The Literary Development of the Pacific Coast


A Magazine of Literature, Science, Art, and Politics.

The ATLANTIC has long been fortunate in enlisting the services of writers living west of the Rocky Mountains. Ever since Bret Harte’s earlier stories revealed the rich literary material to be found upon the Pacific Coast, this magazine has constantly utilized the prose and verse produced in California. We believe that its readers will now welcome an issue made up very largely of contributions from present residents of that state. While the themes of these contributions are by no means merely local, it seems to us that the representative work of California writers possesses certain characteristic qualities which will impress themselves upon readers interested in the literary development of the various sections of our country. — THE EDITORS.

Two distinct periods of activity have marked the literary development of the Pacific Coast. The first may be said to have made itself most manifest during the years when California was essentially a gold-producing region, when Bret Harte began his contributions to the world’s enduring fiction, and Joaquin Miller added a new and refreshing note to American song. To be more exact, the year 1868 witnessed the dawn of California literature, — a dawn of radiant promise which paled and faded into a brief day that closed ominously.

The second period of literary growth, which I am asked to consider especially, and which to the present hour has gradually increased in strength, began with the completion of the transcontinental railroads, when the vast tide of immigration, flowing westward, had changed the states bordering on the Pacific from a mining region to one of commerce and agriculture. The time that elapsed during this transformation defines clearly these two periods of literary development, the latter having assumed within the past decade its greatest activity. The reason for this is at once apparent when we consider that the intense materialism which characterized the 舠 boom ” days was by no means conducive to art in any of its various forms. The passing of the golden era with its glamour of romance, and the subsequent speculative excitement caused by the advent of homeseekers from the Eastern and Middle states, was naturally a time of literary quietude. The old West, which had ever been separated from the world at large by mountain barriers and desolate wastes, and which could only be reached by a wearisome ocean journey, or by that more perilous route taken by the “ prairie schooner,” was giving place to the new. Social conditions were necessarily altered. The primitive customs characteristic of the pioneers were brought into sharp contrast with those of the more cultured fortune-hunters from the commercial centres of the East. The natural touched elbows with the artificial. Formality was often greeted by what to it appeared a disregard for good manners only pardonable in the barbarous. The conventional and the conservative were forced to mingle with the informal and the radical. Metropolitan life joined with that of the border ; the one being influenced by the other. Thus to-day the Pacific slope presents a social structure, the architecture of which must prove of striking psychological interest because of its bewildering complexity.

It would be highly difficult to convey even a slight idea of the wild turmoil that prevailed throughout the Far West during its rapid transition from a comparative wilderness to the prosperous commonwealth of the present day. Only those who participated in the fierce scramble for corner lots can fully comprehend the feverish conditions which existed on the western side of the continent during the days of its mushroom growth. It was a mad rush for wealth. Such a frantic struggle of tossed and tumbled humanity! Here the man of meagre purse felt that he could at last grasp the hand of Opportunity, and he was dazzled by dreams of sudden riches. From Puget Sound to San Diego, the Pacific Coast was one vast whirlpool of speculative frenzy. Hundreds of eager men gathered about some land company’s office at the midnight hour, that they might secure on the following morning the choicest lots in the newly platted town site or addition, were not an unusual spectacle, or one that partook of literary significance. Shrewd investors made their fortunes. The newcomer, who may have been forced to borrow a few dollars on his arrival, not infrequently became a millionaire within a year. Almost fabulous tales are told of riches gained in a single day or hour. Speculation was the one thought on which the minds of men were centred, and which amounted to a veritable mania, — an all-pervading passion. It was a form of gambling but a shade higher than that with which we most commonly associate the name. Neither old nor young escaped its allurements. The erstwhile conservative citizen of staid old New England soon found himself infected with the prevailing fever, and was drawn almost unconsciously into that vortex of greed that sooner or later must bring wreck and ruin.

