Writers Who Write About Those Who Wrote About California

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January 1, 2013 · Posted in California Roads Scholar 

This is Anna Duncan, one of Isadora Duncan's adopted daughters. (1926) by Arnold Genthe.

By Phyl Van Ammers

 The writers about California told us what they experienced, what they felt, and what they saw and heard.  The true diaries are transparent.  The oral narratives of the native people are sometimes transparent; sometimes they tell myths.  The myths tell us how those who told them viewed the natural and human world.  Stories that take place in California reveal the landscape both as background as actor in their lives; that is, this state’s mountains, deserts, plains and cities shape the narratives.

The writers who write about those who wrote or who gave oral testimony on their experiences interpret the incessantly transformed and forever transforming experiences bring their own interpretations, which are just as confined as moments in history’s pulse. They have points to make.  There is a thesis or several theses implicit in each collection.

The beginning of what writing in this state begins with the native people’s myths and experiences.  The Spanish mission padres’ writing follows.  The American explorers, scientists and settlers during the end of the Mexican era wrote to note what they figured out about what was here.  The almost feudal Mexican period co-existed for a time with a consciousness antithetical to the world-views of their predecessors.  The new comers are reborn into different lives, if they survive the perilous and difficult days long enough to write about them.

In the spring of 1849, Sarah Royce began her journey to California from Missouri with her husband Joshia Royce, Sr. and her two-year-old daughter Mary in a covered wagon.  Sarah wrote:

“…(A) storm began in the evening.  The wind moaned fitfully, and rain fell constantly.  I could not sleep.  I rose and walked softly to the tent door, put the curtains aside and looked out.  The body of the dead man lay stretched upon a rudely constructed bier beside our wagon a few rods off, the sheet that was stretched over it flapped in the wind with a sound that suggested the idea of some vindictive creature struggling restlessly in bonds; while its white fluttering, dimly seen, confirmed the ghastly fancy.  Not many yards beyond, a party of Indians – who had, for a day or two, been playing the part of friendly hangers-on to one of the large companies—had raised a rude skin tent, and built a fire, round which they were seated on the ground—looking unearthly in its flickering light, and chanting, hour after hour, a wild melancholy chant, varied by occasional high, shrill notes as of distressful appeal.  The minor key ran through it all.  I knew it was a death dirge….

“….the next morning, just three days from the time old Mr. R had been buried, the first news that met our ears was, that two more of our company were ill with the same fatal disease.  Before the fist watch of that night was set, one of them was laid in his lonely grave…Who would go next?  What if my husband should be taken and leave us alone in the wilderness?  What if I should be taken and leave my little Mary motherless?  Or, still more distracting thought – what if we both should be laid low, and she be left a destitute orphan, among strangers, in a land of savages…”

Lucy Young, first named T’tcetsa, told the story of her long life.

“My grandpa, before white people came, had a dream.  He was so old he was all doubled up.  Knees to chin and eyes like indigo.  Grown son carry him in great basket on his back, every place.

“My grandpa say: ‘White Rabbit – he mean white people – ‘gonta devour our grass, our seed, our living.  We won’t have nothing more, this world.  Big elk with straight horn come when white man bring it.’

“…. My grandpa never live to see white people, just dreaming every night ‘bout them.  People come long way, listen him dream…

“….All seem like dream to me.  Long, long ago.  Night-time, he die, and in morning, all tied up in deerskin with grass rope.  Sit up knees to chin.  They tie him up too soon.  He roll over, and come back.  Scare everybody.  He ask for water, and ask for pack strap to basket always carry him in.  He ask for li’l basket he always use for cop.  He drink lots…

“Then he die.  Our people dig big hole, put stick across.  Put brush.  Put body in.  Put more brush.  Burn all to ashes.  They put basket and strap, too, with him, when he go where people go at last…”

In 1927, a year before her death, California’s first poet laureate Ina Coolbrith said at a luncheon given in her honor in San Francisco:

“Ours was the first of the covered-wagon trains to break the trail through Beckwourth Pass into California.  We were guided by the famous scout, Jim Beckwourth, who was an historical figure, and to my mind one of the most beautiful creatures that ever lived.  He was rather dark (Beckwourth had been born a slave) and wore his hair in two long braids, twisted with colored cord that gave him a picturesque appearance.  He wore a leather coat and moccasins and rode a horse without a saddle.

