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The Literature of California

ISSUE:  Spring 2001
The Literature of California: Writings from the Golden State, Volume 1. Edited by Jack Hicks, James D. Houston, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Al Young. University of California Press. $60.00 cloth, $24.95 paperback.

If Nathaniel West hadn’t been killed in a car crash in the desert, hurrying back to Fitzgerald’s funeral on Hollywood Boulevard, and if the inventor of Monroe Stahr hadn’t died in 1940, what prodigies of fiction might yet have come? If Gary Snyder hadn’t met Jack Kerouac in the Berkeley of the 1950’s, or been on hand for the first reading of “Howl” at The Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955, how many poems and mountain climbs—see Dharma Bums—might we now lack? Alfred and Theodora Kroeber, hard at work on the Native American cultures of California, adopt Jaime de Angulo, and 30 years later Indians in Overalls opens up the world of the Atchumawi. Edwin Markham publishes “The Man with the Hoe” (“Bowed by the weight of centuries”) in Hearst’s Examiner, and two years later Frank Norris gives us the vertically-challenged characters of The Octopus (1901). Twain meets Harte in San Francisco in 1864, publishes his break-through story about a jumping frog, and thereby creates the taste that will so generously reward the uneven achievements of the older man’s career.

Literary regions arise from the chance collisions that produce intense—often brief—communities of interest. This is one of the implicit arguments of an important new anthology of writing from the Golden State. Volume 1 of The Literature of California, which covers Native American Beginnings to 1945, supersedes anything like it in print. I look forward to the publication of Volume 2, which will deal with the explosion of creative work that occurred in California after the Second World War.

“I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Emerson even traveled to see Whitman in 1855. “I shall never forget the first visit he paid me,” Whitman wrote more than 30 years later. The two men walked the three miles to the Actor House, where Emerson was staying. The clerk refused to admit the casually dressed poet to Emerson’s hotel room.

Who knows how much Emerson’s salute may have meant to Whitman? The East is replete with such meetings and the legend they support—that genius can thrive in such a place. But genius springs up everywhere, given half a chance. William Carlos Williams argues as much when he claims that “The classic is the local fully realized, words marked by a place.”

How rich a literature does the place we call California afford? As a native Californian and the author of two books on the mythology of the region—and as someone who has spent the last 25 years in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I’ll be happy to live out my days—the question still unsettles. No Faulkner boosts the writing of the state onto a world-class stage. No two centuries of steady cultivation produce a Howells of Boston or a Concord Thoreau. Whitman can imagine that westward the course of empire makes its way, but he does so while crossing the Brooklyn—not the Golden Gate—Ferry.

And yet, and yet. You say Faulkner, I bid Steinbeck. (Novelist Louis Owens argues that “Steinbeck is not a regionalist . . .not a romantic naturalist, but an interrogator of the American meta-narrative . . . Steinbeck, I say, will outlast them all: Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald.”) You bid Howells, I give you Gertrude Atherton, who created, the anthology editors argue, “a vast social history of the state in fiction,” One man’s Thoreau is another’s John Muir—and besides, the author of The Mountains of California also founded The Sierra Club. The vast shift of hope and energy toward the West, to which Whitman was so attentive and alive, becomes Robinson Jeffers’s great subject, although one about which he reaches, finally, dead-end conclusions. In lines as long, and as passionate as Whitman’s, he chants, instead, the stony possibilities of a post-human existence in an “ended world.”

Volume 1 of the anthology gathers 64 named authors, along with stories and poems by anonymous Native American and Chinese immigrant sources. “Indian Beginnings” (Part One) is followed by the years of Exploration and Conquest (Fray Juan Crespí, Richard Henry Dana, Mariano Vallejo, Dame Shirley); Part Three, The Rise of a California Literature, 1865—1914, begins with Twain and ends with Mary Austin. “Modern California literature begins with Robinson Jeffers,” Part Four argues, and the years 1915 to 1945, the period of “Dreams and Awakenings,” includes selections from writers as diverse as Upton Sinclair, William Saroyan, M.F.K. Fisher, and Chester Himes.