The inflation of values beyond all reason brought the inevitable crash. In the vernacular of the real estate gambler, “ the boom busted.” This meant a great deal to the people who had sought their fortunes west of the Rockies. It meant loss of home, bankruptcy, shattered hope, despair, even suicide. The growth of the country in a material sense, though temporarily retarded, assumed a normal condition, as any growth should to be healthful, and it has remained so, with few exceptions, to the present time.

Although we may realize something of the rapid strides made by modern civilization, it seems hardly possible that a brief quarter of a century could bring about the great change that has taken place along the shores of the Pacific. Within this period alone huge forests have been felled, and in their stead strong young cities have arisen as if by magic. Where the rattlesnake lay undisturbed on the California hills the paved streets now echo to the clamorous tongue of Trade, and in matchless harbors, where but two decades past only the canoe of the Indian was seen, great steamships cast anchor from the ports of the world.

What has been accomplished in the way of material progress must of necessity precede the higher growth, yet this is decidedly averse to the creation of a literary atmosphere. The air, so intensely permeated with plots, plans, and wily schemes, did not inspire the thought which survives brick blocks, and which is the ultimate test of a people’s greatness. When materialism reaches such a stage as to completely dwarf the spiritual faculties, the eyes of men are seldom lifted to the stars.

With the collapse of inflated values the inhabitants of the new West found time to look about them and contemplate their surroundings. Now that their minds were diverted from speculations in real estate they awoke to the necessity of progression in ways other than those to which they had heretofore devoted themselves. With the majority it was a time of serious, sober reflection. While the suddenness of the fall had left the people somewhat dazed, and their castles in air had mysteriously dissolved, it was not in the spirit of the race to be long cast down. Actuated by higher ideals, they sought the soil and legitimate business pursuits. The school and the home were no longer ignored. Public libraries were established, and almost every hamlet that had given up hope of rivaling San Francisco in commercial supremacy showed its wisdom by forming a reading circle or a literary society. The steady growth of the Women’s Clubs throughout the Pacific states during the last ten years has had a most beneficent effect upon moral and intellectual advancement. Then, too, during the calm that followed after the stress of the boom days, when enterprise made sure of its footing, and the social fabric became more closely woven, the impressive character of the country’s scenic grandeur appealed to those whose eyes had been fixed upon false gods. When they walked no longer in the blinding glare of a golden idol that had impaired their spiritual vision, they beheld the beauty and majesty of the world about them. To this peculiar and growing sensitiveness to the subtle influences of Nature, combined with increased educational advantages, may be attributed the present literary activity which is attracting attention to the Pacific Coast.

With the bulk of population on the western seaboard confined to the limits of California, it is only to be expected that this state should now, as in its earlier history, show the most interest in the fine arts ; and in literature, at least, produce such efforts as to establish its claim to serious consideration.

Doubtless were we to confine within still narrower geographical limits that section in which this literary activity is most apparent, we should find its borders not far outside the metropolis of the Pacific and close to the Bay of San Francisco. In and about this centre of population the pulse of Western literature beats more strongly than in the newer cities to the north and south. The State University located at Berkeley and Stanford University at Palo Alto, both adjacent to the Golden Gate, have proved most potent factors in creating a literary spirit, something, too, that has been fostered by the daily press of San Francisco and by periodicals essentially devoted to its development. A steadily increasing membership in the various libraries also indicates the general trend of thought. In fact, the reading habit among Californians is particularly significant. In the crowded ferries plying to and fro between San Francisco and other adjacent ports, and on the local trains as well, one may observe both young and old absorbed in the contents of books and magazines. Tourists frequently comment upon the extent to which this custom prevails. It serves, if nothing more, to soften the materialistic picture presented by the city Bret Harte once thought possessed of “ hard high lust and cunning greed.” But the San Francisco of to-day manifests interest in matters aside from finance. While she displays such commercial energy that a far voyager like Kipling is convinced of her absolute madness in this respect, she nevertheless shows a deep concern for those things tending toward the elevation of her people. It is this provincial pride that causes many San Franciscans, and the inhabitants of the state in general, to feel that the later stories of California life by the lamented creator of The Luck of Roaring Camp are apt to convey to the reading world an impression altogether at variance with conditions as they exist to-day. The average Californian resents the imputation that he has a disregard for culture. He may be independent, abrupt of speech, devoid of many of the formalities of an older civilization, scornful of family traditions or hereditary distinctions, — traits characteristic of the typical Westerner, 舒 but he denies with emphasis that he is dominated by any of the instincts of the barbarian. He is always confident of his ability to think and act for himself regardless of the experience of others, nor does he feel that because certain forms of expression governed the language of the past that he should conform to them now, and deem the ancient masterpieces of literature the only models of excellence for his time and generation. While realizing full well his ignorance of the historic shrines of art and letters, he feels that the beauty and sublimity of the world of Nature is likewise ennobling, and affords him glorious compensation.