“When we made that long journey toward the West over the deserts and mountains, our wagon-train was driven over ground without a single mark of a wagon wheel until it was broken by ours.  And when Jim Beckwourth said he would like to have my mother’s little girls ride into California on his horse in front of him, I was the happiest little girl in the world.

“After two or three days of heavy riding we came at last in sight of California and there on the boundary line he stopped, and pointing forward, said:

“’Here is California, little girls, here is your kingdom’…

By action of the United States Geographic Board, a high Peak, located six miles due south of Beckwourth Pass, was renamed Mount Ina Coolbrith.  It stands near the intersection of the county lines of Plumas, Lassen, and Sierra Counties.

Coolbrith wrote a history of California literature, but it was lost in the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote this passage on his train journey to California in 1879 “at sea on the plains of Nebraska”:

“It was a world almost without a feature; an empty sky, an empty earth; front and back the line of railway stretched from horizon to horizon like a cue across a billiard-board; on either hand, the green plain ran till it touched the skirts of heaven.  Along the track innumerable wild sunflowers, no bigger than a crown-piece, bloomed in a continuous flower-bed; grazing beasts were seen upon the prairie at all degrees of distance and diminution; and now and again we might perceive a few dots beside the railroad, which grew more and more distinct as we drew nearer, till they turned into wooden cabins, and then dwindled and dwindled in our wake until they melted into their surroundings…The train toiled over this infinity like a snail; and being the one thing moving, it was wonderful what huge proportions it began to assume in our regard.  It seemed miles in length, and either end of it within but a step of the horizon.  Even my own body or my own head seemed a great thing in that emptiness….”

He entered California at the end of its time as the Far West but it was still partly Old Mexican, and large areas of the coast remained as you can still see them from train windows on Amtrak on the trip from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo or through your windshield in the Gaviota Pass.

Writing increasingly focused on experiences in cities.  There are a lot of criminals in cities: morality’s moorings loosen in crowded streets. Raymond Chandler in Los Angeles and Dashiell Hammett in San Francisco created detectives who impose their own chivalric order on the conflicts and venality of urban life.  Beneath their hard-boiled exteriors beats hearts of knights-errant.

Raymond Chandler wrote in The High Window:

“I left my car on the street and walked over a few dozen stumble stones set into the green lawn, and rang the bell in the brick portico under a peaked roof. A low red brick wall ran along the front of the house the short distance from the door to the edge of the driveway. At the end of the walk, on a concrete block, there was a little painted Negro in white riding breeches and a green jacket and a red cap. He was holding a whip, and there was an iron hitching ring in the block at his feet. He looked a little sad, as if he had been waiting there a long time and was getting discouraged. I went over and patted his head while I was waiting for somebody to come to the door. ….

“I went in. The room beyond was large and square and sunken and cool and had the restful atmosphere of a funeral chapel and something of the same smell. Tapestry on the blank roughened stucco walls, iron grilles imitating balconies outside high side windows, heavy carved chairs with plush seats and tapestry backs and tarnished gilt tassels hanging down their sides. At the back a stained-glass window about the size of a tennis court. Curtained french doors underneath it. An old musty, fusty, narrow-minded, clean and bitter room. It didn’t look as if anybody ever sat in it or would ever want to. Marble-topped tables with crooked legs, gilt clocks, pieces of small statuary in two colors of marble. A lot of junk that would take a week to dust. A lot of money, and all wasted. Thirty years before, in the wealthy close-mouthed provincial town Pasadena then was, it must have seemed like quite a room.”

Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust treats the alienation of those who live at the fringes of the Hollywood movie industry.  The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh satirizes Southern California’s pre-occupation with death.  Alison Lurie’s The Nowhere City (1965), explicitly contrasts the emptiness one character sees in Los Angeles with the rebirth of another who removes the strictures of her past life like an old coat and stays.

