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Articles Blog

Filtering by Tag: California

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. 

California's Ethnic Diversity

Karyn Planett

From Multicultural To Omnicultural 

It’s probably no secret that California is the most populous state in the Union. What may not be as well known is that it has become the most ethnically diverse as well. Consider that the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District speak 90 different languages! 

While you might think this is a result of the state’s benign climate, natural resources, or sheer size, California’s ethnic mix is really the result of geography. As the last frontier for settlers crossing the country from east to west and the first port of entry for immigrants and refugees crossing the Pacific from west to east, California has gathered them all to her ample bosom. But this social phenomenon is a work in progress. While the state has provided space enough for all to keep out of each others’ ways, this elbow room has slowed the pace of real assimilation for many of the newest cultures and even some of the older ones. 

The Chronology Of A Melting Pot 

First to arrive, of course, were the people we now refer to as Native Americans. Extensions of the tribes that crossed the Siberian land bridge to Alaska then drifted south, these were the state’s first citizens. Fueled by the granting of additional rights in the 1960’s, California now claims more Native Americans than any other state and, unlike some other groups, they have opted for integration rather than separation. 

The Hispanic influence came next. Spanish explorers arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries establishing the foundations of many of today’s cities. You cannot travel anywhere in California without being aware of the Spanish names that identify many of its towns and streets. Similarly, Spanish-speaking people have moved beyond their own communities to become more involved in state and local government. Political trouble in Central and South America has continued to drive Hispanic populations north and, since 1940, California has had the largest Mexican population outside of Mexico. Demographers predict that Hispanics will overtake Caucasians as a percentage of the state’s population in the next few years. 

A large population of Russians drifted down from Alaska as the fur trade began to peter out in the early 1800s. They established a significant settlement around Fort Ross in Mendocino County, and today there is a 25,000-strong Russian community around San Francisco. 

Next to arrive were the Chinese. First, as mineworkers during the Gold Rush, then as laborers to help build the Continental Railroad. The Chinese were subjected to open racial violence by thugs claiming they were stealing “white” jobs. The theme has been repeated many times over as other ethnic groups arrived to take on the most menial work. The violence combined with a natural inclination amongst traditional Chinese to stick close to their own and resulted in Chinese ghettos in many California cities. As younger generations have moved out into the communities, these Chinatown ghettos have evolved to become charming tourist magnets. 

The Boom Years 

After the Gold Rush and the opening of the railroads, the flood of immigrants to the state multiplied severalfold. Italian vintners arrived in the late 19th century, attracted by the climate and soil. They sparked the California wine industry and created the North Beach community in San Francisco, still home to some of the city’s finest restaurants. 

The Japanese came in the early 20th century. They were primarily farmers and helped sow the seeds of a robust agricultural industry that has become America’s salad bowl. During World War II, however, the Japanese were subjected to one of the most humiliating experiences to befall any American citizens at the hands of their own government. Interred in virtual concentration camps for the duration of the war, many lost homes and businesses that took generations to recover. 

With the increase in heavy industry during WWII, the African American population, which had been present in the state for some time, boomed afresh. Arriving mainly from the poorer southern states, they were forced into urban ghettos and suffered the low social standing, racial problems, and underrepresentation that accompanies that pattern. But, like the Hispanic community, their presence is now felt all up and down California’s political and economic structure. 

Recent Arrivals

The wars of Southeast Asia sent a new influx of refugees into the California melting pot. Long Beach has the largest population of Cambodians outside Cambodia and is known locally as “Little Phnom Penh.” Fresno has the second largest Hmong population outside Laos. These groups, along with the Vietnamese, were forced to settle in the poorer areas of California’s inner cities. But through their own industry they have transformed these dying areas into thriving communities in just a generation. 

Not everyone, though, has come to California to escape somewhere else. The state has long represented the land of opportunity for people from the rest of America as well as many distant lands. Santa Monica has a large British contingent along with more authentic pubs than any other California city. Danish immigrants founded the town of Solvang in 1911. It is a regular tourist stop in Central California. The state has the second largest Jewish community in the U.S., two-thirds of whom live in Los Angeles. And most recently, the technology revolution of Silicon Valley has brought significant numbers of Indian and Pakistani computer nerds to that region. 

Many believe that in another half-century, California will be a hybrid of cultures with no ethnic majority. It remains to be seen whether old social, religious, and political prejudices can be broken down so that California will become the first truly multicultural society or just the Balkans with palm trees.