"The Literature of California" edited by Jack Hicks, James D. Houston, Maxine Hong Kingston and Al Young, is a wonderful, overdue collection of writings from the Golden State that stemmed from a resentment.
"We all have known each other for at least 20 years," said Hicks of the UC Davis English department in a recent interview. "And one topic of conversation that kept coming up was the fact that the publishing industry, centered in New York, sees us as colonies and treats major writers out here with distant indifference."
Specifically, said Hicks, there was no resource, no book that gathered together the best examples and treated the literature of the state with sophistication and inclusion.
"Someone said, 'Why don't you write your own?' so we did," Hicks added.
So this is it, a 21st century book that recognizes the richness of California literature. It's edited by a Chinese-American woman, an African-American man, and two Anglo scholars with roots in the proletariat.
Kingston lives in the Oakland Hills. She is working on a novel titled "The Fifth Book of Peace." Al Young lives in Berkeley where he is working on a novel called "A Piece of Cake." The latest book by Jim Houston of Santa Cruz, "Snow Mountain Passage," will be out in March.
"All are working, self-supporting writers," said Hicks. And while getting all the principals together at the same time and place is not always easy, plans are under way for publication parties to be held in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento. The Sacramento event, to be co-hosted by state Librarian Kevin Starr, will be held in mid-January 2001.
But the collection doesn't stop merely with an assemblage of black, Asian, Chicano/Latino and Native American writings.
"We also wanted the book to be inclusive demographically," said Hicks. First came Native Americans living along the coastal regions, then came regions such as San Francisco and Los Angeles. It also includes the deserts, Hollywood, and the Gold Country, each area represented by a writer (Mary Austin, Nathanael West, Bret Harte, respectively).
And the editors decided early on that they wanted this big book about California to be published in California.
"University of California Press was ideal," said Hicks. "We approached them and worked out a deal for a two-volume set."
The first volume covers California writing from 1510 to 1944. The second volume, which will be out in 2002 or 2003 will cover 1945 to present.
Volume I includes selections by more than 80 writers, with introductory essays and head notes for literary, cultural and historical contexts. More than 20 photographs highlight major figures. It has four sections: (1) the literature of indigenous California Indians before European contact; (2) accounts of discovery, exploration, and travel (1769-1865); (3) the "Golden Age" of California letters, from Mark Twain to Jack London and Mary Austin (1865-1915); and (4) the 20th century coming of age-from Robinson Jeffers to Jade Snow Wong and Chester Himes-in which writers reflect the concerns of the state and find international stature (1915-1945).
Familiar names (Twain to Steinbeck) are included, but selections also dramatize California's turbulent cultural history (Ruiz de Burton, Noguchi, Sui Sin Far, Bulosan, Thurman and Himes) and chronicle fascination and disenchantment with the "Golden Dream."
"The process of selecting writers to go in this book was very interesting," said Hicks. "I worked in close contacts with the three other editors to arrive at, for instance, what constituted a California writer. Robert Frost was born in San Francisco but he is in no way a California writer."
Hicks also had to do a lot of somewhat obscure reading to help make selections for "Literature of California."
"I read more novels by Gertrude Atherton to find a representative work than 99 percent of the citizens of California," he said. "And I read 'The Little Mountain Princess' by Ella Sterling Mighels, the book that's called the first California novel. Only one copy exists."
And Hicks said he was very involved writing the head notes that introduce each writer and his or her work.
"The people behind the stories are wonderful," he said. "People like Charles Lummis who walked from Ohio to Los Angeles. He was truly demented and wildly in love with the southwest."
Lummis worked for the L.A. Times and was an untiring supporter of California. Several of his pieces are included in the collection.
And while Hicks will use this collection as a textbook for his class on the literature of California, he and the other editors also wanted to offer lay readers in the state a sense of their own literary culture. In this they have succeeded.
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