The Last Gilded Age

Early in the 19th century, Washington Irving created a hoax around a fictional old Dutchman named Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving went so far as to advertise for information on Mr. Knickerbocker’s whereabouts, teasing the public with the prospect of publishing the Dutchman’s abandoned manuscript: A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. New Yorkers seemed to accept the joke with good humor and Washington Irving became famous. A fictional history, properly played, was as good as the real thing. After all, the need for provenance, a history to call one’s own, runs deep.

By the end of the century, this preoccupation with finding one’s roots had become an obsession. My earlier post on H. H.  Bancroft touched on one entrepreneur who rode this crest (alas, with less humor than Washington Irving.) In California, almost every county had its own local history, usually written by local notables, giving their friends and themselves voluminous homage for their civilizing influence during the period following statehood in 1846. These county histories stood side by side more focused autobiographies by early pioneers: usually white immigrants from the East, but also a few from the Mexican families that met them.

In fifty years, the state had gone from the fledgling western anchor of Manifest Destiny to a world-class economic center. This evolution was based first on the precious metals of the Gold Rush and Nevada silver mines, then on the agriculture of its Central Valley. The magnitude of these events swept along the egos of those who witnessed them first hand and left a hole to be filled.

More often than not, these histories and biographies portray a quest that characterizes the heroic nature of the state where men (most visibly, but women, as well) looked back at what they’d done and tried to fashion it into a proper monument to their fame–in the classical sense of carving out a niche in the pantheon of future memories. And if the truth must be massaged a little to insure its presentability on this altar to the ego, such is truth’s nature. Washington Irving understood this better than most.

Now, the media has changed. Books have been supplanted (in popular consciousness, at least) by the digital editions of fame, often nearly as fleeting as the electrical energy that heralds them. But that merely changes the venue, not the game. In a contemporary quest to enter the pantheon, enter the late, great CEO of Ebay and her brain sibling who parachuted nicely from Hewlett-Packard. These ladies are determined to buy their way into household word-dom much as their forbearers in California’s last Gilded Age. I suppose if Leland Standford, former governor and founder of the Farm, could do it, it must be OK for Meg and Carly. So far, the tales they’re spinning about their own accomplishments are reviving memories of Washington Irving.

More later . . . ever hear of the Gold Bugs?


The Devil in California

Mount Diablo is a forlorn place with bone-freezing winds on desert-like slopes. Situated twenty-five miles due east of San Francisco, it was aptly named by the Spanish: a devil of a mountain. Its altitude put it in the cartographer’s list of holy places because it stands out as a marker, sometimes viewable for hundreds of miles, which was useful in those days before satellite imaging, GPS devices, and smog that now shelters Central California most of the year. I’ve never thought much about it because to me it is merely the high point in one of several geological wrinkles that run north and south, separating San Francisco Bay from the Central Valley. The mountain has little to recommend itself beside its historical usefulness in mapping the region. But every so often it makes its way into the news in a way that encapsulates the cultural forces working within California, forces that mirror our tectonic liabilities. Some people don’t like the mountain’s name. The pagans among us enjoy its irreverence, and realists enjoy its accuracy in labeling, but Bible thumpers slap the calf skin ever so much harder about the profane implications of this naming. Devil mountain. Can devil worship be far behind? One such individual wants to change its name to Mount Ronald Reagan.

California has been a prized destination since travelers from Asia crossed the Bering Straights ice bridge and discovered the region’s hospitable coast and valleys. Several millennia later, Francis Drake found the coast too foggy to locate a passage to the interior, but the Spanish moved north from Mexico and built a fort at the mouth of San Francisco Bay. Then gold seekers came from all directions creating a mix of expectations that still roils the state, pitting Coast and Mountains with the Great Central Valley in between.

When the quartz dust settled and the muddy runoff from the placer mining turned pale, the state was left with pockets of diversity that would be the envy of any world-class metropolis. It boasted immigrants from the far corners of the globe of every ethnic, racial, and religious persuasion. However, unlike Manhattan, where proximity forced the new faces from Ellis Island to get along, California has its insular acreage, its size. It’s a big place where people can cling to their own kind and shun the rest. But not completely. It seems to be the nature of these outposts of solitude to evangelize and reshape the world to their view of things. They produce individuals who would change the world to counter their own dark imaginings. The gentleman from Oakley, the latest would-be name changer, wants to trade a benign ancient devil for a twentieth century one: a faux cowboy who served as spokesman for the economic policies that devil us today. I’ll take the devil I know, thank you, and cherish my fantasy that Mr. Reagan had been satisfied with hawking appliances on GE Theater.

A post script to this little morality play: the name-change issue seems to be fading from view. Too many devil worshipers, I guess. But our would-be name changer attracted enough attention to earn a seat on the county’s Drug Advisory Board. He touted his experience as a recovering addict as qualification for such a post and the Contra Costa county supervisors evidently agreed. One might wonder if their adroit political move reflects California’s answer to the age-old problem of conflicting agendas: give the malcontent a venue where he can’t hurt anyone.

Critique vs. Edit – Part 2

Assuming you’ve come down out of the clouds and accept the proposition that your novel needs work, who is qualified to take that second look at your literary masterpiece? I prefer to turn the question on its side and ask who should you listen to?

Even the semi-sentient has an opinion. So the art is to choose your critic. And choose them wisely. Those nice people at your read-and-critique group can be the worst. Sally-of-the-higher-calling, Poetics in her backpack, and Joe-of-the-active-verb can grind your work into pabulum that the innocent-you who conceived the story may no longer recognize.

