Dana Gioia’s “Fallen Western Star: The Decline of San Francisco as a Literary Region” ignited heated debate from critics and poets within and outside of the state of California. Jack Foley collected highlights from the exchange in The “Fallen Western Star” Wars: A Debate about Literary California (Scarlet Tanager Press, 2001).
“O Powerful Western Star”
– Title of Jack Foley’s critical Book on Bay Area culture (1999)
In 1899 San Francisco was a major literary center–a city where influential new trends emerged and young writers achieved national reputations. Not only was the Bay Area noted for developing its local talent, true originals like Jack London, Bret Harte, Edwin Markham, Lincoln Steffens, and Frank Norris; it had also long attracted ambitious newcomers from elsewhere like Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce. What better place was there in America to serve a literary apprenticeship than this raw but strangely sophisticated boomtown where even a stagecoach robber like Black Bart wrote poetry? Northern California also drew foreign literati, most notably Robert Louis Stevenson and John Muir, and the region’s climate–both meteorological and intellectual–attracted literary invalids like the consumptive Stevenson and the post-breakdown Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
In the days before television and radio, national taste and opinion were not yet created exclusively in broadcast capitals like New York and Los Angeles. Strong city newspapers commanded national attention. A brilliant local journalist like Bierce at the San Francisco Examiner exercised immense influence (just as a little later H. L. Mencken would shape political and cultural opinion from the Baltimore Sun). San Francisco, which was then the center of William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empire and home to dozens of other journals, helped set the agenda of American literature.
The literature of this Gold Rush seaport was innovative, irreverent, populist, and yet oddly international–notably different from the writing of other American literary centers of the era like Boston, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. What emerged was a distinctive local literature that reflected San Francisco’s unique geography, history, and population. The literature of this Gold Rush seaport was innovative, irreverent, populist, and yet oddly international–notably different from the writing of other American literary centers of the era like Boston, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. No one would confuse a page of Frank Norris or Jack London with one by William Dean Howells or Edith Wharton. San Francisco represented a bohemian and democratic alternative to the East Coast’s genteel and academic traditions. Its best writers not only added to American literature, they transformed it. American Naturalism, for example, was largely the creation of San Francisco and Chicago newspaper-trained novelists. London was America’s first significant working-class writer. Japanese-born Yone Noguchi became the first Asian-American author of note. These writers would not have emerged in Boston or Baltimore.
One anecdote will suffice to demonstrate both the power and personality of fin de siècle San Franciscan literary culture. On January 15, 1899 Edwin Markham, a forty-seven-year-old Oakland high school teacher, published “The Man with the Hoe” in the San Francisco Examiner. Based on the celebrated Jean-François Millet painting, which had recently been exhibited in San Francisco, this forty-nine-line blank verse poem dramatized the perpetual burden of the oppressed worker and condemned the treatment of labor. Newspapers were the Internet of the nineteenth century–a decentralized information system–and “The Man with the Hoe” was reprinted from paper to paper first across the United States and then abroad. Translated into more than forty languages, it was eventually republished in 10,000 newspapers and magazines. In the early twentieth century there was no more famous American poem than Markham’s. The poet became an international celebrity, and the poem served as a literary call to arms for the labor movement–all of which began with the San Francisco Examiner.
