California dreaming

Edited by Jack Hicks, James D. Houston, Maxine Hong Kingston and Al Young

The University of California Press

The mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.

—Joan Didion

Slouching Toward Bethlehem

As any fifth-grader can tell you, California was once a foreign and unexplored province of Mexico, located far, far away (physically and psychologically) from its vast centers of government and commerce. But that was then. Now the proud proprietor of the sixth largest economy on the globe, the Golden State has become a colossus of a region—one that comes complete with its own industry, geography, climate, mythology … and population of writers.Can an exploration of California literature reveal something new about California life? The recent publication of a landmark 600-page-plus anthology, The Literature of California, Volume 1, answers this question without mincing words. Astounding in its sweep and scope, the book is a potent reminder of the richness and depth of talent that has emanated from the place “where we run out of continent.” Make no mistake: the life of the land, the diversity and longings of its people, are all explored and celebrated in this volume.

Edited by Sacramento’s own Jack Hicks (who teaches English and directs the Graduate English Creative Writing Program at UC Davis) as well as other Northern California literati—James D. Houston, Maxine Hong Kingston and Al Young—the anthology includes writing samples from more than 80 writers. The first part of this four-part book includes stories, legends, and songs of the indigenous Native American tribes of California, from the Maidu to the Miwok. The second part contains letters, diaries, and travelogue writings that trace a century of discovery and conquest. The third includes tales of the Gold Rush (à la Mark Twain) as well as the nature writings of John Muir and Mary Austin. Part four traces the period between 1915 and 1945, when California literature came fully into its own. Each of the book’s sections, presented in chronological order from 1510 to 1945, are introduced by a compelling essay that puts the period’s literature in an apt historical and cultural context.

What a treat to read new words from the paradoxical Jack London, born in San Francisco, who wrote his bestseller Call of the Wild in 1903. The editors selected a portion of his lesser-known, 1909 autobiographical novel Martin Eden for this purpose. And no California anthology would be complete without John Steinbeck, so the editors included a section of The Grapes of Wrath, the work that won him the Nobel Prize in literature. The volume also documents a new genre of literature that was born in California between the two World Wars: the detective novel. We are offered readings from the likes of Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep). Also not to be missed is a selection from Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter, written in 1945. Obviously, though, these examples do not even scratch the surface of what is available here.

So, finally … a California literary anthology as sweeping in spirit as the state itself. Here’s hoping Volume 2, which concentrates on the next half of the 20th century (to be published in 2002) will match the magnificent accomplishment of its precursor.

A book launch for The Literature of California, Volume 1, will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 23 at the State Capitol. Hosted by California State Assembly Leader Robert M. Hertzberg, the event will include a 3:30 p.m. program in the California Room (with all four anthology editors, plus Gary Snyder and Jade Snow Wong) and a 5 p.m. reception and display in The Rotunda. The event is free and open to the public.