San Francisco (American History Through Literature)
The discovery of gold in the mid-nineteenth century transformed the small fogbound coastal trading post of Yerba Buena into the sophisticated, cosmopolitan, crowded, and often violent city of San Francisco. The men and women who passed through or settled in the city included poets and reporters, novelists and historiansuperb storytellers who soon created a vibrant literary culture. To set them in context it is useful to look at three eras of San Francisco history and literature: the precontact period, the colonial age, and the exuberant decades during and after the gold rush.
By the time of contact with Europeans at the beginning of the seventeenth century, California had the largest (from 250,000 to a million) and most varied indigenous population in North America. The Costanoans, Spanish for "coast dwellers," who inhabited the bay area by 500 C.E. (Pritzker, p. 123) lived in small tribelets, trading and occasionally fighting with other communities. They communicated their values, beliefs, and warm, sometimes ribald, sense of humor in a rich oral literature. It was not the object of the Spanish missionaries who arrived in 1769 to decimate the California Indians, but that was the result. In Literary San Francisco (1980), Nancy J. Peters states that,
The missions were to convert Indians, integrating them as peon labor. . . . The missions extinguished a centuries-old economic and social life. Stripped of their language and identity, deprived of freedom, rounded up by soldiers and kept under guard, the tribes . . . died from European diseases and despair. (Ferlinghetti, p. 8)
In addition, "between 1770 and 1832, the Costanoan population fell by more than 80 percent" (Pritzker, p. 123).
The area that became the state of California was known to its Spanish conquerors as Alta California. San Francisco Bay remained hidden behind a curtain of fog until José Francisco Ortega discovered it in 1769 and returned in 1776 with Father Junipero Serra and a group of settlers. At the entrance to the bay they built a presidio (army post), which remained a working post through the Spanish, Mexican, and American eras, and a few miles inland they founded the Mission of San Francisco de Asís, or Mission Dolores. Serra's fellow Franciscan, Father Francisco Palóu (c. 1722. 1789), consecrated the mission and served there for nine years. Palóu became San Francisco's first writer when he wrote Serra's biography, published in Mexico in 1787, and the chronicles of his own California years, Notícias de la Nueva California, first published as part of the multivolume Documentos para la Historia de Mexico in 1857.
In the early 1800s, Alta California was a ranching society with an economy based on agriculture and raising cattle for beef and hides. Towns were small, professionals few (one writer applauded the absence of lawyers), and industry so lacking that California at great expense imported its manufactured goods (for example, shoes made in New England from California hides). The Californios' thriving families and communities, the athleticism and zest of life lived on horseback were admired by some American visitors whose letters contributed to the enduring but too often unjustified hope that California could cure physical and spiritual ills. But most felt contempt for the Californios. Both attitudes can bee seen in the experience of Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1815882), a Harvard student weakened by measles who decided that shipping out as a sailor aboard a Boston ship trading hides and manufactured goods off the California coast (1835836) was what he most needed to recover. He was right. Dana survived an experience so brutal that he devoted much of his life to improving the condition of sailors. The book he wrote when he returned to Boston, Two Years before the Mast, became a best-seller when it was published in 1840, and is considered the first California literary classic. Dana admired San Francisco Bay, which he saw briefly, but was appalled at the lack of industry and what he thought was the Californios' laziness and bad morals. Were California to be settled by Protestant and puritanical Americans, he felt, what might they make of it!
IMMIGRATION AND MANIFEST DESTINY
In fact the Americans were slowly on their way. In 1821 Mexico became independent from Spain and began encouraging immigration, offering land to anyone willing to convert to Catholicism, marry a Californio, and take Mexican citizenship. From the East Coast came explorers in the spirit of what would after 1845 be called Manifest Destiny. In 1835 Captain William Richardson and his family settled on San Francisco Bay in a spot called Yerba Buena, meaning "good herb." When Dana saw Yerba Buena from the deck of his ship there was a lone hut for trade with the ships and Indians. But in 1845 after the United States annexed Texas, and with the South and the Pacific West opening for settlement, increasing numbers of emigrants trekked west, the most infamous being the unfortunate Donner Party, which, trapped and starving in the snows of the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846847, resorted to cannibalism to survive.
In 1846 war broke out between the United States and Mexico, and Yerba Buena was seized by the Americans; the first American alcalde, a sort of combined mayor and justice of the peace, was elected. Alfred Robinson (1807895), a trader who had married into a Californio family, published Life in California during a Residence of Several Years in That
The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo allowed the United States to annex the rest of the Southwest. Clearly the gold discovered that year did not bring California into the American fold, but the discovery did forever change San Francisco. Occurring in a decade of famine in Ireland and China, revolution in much of Europe, and industrial unrest in Britain, it gave hope to hundreds of thousands.
SAN FRANCISCO CULTURE AND NOTORIETY
When San Francisco's second alcalde, Edwin Bryant (1805869), recorded the opening of the gold rush in What I Saw in California (1848), San Francisco had become a mix of civilization and vigilantism. By late 1849 the population had skyrocketed to more than thirty thousand and was still growing. All kinds of people poured into California: the sophisticated, the greedy, the thoughtful, the violent.
In 1849 the first theatrical performance in San Francisco was held, and the first English-language book was published. That January Brannan's defunct California Star combined with another paper to became San Francisco's first daily, the Alta California. In 1850 California was admitted as a free state into the Union, and Bayard Taylor (1825878), a prolific travel writer and novelist, published his readable and still popular impressions of gold rush San Francisco in Eldorado; or, Adventures in the Path of Empire. The year 1851 saw the first performance in San Francisco of grand opera, Vincenzo Bellini's La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker). In 1852 a Philharmonic Society performed in a twelve-hundred-seat hall, and the following year the California Academy of Sciences was founded. In 1856 the historian Hubert Howe Bancroft (1832918) opened a bookstore and publishing house. Bancroft eventually employed a staff of researchers and ghostwriters who produced, among other works, a seven-volume History of California (1886890). Bancroft's enormous personal collection of western Americana eventually became the Bancroft Library at the University of California in Berkeley.
The same year that La Sonnambula played in San Francisco, four people were hanged, one whipped, and twenty-eight sentenced to be deported by a Committee of Vigilance, comprised of prominent citizens, including Sam Brannan, who were fed up with an ineffectual municipal government. The year 1853 marked the appearance of the notorious Lola Montez, famed for her dancing, love affairs, and outsize personality. Lola's protégé, "Lotta" Crabtree (1847924), would later become the highest paid actress in the country, and in 1875 she generously gave San Francisco an ornate fountaintill theren Market Street.
The first Chinese men arrived in San Francisco in 1848. In 1855 the first African American journal, the Mirror of the Times, appeared, to be followed by the more militant Elevator in 1865. San Francisco in 1854 had a "polyglot population . . . with thirty-seven resident foreign consuls to serve them. There were twelve daily papers in several languages, more magazines than in London, and theaters in English, French, Spanish, German, and Chinese" (Ferlinghetti, p. ix).
LITERATURE OF THE GOLD RUSH
Until the 1860s, San Francisco literature consisted primarily of travel books and memoirs, journals and newspapers. In 1854 two important works about the California experience were published. John Rollin Ridge (1827867), the son of a Cherokee chief who was stabbed to death by fellow tribesmen for urging acquiescence to U.S. removal policies, wrote The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit. Ridge, writing under his Indian name, Yellow Bird, transformed the possibly fictional folk character Joaquín Murieta, a gold-country bandit, into a Robin Hood, a hero dispensing justice to those who had violated his lover and humiliated his family, a Romantic avenger on behalf of the victims of the American onslaught.
And beginning in January 1854 the memoir of Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe (1819906), who used the pen name Dame Shirley, appeared as the "Shirley Letters" in the Pioneer, a monthly literary journal. In twenty-three letters, ostensibly the private correspondence of Shirley to her sister back east, Clappe describes the diggingshe violence, the miners' homesickness, the beauty of the mountainsrom the perspective of a supposedly timid and fastidious wife. Not published in book form until 1922, The Shirley Letters is now considered the best of gold rush writing.
The world craved writing about about goldfield adventurers. California, In-doors and Out (1856) is the feminist and social reformer Eliza W. Farnham's memoir of chaperoning a group of single educated women to the diggings. The Scottish artist John David Borthwick (1825870) wrote and illustrated Three Years in California (1857), which not only recounts his experiences mining gold and quartz but also provides detailed descriptions of mining techniques and of life in the camps. Three San Francisco journalists used newspaper reports to compile Annals of San Francisco, a history from the age of the explorers until the book's publication in 1855.
SAN FRANCISCO'S CULTURAL HEYDAY
In 1858 the Overland Stage began its run between San Francisco and the East, just in time for the 1859 silver rush, the Comstock Lode, in Nevada. That year Richard Henry Dana Jr. returned by sea to visit the places he saw as a young man; the forlorn shed on the beach had exploded into a city of a hundred thousand. Late in 1862 direct telegraph service was established between San Francisco and New York.