The popular sentiment was not misplaced. One hundred years later “The Man with the Hoe” remains an extraordinary poem–vivid, forceful, compressed, and deeply moving. Although the poem still has many readers, it rarely appears in current anthologies, so it may help to quote a few lines to convey its particular quality. After an ironic epigraph from Genesis “God made man in His own image…” Markham begins with Millet’s pathetic image of a wretched laborer bent over a hoe:
Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world. Slowly and passionately the poet builds to his final stanza–an apocalyptic vision of the future when the worker’s anger, resentment, and desire are unleashed. No American poet–and especially no poet of the Gilded Age–provided a truer prophecy of the bitter social turmoil of the early twentieth century:
O masters, lord and rulers in all lands,
How will the future reckon with this man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings–
With those who shaped him to the thing he is–
When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world,
After the silence of the centuries?Although no one ever cites it as such, Markham’s “The Man with the Hoe” was and remains the quintessential Bay Area poem–a representative work for the best that would follow over the next century. It offers a populist and progressive but unillusioned view of existence. It dramatizes the lone individual against the system without idealizing the protagonist into an unrealistically noble figure. The poem’s perspective dares to take the long view of human history and does not shy away from suggesting universals. The style is both visionary and naturalistic. The concerns are moral and political. The manner of the poem is quite contemporary for the late Victorian era, and yet its modernity is deeply rooted in the past. The poetic and ideological allegiances are thoroughly cosmopolitan, as much international as American. Finally, the poem is conceived for oral delivery–it is accessible, dramatic, and auditory. These same qualities can be found, mutatis mutandis, in later Northern Californian poets including such otherwise diverse figures as Robinson Jeffers, Kenneth Rexroth, Yvor Winters, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, William Everson, Gary Snyder, Josephine Miles, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Thom Gunn. And these qualities link the poets to the populist outsider politics native to the Bay Area from Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair through Eric Hoffer and Jerry Brown.
Although extremely different in their aesthetics, these poets share crucial assumptions that might best be called Populist Modernism. They explored new styles and subjects without ever deliberately limiting their work to a coterie audience of literati. Compare a poem by Jeffers or Ginsberg to one by Wallace Stevens or Hart Crane, and the stubbornly public nature of Northern California poetry becomes obvious. Even a New Critical modernist and academic formalist like Winters, an early champion of Crane and Stevens, developed a poetic style that was accessible, realistic, and auditory. (The cerebral Winters once spent a year preparing and publishing the defense of a local man unjustly convicted and condemned to death for murder. The Case of David Lamson in 1934 resulted in overturning the conviction–hardly the sort of scholarly project any other New Critic would have undertaken.) Poetry was not conceived as a self-enclosed text for private meditation but as a direct address to an audience. There is an essential line of development that stretches from “The Man with the Hoe” to “Howl,” though it may be one difficult for an Easterner to see.
Early San Francisco fiction was tough-minded, political, and naturalistic. No wonder the city later inspired Dashiell Hammett. Its fiction viewed the world mostly from the bottom up and vividly registered new social trends–from the labor movement and feminism to sexual freedom and environmentalism–before they became mainstream. Artistic and social concerns mixed easily. The Bay Area not only liberated Charlotte Perkins Gilman to write “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but also allowed her to organize the California Woman’s Congress. The radical populism of London and Norris found enduring expression in later northern California writers like John Steinbeck, William Saroyan, Tillie Olsen, Oscar Lewis, Wallace Stegner, Janet Lewis, Amy Tan, and Maxine Hong Kingston just as it attracted and influenced a special sort of literary immigrant like Henry Miller, Kay Boyle, and Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Even its visionaries like Philip K. Dick and Richard Brautigan were anti-authoritarian and democratic. California is surely the only state that nearly elected a Naturalist novelist governor–muckraker Upton Sinclair narrowly missed winning in 1934. Who can blame an aesthete like Gertrude Stein from escaping this gritty, populist, and fervently political milieu for the l’art pour l’art freedom of Paris?
Populist modernism and Naturalist fiction were two of the major ways in which San Francisco once helped shape American letters. For nearly a century, the city represented the unexplored and invigorating possibilities of a new democratic culture. It was, to borrow a phrase from poet-critic Jack Foley, the “powerful western star” of American literature.
“O powerful western fallen star”
– Walt Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (1865)
Today California is–by a huge margin–the richest and most populous state in the union (with over 30 million people compared to New York’s 18 million). The San Francisco metropolitan area in particular has grown immensely with nearly 7 million people living between Silicon Valley and the Golden Gate. If real estate prices are a reliable measure, the Bay Area is the most desirable place to live in the continental United States. The population is notably affluent and well educated. San Francisco itself is often considered the most beautiful big city in North America. It is also a renowned center of music and the visual arts. What a smart, sophisticated, and pleasant place to live.
