Saturday, June 11, 2011

Realms of Gold: The Colorful Writers of San Francisco 1850-1950 by George Rathmell

Published by Infinity Publishing
Reviewed for Review the Book

A history book with a twist, we learn about the beginnings and growth of San Francisco as seen by its many famous writers and poets through a century. I thought this was a novel way to learn the fullness and diversity of this early city. From the '49ers scrambling for gold to the post-WWII era, George Rathmell has covered a lot of ground. I was surprised to find that the early writers were primarily poets, even those who went on to writing articles and books.

This book has been well-researched, the city and inhabitants raucous and lively. The author makes use of plausible conversation and real quotes, working with these to form his own brand of writing, entertaining yet informative. To get so much history of these great writers all in one book is quite an accomplishment. The problem is that it is neither here nor there, not just a history of the city and not just a history of the more famous writers who either lived for some time in the city or visited. Don't expect the book to feature one or the other exclusively.

This is also a work showing how different California was, especially prior to statehood, from the east and the south of the country. Different climate, cultures, entertainments, freedoms, and possibly more opportunity for women. I enjoyed meeting these characters of the early days. Some authors and entertainers who have stood the test of time were featured in this book: Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and Samuel Clemens, all were long-term visitors to historic San Francisco. Clemens did not go by his Mark Twain persona until later. Young Jack London, born in San Francisco, Bret Harte, and the famous dancer Isadora Duncan. All wonderful entertainers in their own right. To read the progressions in the lives of these people, combined with the progress of the city, brings the book alive.

As the century changes, so too does the city and its people. Several local and world events take place over the next 50 years changing San Francisco forever. The Great Earthquake of 1906 and the ensuing maelstrom of fire destroying the city, and many of the authors’ manuscripts, is vividly described from the eyes of these authors. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 with the International Congress of Authors, underscores a new breed of writer and the aging of the original group. World War I, and the Spanish Influenza, authors Dashiell Hammett and John Steinbeck. The death of Ina Coolbrith in 1928, the last of the original Bohemian group. The Depression of the ‘30s, bringing people from the Dust Bowl of the central States into San Francisco, and new authors such as William Saroyan. The Golden Gate Exposition 1939-1940 followed by the attack on Pearl Harbour which threw the United States into World War II. A mix of devastation and exhilaration.

The early days are laid to rest but the earliest writers and poets of San Francisco are immortalized in parks and monuments, the spokespersons of the Golden Era of San Francisco. What a challenge this story must have been. The author has managed to squeeze a century into this book, bringing the city to life through the writings of these "Bohemians" who saw and documented these earliest days. Considering the volume of information he must have accumulated, this book is well written.

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