Historical book reviews

1879: Stoddard, Stevenson, and Rincon Hill

Sometime in 1879:
The house on Rincon Hill

Last week I read to you from In the Footprints of the Padres, Charles Warren Stoddard’s 1902 reminiscences about the early days of San Francisco.

That piece recounted a boyhood adventure, but this book is full of California stories from the latter years of the 19th century; some deservedly obscure, but some that ring pretty loud bells.

Todays’ short text is a great example of the latter, one that dovetails beautifully with two other San Francisco stories, both of which I’ve talked about at Sparkletack: the story of the Second Street Cut and the visit of Robert Louis Stevenson.

The now all-grown-up Stoddard had returned to San Francisco after the Polynesian peregrinations that would inspire his best-known work, and Stevenson had just arrived from Scotland in hot pursuit of the woman he loved.

The two authors hit it off, and — as you’ll hear at the end of today’s Timecapsule — it’s to Stoddard and the house on Rincon Hill that we owe Stevenson’s eventual fascination with the South Seas.

charles warren stoddardSouth Park and Rincon Hill!

Do the native sons of the golden West ever recall those names and think what dignity they once conferred upon the favored few who basked in the sunshine of their prosperity?

South Park, with its line of omnibuses running across the city to North Beach; its long, narrow oval, filled with dusty foliage and offering a very weak apology for a park; its two rows of houses with, a formal air, all looking very much alike, and all evidently feeling their importance. There were young people’s “parties” in those days, and the height of felicity was to be invited to them.

As a height o’ertops a hollow, so Rincon Hill looked down upon South Park. There was more elbow-room on the breezy height; not that the height was so high or so broad, but it was breezy; and there was room for the breeze to blow over gardens that spread about the detached houses their wealth of color and perfume.

How are the mighty fallen! The Hill, of course, had the farthest to fall. South Parkites merely moved out: they went to another and a better place. There was a decline in respectability and the rent-roll, and no one thinks of South Park now, — at least no one speaks of it above a whisper.

As for the Hill, the Hillites hung on through everything; the waves of commerce washed all about it and began gnawing at its base; a deep gully was cut through it, and there a great tide of traffic ebbed and flowed all day. At night it was dangerous to pass that way without a revolver in one’s hand; for that city is not a city in the barbarous South Seas, whither preachers of the Gospel of peace are sent; but is a civilized city and proportionately unsafe.

A cross-street was lowered a little, and it leaped the chasm in an agony of wood and iron, the most unlovely object in a city that is made up of all unloveliness. The gutting of this Hill cost the city the fortunes of several contractors, and it ruined the Hill forever. There is nothing left to be done now but to cast it into the midst of the sea.

I had sported on the green with the goats of goatland ere ever the stately mansion had been dreamed of; and it was my fate to set up my tabernacle one day in the ruins of a house that even then stood upon the order of its going, — it did go impulsively down into that “most unkindest cut,” the Second Street chasm. Even the place that once knew it has followed after.

charles_stoddard_second_street_cutThe ruin I lived in had been a banker’s Gothic home. When Rincon Hill was spoiled by bloodless speculators, he abandoned it and took up his abode in another city. A tenant was left to mourn there. Every summer the wild winds shook that forlorn ruin to its foundations. Every winter the rains beat upon it and drove through and through it, and undermined it, and made a mush of the rock and soil about it; and later portions of that real estate deposited themselves, pudding-fashion, in the yawning abyss below.

I sat within, patiently awaiting the day of doom; for well I knew that my hour must come. I could not remain suspended in midair for any length of time: the fall of the house at the northwest corner of Harrison and Second Streets must mark my fall.

While I was biding my time, there came to me a lean, lithe stranger. I knew him for a poet by his unshorn locks and his luminous eyes, the pallor of his face and his exquisitely sensitive hands. As he looked about my eyrie with aesthetic glance, almost his first words were: “What a background for a novel!” He seemed to relish it all–the impending crag that might topple any day or hour; the modest side door that had become my front door because the rest of the building was gone; the ivy-roofed, geranium-walled conservatory wherein I slept like a Babe in the Wood, but in densest solitude and with never a robin to cover me.