And yet San Francisco no longer ranks as an influential literary center. The demise of its cultural power does not result from a paucity of talent. The Bay Area probably has more established literary writers currently than any other urban area except New York and Boston. Within a twenty-mile radius of the Golden Gate Bridge one can find such diversely distinguished figures as Czeslaw Milosz, Thom Gunn, Carolyn Kizer, Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Robert Hass, Mary Gaitskill, Tillie Olsen, Robert Silverberg, Kay Ryan, Annie Lamott, Gary Snyder, Al Young, Jack Foley, Edgar Bowers, Armisted Maupin, Ishmael Reed, Ron Hansen, Isabelle Allende, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Richard Rodriguez. The Bay Area is also ringed by major universities–Berkeley, Stanford, San Francisco State, the University of San Francisco, San Jose State, and others–that employ thousands of academics, including hundreds of critics and writers.
What San Francisco–and by extension all West Coast cities–lacks is a vital and complete literary milieu. In 1899 an aspiring author could come to the city and make a living writing while mastering the craft. There was a diverse literary ecosystem of newspapers, magazines, publishers, and theaters that not only fostered but also promoted local talent. Today the publishers have mostly moved to New York. The newspapers have either folded up or downsized by using wire service copy to fill their pages. The theaters perform plays from New York and London. Few national magazines still publish in San Francisco. There are numerous literary journals in Northern California most with limited circulation, but only Threepenny Review commands national readership. Most major literary magazines quickly fail like Francis Ford Coppola’s City, Evan Connell and William Ryan’s Contact, Al Young and Ishmael Reed’s Yardbird Reader, and George Hitchcock’s San Francisco Review–to name only four particularly ambitious and short-lived examples. In California, literary magazines almost inevitably become events–sometimes important ones–rather than ongoing enterprises.
Ironically, however, even success proves fatal to local culture. Rolling Stone, the quintessential San Francisco magazine, grew so large that it eventually moved to New York. Why did the booming journal leave its adoring hometown? Because New York–so insiders later admitted–was where the best freelance writers and advertising revenues were. The economics of contemporary publishing favor large journals located in the Northeast. After the failure of City, Coppola began his next literary magazine, Zoetrope: All Story, in Manhattan, although he continues to live in the Bay Area. The few large magazines remaining in San Francisco, like Wired and Salon, are nearly all related to computers and tied to the expertise and advertising base of Silicon Valley. There are no longer enough non-technical journals to create the critical mass necessary for a thriving world of freelance writers. To have a literary career, young Bay Area writers must enter the academy, survive on non-literary jobs, or, like Rolling Stone, move to New York.
The term critical mass may be a metaphor, but it is an illuminating one for understanding cultural life. In nuclear physics, critical mass refers to the minimum amount of fissionable material necessary to create a self-sustaining chain reaction. Something similar occurs in urban culture. A city or region needs a certain critical mass of enterprise and opportunity to create a self-sustaining local culture. Part of the reason is pure economics: artists need employment. Post-World War II Los Angeles had dozens of nightclubs and dance halls that provided jobs for jazz musicians, even rank beginners. There was also abundant work in film and television studios, as well as numerous local record labels. These various institutions provided the economic base for artistic vitality. The wealth of employment for jazz musicians in L.A. also created a fluid local culture in which soloists and sidemen could move from club to club and group to group without penalty. One quarrel did not end a career, or undistinguished colleagues permanently stifle a strong soloist. Musicians followed opportunities according to their temperament or instinct, and created a living tradition that focused and developed local talent. The result was the great West Coast jazz movement of the 1950s. Dozens of major players appeared seemingly ex nihilo from the streets of Los Angeles–Art Pepper, Chet Baker, Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Hampton Hawes, Zoot Sims, and Eric Dolphy, to name only a few. No single intelligence or program willed this international phenomenon into being. It grew naturally out of a dynamic milieu that gave public context to individual talent–and it created art at once local but worthy of export.
If literature is an affair of individual genius, it is also the product of special circumstances in specific places. Fourteenth-century Florence, eighteenth-century London, nineteenth-century Paris created extraordinary literature because these milieus provided ample opportunity for diverse talents to develop and succeed. No poet can fail to note how often great writers appear in groups often surrounded by secondary (but still genuine) talents, as in 1920’s Paris where Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Archibald MacLeish, E. E. Cummings, Malcolm Cowley, and other émigrés shaped modern American literature. Whether through competition or companionship, great talents spur each other on.
