, many people saw the films made of his books.  His outlook was moral — a way of looking at the world grown in the small California city of Salinas, nourished in the farms in the Salinas Valley.

Hs closest friend Edward “Doc” Ricketts, a self-taught marine biologist best known for his book Between Pacific Tides (1939), a pioneering study of intertidal ecology, influenced Steinbeck’s view of the world; Ricketts helped develop that view as more one with more explicit understanding our interdependence with each other and with the natural world.

Pacific Tides is a study of the ocean, not a literary work.   The accumulation, however, of details about the Pacific coast and the life in it is stunning.  Monterey Bay is now a marine life sanctuary, and a gorgeous aquarium (886 Cannery Row) stands 381 feet from Doc Ricketts’ old lab (800 Cannery Row).

Haliotis rufescens, the red abalone, may grow to be 10 or 11 inches long, but 6=1/2 inches is the minimum size that may legall be taken, and larger specimens are rare near shore.  Abalone shells have been valued since their discovery by human beings with an ide for iridescent colors; and abalone pearls, formed when the animal secretes a covering of concentric layers of pearly shell over parasites or irritating particles of gravel, have in times past made fashionable jewelry….”

Ricketts and Steinbeck went on a six-week marine-specimen collecting trip in 1940.  This passage from Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) reveals not only Ricketts’ philosophical influence over Steinbeck’s thinking, but also is in itself an explanation of some of the more deeply mystical passages in Steinbeck’s writing:

“[…] it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

That was a speech.   Writing the way he saw the world as “one thing” was more difficult and not always achieved.

In “The Raid,” in Steinbeck’s The Long Valley, (1938) he shows the idealism of two Communists, one very young, and the frightening institutional and private violence they encounter.   After they are beaten up and imprisoned,

“Root spoke drowsily.  The pain was muffling him under. ‘You remember in the Bible, Dick, how it says something like ‘Forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing’?

“Dick’s reply was stern.  ‘You lay off that religion stuff, kid.”  He quoted, “’Religion is the opium of the people.’

“Sure, I know,” said Root, “but there wasn’t no religion to it.  It was just – I felt like saying that.  It was just kind of the way I felt.”

The passage stands on the border of hokey-land.  It’s both a mistake and a brave experiment in letting all the people who read his books know that violence against those who want to take advantage of the First Amendment of the Constitution is not right.

Tom Joad’s final speech in Grapes of Wrath (1938) (“I left in love, in laughter, and in truth, and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”) comes across as inflated and does not belong in Tom’s mouth.

To A God Unknown (1933) is set in the oak savannahs south of King City..  Joseph Wayne moves to California and marries a Monterey School teacher.  His brother Burton, a devout Christian, becomes increasingly concerned with Joseph’s late night talks with a tree.  The land suffers an extended drought.  Joseph climbs a rock and cuts his wrists.  As he is dying, sacrificed to a higher power, it rains at last.

This, I think, is really going too far.  This weird story isn’t Steinbeck’s plot, though.  The story was based on a play abandoned by his college friend Webster Street.   Whoever came up with the idea, God Unknown was a way of setting Sir James Frazer’s twelve volume The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1906-1915); that is, that the story of Jesus as Savior, and the sacrifice of kings in history, and the story about Abraham and Isaac, all grow out of the idea that the best of men, the strongest and bravest, must be sacrificed in order for the earth to continue to be fertile.

Other times, however, he shows extraordinary insight into the present moment, the instant of living.  In the beginning of “The Raid,” for example,

Steinbeck wrote:  “It was dark in the little California town when the two men stepped from the lunch car and strode arrogantly through the back streets.  The air was full of the sweet small of fermenting fruit from the packing plants.  High over the corners, blue arc lights swung in the wind and put moving shadows of telephone wires on the ground.  The old wooden buildings were silent and resting.  The dirty windows dismally reflected the street lights.”

Buck and Root’s arrogance – right away you know they will pay for that, for thinking they can organize workers and speak their minds.  The moment as they move along through that alley of time towards their destiny is gorgeously painted.  The reader moves with the two foolish brave men towards their encounter with angry men.

Children should not read The Red Pony (1933).  California junior high school texts used to offer The Red Pony.  Teenagers no longer read real books about real people, and that’s all right with me because real powerful fiction like The Red Pony is too scary.   The grandfather talks at every meal about coming west and leading a wagon train to California.  The rigid and unimaginative father puts an end to the old man’s telling about his memories of the time gone.   Billy Buck, an old cowboy, blithely lets the boy’s red pony go out into the rain and tells him rain doesn’t hurt a horse.  The horse dies.  The ten year-old boy and Billy both understand after that Billy is fallible, although he had never failed before.  A mare struggles giving birth.  Billy has promised the boy he will get another colt for him and asks the child to turn away and then smashes the mare’s head with a hammer and cuts the colt out.  You read this and sympathize with everyone and get upset, even though it’s only a book.  You have got to wonder where this stuff comes from because Steinbeck was a modest man from a modest family, although his mother’s family had a lot of alcoholics, and his grandparents on his father side – Johann Grossteinbeck and his wife – went through several horrific days when they went to Palestine to teach Jews farming in order to accelerate the Second Coming.   Intruders – it’s not clear who they were or why they were so angry – killed Johann’s brother and repeatedly raped all the women in the house.

