The Literature of California

By Wyatt, David | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

The Literature of California


Wyatt, David, The Virginia Quarterly Review


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 Astor 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 metanarrative ... 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. …

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