He liked the crumbling estate, and even as much of it as had gone down into the depths forever. He liked the sagging and sighing cypresses, with their roots in the air, that hung upon and clung upon the rugged edge of the remainder. He liked the shaky stairway that led to it (when it was not out of gear), and all that was irrelative and irrelevant; what might have been irritating to another was to him singularly appealing and engaging; for he was a poet and a romancer, and his name was Robert Louis Stevenson. He used to come to that eyrie on Rincon Hill to chat and to dream; he called it “the most San Francisco-ey part of San Francisco,” and so it was.

It was the beginning and the end of the first period of social development on the Pacific coast. The little glimpse that Louis Stevenson had of it in its decay gave him a few realistic pages for The Wrecker.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve got to read those “few realistic pages” of Stevenson’s — and here they are.

Robert Louis StevensonFaces on the City Front

from The Wrecker, chapter 8:

The first of these incidents brought me in acquaintance with a certain San Francisco character, who had something of a name beyond the limits of the city, and was known to many lovers of good English.

I had discovered a new slum, a place of precarious, sandy cliffs, deep, sandy cuttings, solitary, ancient houses, and the butt-ends of streets. It was already environed. The ranks of the street-lamps threaded it unbroken. The city, upon all sides of it, was tightly packed, and growled with traffic.

To-day, I do not doubt the very landmarks are all swept away; but it offered then, within narrow limits, a delightful peace, and (in the morning, when I chiefly went there) a seclusion almost rural. On a steep sand-hill, in this neighbourhood, toppled, on the most insecure foundation, a certain row of houses, each with a bit of garden, and all (I have to presume) inhabited. Thither I used to mount by a crumbling footpath, and in front of the last of the houses, would sit down to sketch.

The very first day I saw I was observed, out of the ground-floor window by a youngish, good-looking fellow, prematurely bald, and with an expression both lively and engaging.

The second, as we were still the only figures in the landscape, it was no more than natural that we should nod.

The third, he came out fairly from his intrenchments, praised my sketch, and with the impromptu cordiality of artists carried me into his apartment; where I sat presently in the midst of a museum of strange objects, — paddles and battle-clubs and baskets, rough-hewn stone images, ornaments of threaded shell, cocoanut bowls, snowy cocoanut plumes — evidences and examples of another earth, another climate, another race, and another (if a ruder) culture.

Nor did these objects lack a fitting commentary in the conversation of my new acquaintance. Doubtless you have read his book. You know already how he tramped and starved, and had so fine a profit of living, in his days among the islands; and meeting him, as I did, one artist with another, after months of offices and picnics, you can imagine with what charm he would speak, and with what pleasure I would hear.

It was in such talks, which we were both eager to repeat, that I first heard the names — first fell under the spell — of the islands; and it was from one of the first of them that I returned (a happy man) with Omoo under one arm, and my friend’s own adventures under the other.

1854: A future poet’s boyhood outing

charles_warren_stoddardSpring 1854
Charles Warren Stoddard

In 1854, the down-on-their-luck Stoddard family set off from New York City to try their luck in that brand new metropolis of the West: San Francisco.

Charles Warren Stoddard was just 11 years old, and San Francisco — still in the throes of the Gold Rush, a vital, chaotic, cosmopolitan stew pot — was the most exciting place a little boy could dream of.

Charles would grow up to play a crucial part in San Francisco’s burgeoning literary scene.

He was just a teenager when his first poems were published in the Golden Era, and his talent and sweet personality were such that he developed long-lasting friendships with the other usual-suspect San Francisco bohemians, Ambrose Bierce, Ina Coolbrith, Bret Harte, and Samuel Clemens.

