Saturday, June 28, 2014


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:


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.”

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


My Mantelpiece: A Memoir of Survival and Social Justice, recently published by Why Not Books, is Carolyn Goodman’s account of her lifetime of love and loss, courage and conviction. Her life was punctuated by tragedy—a brother’s premature death, childhood molestation, teenaged abortion, a mother’s callousness, a father’s suicide, the loss of two husbands. But hers is foremost a tale of survival, of turning personal anguish into social conscience—and the fulcrum of this tragedy-and-triumph dichotomy was the murder of her son in the summer of 1964.

That was Freedom Summer, when the forces of good went on the offensive, flooding the South with northern college students who would start Freedom Schools and register African-American voters. On the very first day of summer, Carolyn’s 20-year-old son, Andy, was one of three volunteers to disappear in Philadelphia, Mississippi, an event that galvanized the nation and transformed the civil rights struggle.

The names Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner—their bodies were discovered 44 days later—still spark raw emotion in those who recall the era’s turmoil. Carolyn Goodman turned her son’s martyrdom into a mission. She formed The Andrew Goodman Foundation, organized an anniversary Freedom Summer, and produced documentary films celebrating young activists. In 1999, she was arrested at a protest in New York City—at age 83. She passed away in 2007, but not before recounting her life—and the lessons therein—in full.

On the 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Summer Project, My Mantelpiece marks the first time that a family member of one of the victims has expounded about the experience. It is an intimate perspective of Freedom Summer—the story of one mother, one cause, one decision, one tragedy, and the myriad emotions it spawned, from guilt to pride to resolve.

But it also one of many ways in which Freedom Summer has been explored over the years—historically, legally, spiritually, in fiction, in books for adults and for young readers, in first-person accounts and academic studies. A journey through the literature is a means of examining this seminal moment in the civil rights struggle from all angles.

Friday, June 13, 2014


Prospective authors, take note: The list of literary legends who didn’t attend college for one reason or another includes Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, Truman Capote, Ray Bradbury, Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Parker, Maya Angelou, William Saroyan, John Cheever, Sherwood Anderson, and Louis L’Amour. And the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Jack London, J.D. Salinger, and Henry Miller made only fleeting attempts at the university experience.

But before you decide to give the heave-ho to higher education, you might be interested to learn that these folks went to Harvard: Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, John Updike, Horatio Alger, Gertrude Stein, Norman Mailer, William S. Burroughs, John Dos Passos, George Plimpton, Michael Crichton, Peter Benchley, and Eric Segal.

Every year, the U.S. News & World Report puts out a ranking of American colleges and universities—based on all sorts of criteria. But I wondered: How would we rank the way they’ve churned out celebrated writers?

So I came up with a list of 128 American authors, poets, and playwrights—from Pulitzer winners to super-bestsellers, from 19th century transcendentalists to 21st century “Oprah” faves. Did I miss some good ones? Undoubtedly. But the list is as varied as this dozen: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, S.E. Hinton, James Michener, John Irving, Thomas Pynchon, Dave Eggers, Garrison Keillor, Daniel Steel, and R.L. Stine. Or if you prefer, the list included the authors of everything from Slaughterhouse-Five to Seabiscuit to Superfudge.

I slotted them by undergraduate degrees (including those who made a decent stab at getting a degree if not quite finishing the deal—guys like Frost at Harvard, John Steinbeck at Stanford, and Cormac McCarthy at Tennessee). Then I ranked the schools—first by quantity, then by legacy (or, to be honest, personal preference). Essentially, there’s a massive tie for 20th place, but I kept ranking them to the end.

The results suggest two obvious conclusions. One is that Harvard and Columbia have damn impressive literary pedigrees. The other is that the rest of America’s greatest writers drew on a remarkably diverse education. Here’s the list:

1. Harvard University
Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, John Updike, Horatio Alger, Gertrude Stein, Norman Mailer, William S. Burroughs, John Dos Passos, George Plimpton, Michael Crichton, Peter Benchley, Eric Segal

2. Columbia University
Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Joseph Heller, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Herman Wouk, Carson McCullers, Paul Auster, Isaac Asimov, William Goldman