To what extent climatic conditions and natural scenery may influence thought is entirely problematic. True it is, however, that these have produced an individual type of American on the Pacific slope. This type is clearly exemplified by no small part of the literary output of the region.

In a land where the weather is invariably mild, the inhabitants are permitted that intimacy with Nature not accorded those of a country subject to extremes of heat and cold. The people of the west shore find themselves in the sunshine of the great out of doors the major portion of the year. Thus, whether or not they be particularly observant, this close association with natural scenery leads to a sensitive and emotional organism that most frequently finds expression in the form of verse, the abundant production of which by Californians is becoming more and more apparent to the editorial observation.

While the states bordering on the Pacific are similar in many respects, they possess marked differences as regards landscape, climate, and natural resources. The Northwest and the Southwest are radically opposite. The one, wooded and mountainous, has a heavy rainfall and a rank vegetation, while the other is mainly a drought-haunted desert of cacti and shifting sands. Yet each arouses the emotions of a sensitive soul, the former by the splendor of its wintry peaks and magnificent inland waters, the latter because of the awful loneliness of its desolate and seemingly infinite levels. We find this feeling inspired by the desert expressed in the memorable line, —

“ God must have made thee in His anger, and forgot,”

written by Madge Morris, and in the virile verses of Sharlot Hall, a true daughter of the “ land of little rain,” which Mary Austin so graphically describes, and to which the writings of Charles F. Lummis have called especial attention. This veritable wonderland, with its prehistoric ruins and solitary mesas, will without doubt figure more prominently in the nation’s literature henceforth. These pictures of the burning deserts of the Southwest are in sharp contrast to those of the north Pacific, a section that has recently become more familiar to the reader of current fiction through the work of Eva Emery Dye and of Ella Higginson, the first a writer of historical romance, dealing with old Oregon and the days of Lewis and Clark, the latter a close observer of life and landscape in western Washington. Mrs. Higginson’s verse and prose attest her passionate love of the evergreen hills of Puget Sound, — the “ land of the snow pearls,” of solemn forests and dove-gray skies. Her portrayal of Northwest civilization with its patient, hard-worked rancher, and its illiterate type of womanhood that aspires to social prominence, conveys a very definite idea of certain phases of life in this picturesque corner of the Union.

Between these two sections of country, so extremely different in climate and topography, lies that portion of the western seaboard, which, though entirely distinct in many ways, combines the pronounced natural features of both, and which has been properly designated “ our American Italy.” California presents a more varied landscape than either Oregon or Washington. Its diversity is not only noted by the tourist, but is obvious, as well, to the reader familiar with its literature. In general, natural objects are sharply defined because of the remarkable clearness of the atmosphere, and while in average altitudes the climate is mild and equable it is by no means enervating. Mental and physical indolence, with which we are wont to associate tropical surroundings, are not induced by California’s balmy air and yellow sunshine. Its inhabitants are permitted a breadth of view not accorded the dwellers in more rigorous climes. Professor Josiah Royce, a former Californian whose name has long been identified with Western letters, asserts that one derives from these wide views a sense of power and independence, a statement which seems most rational, and to which I should add a broader mental horoscope as well. It has often been said that Nature in California is on a big scale. Compared with the portraits drawn of her in the literature of New England she may sometimes appear in the pictures of various lyrical craftsmen of the Pacific Coast as a strangely fanciful creature who strives to shock conventional taste by a variety and gaudiness of coloring, — a passion for lavish display. Especially is this true of the nature poems of Joaquin Miller, which have been frequently considered too highly colored and extravagant to afford an adequate conception of western landscape, yet which seem vividly realistic descriptions to one whose eyes have rested upon its scenic splendor. It is an easy matter for the California writer to become overflorid where Nature herself speaks in the language of color.