San Francisco once provided critical mass for a thriving literary culture. A writer fired from one paper could quickly find another post. A strong talent at one journal could be attracted to a better-paying position at another. There was room for literary feuds and rivalry–the necessary friction of cultural life. In true bohemian fashion, the various arts intermingled promiscuously. Poets Weldon Kees and James Broughton became filmmakers. Kees also wrote and produced the Poets’ Follies, a literary cabaret whose cast encompassed writers, jazz musicians, actors, and printers, including Ferlinghetti, Adrian Wilson, and Phyllis Diller. William Everson developed into one of America’s greatest fine-press printers–not a surprising turn of events in a city that had recently become the nation’s leading center for the book arts. Bay Area printers published local writers in superbly designed letterpress editions. Adrian Wilson issued Kees’s last book, Poems: 1947-1954. Jane Grabhorn’s famed Colt Press printed Janet Lewis’s The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941). Meanwhile Ferlinghetti opened the originally all-paperback City Lights Books and soon began publishing inexpensive pocked-sized editions of new poetry, including Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), which went on to sell more than eight hundred thousand copies. Rexroth helped found KPFA, the first listener-supported radio station where Kees and Pauline Kael hosted a talk show on film. The newsroom and bohemia together created a culture of local character and international stature.
“There is only one trouble about the renaissance in San Francisco. It is too far away from the literary market place.”
– Kenneth Rexroth, The Alternative Society (1970)
A Bay Area writer may still win a national reputation–witness the fame of Annie Lamott or Amy Tan–but that notoriety will be brokered, built, and administered elsewhere. San Francisco still produces literature, but it no longer exports much literary opinion. In American cultural life, opinion and reputation remain a mostly Northeastern monopoly. That is where one finds the vast majority of publishers, editors, agents, reviewers, arts administrators, foundation directors, prize committees, and literary institutes. The South understood this cultural imbalance early on, and it countered Yankee imperialism by developing a powerful alternative network of literary quarterlies like the Southern Review, Sewanee Review, Georgia Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. These journals provide substantial critical coverage of regional writing and discuss national trends from a Southern perspective. As a result, the South has both maintained and evolved its regional character.
Significantly, there is not a single major literary quarterly currently published in California. Indeed, there has never been one that lasted beyond a few issues. San Francisco Review probably set a record in the early Sixties by publishing twelve issues. Moreover many–perhaps most–California journals like ZYZZVA publish neither critical essays nor reviews. The best San Francisco now manages is the Sunday Chronicle Book Review, which publishes a few pages of extremely short and mostly positive notices–a USA Today approach to criticism. Under such conditions, even a good critic like Tom Clark hardly manages to say anything interesting. Only the two Berkeley-based tabloids, Threepenny Review and Poetry Flash, include a significant amount of literary criticism. (Pundits are never in short supply in Berkeley, which is probably why it produced–albeit twenty-five years ago–the last influential local literary trend, Language Poetry.) The other journals mostly leave opinion making to the East, and the results are tangible. There are single city blocks in Manhattan that generate more national literary opinion than all of Northern California.
The absence of quarterlies and other opinion-making journals will seem trivial only to those who do not understand how much the cultural milieu of a city nurtures or stifles local talent. Raw artistic talent is abundant. What is truly rare are the cultural circumstances, attitudes, and institutions to develop and perfect it. Few American cities have ever managed to foster a vibrant literary milieu of international significance–perhaps only Boston, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. American literature has most often been an affair of isolated genius or small coterie.
San Francisco’s current inability to create a critical milieu has a subtle but profound effect on local culture. First, it relegates the examination and evaluation of local art and literature to editors and critics three thousand miles away. But it also limits the options for serious young writers. The best critical minds either enter the university where they focus on the professional discourse of their academic discipline, or they publish in the East. Yvor Winters, the only major New Critic to live west of Ohio, published almost solely in Eastern journals like the Hudson Review, New Republic, and Hound and Horn. The closest he regularly got to California was Poetry in Chicago. More recently Winters’s former student, Robert Hass, publishes his poetry column in the Washington Post Book World. Only after Eastern validation did his column become reprinted locally. The same situation has existed for many California writers from Raymond Chandler to Joan Didion. They lived in the West but published in the East. They achieved local reputation only by gaining national recognition. The situation does not necessarily rob the local scene of talent, but it does make it harder for an idiosyncratic regional talent to be heard. And it considerably weakens the relationship between the writer and the local audience. They will no longer directly collaborate in creating a city or region’s literary image of itself. That definition will probably be filtered though a New Yorker.
