James D. Houston, Californian

By Robinson, Forrest G. | California History, September 2010 | Go to article overview

James D. Houston, Californian


Robinson, Forrest G., California History


James D. Houston, known to his friends as Jim, placed a high value on order, stability, continuity, permanence. He spent virtually all of his adult life married to the same woman, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston; they lived together and raised three children in the same old house in Santa Cruz, a coastal town tucked into the northwestern end of Monterey Bay, about an hour and a half south of San Francisco on scenic Highway 1. The town--itself pretty old, as such things go in this region--is famous for its redwoods, its surfing, and its branch of the University of California.

Jim loved northern California--the land, the history, the culture--and he especially loved the beautiful setting and slow-paced, unpretentious style of life in the seaside town that he and Jeanne made their home. It was here that Jim, over a period of nearly half a century, established himself as a writer, a musician, a teacher, a very visible and valued member of the local community, and a beloved friend to many. When he and Jeanne first moved to Santa Cruz in 1962, Jim recalled in a recent interview, "We both agreed we wanted to live here.... There was no lucrative job calling us. It wasn't about professional advantage. Something about the locale itself had an appeal that turned out to be very strengthening. You might say I was sticking close to my natural habitat." (1)

Jim was born in San Francisco in 1933. His parents were newcomers to California, recent arrivals from Texas who joined the Depression-era migration west in search of a better life. They weren't disappointed. The family moved only once more, just a short distance south to the Santa Clara Valley, where they put down roots. After finishing high school, Jim completed a B.A., studying drama at nearby San Jose State University. Here he met Jeanne Wakatsuki, the daughter of Japanese immigrants who were living in the area. They were married in Honolulu in 1957, then moved to England where Jim completed a three-year tour as an information officer with a tactical fighter-bomber wing of the U.S. Air Force. The young couple traveled extensively in Europe before returning to northern California and to a course of study leading to an M.A. in American Literature at Stanford University.

Once settled in Santa Cruz, just an hour's drive away, Jim returned to Stanford in 1966, this time as a fellow in the celebrated creative writing program directed by Wallace Stegner, who was a valued mentor and enduring influence. Jim supported his growing family and bought time for writing by teaching classical and folk guitar and playing bass in a local piano bar. His first book, Surfing: The Sport of Hawaiian Kings, which he coauthored with Ben R. Finney and which reflected his strong attraction to Hawaiian culture, appeared in 1966. A teaching stint at Stanford coincided with the publication of his first novel, Between Battles, in 1968. Teaching on a more permanent footing commenced at the new Santa Cruz campus of the University of California in 1969. A second novel, Gig, winner of the Joseph Henry Jackson Award for Fiction--presented by the San Francisco Foundation as an encouragement to new writers--and dedicated "with special thanks to Wallace Stegner," appeared in the same year. Jim's career as a full-time professional writer was now well launched.

It is probably impossible to overstate the importance of place--of northern California and the wide Pacific region it embraces--in Jim's life and work. "By place," he has written, "I don't mean simply names and points of interest and identified on a map." Rather, it is "the relationship between a locale and the lives lived there, the relationship between terrain and the feelings it can call out of us, the way a certain place can provide us with grounding, location, meaning, can bear upon the dreams we dream, can sometimes shape our view of history." (2)

Drawn directly from Jim's personal experience, this credo for literature and life took reinforcement from his teacher Wallace Stegner's emphasis on a western "geography of hope" and echoes the views of his contemporary and friend Kevin Starr, preeminent chronicler of the California Dream. …

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