While different phases of its life and landscape are depicted in the work of its authors, and we are given accurately drawn pictures of varying localities, it would be unfair to say that any one of these sectional studies is typical of the state as a whole, or affords more than a mere glimpse of its vast domain. Naturally the crowning glory of its scenic magnificence — those “ minarets of snow,” the Sierras — are best known to song and story through the poetry of Miller and the fiction of Harte, though a latter-day Thoreau, Mr. John Muir, has given voice to their wild freedom. Alone and unarmed he has explored these sublime and solitary heights, companioned with bird and beast, and under a roof of stars, been rocked to sleep in the swaying top of an ancient pine. Who shall say that these mountains of California, which have already given such strength and picturesqueness to American literature, may not be cherished in time to come for their literary traditions as are the Alps, and the peaks of Scotland ? We have several Mont Blancs on this side of the continent, and Coleridges shall surely arise to sing their glory.

The romance of early Spanish life, like the delicate fragrance of a trampled flower, lingers about the crumbling, ivy-clad walls of the missions, — that dreamy, pastoral life in which mingled Old World gayety and Arcadian simplicity. Its delineation will in all probability receive hereafter from the writers of the West something of the consideration it so justly deserves. Mrs. Helen Hunt Jackson, whose name is held in deepest reverence by the people of California, among whom she passed the last days of her life, was the first to put this picturesque period of Spanish occupation into romantic fiction. She wrote with a noble purpose, and won the deep gratitude of a rapidly vanishing race. Of late the Franciscan brotherhood has found a most sympathetic historian in the poet Charles Warren Stoddard, who, together with Harte, Miller, Sill, Mulford, and others, was a notable figure in a once brilliant coterie. Mrs. Gertrude Atherton, a native Californian, has also depicted the manners and customs of the “ splendid, idle forties,” giving a vividness and dramatic strength to her characterization that savors less of romance than of reality. The social side of modern Western life has of late engaged the attention of Mrs. Atherton. Its complex nature offers a subject of keen interest to the literary vivisectionist. The growing tendency toward conservatism and conformity to the established usages of polite society, caused by the rapidly increasing population from the Eastern states, conflicts sharply with the bold independence and pronounced unconventionality of the pioneer period. This opposition must necessarily afford such contrast and variety in social life as to make it a thoroughly absorbing study to the analytical mind. The spirit of this struggle is voiced in many of the poems of Edward Rowland Sill, who at the time of his death was associated with the University of California. He has expressed more keenly than any other of the Pacific Coast poets the friction existing between these two contending factions, — between “ shrewd conservatism and bold radicalism.”

Perhaps no portion of the state has found more adequate literary expression than the half-arid though wonderfully productive valley of the San Joaquin. Here agricultural and corporate interests have clashed fiercely, affecting the social and domestic happiness of the region, and affording an abundance of excellent material such as was first made use of by Mr. Bailey Millard in one of his most striking short stories entitled A Notch in a Principality, and afterwards by the late Frank Norris, whose novel The Octopus voices the protest of the wheatgrower against the demands of the railway. The conditions surrounding the farmers of the San Joaquin presented a phase of the industrial struggle which appealed keenly to a nature like that of Norris. He was a man of deep human sympathy, and in his untimely death American literature suffered a great loss.

The creator of McTeague and of Moran of the Lady Letty was one of several writers who have been connected in a greater or less degree with San Francisco journalism, from which, as elsewhere, there is a gradual drift into the more inviting field of authorship, and which has proved since the reportorial career of Mark Twain a convenient if not always pleasant stepping-stone to literary achievement.