Stoddard is probably best remembered for the mildly homo-erotic short stories inspired by his extensive travels in the South Seas, but in 1902 he published a kind of memoir entitled In the Footprints of the Padres. As the old song goes, it recalls “the days of old, the days of gold, the days of ’49” from a very personal point of view.

footprints_of_the_padresThe reviewers of the New York Times praised the work for Stoddard’s “vivid and poetic charm”, but I have to admit that I’m mainly in it for his memories.

In this piece, Charles and his little gang of pals are about to embark on a day-long ramble along the north-eastern edge of the city.

Let’s roll the clock back to 1854, and with Charles’ help, put ourselves into the shoes of an 11-year-old boy anticipating the freedom of a sunny spring Saturday.


There was joy in the heart, luncheon in the knapsack, and a sparkle in the eye of each of us as we set forth on our exploring expedition, all of a sunny Saturday. Outside of California there never were such Saturdays as those. We were perfectly sure for eight months in the year that it wouldn’t rain a drop; and as for the other four months — well, perhaps it wouldn’t.

It did not rain so very much even in the rainy season, when it had a perfect right to; therefore there was joy in the heart and no umbrella anywhere about when we prepared to set forth on our day of discovery.

Meigg’s Wharf

We began our adventure at Meigg’s Wharf.

Meiggs Wharf was the original Fisherman’s Wharf. The shallow waters of the cove have been long filled in, but at that time the wharf actually began at Francisco Street between Powell and Mason.

We didn’t go out to the end of it, because there was nothing but crabs there, being hauled up at frequent intervals by industrious crabbers, whose nets fairly fringed the wharf. They lay on their backs by scores and hundreds, and waved numberless legs in the air — I mean the crabs, not the crabbers.

We used to go crabbing ourselves when we felt like it, with a net made of a bit of mosquito-bar stretched over an iron hoop, and with a piece of meat tied securely in the middle of it. When we hauled up those home-made hoop-nets — most everything seems to have been home-made in those days — we used to find one, two, perhaps three huge crabs revolving clumsily about the centre of attraction in the hollow of the net; and then we shouted in glee and went almost wild with excitement.

warners cobweb palaceThe Cobweb Palace

Just at the beginning of Meigg’s Wharf there was a house of entertainment that no doubt had a history and a mystery even in those young days.

Now — I’ve got to interrupt here and explain that Charles is talking about a notorious establishment known as Abe Warner’s Cobweb Palace, and it occurs to me that it’s practically criminal that I’ve never devoted a show to the place! For now I’ll just tell you that it was a San Francisco classic, a terrifically popular saloon run by a man who — due to admiration or superstition — never allowed a spider to be disturbed. But let’s hear young Stoddard’s impression:

We never quite comprehended it: we were too young for that, and too shy and too well-bred to make curious or impertinent inquiry. We sometimes stood at the wide doorway — it was forever invitingly open, — and looked with awe and amazement at paintings richly framed and hung so close together that no bit of the wall was visible. There was a bar at the farther end of the long room, — there was always a bar somewhere in those days; and there were cages filled with strange birds and beasts, — as any one might know with his eyes shut, for the odor of it all was repelling.

The strangest feature of that most strange hostelry was the amazing wealth of cobwebs that mantled it. Cobwebs as dense as crape waved in dusty rags from the ceiling; they veiled the pictures and festooned the picture-frames, that shone dimly through them. Not one of these cobwebs was ever molested — or had been from the beginning of time, as it seemed to us.

A velvet carpet on the floor was worn smooth and almost no trace of its rich flowery pattern was left; but there were many square boxes filled with sand or sawdust and reeking with cigar stumps and tobacco juice. Need I add that some of those pictures were such as our young and innocent eyes ought never to have been laid on? Nor were they fit for the eyes of others.

There was something uncanny about that house. We never knew just what it was, but we had a faint idea that the proprietor’s wife or daughter was a witch; and that she, being as cobwebby as the rest of its furnishings, was never visible.

