The Gold Rush notwithstanding, California’s most precious commodity may be the nugget of an idea, which turns into a story, which graces a piece of literature for the ages. The number of famous authors who lived and worked in San Francisco alone is remarkable, from Ambrose Bierce and Dashiell Hammett to Upton Sinclair and Mark Twain. Several of them even have streets named after them. Stroll across Keroauc Drive. Stretch your legs at William Saroyan Place.
But the convergence of literature and place is a curious one, and it begs a question: Do we really need to create monuments to writers? Shouldn’t the writer’s plays or poems or novels be enough of a legacy? The answers: Yes and yes. While a writer’s creations are legacy enough, it can also be fascinating to understand the setting that sparked that creativity.
With that in mind, here are five of the most significant such landmarks in California, all within three hours of each other. It would make a helluva weekend literary excursion. We’ll start north and move south:
1. JACK LONDON’S WOLF HOUSE
On the outskirts of the community of Glen Ellen in southern Sonoma County, you can get more than just a taste of London. You can buy a used or rare book at the Jack London Bookstore, grab a few beers at the Jack London Saloon and sleep it off at the Jack London Lodge. But whatever you do, don’t miss 800-acre Jack London State Historic Park at 2400 London Ranch Road. Few men crammed more adventure into life than London, a full-time author and adventurer. But nestled among the redwoods in the state park is an ironic memorial to the man—a burned-out symbol of his unrealized dreams.
By 1905, London, already world famous for Call of the Wild, The Sea Wolf and other stories based on his own experiences, began purchasing land in the Sonoma Valley, seeking “a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in.” By 1911, he owned nearly 1,400 acres, which he called Beauty Ranch. He moved into a cottage in the middle of his holdings, and from there he supervised the construction of his dream house. It was a four-story, 26-room, nine-fireplace mansion, made from boulders of maroon lava and redwood logs. There was a two-story living room, a dining room seating 50, a pool stocked with bass, a gun and trophy room, a library, a sleeping tower. The entire structure, which he named Wolf House, stood on an extra-thick concrete foundation to withstand earthquakes. London expected it to stand for one thousand years.
In late July 1913, the $80,000 project was nearly complete, and London wrote, “…when it is done, I shall be really comfortable for the first time in my life.” But three weeks later, just as he and his wife Charmian, were preparing to move in, Wolf House burned to the ground, a mystery that remains unsolved. Crushed and suspicious, London planned to rebuild, but he died of kidney disease exactly 39 months later. His dream house remains a haunting collection of charred rock walls and chimneys among the towering trees.
2. LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI’S CITY LIGHTS BOOKS
In 1953, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin founded a simple bookstore in San Francisco’s North Beach district. City Lights was the nation’s first all-paperback emporium, situated at 261 Columbus Avenue, and while it carried with it a whiff of anti-authoritarian sensibilities, it was another couple of years before it offered the scent of revolution.
Ferlinghetti expanded from selling books to creating them in 1955, launching City Lights Publishers. The fourth book in his Pocket Poets Series was a poem by Allen Ginsberg called “Howl.” Its publication proved to be a watershed moment for the book and the bookstore. Ginsberg’s work elicited obscenity charges, followed by the arrest of Ferlinghetti and long court trial (in which the beatniks beat the rap), all of which turned the poem into a nexus of censorship debate, the poet into a herald of insurgent literature and City Lights into Ground Zero of everything bookishly beatific. Tour buses even began to pull to a halt in front of City Lights, passengers eager to claim beatnik sightings.
“Howl,” which had an original print run of 1,000 copies, now has something like 800,000 copies in print. City Lights Publishers has published more than 200 titles, and the bookstore has expanded several times over the years. It is no longer exclusively paperback, and isn’t solely a small press outlet. You can find new-release hardcovers from major publishing houses on any of its three stocked-to-the-gills floors. But while the place has become internationally famous, the attitude remains intimate and alternative. Inscriptions above doorways pronounce things like “Abandon all despair, ye who enter here,” and books are listed under quirky categories like Green Politics, Commodity Aesthetics, Muckraking, Anarchism and Class War.
In many ways, City Lights’ founder came full circle in 1998 when he was appointed San Francisco’s first Poet Laureate. If it seems like a somewhat Establishment honor, know that his inaugural speech was vintage Ferlinghetti. Taking the measure of “this far-out city on the left side of the world,” he rallied against freeways, warplanes and chain stores, called for writing poems that say something supremely important, and suggested painting the Golden Gate Bridge golden.
3. EUGENE O’NEILL’S TAO HOUSE
By early 1937, Eugene O’Neill had firmly established himself as the architect of modern American theater. Having refashioned it as serious art rather than a pleasant diversion, he had already had 35 plays produced and had earned three Pulitzer Prizes. But as firmly entrenched as O’Neill the playwright was, O’Neill the man was not. He and his wife Carlotta (she was his third wife; he was her fourth husband) were living in a San Francisco hotel.
One year earlier, however, O’Neill had become the only playwright from the United States to win the Nobel Prize. The accompanying stipend allowed the couple to purchase a 158-acre ranch near Danville, California, a plot of land offering a view of Mount Diablo across the San Ramon Valley. There they built what O’Neill, always a lover of the sea, hoped would be his “final harbor,” a quirky house with a Spanish colonial exterior but Asian inclinations.