Lurie’s characters prefigure the Beats, and the Beats lead us into the Age of Aquarius and also to the outrage of Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, John Fante stops time’s rush in the ordinary people a young writer meets on Bunker Hill in the 1930s, before those he meets grow old and the city evicts them to build the oligopoly on the hill.    Charles Bukowski was “a laureate of American lowlife.”  Philip K. Dick accelerates the city’s dystopian disintegration in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which Hollywood turned into the film Bladerunner.

Thesis, antithesis and synthesis outline change faster in this state than in any other place on earth. The California writers open their hands and show us: California.


Writers about California writers immerse our literature in the history most of us slightly know.  The state changed so rapidly, the confluence of diverse people is so enormous, that we can see only little pieces of our history as it transforms as rapidly as a kaleidoscope’s bits of color change into different patterns when a child looks through the mirrored tube.


The writers about the writers don’t write in the transparent vernacular although they admire those who do and write very well almost all of the time.   They sometimes write in the passive voice.  They fit the writing of those who interpret reality fresh from experience into their historic, economic, legal and philosophic context.

Near the beginning of the writing about writers is the Bancroft “factory.”

H.H. Bancroft (1832-1918) arrived in San Francisco in 1852 to operate a regional office of his brother-in-law’s publishing house and also began his own publishing house.  In 1868, he resigned and began his accumulation of books, maps and printed and manuscript documents.  Pioneers, settlers and statesmen dictated their recollections to his investigators.

Bancroft had a staff of writers and researchers rather like Arianna Huffington’s syndicated columns; only he revised their work and wrote important parts of his volumes of history on the history of the Pacific Coast.  Bancroft and his collaborators wrote the History of California in 1884-1890.  Later scholars found the work contained his researchers’ personal biases.

Bancroft wrote about ten percent of his History but demanded full credit for all of it.  Frances Fuller Victor (1826-1902) wrote three volumes of Bancroft’s History after the market for women’s fiction dried up

In the 1880s, Hubert Howe Bancroft started a 400-acre fruit vacation farm that produced walnuts and Bartlett pears in Walnut Creek, and died in 1918, two days after a streetcar hit him.

The Oakland, Antioch, and Eastern Railway was an electric interurban train. The train passed to the Oakland depot at Fortieth Street and Shafter Avenue, then along Shafter Avenue to the Berkeley Hills.  Near the top, passengers saw a grand panoramic view of Okland, Alameda and the bay.  The train passed through steep wooded hills until the highest point, where the train entered a tunnel.  “Here may be seen almost every kind of California tree and wild plant from the redwoods….to the numerous varieties of ferns and wild roses.”  The train passed through Moraga and Lafayette, entered the San Farmon valley at Saranop, and entered Walnut Creek, “the center of commercial activity of San Ramon Valley, … surrounded by orchards and gardens.  Large oaks, characteristic of this section, mark the unusual depth and fertility of the soil.  Farther on is Meinert Station, on the edge of the Pachco Valley.” (Cowell Historical Society)  The line extended from Walnut Creek to Bay Point in 1911.  The train carried passengers to Contra Costa County and it carried fruits and vegetables from it to Oakland.

From a map of the train route, it looks like the tracks followed the same right-of-way used by BART.   I hear the BART train’s sound, which is like the sound of energy gathering, at night from my house that is an hour’s walk from the BART Concord station.

His ranch remained a working farm until the 1960s when the city re-zoned the area, and the owners sold it to developers.

In 1971, developers cut down the last walnut grove. Part of Bancroft’s ranch is now occupied partly by a suburban mall with a CVS, Starbucks, Jamba Juice, Peet’s Coffee, a beauty shop, a delicatessen, a donut shop and a gym.

It strikes me as ironic that the man responsible for preserving so much of California’s early rural history, who lived in California from its American beginnings, and who participated heartily in Contra Costa County’s transformation from coal mining and ranching to farms died when he walked into a train that accelerated the Bay area’s exodus into farm land.

William Clark Powell (California Classics) and Kevin Starr write about writers.  (Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915).  Starr’s “Dream” series of books about California history is more ambitious in scope and detail.  Powell writes more personally about writers and knew some of them.  His PhD dissertation was on Robinson Jeffers.   Neither of them wrote about Ina Coolbrith, who is my favorite poet and California’s first poet laureate.