Mr. George Hamlin Fitch, Mr. Jerome A. Hart, and Mr. Bailey Millard, all associated with representative journals of San Francisco, have done much to encourage a distinctively Western literature, and, moreover, have helped to create public interest in the work of local writers. These literary editors, each of whom recognizes the province of the critic and never mistakes it for that of the cynic, have hailed new talent with something of the delight of the prospector who suddenly discovers a gold nugget. If secrets should be revealed concerning the advent of several well-known Californians into the realm of letters, doubtless others aside from Mr. Edwin Markham, to whom recognition came tardily though with deserving heartiness, might confess their great indebtedness to certain appreciative reviewers of the San Francisco press. The literary spirit now so evident in the metropolis of the Pacific has been stimulated through the efforts of a few men of this journalistic school. Among them is Mr. W. C. Morrow, author of several novels and numerous short stories, who, though no longer actively engaged in newspaper work, is accomplishing much for the literature of California, to the promotion of which he now devotes himself entirely.

Miss Millicent Shinn, whose name is familiar to all students of American verse, is another who exerted no small influence in this respect during her editorship of the Coast’s best known monthly publication. In the beginning of the present period of literary growth she lent such practical assistance and gave such kindly advice to more than one young writer among the magazine’s contributors as to enhance beyond question the quality of much of the literary work produced in California to-day.

Monthly periodicals in the West have received from the first rather meagre support, save those wholly devoted to the interests of trade. The effort to combine commercialism and literature within the same covers has invariably proved unsatisfactory in all ways. Though financial loss has usually attended these magazine ventures, success is not wholly a matter of dollars and cents, as they have served to encourage local talent, and have also helped to stimulate, though within narrow bounds to be sure, that interest in the higher things of life which results in broader ideals and more wholesome thought. One, at least, of these shortlived publications contributed not a little to its editor’s success, as can be vouched for by that quaintly artistic humorist Mr. Gelett Burgess.

The moral and mental force of men like Benjamin Ide Wheeler and David Starr Jordan, presidents of the two foremost universities west of the Rockies, is impressing itself upon the life of the entire Pacific slope, and to this ennobling influence may be attributed no small degree of its intellectual activity at the present hour.

From the ranks of the teachers in both public and private schools have arisen several men and women whose work in the various branches of literature has met with the warm appreciation of the world at large and of California in particular. One of the most recent of these to win distinction in an exceedingly difficult field was the late Miss Virna Woods, whose poetic drama Horatius, played by an eminent American tragedian, was most cordially received by that portion of the public which cares for high class dramatic productions.

The name of Mrs. Kate Douglas Wiggin also suggests itself in connection with the schools of the Coast. The author of Timothy’s Quest, though not a native Westerner, spent some years of her early life in San Francisco, before seeking the more encouraging literary atmosphere of the East. It was while engaged here in kindergarten work, in which she won not the least of her success, that Mrs. Wiggin first began to write. Though rather a student of human nature in general than a delineator of sectional character, there is withal a delightful flavor of the breezy West to be found in her story A Summer in a Cañon.