“Out here you can gravitate to places like San Francisco or Los Angeles where life is easy in terms of climate. You find yourself falling into pockets of your own kind where there is no necessity for struggle.”
– William Everson, “The Archetype of the West” (1982)
No one has ever adequately explained why California has failed to develop influential institutions of literary opinion and reputation. If Gambier, Ohio and Baton Rouge, Louisiana can create important quarterlies, why can’t San Francisco or Los Angeles? Why, too, is almost every major literary award–the Pulitzer, National Book Award, Bollingen, National Arts Medal, Frost Medal, Tanning, Caldecott, PEN/Faulkner, Leonore Marshall, and so on–administered somewhere along the Northeast Corridor? Wealth is surely not the issue–unless perversely California is too comfortably affluent to care much about literature. The newness of West Coast urban centers initially seems a plausible explanation for the cultural imbalance–until one notices that San Francisco currently exercises less influence than it did in 1899 or 1959.
New Yorkers, of course, believe they know the answer to California’s cultural inferiority. The weather is too good; Californians simply don’t suffer enough. This is the Woody Allen theory of West Coast culture, and it reveals far more about Northeastern fantasy life than it does about the nature of the West. If a temperate climate destroyed intellectual and artistic development, how does one explain Athens, Rome, Florence, and the rest of Mediterranean culture? And yet perhaps California’s intellectual reticence does have something to do with the characteristic geography and history of the urban West.
Modern Western cities are built horizontally across huge stretches of land crossed by highways. The scale of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, Las Vegas, and Seattle is not designed for the urban pedestrian. These cities are experienced most naturally from an automobile. The “”neighborhoods” of Los Angeles are not square sections of the city, but the long horizontal axes of the major boulevards–Wilshire, Sunset, La Cienega– stretching across town. Even San Francisco, which was once a European-scale centralized city, has now developed into a vast and complex megalopolis linked by bridges and freeways across six counties. The automobile protectively seals the driver from both the city and other people. The communal exhilaration of the crowds and the chance encounters of the city pedestrian are alien to the automobile commuter who moves privately from home to workplace, and then back again. The Western commuter’s life may not be lonely, but it is mostly solitary.
In the major Eastern literary centers–New York, Boston, and Washington–cultural life tends to be public and social. The sheer density of literary activities ensures that writers constantly meet one another–by design or chance. Accidental friendships result in new artistic ventures–magazines, theater companies, reading series, conferences, or collaborations. Rivals or enemies frequently cross paths–in editorial offices, prize committees, public panels, and at social functions. Private arguments become played out in public print. Take, for example, the countless volleys fired by New York intellectuals during the Culture Wars of the 1980s in journals like Commentary, New Criterion, Nation, New Leader, Hudson Review, and New York Review of Books. Merely the literary articles and essays could fill a sizeable bookshelf, and they created a national debate on the topic. Northeastern literary culture thrives on argument and invective. New York intellectuals like Alfred Kazin, Hilton Kramer, Susan Sontag, Norman Podhoretz, and Irving Howe did not become famous for keeping opinions to themselves. They strove to make them public policy. And they often succeeded.
Western literary life, by contrast, tends to be private and individualistic. Writers live far apart, and there are few occasions that bring them together in significant numbers. A California writer is more likely to see local colleagues in a Manhattan publisher’s office than near home. Accidental meetings rarely occur, and hostile literati can easily avoid one another forever. In the process Western writers gain privacy but lose the considerable intellectual energy of social interaction, which is especially crucial both to criticism where ideas are rehearsed and even discovered in unplanned conversations and arguments and to institution-building, which necessarily depends on collaboration and community. Solitary and reflective, the Western writer is also often skeptical about the merits of the intrinsically social acts of criticism and institutional organization.