The wharf in front of the house was a free menagerie. There were bears and other beasts behind prison bars, a very populous monkey cage, and the customary “happy family” looking as dreadfully bored as usual. Then again there were whole rows of parrots and cockatoos and macaws as splendid as rainbow tints could make them, and with tails a yard long at least.

Around Black Point

From this bewildering pageant it was but a step to the beach below. Indeed the water at high tide flowed under that house with much foam and fury; for it was a house founded upon the sand, and it long since toppled to its fall, as all such houses must. We followed the beach, that rounded in a curve toward Black Point.

Black Point is the area on which Fort Mason would later be built, an elevated promontory between Aquatic Park and the Marina.

Just before reaching the Point there was a sandhill of no mean proportions; this, of course, we climbed with pain, only to slide down with perspiration. It was our Alp, and we ascended and descended it with a flood of emotion not unmixed with sand.

Near by was a wreck, — a veritable wreck; for a ship had been driven ashore in the fog and she was left to her fate — and our mercy. Probably it would not have paid to float her again; for of ships there were more than enough. Everything worth while was coming into the harbor, and almost nothing going out of it. We looked upon that old hulk as our private and personal property. At low tide we could board her dry-shod; at high tide we could wade out to her.

We knew her intimately from stem to stern, her several decks, her cabins, lockers, holds; we had counted all her ribs over and over again, and paced her quarter-deck, and gazed up at her stumpy masts — she had been well-nigh dismantled, — and given sailing orders to our fellows amidships in the very ecstasy of circumnavigation. She has gone, gone to her grave in the sea that lapped her timbers as they lay a-rotting under the rocks; and now pestiferous factories make hideous the landscape we found so fair.

As for Black Point, it was a wilderness of beauty in our eyes; a very paradise of live-oak and scrub-oak, and of oak that had gone mad in the whirlwinds and sandstorms that revelled there.

flume black pointThe flume

Beyond Black Point we climbed a trestle and mounted a flume that was our highway to the sea. Through this flume the city was supplied with water.

The flume was a square trough, open at the top and several miles in length. It was cased in a heavy frame; and along the timbers that crossed over it lay planks, one after another, wherever the flume was uncovered. This narrow path, intended for the convenience of the workmen who kept the flume in repair, was our delight. We followed it in the full assurance that we were running a great risk. Beneath us was the open trough, where the water, two or three feet in depth, was rushing as in a mill-race. Had we fallen, we must have been swept along with it, and perhaps to our doom. Sometimes we were many feet in the air, crossing a cove where the sea broke at high tide; sometimes we were in a cut among the rocks on a jutting point; and sometimes the sand from the desert above us drifted down and buried the flume, now roofed over, quite out of sight.

So we came to Fort Point and the Golden Gate — the southern footing of the Golden Gate Bridge would be constructed on this spot about 3/4 of a century later — and beyond the Fort there was more flume and such a stretch of sea and shore and sunshine as caused us to leap with gladness.


The San Francisco “Cocktail Route”

The Cocktail Route — “Champagne Days of San Francisco”

Spring is most definitely in the air right now, which has brought my thoughts back to one of the great phenomena of San Francisco’s pre-earthquake era, the “Cocktail Route”.

champagne-days-of-san-franciscoI know I’ve mentioned the “Cocktail Route” in previous shows, but I’m not sure if I’ve made it clear that it was both a real, chartable path and a kind of a beloved civic institution. I’m far from an expert on the subject, though — for details, the woman to consult is Evelyn Wells.

If you ever start nosing around the 1890s, that most sparkling decade of the Gilded Age — you’ll inevitably end up perusing a charming volume from 1939 entitled Champagne Days of San Francisco. Evelyn Wells wrote for Fremont Older at the San Francisco Call back in the day, and in this lovingly written narrative she reveals the City’s quirks, foibles and peculiarly San Francisco-flavoured ways of doing business through a trio of characters called only the Senator, the Banker, and the Judge.

And though it’s completely un-footnoted and occasionally inaccurate, Evelyn’s portrayals are so vivid, and provide such entertaining insight into the way lives were lived among San Francisco’s upper crust, that this book is always right up there at the top of my recommended reading list.

I’m going to start right in on a lightly edited version of Chapter Four, “The Cocktail Route” — and I think you’ll see exactly what I mean.

geary at kearny streets, lotta's fountain - 1885The Cocktail Route

The Senator, like all true sons of the Champagne Age, never permitted pleasure to disrupt the even flow of business. “No matter how enthusiastically we celebrate the week-end,” once commented, “we are always in our offices by two on Monday afternoon.”

Easy-living, unhurried San Francisco had resumed the burden of life again by two o’clock … the male population that had celebrated so violently the week-end had resumed responsibility — personal, civic, or state. Again, in bearded dignity, the men of the vivid nineties trod the corridors of banks and hotels and courts. Life was real and very earnest, until five o’clock.

At five the Senator drew his large gold watch from its chamois bag and sighed with relief. It was Cocktail Hour.

All over San Francisco at this moment men were buttoning Prince Alberts and cutaways, balancing derbies and toppers, preparatory to venturing forth into Montgomery, Kearny, and Market Streets, following a Cocktail Route famous around the world.

On the Route they would meet friends discuss politics and the latest scandal, and adjust matters of business.

The Cocktail Route was a tradition. Created in the eighties, in the city where free lunch and the cocktail itself was born, it was trod by San Francisco males “to the Fire” of ’06.

The Senator proceeded down Kearny Street to Sutter, to the Reception Saloon where the Cocktail Route began, at five on weekdays and earlier on Saturdays. Some men started the Route at its opposite end, on upper Market Street. But the Senator adhered to tradition. To start the Route at the wrong end was to upset a man’s entire evening.

There was no haste in the Senator’s gait. Men did not hurry in the Champagne Age. There was no “after-work” rush at five o’clock. At that hour loitered along the streets and strolled leisurely through swinging doors upon such scenes, rich and warm, as greeted the Senator’s brightening eye when he marched into the Reception Saloon.

For the saloon, in champagne days, was more than a warm meeting place at the day’s end. It was a man’s club and salon and conference place.

Fleas, cold, poor beds, and drafty lodgings had driven the pioneer into the saloon. Food, drink, and conviviality held him there. In the nineties comparatively few saloons were cursed by the prophetic legend over a side door, “Family Entrance”. It was still a man’s age. The saloon was still a haven against feminity. In it elections were predetermined, political machines adjusted, and voting machines “fixed”.

san-francisco-saloonFor a moment, halting in the heady atmosphere, the Senator’s noble nose quivered over his splendid beard. Surely, over this fragrance of imported liquor and Havana smoke and sundry mouth-watering odors emanating from the free lunch counter, there hovered the scent of freshly cooked terrapin! Other saloons had other specialties, such as crab, turkey, or corned beef.

The sparkle of gas-light through crystal candelabra shone on colorful banks of bottles, large mirrors, and expensive oil paintings, white-coated bartenders, and many friends of the Senator grouped along the shining mahogany bar. Here were the leaders of the city — merchants, judges, politicians, bankers, newspaper men, and gay young blades, resplendent in striped trousers, fine cravats, and amazing waistcoats, some brocaded, some of moleskin and one, even, of seal. A few men carried canes crooked over arms not needed at the bar.

Low-voiced, well-mannered, they made room for the Senator.

For the rest of the content of this podcast, you’re going to have to, well, either listen to it, or peruse Chapter Four of “Champagne Days of San Francisco“!

1852: English adventurer Frank Marryat pays a visit to a San Francisco Gold Rush barbershop.

more-san-francisco-memoirs1852: A Gold Rush shaving-saloon

I love personal accounts of the goings-on in our little town more than just about anything. The sights, the smells, the daily routine … I want the nuts and bolts of what it was like to live here THEN!

It’s even better when the eyeballs taking it all in belong to an outsider, a visiting alien to whom everything’s an oddity.

For my birthday a couple of years ago my Lady Friend gave me a book that’s packed to the gills with this kind of first-person account. It’s called — aptly enough — San Francisco Memories. And because I’m kind of a dope, it’s only just occurred to me that this stuff is the absolute epitome of what a timecapsule should be — and that I really ought to be sharing some of this early San Francisco gold with you.

Ahem. So share it I will.

Our correspondent: Frank Marryat

Frank Marryat was the son of Captain Frederick Marryat, famous English adventurer and author of popular seafaring tales. A chip off the old block, young Frank had himself already written a book of traveler’s tales from Borneo and the Indian archipelago. Looking for a new writing subject, he set his sights on an even more exotic locale — Gold Rush California.

mountains-and-mole-hillsIn 1850, with manservant and three hunting dogs in tow, Frank left the civilized shores of England behind, crossed the Atlantic and the Isthmus of Panama, and made his way towards the Golden Gate.

The book that resulted, California Mountains and Molehills, would be published in 1855 — ironically the year of Marryat’s own demise from yellow fever.

He covers a phenomenal amount of oddball San Francisco and early California history, all neatly collected to satisfy the curiousity of his English reading public — the Chinese question, the Committee of Vigilance, squatter wars, bears, rats, oysters, gold, even the pickled head of Joaquin Murieta — and to top it off, Marryat sailed into the Bay just as San Francisco was being destroyed (again) by fire, this one the Great June Fire of 1850!

Don’t worry. They’ll have the city rebuilt in a couple of weeks, in plenty of time for Frank to spend some quality months slumming in the Gold Country, and then, like the rest of the Argonauts, ride down into the big city for supplies — and a shave.

That’s right — put your feet up and relax — in today’s Timecapsule, we’re going to visit a Gold Rush barber shop.

from California Mountains and Molehills, 1852

high-and-dry-marryat-1850Gorgeous decoration is characteristic of San Francisco; the people pay high prices for the necessaries of life, so velvet and gilt work is thrown into the bargain. In the “shaving-saloons” this system of internal decoration is carried out in great force, and the accommodation these establishments afford is indispensable to a Californian public.

Let me suppose myself to have arrived at San Francisco from the mines early one morning. Having traveled down on the Old Soldier, I have no carpet bag of course, and I enter a shaving-saloon.

At a counter I purchase any quantity of linen I may require for the moment, and with this I proceed to the bath-room; when I return from my ablutions, I am asked if I would like my head “shampoo-ed.” With a reckless feeling in respect of shampooing, the result of an intimate acquaintance with Turkish baths, I submit to this operation.

Seating myself on an easy chair of velvet, and placing my legs on an easy stool, also of velvet, I become drowsy under the influence of the fingers and thumbs of the operator, as they are passed over my skull, as if with a view to making a phrenological chart, and which produce a feeling at last as if hundreds of fingers and thumbs were at work, and the whole force of the establishment were scratching my head.

I am conducted to a marble washstand, and a tap of cold water is turned on me. I thought I had washed my head in the bath, but it appears not, judging by the color of the water. My head is dried by hard labor, then it is wetted again by a shower of eau de Cologne and water, thrown at me when least expected.

“Will I be shaved, sir?”

Of course I will!

“Take a seat.”

I sink into the velvet chair, and contemplate my dirty boots, that for days have not known blacking, but have known mud, as they contrast with the crimson pile velvet on which they rest. The back of the chair is raised by means of a screw, until my head is in the proper position for operation.

First I have hot water on my chin, and a finger and thumb (generally the property of a colored gentleman) feels for my beard in a dreamy way with a view to softening the stubble. Then comes the lather, and shave the first, and I am about to get up, when I am stopped by more lather, and shave the second; this is conducted in a slow methodical manner, the finger and thumb wandering about in search of any stray hairs, like gleaners after the harvest.