The Pastures of Heaven (1932), is about Corral de Tierra, “the fence of earth,” a community on a hill above the road  (Highway 68( from Salinas to Monterey.  Each story is complete in itself, having its rise, climax and ending.  The narrator is omniscient.  The most charming story in this collection is about the Lopez sisters, chubby, devout Roman Catholics, who delude themselves.  They run a restaurant and “encourage” their customers – the ones who buy three or more enchiladas – with sex.

The real Pastures of Heaven, that is, Corral de Tierra, is now comprised of an upscale subdivision, a country club and a golf course.

Henry Miller wrote Big Sur and The Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch in 1953, when he was 61.  The title explains what the book means.  Miller sees that the oranges in one of Bosch’s paintings are super-real.  Gradually, he sees that everything in the painting is extraordinarily vivid.  His years of hardship, bitterness and joy spent in a Big Sur community of artists and writers, and those who want to be artists and writers, are as vivid, all of it good, all of life good and extraordinary.   They have escaped from the air-conditioned nightmare (The title of his 1945 book) of American life to live creatively in the paradise of a then-relatively isolated part of the California coast.

In 1953, his His Tropic of Cancer (1934, about his life as an impoverished expatriate in Paris) and Tropic of Capricorn (1939, about his New York years) were still banned as obscene in most countries.  His first book was never published.  His second book had failed.  He was still very poor, so that people came to visit him bringing gifts, and all he had to offer them was Henry himself.

In Oranges, he revels in the simple bohemian life and looks with disdain at those who have to endure the slavery of working for a living.

Oranges — for those of us who either read Beat literature and Steven Gaskell’s Amazing Dope Tales, or who participated in Beat or hippie life — comes across as old.  In 1953, however, Miller’s outlook was fresh.  He wrote Oranges during the height of the Second Red Scare.  Eisenhower was elected to the Presidency in 1952.  California renewed its freeway expansion.   The Civil Rights and the Feminist Movement were only on the horizon.  UC Berkeley was still ten years away from the Free Speech Movement.  Rachel Carson didn’t publish Silent Spring until 1962.

In 1960, however, the progenitor of freer writing and thinking moved to Pacific Palisades and lived at 440 Ocampo Drive surrounded by neighbors who were Republicans and corporate industry executives.  Ronald Reagan lived in a GE showcase house (for sale now for $5 million) – provided him for free — at 1669 San Onofre Drive – three miles away.  Houses on Miller’s Street are offered at from $3 million to $7 million.

Kerouac followed Miller’s footsteps to Big Sur, where his alter ego Jack Dulouz disintegrated in alcohol abuse – as did Kerouac – in Kerouac’s Big Sur (1962).   By the end of the Beat era of writing, paradise had become equivocal, but Miller and the Beats wrote the literary foundation for the hippies, who also looked for the simple life, LSD, social justice, free verse and anarchy.   Following is part of Kerouac’s poem about the sound of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur, on the 21st of August 1960, when he was staying at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Bixby Canyon.   It is a very long poem and most of it doesn’t make any sense, either deliberately to make a point, or because Kerouac by that time was not doing well at all.  He died seven years later at the age of 47 from an internal hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis from his life-time of heavy drinking.

“….Big Sur they call this sand these rocks this creek?
Raton Canyon by name pours Coyote leaves & old Pomo bones
& old dust of Tomahawks into your angler’d maw——
My salt maw shall salvage Taylors——sewing in the room
below—— Sewing weed shrat for hikers
in the milky silt——
Sewing crosswards  for certainty——Sartan
are we of Price Victory in this salt War with thee
& thine thee jellied yink!
Look O the sea here called
Pacific Sea!

T a k i ! ….”

James D. Houston’s Continental Drift (first published in 1978 but set in the early 1970s,) takes place largely on a ranch near the Monterey Bay during the Viet Nam War.  The “drift” is the drift of tectonic plates, and it is also the unsettling drift of Santa Cruz from an agricultural and fishing town where everyone knows everyone else to a place invaded by “the long hairs,” people involved with drugs, an odd self-promoting and vaguely menacing man from the East Coast who lives with his family in a truck, the disruption and harm caused by the war, and what may be a serial murderer.   The earthquake is a metaphor for social upheaval in a small city on the coast during a period of great social upheaval.   The “drift” can also mean this country’s upheavals that unsettled the nation in the 1960s and 1970s.