The Western writer’s most influential relationship is usually not with the cultural milieu but the natural environment. Jeffers’s lines from “Boats in a Fog” express an idea that is repeated in one way or another through a dozen major California writers:
… all the arts lose virtue
Against the essential reality
Of creatures going about their business among the equally
Earnest elements of nature. When urban culture and the natural world compete in the imagination of a Western writer, nature always wins.
If New York literary life can be exemplified by figures like Lionel Trilling or Irving Howe–unadulterated urbanites–then California can be represented by writers like Wallace Stegner or Jeffers, true intellectuals but also naturalists and outdoorsmen. One can no more imagine Trilling in a pup tent than Jeffers at a Manhattan PEN conference. Rexroth hiked and camped for recreation. Frank O’Hara visited painters’ studios for gossip and conversation. Both writers lived the values of the local culture.
The differences between New York and San Francisco were less marked fifty years ago. San Francisco still had an active and independent-minded bohemia full of influential writers, musicians, and artists. Rexroth, Kees, Ginsberg, Connell, Duncan, and others argued aesthetics and ideology in North Beach cafes while in local nightclubs, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Vince Guaraldi, or Cal Tjader were changing the course of modern jazz–actively recorded by Fantasy Records in Berkeley. Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, David Park, and Nathan Oliviera adventurously adapted the techniques of Abstract Expressionism to figurative painting. But as Bay Area intellectual life spread out and suburbanized, bohemia slowly broke up. Artists and writers took university jobs or moved to Sonoma or Santa Cruz, and the city gradually lost its cultural independence and vitality. Today San Francisco is no longer an active literary center, merely a geographical one for the dozens of important writers living in and around it. What Oakland-born Gertrude Stein said rather unfairly in 1937 about her hometown now seems prophetic of the sprawling and unfocused Bay Area: “There is no there there.”
“What is West Coast jazz?
It’s whatever the East Coast critics say it is.”
—Unidentified West Coast jazz musician, (quoted in Ted Gioia’s West Coast Jazz )
The effects of California’s remoteness from the centers of literary power are obvious. It is more difficult to create and sustain a major literary reputation from the West Coast. Not a single Californian–nor for that matter any Westerner–was appointed as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in its entire fifty-year history. Even after the position was elevated by Congress into the Poet Laureate, only one Westerner, Robert Hass, has served in the sixty-two years of the office. It took only fifty-one years for a California poet to receive the Pulitzer Prize–George Oppen in 1969–but the winner at least had the good manners to have been born in New York.
Neither Jeffers nor Winters, Rexroth nor Duncan, Miles nor Everson ever won a Pulitzer. Did these estimable West Coast writers lose to greater talents? An examination of the Pulitzer winners suggests that literary quality mattered less than proximity to the Manhattan-based committee. For example, in the two decades that Jeffers published his best collections–from The Women at Point Sur (1927) through Hungerfield (1945)–the prize went to New York writers, Leonora Speyer, Audrey Wurdermann, William Rose Benét, Robert P. T. Coffin, Marya Zaturenska, Mark Van Doren, and Leonard Bacon, a New York-born Rhode Islander. (The Maine-born Coffin taught in New York at the time of his award.) Is even the best of these poets remotely comparable to Jeffers? A region unable to articulate and advance its native arts will find them ignored in the cultural capitals. Such marginalization has another destructive long-term effect. Overwhelmed by the mainstream canon, regions gradually lose the memory of their own traditions and accomplishments.
Criticism and creativity also reinforce one another. The informed and demanding discussion fostered by quarterlies and other serious journals helps readers understand and evaluate new literary work. The sustained critical attention of Southern quarterlies frames the poetry and fiction published in the same pages. It informs, enlarges, and sustains an audience. Cursory newspaper coverage is no substitute for serious criticism, which provides not only a context for new work but also possible criteria to judge it. When a region loses–or never establishes–a local critical milieu, the culture is diminished both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, it lacks local pressure for artistic excellence and authenticity. Outwardly, it offers the broader world no clear articulation of local goals and values.