Kevin Starr is an historian.  His PhD is in American Literature.  He was the California State Librarian.  He’s taught at several universities, and, in 1989 became a professor of urban and regional planning at USC and now teaches history at USC.  His Dream series is formidable reading.  His sources listed at the ends of his books alone are worth spending an afternoon in front of a fireplace with a burning fire inside and a cup of tea on your chest just to enjoy them.

Both of these writers on writers had gloomy takes on Jack London.  They both must have started with his death and worked backwards to imagine a man with imperfect talent (true) and pressured by desire for money to grind out his imperfect works (true).   Because both of them are wrong about why he died young, their shading and summaries are false.

Starr sees a man who accidentally took much medication for his health problems.  Twice he mentioned that London got fat (From his photos, Starr looks fat.) from lack of exercise and love of strong food and drink.   Powell assumes, without an annotation to explain why he thinks this, that London committed suicide.

A more realistic view of Jack London is Clarice Stasz’s American Dreamers.  Stasz spent ten years working on this book.  It is heavily feminist and shows Charmian’s strong influence on his work.   Charmian typed and edited London’s books after their marriage.  She also wrote The Book of Jack London, which lies a lot about her husband.  This is available in its entirety online.    Her published writing is phony nice lady writing, and she was neither phony nor a nice lady.  She was bold, athletic and had a rich life.

Her aunt Netta, who raised her, was a travel writer married to Edgar Payne, a defrocked minister who helped found the Utopian community of Altruria in Santa Rosa.    Both Netta and Payne show up as characters in Valley of the Moon, a book written when London still liked them, before they sued him.

Netta believed in free love and vegetarianism, and Charmian had lovers before she seduced Jack.  She also had an affair with Harry Houdini after London’s death.

The file for the Payne lawsuit remains, last time I looked, in the Santa Rosa County Superior Court, but all the interior pages are missing.

After London’s death, his widow built a house (Jack London State Park, in Glen Ellen) weirdly named “House of Happy Walls.” Some of the lies she spun about her husband show up in notes in the museum comprising House of Happy Walls.   The name of the house reflects her false writing.  She wrote a diary, parts of which I read in the Huntington, accidentally following in Stasz’s footsteps in the 1980s.  That writing was fresh and pellucid.

Both Starr’s and Powell’s misconceptions begin with Irving Stone’s Sailor on Horseback.  Stone claimed London committed suicide because one of his doctors said that he did, and he based that conclusion on a note in London’s handwriting that noted amounts of painkillers that he took.  The note disappeared.  Stone never saw it.

Stone had a hard time getting documents from Charmian, London’s second wife.  She also burned documents so no biographer could get his hands on them.   The Paynes were not at London’s funeral, and they wrote an awful book, which misrepresents their relationship to him called The Soul of Jack London. Neither Netta nor Payne mentions Charmian in Soul.   In the Payne book, London returns as a spirit from the dead and admits he is evil.

I sometimes feel Charmian suspected, as I sometimes suspect, that the Paynes burned down Wolf House.  Charmian may have wondered if one of the two poisoned him.  She did not speak to them for the rest of their lives.

London died of kidney failure.  The doctor who arrived shortly after his death said so.   The night the author was dying, his wife and sister found him sweating heavily.  Excessive sweating is a sign of renal failure.

Renal failure results in weight gain and swollen ankles.  London probably did not help his health condition because of his heavy drinking.  He was in terrible pain.  A person in constant pain doesn’t take a lot of exercise.  He gets depressed.

One of London’s doctors, perhaps the one who told Irving Stone that London committed suicide, prescribed arsenic and lead – common treatments at the time – for venereal disease.  He may have also prescribed mercury.  A saying before antibiotics was “A night in the arms of Venus leads to a lifetime on Mercury.”  Heavy metal poisoning is a direct cause of renal failure.

Once the wrong assumptions about London’s death are removed, the rest of Powell and Starr’s dark views of the writer rest on nothing.

Powell  (1906-2001) wrote “Land of Boyhood,” a recollection of his childhood in South Pasadena (This is published in California Childhood: Recollections and Stories of the Golden State, edited by Gary Soto.).