On the road back from the airport to pick up Travis after the young man’s tour of duty in Viet Nam, the father drives back part way and the son drives back the rest of the way.  Travis drives crazily.  From the description of this trip, the father, son and a young adventuress drove from the Monterey Airport along Highway One, and the father predicts what will happen to that road when there is an anticipated great earthquake like the 1906 earthquake that destroyed San Francisco.

To anyone who has not lived in Santa Cruz, the events in the book come across as a myth.   Its city, its landscape and the Monterey Bay, to those who have not seen them, would seem to be the author’s imaginative portrayal of paradise about to be lost.   Houston’s descriptions of Santa Cruz, however, are factual.  He described what he saw. Moreover, the serial killer theme was drawn from history.

Founded in 1965, UC Santa Cruz changed a lot about the city.  Residents unsuccessfully opposed students’ voting in elections.   The Summer of Love in 1968 brought an invasion of hippies.  Wallace Stegner taught writing.  Houston was one of his students.   Professor Jasper Rose taught art history wearing a bow tie with a flower in his lapel and advocated alternative education to standing room only classes. Unicyclists balanced along the

Downtown streets.

In 1970, John Linley Frazier of Soquel murdered a prominent ophthalmologist, his wife, two sons and secretary.  Herbert Mullin murdered thirteen people in 1972 and 1973.   Edmund Emil Kemper, III, murdered eight women, including his mother, in those years.  David Carpenter killed a woman hiker in Henry Cowell Park and another in Big Basin State Park in 1981.

In 1973, with the discovery of four bodies in Henry Cowell State Park, then District Attorney Peter Chang muttered, “Murderville, USA.”  The name stuck.

About 25 years after the drive home from the Monterey Airport in Drift, the big slip along the San Andreas fault — its epicenter was Loma Prieta in the Santa Cruz Mountains — did occur, and the highway was destroyed, as was much of downtown Santa Cruz, and highway 1 buckled and divided.   There were no news reports from Santa Cruz for over twenty-four hours.   Three people died when buildings collapsed downtown.

Take:  Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Union Station in Los Angeles.

Buy tickets in advance to the Steinbeck Festival, usually held in May.

Rent a car in Salinas and drive Steinbeck’s family on home to Steinbeck’s gravesite in the Hamilton family plot in the Garden of Memories Memorial Park.  Go along Highway 68 to Monterey, and from Monterey to Carmel and Big Sur, and then up on Highway One to Santa Cruz.   Return the car to the rental agency and take an Amtrak train or bus back to Los Angeles or to San Jose’s Diridon Station, and take a cab from there to the San Jose airport.

Visit:   The National Steinbeck Center and take the three-day tour, see Cannery Row, the Monterey Aquarium.  Visit Robinson Jeffers Tor House in Carmel.   Walk in Pt. Lobos State Reserve, where RLS walked with the boy Sammy Osbourne, and he used the setting as his location for the island in Treasure Island.   Visit the online archive, and walk in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson on Monterey’s historic

Stay:  The Central Coast has hundreds of campgrounds.  If possible, stay at the Andrew Molera State Park.  It’s first come, first served.  Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Campground takes reservations.

See:  1934 version of Treasure Island with Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Lionel Barrymore, Of Mice and Men (1992, with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich)  East of Eden (1955 film with James Dean), Cannery Row (1982 film with Nick Nolte and Debra Winger) Tortilla Flat (1942 film with Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, John Garfield acting against painted backdrops of Monterey) Henry and June (1990), film about 1931 Paris, when Anais Nin meets Henry Miller and his wife June.  Uma Thurman plays June.  She was astonishing in that role.  The Red Pony (1949).

YouTube interviews with Kerouac:  (In French)

Steve Allen interview:

50 minute documentary of Kerouac’s life:

Steinbeck YouTube:

Steinbeck’s speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1962.

Interview with Steinbeck about The Grapes of Wrath.

Read :  Alfred Kroeber, Handbook of California Indians (1902)

Hunt, Tim, editor, The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (2001)

Powell, Lawrence Clark, Robinson Jeffers: The Man and his work ((1940)

Sterling, George, poems:

Jack Kerouac, Big Sur (1960)

Zaller, Robert, Centennial Essays for Robinson Jeffers (1991)

Houston, James D., Continental Drift (1978)

Ricketts, Edward F. and Calvin, Jack , Between Pacific Tides (1939)

Wentworth, Mary, Poetry of the Pacific States (1867)

Steinbeck, The Pastures of Heaven (1932), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Long Valley (1938), Cannery Row (1945), East of Eden (1952), Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962) Tortilla Flat (1935), Cannery Row (1945).   Herbert Eugene Bolton, editor,, Expedition to San Francisco Bay in 1770, Diary of Pedro Fages (1911)

Dan, Richard H., Two Years Before the Mast (1869)

Stegner, Wallace, Angle of Repose (1971), directly based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote.   Part of the book is devoted to Foote’s stay at the New Almaden mines in the Santa Cruz Mountains near San Jose.  Foote wrote New Almaden or A California Mining Camp: Life in 1877 at New Almaden.


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