Lacking a vital critical milieu, well-intentioned regional literati usually practice boosterism–the uncritical praise of all things local. Boosterism is not merely a poor substitute for arts criticism; it is its opposite, a slow poison to native excellence. Cities create artistic excellence by setting up standards to recognize and acclaim it. San Francisco once reveled in its own high standards. “It is my intention,” wrote Ambrose Bierce, “to purify journalism in this town by instructing such writers as it is worthwhile to instruct, and assassinating those that it is not.” Those sentiments might still be expressed in New York or London, but they are inconceivable in California. Out here it isn’t chic to take literature so seriously.
Confidence is a necessary component of genius. Bierce believed that one person could make a difference to local culture. And West Coast literary history repeatedly demonstrates how influential a single writer or editor can be. Ferlinghetti virtually created the Beat movement with tiny City Lights’ innovative Pocket Poets Series. John Martin of Black Sparrow transformed the down-and-out L.A. writer Charles Bukowski into an international celebrity. He also revived the reputations of John Fante and William Everson by publishing them in handsome standard editions. Although City Lights and Black Sparrow now seem to have aged as artistic enterprises along with their founders, their past achievements exemplify how much the survival of West Coast literature depends upon individual conviction and informed local sponsorship. Such enlightened investment is unlikely to come solely from commercial presses headquartered on the other side of the continent
Please don’t misunderstand this argument. The Bay Area is still a sophisticated and literate region. San Francisco remains one of the few American cities that sustains a local literary identity. Berkeley maintains a modest bohemia in the shadow of its great university. San Francisco also has a rare and admirable sense of its own tradition and achievements. It has even renamed streets, though admittedly very small ones, after local writers like Hammett, Kerouac, Bierce, and Ferlinghetti. No American city publicly honors literature more than San Francisco. There are even commercial tours of literary sites.
The problem with San Francisco’s admirable civic identity is that it is necessarily retrospective. Europeans, who for obvious reasons, understand this cultural dilemma better than Americans, use the term Museum City to describe a place that preserves its past artistic achievements but lacks present vitality. Literary San Francisco remains fixated in its last moment of national literary glory–the Beat movement of the 1950s. It is considered impolite, however, to remark that those celebrated events occurred half a century ago. The presence of Kenneth Rexroth Place and Jack Kerouac Street hardly compensate for the absence of current literary vitality. It is surely not coincidental that San Francisco’s major industry is now tourism. One is reminded of contemporary New Orleans–a city where jazz is everywhere honored but in which almost no new jazz is created.
—Louis Simpson, “Lines Written Near San Francisco” (1963)
That is the public reality of San Francisco literary life–and by extension that of most major American cities outside the Northeast Corridor. A reader might argue the interpretation of a particular detail, but the general situation is inarguably clear. The pertinent question is whether the collapse of local literary culture and the disappearance of urban bohemia matters much to the individual West Coast writer? The answer, I think, is both not at all and very much.
Both literary history and common sense suggest that strong and dedicated major talents will prevail, if not always thrive, under almost any conditions. If great writing can be managed in the Siberian gulag or a tuberculosis ward, then it can surely be performed in Pacific Heights or Mill Valley. Yet literary history also demonstrates that a vital urban culture has a special power to focus literary talent. Urban literary culture is not a precondition of good fiction or poetry–though it certainly is for drama–but it does seem to help. And its absence is keenly felt in the atomized and individualistic communities of the American West.
The mythology of the Western writer usually dwells on the romantic individual alone with nature–Jeffers brooding by the Pacific, lusty Henry Miller in Big Sur, or London on horseback beside the smoking ruins of Wolf House. The myth of heroic individualism, however, may not be a particularly useful way to imagine the real possibilities of West Coast literature. Perhaps the metaphor of a winemaker serves the purposes better. A vintner spends a lifetime understanding exactly what grows best in a particular climate and location and then masters the art of preserving that essence for future enjoyment in other places. The best California wines are local but also coveted and appreciated internationally.