3. Princeton University
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Philip Roth, John McPhee, Jodi Picoult

4. Yale University
Robert Penn Warren, Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, Sinclair Lewis

5. University of Cal-Berkeley
Philip K. Dick, Terry McMillan, Beverly Cleary, Irving Stone

6. Cornell University
E.B. White, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon

7. Northwestern University
Saul Bellow, Sidney Sheldon, George R.R. Martin

8. City College of New York
Upton Sinclair, Bernard Malamud, Mario Puzo

9. Smith College
Sylvia Plath, Margaret Mitchell, Ann M. Martin

10. Rutgers University
Robert Pinsky, Junot Diaz, Janet Evanovich

11. Bowdoin College
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne

12. Washington and Lee University
Tom Wolfe, Tom Robbins

13. Swarthmore College
James Michener, Jonathan Franzen

14. Sarah Lawrence College
Alice Walker, Ann Patchett

15. Duke University
William Styron, Anne Tyler

16. New York University
Judy Blume, Danielle Steel

17. Amherst College
Dan Brown, Scott Turow

18. Wesleyan University
Robert Ludlum, Robin Cook

19. University of Kansas
Sara Paretsky, Rex Stout

20. Huntingdon College
Harper Lee

21. Dartmouth College
Theodore Geisel

22. Stanford University
John Steinbeck

23. University of Mississippi
William Faulkner

24. University of New Hampshire
John Irving

25. University of Maine
Stephen King

26. Georgia College and State University
Flannery O’Connor

27. Mississippi University for Women
Eudora Welty

28. University of Utah
Wallace Stegner

29. University of Pittsburgh
Michael Chabon

30. Hampshire College
Jon Krakauer

31. University of Missouri
William Least Heat-Moon

32. University of Nebraska
Willa Cather

33. U.S. Naval Academy
Robert Heinlein

34. University of Arizona
Richard Russo

35. DePauw University
Barbara Kingsolver

36. Tulane University
John Kennedy Toole

37. University of New Mexico
Edward Abbey

38. University of Michigan
Arthur Miller

39. University of Tennessee
Cormac McCarthy

40. University of Texas
Rick Riordan

41. University of Tulsa
S.E. Hinton

42. Tuskegee University
Ralph Ellison

43. Howard University
Toni Morrison

44. University of Illinois
Dave Eggers

45. Mississippi State University
John Grisham

46. University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
Garrison Keillor

47. Haverford College
Dave Barry

48. University of Iowa
Tennessee Williams

49. University of Oregon
Ken Kesey

50. Fordham University
Don DeLillo

51. Michigan State University
Richard Ford

52. Syracuse University
Joyce Carol Oates

53. University of Vermont
Annie Proulx

54. Randolph-Macon Women’s College
Pearl Buck

55. The Citadel
Pat Conroy

56. San Jose State University
Amy Tan

57. University of Detroit Mercy
Elmore Leonard

58. Bradley University
Charles Bukowski

59. University of Notre Dame
Nicholas Sparks

60. Kenyon College
E.L. Doctorow

61. Loyola University-Maryland
Tom Clancy

62. Vassar College
Jane Smiley

63. Manhattan College
James Patterson

64. Ohio State University
RL Stine

65. Davidson College
Patricia Cornwell

66. University of Connecticut
Wally Lamb

67. Kenyon College
Laura Hillenbrand

68. University of Alabama
Winston Groom

69. Hofstra University
Nelson Demille

70. University of Pennsylvania
Zane Grey

71. UCLA
Jonathan Kellerman

72. Claverack College
Stephen Crane

73. Shippensburg University
Dean Koontz

74. Indiana University
Suzanne Collins

75. University of Louisville
Sue Grafton

76. Brandeis University
Mitch Albom

77. University of North Texas
Anne Rice

78. Brigham Young University
Stephenie Meyer

Sunday, June 8, 2014


In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King commented on how he was considered to be prolific despite having written “only” a few dozen novels to date (this was back in 2000). Yet he contended he was nothing compared to a British mystery novelist named John Creasey, who wrote more than five hundred novels under ten different names. On the other hand, some renowned novelists have written fewer than five books in a career. “Which is okay,” King stated, “but I always wonder two things about these folks: how long did it take them to write the books they did write, and what did they do with the rest of their time?”

Well, here are the 17 writers who are to “prolific” what King is to “horror.” In fact, King isn’t even close to making this list. But Creasey? He’s ninth.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


In 1934, a male English author named Evelyn Waugh wrote a book called A Handful of Dust, which focused on the breakdown of a marriage and has been named more than once as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. It was originally called A Handful of Ashes, but after a dispute with his American publishers, Waugh renamed it—after a line from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” which was written a dozen years earlier.

I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

But “The Waste Land,” regarded as one of the century’s most important poems and loosely following the legends of the Fisher King and the Holy Grail, also borrowed its title from another source. In his notes about the poem, Eliot wrote, “Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book.” That book, From Ritual to Romance, was an academic examination of the roots of the King Arthur legend and had been published only two years earlier.

So let’s recap, shall we? Over the course of just 14 years, one book borrowed its title from a poem, which borrowed its title from another book. Oh, and a line from “The Waste Land” also led to the title of two Iain Banks novels—Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward. And another poem by Eliot (“Whispers of Immortality”) contributed the title for P.D. James’s The Skull Beneath the Skin. And still another bit of poetry by Eliot (“Gerontion”) sparked the title of another book, this one a detective novel by Peter Robinson called In A Dry Season. Who says all literature isn’t derivative?

Then again, these titular literary loans are far more common that you might think. Charles Dickens did it. Ernest Hemingway did it. William Faulkner did it. E.M. Forster, George Orwell, Margaret Mitchell, Maya Angelou… they all borrowed. In fact, Aldous Huxley, Agatha Christie, John Steinbeck, and Madeleine L’Engle were serial borrowers.

So for the Why Not 100, I have come up with a list that honors the best-of-the-best of the borrowers—74 titles from renowned authors, all of which were taken from other literary creations.