They named it Tao House, a nod to O’Neill’s interest in Eastern philosophy and his wife’s yen for Oriental art, and indeed there are several elements of Taoism inside and out—from the curved walkways to the sky-blue ceilings and terra cotta floors. Despite the view, the outdoor pool and the player piano, there is a somewhat shadowy aura about the house, and the existence of colored mirrors—green, blue, even black—adds to the ghostly atmosphere. But as the park ranger will explain, it’s not a haunted house; it’s just the house of a haunted man.
O’Neill didn’t care for guests traipsing about his house, ironic considering it is now open for tours. Every Sunday in May, the Eugene O’Neill Foundation presents dramatic readings of the playwright’s works in a historic barn on the premises, and one weekend in October is set aside for a full, costumed performance of an O’Neill play. But nothing can match the drama of a visit to O’Neill’s isolated second-floor study where he penned his final and most successful plays, including “The Iceman Cometh”, “A Moon For the Misbegotten,” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Long Days Journey Into Night.”
4. DOC RICKETTS’S LAB
Perhaps nobody tapped the intimate relationship between humans and the places they inhabit more profoundly than John Steinbeck, California’s only Nobel-prize-winning novelist, who introduced readers the world over to the people harvesting the Salinas Valley and the shores of Monterey Bay.
Steinbeck Country offers widespread homage to the man, ranging from a $10 million museum (the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas) to nominal nods (the Steinbeck Electrolysis Center). But the most sacred memorial to the writer is essentially a monument to his muse. It is a tiny, two-story, wooden edifice tucked along a stretch of the Monterey shoreline known as Cannery Row. Once named Pacific Biological Laboratories, it is now revered as Doc Ricketts’ Lab.
Ed Ricketts was a self-taught marine biologist who has been called the inspiration for the creation of the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, which sprouted up next to his old lab in 1984. But he had an equally large impact on Steinbeck, who met him in 1930, after Ricketts had established PBL amid the city’s sardine canneries, brothels and flophouses.
For nearly a dozen years, until Steinbeck moved to the East Coast, the two would often end a day by swapping philosophy and swigging beers at the lab (which was rebuilt after being destroyed by fire in 1936). Steinbeck later claimed Ricketts “was part of my brain.” He became part of his literature, too, as the model for a half-dozen characters, most notably “Doc,” the beloved protagonist in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, the books that transformed Ed the scientist into Doc the legend.
Although Ricketts died in 1948 when his car was struck by the Del Monte Express train at the other end of Cannery Row, his famous laboratory remains very much alive. In 1957, it was sold to a group of 14 local men, several of them Doc’s old friends, and it became an exclusive club of sorts. Every Wednesday for years, the men enjoyed cold drinks and cool jazz, continuing the celebration of artistry and informality at 800 Cannery Row.
But in 1993, the remaining members of the group decided to assure that such sacred ground was treated reverently. They sold Doc’s lab for a song to the City of Monterey, and the Cannery Row Foundation sponsored a restoration and seismic retrofit so successful that the city recently received the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation.
While the lab is used for special occasions, it is open for public tours only three times a year—on Steinbeck’s birthday (February 27), on Ricketts’ birthday (May 14) and during the annual Sardine Festival (in early June). Visitors can imagine themselves back into the 1930s, when a biologist-philosopher found life teeming in the strangest places and his writer friend found much the same thing.
5. ROBINSON JEFFERS’S TOR HOUSE
Poet Robinson Jeffers and his wife, Una, arrived in Carmel, California—a few miles south of Cannery Row on the Monterey Peninsula—in 1914. They realized that, as Jeffers wrote, they “had come without knowing it to their inevitable place.” Often, their walks would take them to a large and nearly empty tract of land known as Carmel Point, where only the ocean and the elements reigned. Their favorite spot was a craggy hill—or tor—which by 1919 would mark the site of their home, the Tor House, built primarily from the rocks of Carmel Point (though one can also spot lava from Hawaii, a headstone from Ireland, even a portion of the Great Wall of China).
Visitors today can experience the scene just as Jeffers did—or at least close to it, relaxing in the poet’s furniture while listening to poems written about and within those stone walls. The Tor House, located at 26304 Ocean View Avenue, offers docent-led tours. But it has always attracted visitors over the years, from Charlie Chaplin to Charles Lindbergh.
When Jeffers lived there, most days were quiet and predictable. He would construct his poems in the morning and his home in the afternoon. This work included a romantic decision in 1920 to build for Una a stone tower reminiscent of ancient Irish architecture. For five years, Jeffers rolled boulders up from his private beach and meticulously set them into place, eventually constructing a tower 40 feet high and, in places, six feet thick. He named it Hawk Tower, and with typical poetry, observed, “I hung stone in the sky.”
While touring the tower, visitors are first led into the two tiny rooms on the ground floor, one of them— “the dungeon”—several feet below ground level. Then they corkscrew their way up a secret stairway to Una’s second-floor sanctuary, where they might enjoy a Jeffers paean to his love. From there, visitors can ascend to a little turret on the third floor and then an even steeper stairway to the top of the turret, commanding a breathtaking view of the ocean and the remarkable development surrounding the once-lonely Jeffers abode.
Up there, looking out toward the crashing waves, one realizes that Jeffers’ finest poem was made of stone and that, as he wrote in “Carmel Point,” its pristine beauty “lives in the very grain of the granite.”