“….I rode my bicycle with dash and daring, skidding, crashing and terrifying children and dogs.  I was always going to Perky’s bike shop on Mission Street for repairs.  He gave us free graphite for our chains and sprockets.   A favorite ride was uphill to the swimming pool at Brookside park.  The downhill ride was along orange Grove Avenue, lined with great house and wide lawns and globed streetlights, the acme of elegance.

“Another long ride was out Huntington Drive to the San Marino junction where a spur track led to the Huntington estate and the new library under construction.  We liked to play on the boxcars standing on the siding.  For all we knew, one of them might have held ‘The Blue Boy,’ newly arrived from England.”

Powell was born forty years before I was.  He grew up seven miles away from my old neighborhood, if you go up Eagle Rock Boulevard and over El Paseo Drive and down Avenue 60, which is the way my mother drove after she got her license when I was seven.  Gas was 25 cents a gallon. My mother’s venue was limited to Highland Park, and then as now, many of the streets canopied with the foliage of large trees.  It’s a little seedier now.  After we moved to Silver Lake, one of my long bicycle rides was down Fletcher and over the hill to Echo Park and then up El Paseo to the swimming pool, which was less chilly than the Griffith Park swimming pool.  My bicycle, unlike Powell’s, was indestructible.  Sometimes I put a little oil on the chain.  I never had a flat, even though I often rode through the dry riverbed.  It was turquoise and white with balloon tires and weighed a lot.

It’s always a pleasure to visit the Huntington, and I’ve seen Blue Boy and Pinkie a few times in a building so voluptuous it is hard to believe real people once lived in it.  I don’t take a freeway but drive the way my parents and the school buses that took me to a girl’s camp on Big Bear Lake drove to enjoy the pleasures of nostalgia.

My first neighborhood is crime-ridden.  The little stores that comprised my earliest adventures: the optometrist with a giant pair of spectacles outside the front window, the Woolworth’s, and the drug store that sold books on a rack and ice cream cones and Coca Cola with cherry syrup are gone.  Fences remove the little houses from the street.  Only the curves in the roads there look familiar.

The gas station on El Paseo Drive with its gas pumps turning slowly within glass tubes is gone.

Gradually the houses become larger and they are well maintained with lawns manicured by gardeners and sprinkler systems.

Although Powell was forty years older than me, the sense of freedom even small children enjoyed must have been similar.  No one worried about us.  It almost never rained.  Children lived outdoors, went into forbidden structures, were chased out of forbidden structures, and the adults we met were kind.  Freedom turned lots of us into readers and made us adventuresome.   I believe we all survived into adulthood.

I transferred to UCLA after a semester at Berkeley.  A few days after my eighteenth birthday, I climbed the stairs to Powell Library on the UCLA campus.  I saw a medallion next to the large doors, which were closed for the first time I recall.  A woman opened the door and said, “The President has been shot.”  I looked at the face of the man on the medallion: Lawrence Clark Powell.

Ten years later, I returned to UCLA as an undergraduate.  One of my American Literature professors was the wonderful Richard Lehan.  Professor Lehan’s The City in Literature discusses several California writers.  I don’t find his discussions in The City as enthralling as his lectures were, and I still find his monograph on Faulkner’s “The Bear” – which I read sitting on the floor in an aisle of the Powell Library – one of the best works on America’s loss of wildness.

Lawrence Ferlenghetti and Lionel Rolfe’s works (Literary San Francisco and Literary LA) are less biased – all writing on California writers, including this writing, is biased because our perspective looks backward — less dense, not academic, and are more accessible to many readers than Starr or Powell’s writing on California writers.

Recommended reading:

Ida Rae Egli, No Rooms of Their Own: Women Writers of Early California (Heyday Books 1992)

Sarah Royce, Frontier Lady: Recollections of the Gold Rush and Early California (University of Nebraska Press 1977)

Mildred Brooke Hoover, Hero Eugene Rensch, Ethel Grace Rensch, third edition revised by William N. Abeloe, Historic Spots in California, Third Edition. (Stanford University Press, 1966)

Ida Rae Egli, No Rooms of Their Own (Heydey Books 1992).

Up and Down California in 1860-1864; The Journal of William H. Brewer.


Recommended visits

Any of the California missions

Anyplace mentioned in Up and Down California

Mt. Ina Coolbrith

Ride Angel’s Flight







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