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Archive for August, 2009

Bancroft HistoriesHubert Howe Bancroft popularized California history in an era when our nation was looking for its roots. New York had Washington Irving to eulogize their Knickerbockers; we have HHB. He’s probably the most cited source for anything historical, pre 1900. The University of California has honored his memory with a new incarnation of a library devoted to research of all things historical in California. I spent considerable time in the earlier building, but a few years ago it had to give way to U.C. Berkeley’s main library renovation. Like the previous library, this monument to provenance is the place where history undergrads are sent to get tangible proof of just how important their school (and the library itself) is in the pecking order. Stanford, eat your heart out. Gaze at the Sir Francis Drake’s plate while you wait for the attendant to let you in; pencils only; post-it notes will get you yelled at, if not ejected; keep quiet; absorb the majesty.

Mr. Bancroft ran an enterprise in the 1880s and 90s called the History Company. It was located in San Francisco on Market Street. He was a collector of information, part gadfly, part P. T. Barnum. He established his fame in the epidemic of regional histories that were produced throughout the country during the late 19th century. His output was prodigious, with multi-volume sets covering a good part of the western North American continent — California being the centerpiece with seven-plus volumes spanning the eras from creation to 1890.

But having read most of this set on my state’s history, thousands of pages occupying a generous foot of space on my bookshelf, I discovered something of note. There were no homosexuals in California. I didn’t go looking for this; it just jumped out at me. HHB reported on everything else, so they must not have arrived.

HHB might be forgiven by virtue of the fact that the term homosexual appeared timidly on the scene in Europe in the 1860s and didn’t come into common usage until well into the next century. But the usual products of obfuscation are likewise absent from his works. The closest report I found of variant sexual behavior was an incident in the early 1800s where an Indian girl turned in a boy to the local padre. Something to do with a donkey. Boy and animal were ritually dispatched, and their remains cleansed with a little fire. Given such consequences, I suppose it’s no wonder anything without procreative justification has been expunged from the record. But does that mean there were no queers? How did we get from a neutered 19th century to our flamboyant Sodom by the Bay that’s noted for attracting immigrants like Harvey Milk — and the derision of a flag-waving heartland? This gap in the history begs filling. Maybe it wasn’t quite as sexless as HH would have it.

Scans of Bancroft’s Works can be found at:

http://www.1st-hand-history.org/Hhb/HHBindex.htm

The work these people have done is a Herculean accomplishment almost as ambitious as Mr. Bancroft’s. Visit with a large hard drive.

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El Greco - St. John the Evangelist

When I ran Unseemly Reliquary through my critique group, more than one of my fellow writers offered comments about that ‘godawful title.’ Who’d want to read such a thing? Half the people don’t understand what the words mean, don’t you know.

Always one to listen to my betters, I tried changing the title. And I lived with the new one for a while — House of Charbon — until I realized I’d neutered my little creation, or at least obscured a major clue to the theme of the story.

We all have our reliquaries, those sacred things that keep us going. They needn’t have corporal form, but they always have concrete results in what they inspire. My characters have their reliquaries, as well. The snip of El Greco’s painting of Saint John the Evangelist at the top of this blog is what I imagine of the painting that hangs in Theresa Charbon’s sitting room. It’s her touchstone to a secret past.  And yes, there are other reliquaries in the story — some less benign than the gaze of a saint.

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I recently drove six-hundred-odd miles to a writers conference in Portland. On the eve of said event I emailed Roger, my alter ego at Novels-L (a critique list we administer within the Internet Writing Workshop.) I said I hoped to debunk some personal sacred cows.

Roger’s never been one to let a good cliché go unpunished. He replied, “Re ringing bells of sacred cows: If not you, who? If not now, when?”

Touché. A new blog.

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