As long as there remains the love of beauty in the human soul, so long will the glory of California scenery, and that of the whole Pacific Coast, prove a source of inspiration to the poetic mind. Descriptive verse has been from the beginning a marked feature of the literature of this region. In fact, the term “ landscape poets ” may be properly applied to this bevy of song-birds which seemed to the late Maurice Thompson to have taken “ complete possession of the entire Western seaboard.” Suffice to say, that if a volume of verse were written by a Californian which reflected nothing of the state’s scenic beauty or its warmth of color, it would not only come as a surprise to most reviewers, but the loyalty of the poet might be seriously questioned. From the pages of Miller, Harte, Sill, Markham, Madge Morris, and Cheney there breathes the fragrance of the aromatic pine boughs of Sierras’ solitudes, while the more recent of the tuneful throng — Urmy, Millard, Keeler, Lillian Shuey, and others — lift their voices in praise of Nature’s handiwork, singing of “ sky-loving buttes ” and “ veteran redwoods.” In her Songs from the Golden Gate Ina D. Coolbrith pictures with rare delicacy of touch the typical features of California landscape, which also forms a background for the fiction of Margaret Collier Graham, Flora H. Loughead, and for the greater portion of the work produced by the state’s rather formidable list of prose writers. While all this display of local color may seem too apparent an effort on the part of Californians to place upon their work the stamp of a definite locality, and may be considered by some a cheap form of art, it is this very sensitiveness to the beauty and grandeur with which Nature has clothed the West that offers the greatest promise of its rapid literary advancement, — a sensitiveness, moreover, that will become more and more acute with the cultivation of the higher faculties through increasing educational growth.

The provincial spirit has dominated the nation’s literature since its earliest history. Sectional studies have been possible only in a country of such immensity where conditions are not merely subject to constant change, but where they differ so radically with varying localities. Yet each of these delineations of the many phases of our complex life and character contributes something to our literature as a whole. As to the nature of California’s future offerings, I may best point to one who illustrates the growing tendency of the West toward breadth and vigor in fiction, — Mr. Jack London.

This enthusiastic young Californian, whose imagination was set aglow by civilization’s conquest of Alaskan wilds, and whose study window looks down upon the waters of San Francisco Bay, has exhibited a freshness and spontaneity of expression, a freedom from academic precision and restraint, that give to his pictures the quality of work done at first hand. The creative ability displayed by Mr. London is a most encouraging sign, indicative of the prevalent desire among the majority of Western writers to avoid what the author of The Son of the Wolf defines as “ the musty grip of the Past,” — to get clean away from ancient restrictions and stereotyped forms. “ I do not want to write literature ; I want to write life,” said Frank Norris early in his career, voicing the sentiment of those who prefer to look at the world through their own eyes, rather than to accept with faith the views of men whose crumbling tombs mark the highway of the centuries.

To what extent the splendor and majesty of the West may favor the growth of a peculiarly distinctive literature is altogether speculative, but if we are to be guided in our forecast by the history of other lands, we may assume with some degree of certainty that this beauty and sublimity of landscape will ultimately make itself manifest in a greater breadth of canvas, a bolder stroke, and in the more varied and brilliant coloring of a lavish brush. To select first-hand material, and to fashion it after his own pattern, rather than after that of the conventional size, which requires a certain technical finish, and concerns itself with the details of workmanship, will be the aim of the artist of the future. The tendency of California writers is toward ruggedness and strength, and if the work of either London or Norris may offer a significant hint of what the coming novelist of the West will strive to attain, I should say first of all — force and originality, the art of prose expression that shall not be a weak imitation of those mouldy, yet revered models of antiquity known as the classics.

The West is rich in literary material. There are mountain ranges comparatively unexplored, which aboriginal tradition veils in haunting mystery. The struggles, trials, and heroism of the early pioneers have scarcely been touched upon, and what dramatic strength and picturesqueness is contained in this oldtime life of the border ! And there exists to-day throughout the length and breadth of the Pacific Coast a peculiarly fascinating freedom not easily comprehended by those who have known nothing but the restraints of an older and more conventional civilization. This will leave its impress upon the literary production of the region. As the lands of the olive and the vine have ever figured prominently in the history of Old World letters, it is not unreasonable to expect that California, with her tropical sun and gorgeous coloring, will add lustre to the literature of America. Perhaps I have dwelt too strongly upon scenic grandeur as a factor of literary growth, but vast forests, icy summits, sombre cañons, and beetling cliffs must stimulate the imaginative powers, and lead to creative effort. What has been accomplished thus far by the writers mentioned surely offers glorious promise of future achievement, — of work, if I may be so bold as to prophesy, that shall draw its freshness and color from California’s sun-clad hills, and its strength and beauty from the white radiance of her eternal peaks.

Herbert Bashford.