The San Francisco Literary Scene: “A place of escape, refuge, and salvation from the rest of America”
“It’s the dream city at the edge of the continent, an exotic jumble of cultures, a fogbound oasis offering freedom and escape for people hoping to shed the past and begin anew.” San Francisco Chronicle THE LITERARY SCENE / San Francisco, Writers’ Heaven April 14, 1996.
· Writers come to San Francisco in part because of the romance of the City by the Bay, or as the famed San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen dubbed it, “Baghdad by the Bay.”
· Writers come for the mystique of the fog, the history of the Gold Rush and author Armistead Maupin’s famous nine-volume San Francisco novel sequence, Tales of the City.
Or, as Mr. Caen tells it: “Greetings and welcome to San Francisco, city of the world, worlds within a city, forty-nine square miles of ups and downs, ins and outs, and going around in circles, most of them dizzy. A small “d” democratic city run by big-buck conservatives, a place where the winds of freedom will blow your mind and your hat off, where eccentricity is the norm and sentimentality the ultimate cynicism.” Herb Caen, San Francisco Chronicle
The literary scene dates back to the 1800s and most notably writer Frank Gelett Burgess (January 30, 1866 — September 18, 1951). Burgess was an art critic, artist, poet, author and humorist. He had major standing in the in the San Francisco Bay Area literary Renaissance of the 1890s, and in particular because of his little magazine, The Lark. Some may actually remember him from some silly verse, such as “The Purple Cow”
I never saw a Purple Cow,
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one.
He received a lot of attention from the poem and came to resent it. However, eventually, it became so popular, a commentator said it was the most quoted poem in twentieth-century America, after ‘The Night Before Christmas’.” It was also copied and rewritten and Burgess was not always given credit. Years later a publicist, Jim Moran, decided to play a prank on Burgess and showed up at his home with a cow painted purple.
By this time Burgess came to resent his own notoriety. Several years after he wrote the poem, he wrote a sequel: He titled it: “Confession: and a Portrait Too, Upon a Background that I Rue”, which he published in the The Lark in April 1897.
Ah, yes, I wrote the “Purple Cow” —
I’m Sorry, now, I wrote it;
But I can tell you Anyhow
I’ll Kill you if you Quote it’.
Burgess is known for introducing French modern art to the United States through an article he wrote titled The Wild Men of Paris. In addition to all his other talents, he authored the well-known Goops books, and he coined the term “blurb.”
A very short list of writers who have chosen to work in San Francisco includes:
Scott Adams, Isabel Allende, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Dave Eggers, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Karen Joy Fowler, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, Dashiell Hammett, Daniel Handler, Adam Hochschild, Khaled Hosseini, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jack London, Norman Mailer, Armistead Maupin, Joaquin Miller, John Muir, Janis Cooke Newman, Charles M. Schulz, Rebecca Solnit, Jane Smiley, Gary Snyder, Rebecca Solnit, Amy Tan, Gail Tsukiyama, Mark Twain, Alice Walker, Naomi Wolf, and Tobias Wolff, to name just a few.
Litquake-A San Francisco Treat
Reflecting the literary scene in San Francisco is a unique festival tied to the writing community and taking off on the earthquake-prone environment is “Litquake,” an annual literary festival.
It began in 1999 as a one-day author event, called Litstock and ran for two years until the Dot-Bomb, when it ran out of supporters who were tied to the technology industry.
It rebounded again in 2002, recasting itself with a new name and made news in USA Today featuring San Francisco “has the highest per capita consumption of both alcohol and books.”
The festival offers an array of readings, themed events and literary discussions, at various Bay Area venues. It features mostly local authors and is held in the fall, around October. There are about 300 authors and over 133,000 attendees.
Beat Literary Movement
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.” — Jack Kerouac
Among the other San Francisco Bay Area significant contributions to literature, San Francisco is the birthplace of the beat generation literary movement. It found its home at the famed City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Avenue in the North Beach community in San Francisco.
Founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953, City Lights is a landmark general bookstore, known for its extensive selection of a wide range of books and its strong commitment to a free and open intellectual audience.
For over half-a-century City Lights has been the “go-to” meeting place those who want to rub elbows with intellectuals who relish the history of the bookstore as well as other writers and artists.
Jack Kerouac was an American writer best known for the novel On the Road, which became an American classic, pioneering the Beat Generation in the 1950s.
On the Road scroll-
The book was originally published as a “scroll” not a traditional book format. In 1951 Kerouac wrote, typed it out and tapped the pages together to create a single-spaced draft on eight sheets of paper and taped them together which created a 120-foot scroll. Then, in 2007, Viking published the complete book in hardcover. It was the original version, unlike the edited piece that was published in 1957.
Allen Ginsberg and The Beat Generation
In 1954 Allen Ginsberg met Peter Orlovsky in San Francisco with whom he fell in love and with whom he spent his entire life. He later met members of the San Francisco Renaissance and other poets who became part of the San Francisco Beat Generation in a broader sense. William Carlos Williams, Ginsberg’s mentor, wrote to Kenneth Rexroth, a prominent figure of the San Francisco Renaissance.
Ginsberg’s main work, Howl, is well-known for his incipit: “I saw the best minds of my generation devastated by madness, hysterical nude hungry…”. “Howl” was considered scandalous at the time of its publication, because of the crude language, which is often explicit. Shortly after its publication in 1956, by the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, it was banned for obscenity. The call became one cause to be the defenders of the First Amendment, and the ban was subsequently removed after Judge Clayton W. Horn declared that the poem possessed an aspect of social importance.
In 1959, with the poets John Kelly, Bob Kaufman, AD Winans and William Margolis, Ginsberg founded the poetry magazine “Beatitude”. It all started in the summer of 1955, Wally Hedrick, a painter and co-founder of “Sixth Gallery”, asked him to arrange a reading of poems at the Gallery itself. At first, Ginsberg refused, but after modifying his Howl draft, he changed his mind and accepted the proposal because, as Fernanda Pivano writes “… He understood the importance of the sound of the written language, and also the importance of the physical involvement of the poet with long lines: the length of the verse did not only indicate the physical act of breathing but also the union of physical state with the emotional one during the composition. “
The event was advertised by Ginsberg under the title “Six Poets at the Sixth Gallery” and had printed invitation cards. During that night there was the first public reading of “Howl”, a poem that has led to the great world of Ginsberg and many poets to him. A “Howl” recording tape, which Ginsberg gave to Reed College, was recently rediscovered and appeared on their multimedia site on February 15, 2008.
The place to be a writer
Oscar Wilde said: “It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It’s a city for those who feel “other,” who feel lost, and then find themselves in the Bay Area.”
San Francisco is a city that was spawned by the harsh boom-and-bust from the Gold Rush to the free-spirited home for those who don’t feel they belong anywhere else. San Francisco doesn’t require stability, sitting on top of a fault line that can rupture at any time. Artists flock to their free-spirited non-conformist lifestyle and find a home.