In the 1860s California had the largest number of college graduates in the nationome from the new University of San Francisco, founded in 1855nd a Normal School opened to train teachers. The city was now sufficiently mature to support a thriving literary community. The writers working and socializing together included Bret Harte (1836902) and Mark Twain (1835910), who credited Harte with teaching him how to write well; the witty and sarcastic social critic Ambrose Bierce (1842914?), who wrote for various San Francisco newspapers and literary magazines "with outrageous black humor . . . capable of ferreting out hypocrisy, fraudulence, and the tyranny that sleeps in the heart of ideologies" (Ferlinghetti, p. 64); Ina Coolbrith (1841928), who in 1915 became the first poet laureate of California; Charles Warren Stoddard (1843909), a poet and writer of travel books about Hawaii and Tahiti that lured Robert Louis Stevenson into visiting those islands; and Cincinnatus Hiner Miller (1837913), a poet of modest talent but great showmanship, who changed his name to Joaquin Miller, after the legendary Murieta, and conquered Europe by swaggering around in a western costume and behaving as Europeans imagined gold miners would. These writers' style was called "local color"tories so rooted in a particular place that they could not occur elsewhere, rich in details, using the idiosyncrasies of regional speech.
By 1865 Bret Harte, who began as a typesetter and freelance writer for literary journals, had a sufficient reputation to be offered a job editing Outcroppings, the first anthology of California poetry. Whatever success or failure emigrants had achieved at the mines, many believed themselves talented poets, and Harte had to choose between mediocre and downright bad submissions. Outcroppings created an astonishing furor. Within a few hours of its publication by Anton Roman, hundreds of poets besieged Roman's bookstore to see if they were included in the book. Scathing reviews were widespread, making Harte nothing but enemies. Harte's next project was more successful: in 1868 Roman persuaded him to edit the new Overland Monthly, which Roman ambitiously hoped would rival the eastern literary magazine, the Atlantic Monthly. Harte asked Coolbrith and Stoddard to join him on the staff; they so enjoyed working together that they called themselves the Golden Gate Trinity.
There was still a large market for gold rush stories, but by the 1860s it was possible to sentimentalize what had been a rugged experience. Twain wrote "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1867), and Harte began what would be a long career spinning stories about a gold rush increasingly softened from the gritty reality. Since then, the world's image of the gold rush and the so-called Argonauts who braved hardships to seek California gold is Bret Harte's: the infant who redeems a community of roughnecks ("The Luck of Roaring Camp"), the plucky prostitute who retires to care for a paralyzed customer ("Miggles"), the loyalty (or is it?) of claim partners who can overlook even wife-stealing ("Tennessee's Partner"), and enough secretly noble gamblers and prostitutes ("The Outcasts of Poker Flat") to keep Harte's career going strong into the twentieth century.
A COMPLICATED LANDSCAPE
In 1863 the newly formed Central Pacific Railroad began work on the western half of the transcontinental railroad. In the Overland Monthly in October 1868, the economist Henry George's (1839897) essay "What the Railroad Will Bring Us" warned that the new railroad was as likely to bring overpopulation and poverty as prosperity. The railroad certainly brought publications from the East which overshadowed the local productionnd took away Twain in 1868 and Harte. Because of the fame Harte earned writing for the Overland, the Atlantic offered him an amazing ten thousand dollars a year to write a poem or story for each issue, and Harte moved east in 1870. After his writing no longer captivated easterners, he moved to Europe, living mostly in England, where his gold rush tales remained popular.
In 1868 a young man arrived in San Francisco, walked right through town, and lit out for the wilderness. John Muir (1838914) spent the summer of 1869 herding sheep in the Sierra Nevada, where he found an Eden he would spend the rest of his life defending. His first essays were published in the Overland Monthly. That year the city bought sand dunes in the western section of the city, which William Hammond Hall and John McLaren began to transform into Golden Gate Park. In 1873 Andrew Hallidie created the cable car. Sacramento may have been the seat of the state government, but the 149,473 San Franciscans supported their own popular emperor, the eccentric Joshua A. Norton (c. 1818880), a failed businessman who proclaimed himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. They even (or eventually) obeyed some of his commands, such as the one in 1872 to build a suspension bridge across the bay.
In 1870 the future philosopher Josiah Royce (1855916) was a teenager; he would eventually graduate from the new university across the bay and write the definitive history California from the Conquest in 1846 to the Second Vigilance Committee in San Francisco: A Study of American Character (1886). And in 1870 the novelist Frank Norris was born; he and such writers as George Sterling and Jack London would create a second wave of great writing set in San Francisco, no longer merely the gateway to the gold-fields, but the center of a financial, agricultural, and creative empire facing east and west.
See also California Gold Rush; "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"; Chinese; Exploration and Discovery; The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta; Manifest Destiny; Mexican-American War; Two Years before the Mast
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