“From its founding California has been the most ethnically diverse American state,” and the real glory of the anthology consists in setting its non-white authors alongside the household names. We meet Edith Maud Eaton, the Eurasian writer (“Born in England to a Chinese mother and an English artist-businessman”) whose collection of stories Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912) was the “first book by a person of Chinese extraction to write in defense of the Chinese in America.” A chapter from Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry (1929) exposes the pervasive color consciousness at USC and concludes that “There was no place in the world for a dark girl.” My favorite story by Toshiro Mori, “The Woman Who Made Swell Doughnuts,” makes the cut, and testifies to this Japanese-American writer’s steady commitment to pleasure despite the humiliation of being sent to a relocation camp. The pages from Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (1946) detail with passion and restraint the “many ways it was a crime to be Filipino in California.”

An especially rich selection of Native American stories and writings makes the strong case for the centrality of this imagination in any understanding of California. With the continent’s most varied microclimates and largest number of language groups, California before the Spanish conquest “was the most densely peopled region of the Americas north of Mexico.” I had known about the fantastic Pablo Tac, the first California Indian to author a text in a European language. He wrote his Conversion in Rome in the 1830’s, before his death there in 1841. And all this after being born at a mission north of San Diego, baptized and educated by the friars, taken at 11 to Mexico City, and from there to Spain and on to Rome. But I had never read T’Tcetsa (Lucy Young), whose “Out of the Past” contains the most powerfully understated prose in the volume. Hers is a story of living on the run; the 16,000 indigenous people who remained in California at the end of the 19th century, by which time Young’s family had been wiped out, numbered 300,000 at the time of the Sacred Expedition. “So they shoot,” Young writes:

All our men. Then build fire with wood and brush Inyan men cut for days, never know their own funeral fire they fix. Build big fire, burn all them bodies. That’s funny smell I smell before I get to know. Make hair raise on back of my neck. Make stomach sick, too.

The stories in “Indian Beginnings” support, as well, a key argument of the volume, which is that California has functioned from the beginning as a deeply persuasive construct. “It began as a novelist’s invention,” the editors write. By this they mean to refer to Montalvo’s The Adventures of Esplandian, a chivalric romance that imagines an exotic island ruled by a queen named Calafia. When Cortez sighted Baja, in the 1530’s, he named the peninsula after the imaginary queen. “The dream came first,” the editors continue. “The place came later.”

For the California Indians, word also calls world into being. In the Maidu creation story with which the volume begins, Earthmaker, Coyote, and Meadowlark talk and sing their California into shape. Once people have been made, they are commissioned to the same task: “You will call your countries by different names,” Earthmaker tells them, “and you will also be differently named peoples.” Earthmaker imposes the work of naming for a political purpose: “You will not drive one another from each other’s meadows,” he commands, and the act of naming and thereby setting apart “different” countries or regions within their Turtle Island helps to foster identity, divide the spoils, and diminish conflict.

That the dream came first and the place second is a nifty argument, one to which I have sometimes subscribed. Yet no American terrain has been taken to be more determining than California’s. One could claim that many of the region’s strongest writers—Norris, London, Steinbeck, Didion—are naturalists at heart. “To live with the Santa Ana,” Didion writes, “is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.” California’s story is one “dealing with forces . . .not with men,” Shelgrim argues in The Octopus, forces that chasten any easy American optimism about freely building our own world. The violent weather, the destroying earthquakes and fires, the extreme elevations and far-flung distances—all this has been taken as evidence that in California the “Human presence” only “dilutes,” as Jeffers writes in “The Place for No Story,” the scale and nobility of the land.

So California remains a region in which life can be experienced as powerfully determined and yet ail-too terribly free. Against the dead-end imagination of a Hammett or a Chandler one can always set the unbounded fantasies of a Disney or an L. Frank Baum, who wrote most of the Oz books at his Hollywood home. The dialectic between the human power to voice and to imagine and the power of “locality to dictate an entire literary aesthetic,” as the editors’ argue about Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain, has been played out, in California, with a peculiar intensity. A violence from within pressing back against a violence from without—out of this struggle and this dialectic, Wallace Stevens argues, something beautiful is sure to come. As it has, and will, in California.


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