This is a different equation altogether from the role of the editor employed by the publisher who has paid money for your story. The story belongs to the publisher. It’s theirs. And the collaborative work you do with the editor (who is their agent) is to move the product along their assembly line in conformity with their view of the marketplace. It ain’t your story anymore.

There is another category of editors who promise to steer your manuscript toward acceptability by an agent or publisher. What they are offering is a bit like plastic surgery. “Make me look like J. K. Rowling!” Or Stephen King, or Dan Brown,  or whoever your literary god may be. Do you want to go there?

This last category of editors is found in abundance at writers conferences — never promising success, but implying  dolthood if you don’t hire them. If I were to venture a guess on who profits most from these conclaves, these people would be at the top of the list. They are selling the prospect of fame.

I don’t think there is any magic in the editing process:

Learn to self edit by critiquing other writers. It’s amazing how complaining about someone else’s purple prose suddenly makes you see your own.

Hook up with others who are like-minded. As you write better, the company you keep tends to be more knowledgeable, as well. (Yes, this is the classic observer-alters-the-observed type of thing. Natural selection at its best.)

Stay away from how-to books on writing until you have enough confidence in your own writing to resist their One True Way.

Any writer’s most valuable tool is their intuition. It’s like a child. Learn to teach it. Learn to trust it. Protect it.

Critique or Edit?

I help administer the novels critiquing list (Novels-L) at the Internet Writing Workshop. A member recently started a discussion about the difference between a critique and an edit. This was my response:

There is no difference between a critique and an edit, though the edit may well be punctuated with dollar signs. Novels-L is NOT a commercial venue, so I guess we only critique. This is a volunteer cooperative. We teach each other. We may exchange insights, but no money changes hands. Personally, I see our group as the modern-day equivalent of the literary salon.

I’m very skeptical of anyone offering their services as an editor. This is not to say they are all bad — far from it — but there is such a high percentage of unqualified people that it gives the good ones a bad name. Publishing houses have editors who get a product ready for market. The house’s resources have been allocated and the editor’s job is much like a station on a factory assembly line, working toward a finished product.

Free-lance editors are another breed. What is the goal of hiring one? Apart from any questions about a prospective editor’s competence, the writer has to ask: why am I doing this? Some people in search of an editor may have an idea, a memoir, a technical narrative they are ill equipped to write, but they have the money to see it take form. These people have a need for an editor, a ghost writer. But does a novelist need one? Some agents may suggest it, but this strikes me as paying up front for something the writer should have done, with knowledge he already should have.

Writers conferences and any place where writers gather are an active marketplace for free-lance editors. These are often people who (in my opinion) have failed to make it big with their novels, so they market their services as editors. There’s more money in it (and they hope people will buy their books.) From what I’ve observed, it’s often an ego thing. I’ve been approached by a couple of these people whose own writing was not as good as much of the writing that goes through Novels-L. I suppose their accepted wisdom is if they charge for their work, it must be good.

You are right that critiques posted on Novels-L are all over the map in both scope and quality. You know the good critters and politely tolerate the poor ones, hoping they will learn. Most will, if they stick with it.

The Internet Writing Workshop can be found at: http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/

The All-Knowing Narrator

A dozen-plus years ago I read Joseph Chartkoff’s The Archaeology of California. I bought the book for the subject, but I remember the book for the opening of  Chapter 2:

Imagine a setting 12,000 years ago in what are now the deserts of Southern California . . .  The valley is nearly 30 miles across, and in the entire valley only one spot is occupied by people: a hunters’ camp on a gravel terrace near the lakeshore.

Years earlier, there had been another story which I read for other reasons: Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs. He started with:

Ursus and Homo were fast friends. Ursus was a man, Homo a wolf. Their dispositions tallied. It was the man who had christened the wolf: probably he had also chosen his own name.

Charkoff wrote in in the present tense (The valley is) and Hugo wrote in the past (Ursus was.) Both used the omniscient narrator to tell their stories: Chartkoff, to convey what he knew about the physical and cultural history of California; Hugo, to convey what he knew about human nature. (Hugo also littered this opening with passive ‘were’ and ‘was,’ the sure sign of an amateur.) These passages are examples of how to do it right, in my opinion, but not everyone shares my view.

I don’t presume to have mastered the art of omni story telling, but I’m clearly on the wrong side of literary fashion; omni is in disfavor, even reviled by some. It leaves the author open to accusations of head hopping and the sin of not getting up close and personal.

In 1968 Francis Fugate gave his opinion on omni in Viewpoint: Key to Fiction Writing

I think it can be safely said, so far as fiction writing is concerned, that this viewpoint is one which is used by writers before they know any better. ( p. 53)

And every critique group I’ve been a part of has had a strong contingent of Mr. Fugate’s brethren.

In fairness to these anti head hoppers, I don’t use this point of view indiscriminately. In fact, once I have set the scene,  my characters often move closer to the camera and I change the point of view to third person, where the perspective is from a single character.

A while back I read Harrison’s Legends of the Fall. I immediately suffered a short-lived reaction that must have been similar to the above mentioned critiquers. I’d been infected by their anti-omni imperative. It seemed to me that Harrison was head hopping and unfocused. He was also an aggravatingly good story teller. Fortunately, this self-induced fog didn’t last too long. I think I’ll remember the story-teller part and use the other two attributes to fashion my own personal cautionary tale of how too many experts can spoil a good story.

More on omni later . . .

No Queers in California

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:


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

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.