The purpose of this essay has not been to answer questions but to raise them–questions, that is, that are unlikely to be asked in New York or Boston. Comparing contemporary San Francisco literary life with the cultural scene fifty or a hundred years ago suggests certain uncomfortable issues not only about California literary life but about all American regional culture. The central question is whether regional literature can maintain a meaningful identity–something beyond local color and superficial accent–in the face of the global standardization of electronic media and the centralization of national literary opinion in New York. While this question has been framed here in terms of Northern California, it pertains equally to New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago, or St. Paul. Another issue is how literary enterprises and institutions of national importance can be created and maintained outside the Northeast. Is urban culture still a viable reality for American cities outside the Northeast corridor? Or is some new social means of concentrating human talent needed? Is the delocalized and disembodied cyberspace of the Internet the American writer’s only alternative to New York? These questions are especially pressing in the West where huge distances separate urban areas and the major cities often lack identifiable centers. Does the concept of Western literature still have meaning as a collective entity, or does it exist only as a remote abstraction in the work of isolated individual writers?
These are not abstract issues to California writers. Any serious literary artist in California, at least one writing in English, feels the competing claims of language and experience. However deeply immersed in the classics of English, the writer cannot help noting how this rich and various literary heritage stands at one remove from the physical reality of the West. Our seasons, climate, landscape, wildlife, and history are alien to the worldviews of both England and New England. The world looks and feels different in California from the way it does in either York or New York–not only the natural landscape but also the urban one. California also sounds different. Spanish, not French, colors our regional accent. The deepest European roots are Latin and Catholic, not Anglo-Saxon and Puritan. Asia and Latin America are omnipresent influences. There is no use listening for a nightingale among the scrub oaks and chaparral. Our challenge is not only to find the right words to describe our new and complex experience but also to discover the right images, myths, concepts, and characters. For us, this is an essential task, and one impossible to have done elsewhere. We must describe a reality that has never been fully captured in English. The earlier traditions of English only partially clarify what it is we might say. California literature is our conversation between the past and present out of which we articulate ourselves.
Local culture matters because human existence is local. Events happen in specific places to particular people. The climate and culture of a city, the landscape and language of a region, shape its inhabitants. The universal is most cogently found in the particular. To be local is not necessarily to be provincial. Regional literature is often initially dismissed in literary capitals, but a huge proportion of the imaginative writing that survives from the past century proudly bears its regional accent. James Joyce, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, Constantine Cavafy, Italo Svevo, William Faulkner, Chinua Achebe, Robert Frost, and Willa Cather are all regional writers of international stature. Vital local culture enables writers to understand and articulate more of their own experience. Strong regional journals and institutions allow readers to discuss and evaluate local work from their own perspectives. In an age of global standardization, regional voices also remind both writer and reader that no life is lived generically. If the purpose of literature is truly, as the ancients insisted, to instruct and delight, then what better to understand and enjoy than the here and the now?
[The editor of Hungry Mind Review also asked Gioia to list ten exemplary California literary classics. His list was not intended to canonize the region’s ten greatest works, but only to venture a representative sampling of the Bay area’s diverse literary achievement.]
TEN SAN FRANCISCO LITERARY CLASSICS
1. The Sea-Wolf (1904) by Jack London. Although American literati don’t read this adventure, it remains a masterpiece of naturalist fiction.
2. The Devil’s Dictionary (1906) by Ambrose Bierce. Forget the Summer of Love. Bierce is the real voice of San Francisco–mordant, worldly, skeptical, and witty.
3. Cawdor (1928) by Robinson Jeffers. Wildly violent, sexual, and visionary, but probably the best book-length American narrative poem of the century.
4. The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941) by Janet Lewis. A forgotten masterpiece, often plagiarized but never equaled.
6. Poems: 1947-1954 (1954) by Weldon Kees. Printed in an edition of only a few hundred copies, it is the dark classic of San Francisco poetry.
7. Birth of a Poet: The Santa Cruz Meditations (1982) by William Everson. The best book ever written on the West Coast literary imagination.
8. The Man with the Night Sweats (1992) by Thom Gunn. An unforgettable and harrowing vision of mortality by San Francisco’s best living poet.
9. Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (1992) by Richard Rodriguez. The book that explained my Mexican mother and grandfather to me.
10. Flamingo Watching (1994) by Kay Ryan. A book of poems so ingeniously inventive that it reminds me of why I love poetry.
First printed in Denver Quarterly (Fall 1998)