Monday, October 14, 2013

A Writer Moves West, Part 3: Intimate History

In 1987 I moved back to San Francisco for good. I did some mining in the public library and found a book that helped me catch up with what I had missed in Western literary history: Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915 by Kevin Starr. Through Starr I learned that San Francisco had already been a literary center during its Mexican days, when several Spanish-language literary magazines flourished. With its natural, warm-weather port, San Francisco has always stayed open to the world, attracting a curious, creative, and diverse population.

I also came to understand from reading Starr’s book how very remote the West of the U.S.A. was from the world’s urban cultural centers before the building of the transcontinental railroads and the Panama Canal. The Golden Spike connected the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869. Before that, getting from the East Coast of the United States to San Francisco, for instance, was an arduous and risky journey. Whether you traveled overland or by sea, the trip lasted several months. By sailing ship, the journey involved going all the way around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. At the time the California Gold Rush began in 1848, San Francisco, the most populous city on the West Coast, had all of 1,000 souls. 

San Francisco in 1851
The relatively sparse population of the West in the early years of European settlement was brought home to me very personally during my first few years in San Francisco when I used to walk my daughter to the school bus for first grade. There was a woman who always waited with her son at the same bus stop at that time in the morning, and naturally we got to chatting. It turned out she was from Nebraska. Growing up in Manhattan, I knew almost no one from Nebraska, and what little I knew about that state I had learned mostly from reading the wonderful novels of Willa Cather.

“Well, I don’t know much about Nebraska,” I confessed to the parent at the bus stop. “But I do know that Willa Cather was from a town called Red Cloud.”

“I’m from Red Cloud,” she answered.

“I know Cather wrote about some of the town’s most famous citizens, especially in the novel A Lost Lady,” I enthused. “Wasn’t one of the main characters based on a former Nebraska governor who lived in that town?”

“That was Silas Garber,” she said. “He was my great-great-uncle.”

Silas Garber
Now, you could write this off as a weird coincidence, but I’m telling you, this would not happen at a bus stop in Manhattan. There are just too many people in New York City for the one person you meet by chance to be closely connected to the one character you mention in a novel.

What that encounter taught me about the West is that it has grown remarkably quickly into a population center, and that it retains a relatively recent memory of the time when it was only stippled with small towns. Unlike Manhattan, downtown San Francisco is still only an hour away from untouched forest. Human beings and human settlements are far from the only show around, just about anywhere you go in the West. And the connections between past and present are sometimes remarkably fresh and surprising intimate. 

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
A Writer Moves West, Part 1: The Summer of Love, Part 2: San Francisco in the Disco Era

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Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
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Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer