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Articles Blog

California's Literary Scene

Karyn Planett

Author, Author! 

Who knows what inspires someone to put pen to paper. Is it the mood or the muse? Are writers just sparked to share their indelible impressions too powerful to keep tucked deep inside? Who knows? But, whatever it is that has stirred the celebrated team that follows, we can be forever thankful. Their works live on long after they’ve cradled their pen for the last time. 

While sailing along the Californian coast we have time to relive their artistic journey. We can take them along with us for the ride. 

The Early Days 

As the pioneers came west to carve out a life in this new land, their impressions were of a simple nature. They merely recorded their sagas, their hardships, their challenges in this rugged landscape. As time passed and others traveled west to stake their claims in the gold fields, it seemed there was a cry for literature that was more sophisticated, poetic even. Merchants and teachers trapped in dreary worlds along the eastern seaboard let their imaginations wander while reading about cowboys and indians and the wild. 

Fiction found its niche, as well. Writers like Bret Harte helped create the local-color school of American fiction. In 1854, the author kicked about California’s mining camps, especially along the Stanislaus River. He wrote for the Northern Californian as well as the Golden Era. It was Harte who hired Mark Twain to write for him on a weekly basis. Harte captured much of the gold rush romance for readers the world over. His famous short stories include “The Luck Of Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts Of Poker Flats.” Twain, as everyone knows, wrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” in 1865 which skyrocketed him to fame. 

A Social Agenda

The San Francisco Examiner became the vehicle for the strong social criticisms of writer Ambrose Bierce. This satirist and author of sardonic short stories wrote a column called the “Prattler.” Among his works is Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California, published in 1872. 

Then, there’s Jack London who deserves an exclusive nod on his own. So revered is he that there’s a spot in the Oakland called Jack London Square and his San Francisco birthplace is noted with a brass plaque. Raised in dire poverty, he worked as an oyster pirate, a cannery worker, and was actually even a hobo riding the rails. His fame spread far and wide in the early 20th century and remains strong today. Though many of his works focus on the rugged Alaskan north (and we should read them as we travel north), Jack London is still one of California’s own.

Upton Sinclair was not native Californian born. He arrived following the First World War and found himself protesting for the poor in the 30s. He even organized the EPIC (End Poverty in California) socialist reform movement. Based in Pasadena, Sinclair ultimately ran for state governor on the democratic ticket in 1934 and lost. It’s all there in his Autobiography published in 1962. 

John Steinbeck is the quintessential California writer. Born in Salinas in 1902, the American novelist’s most important work is The Grapes Of Wrath. For this, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Tortilla Flats depicts the difficult life for Mexican-American migrant workers. Of Mice And Men gained worldwide attention, as did The Red Pony and East Of Eden. He is revered in Monterey County for he was their native son. 

Who Dunnit? 

To figure that out, you’ll have to read three important California authors. Dashiell Hammett, first and foremost, has surely come into your psyche at some point. Think Humphrey Bogart and The Maltese Falcon. Without a formal education, he worked in San Francisco for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a profession that let him peer into the criminal mind. Hammett also wrote The Thin Man, which introduced the world to Nick and Nora Charles.   

Raymond Chandler went from his birthplace in Chicago to California where he created the Los Angeles-based private detective character Philip Marlowe. As a screenwriter, Chandler collaborated on Double Indemnity and The Blue Dahlia. His novels include Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Good-Bye. Once an executive in the oil industry, he was sacked for drinking problems. This opened the door on his new career as mystery writer and the rest is history. 

The third of our trio is American mystery writer Ross Macdonald. Born Kenneth Miller, he is credited with raising the bar for detective fiction and brining it more into the mainstream of American literature. He was born in Los Gatos, California and died Santa Barbara. Among his many critically-acclaimed works, he wrote 19 novels in all, were The Underground Man and Sleeping Beauty. 

The Beat Goes On 

The cry for social injustice was heard loud and clear across the California landscape. Writers sharing a passion for justice locked elbows in 1950 to form the San Francisco “Beat Movement.” A handful of authors stand out from the crowd, including Allen Ginsberg who wrote the epic poem Howl. Many credit this as the most profound piece, called “the anthem for countercultural rebellion”, to come out of this movement.   

Everyone remembers Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. These words, written in only three weeks on a 120-foot-long scroll in 1957, were the embers that sparked the counterculture gospel beyond the California border. Was it he or columnist Herb Caen who gave the Beat Movement its name? That is debatable. Kerouac also wrote The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. 

When you mention Kerouac, you have to follow quickly with William Burroughs. Trouble followed this author wherever he went. The Yage Letters chronicles this turmoil. His words exposed the darker side of life. Naked Lunch was also one of his important works. 

Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s contribution to the Beat Movement came in the form of his poetry as well as his publishing. Ferlinghetti owned San Francisco’s famous City Lights Book Store and helped get non-mainstream writers published. He personally printed many poetry books by Beat authors. His store was America’s first featuring only paperback books. Ferlinghetti’s poems are best read aloud, and include such works as One Thousand Fearful Words for Fidel Castro and Where Is Vietnam? 

And the beat goes on and on and on and on and on.