The operator says not a word to me–San Francisco barbers are not loquacious–but his eyes wander to the open door, and suddenly he leaves me with a rush, and apostrophizing some one passing in the street, he says, “Say, how about that sugar?” The reply is inaudible, but I observe that the barber produces a sample of cigars from his pocket, and says, “See here! Fifty dollars a thousand for these won’t hurt you;” and so, having failed to make a “trade” he comes back, and, as he “finishes” me, he observes, in a general way, that “Damn him if that (the gentleman in the street) wasn’t the meanest man in all creation!”

I am then released, and this was a San Francisco shaving-saloon in 1852.

I read a lot of books about San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! If you feel moved to seek out a copy for yourself, a click on any book image will lead you to an independent book seller. Read on…

An inordinate number of my youthful hours were spent in the company of the mystery novel; Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy L. Sayers … I couldn’t get enough. Somewhere along the line, though, the fixation faded …

But it’s back.

I’ve discovered a series of detective novels that — in a “you got chocolate on my peanut butter!” kind of way — seem to have been written with me in mind:

The setting is 1890’s San Francisco, the lively heart of the Gilded Age. And the detective? None other than our own famously cynical wit-about-town, that brilliant literary misanthrope Mr. Ambrose “Bitter” Bierce.

See what I mean?

Just a minute: Ambrose who?

If the name of Bierce does not ring a bell, a lightning synopsis: after a distinguished but emotionally devastating Civil War military career, Bierce turned up (as so many do) in San Francisco. In the good company of other western literary upstarts (Sam Clemens springs to mind), Ambrose was published in a number of local journals (the Argonaut, the Wasp, etc), quickly earning notoriety for his black humour and caustic wit. “Bitter Bierce” was not one to suffer fools gladly, and was as quick with his tongue as with his pen.

When young Willy Hearst inherited the Examiner newspaper in 1887, one of his first acts was to hire the sardonic Bierce to write for the feisty rag. “Prattle”, as Bierce named his weekly column, gave the prodigiously talented Ambrose a platform from which to champion freedom and intellectual honesty — while tweaking the noses of those he judged hypocritical, vain, or corruptly powerful.

Bierce most famous work today is undoubtedly “The Devil’s Dictionary“, an arch tome featuring humorously barbed definitions of words that you only thought you understood:

BIRTH, n. The first and direst of all disasters.

MARRIAGE, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.

DENTIST, n. A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.

POLITICS, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.

This larger-than-life American original vanished into Mexico in 1913, on a mission to join Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army … and was never heard from again.

Back to the books

It was a brilliant choice: Oakley Hall’s decision to install this curmudgeonly literary figure into not just one but two fields of genre writing (historical fiction / detective fiction) breathes new life into both.

The stories are revealed through the eyes of young reporter Tim Redmond*, who plays a sort of Watson to Ambrose Bierce’s sardonic Sherlock Holmes. Bierce’s principal tools of detection are his enormous intellect and scathing distrust of human nature, and each chapter begins with a definition from the “Devil’s Dictionary” appropriate to the nefarious activity to come.

In a daring departure from standard book review procedures, I’m not going to trouble you with the stories! Oh, the novels are plotted tightly enough, including plenty of action and the requisite twists and turns — they’re absorbing, intelligent, and often funny.

The true pleasures of these novels, however, are to be found in the generous inclusion of TRUCKLOADS of subtle period flavour and details. Oh, the details!

Historical fiction is a tricky business. In pursuit of accuracy, it’s all too easy to create work that’s bone-dry and textbook dull. At the other extreme are romance novels possessing even less authentic connection to their settings than they do literary merit!

Oakley has walked this dangerous path with apparent ease. His San Francisco is a gritty and very real place. The characters are natural without dropping into either period caricature or modern parody. The dialogue is crisp, peppered with sufficient Golden Age vocabulary to keep things real, without unnecessary distraction. Historical headlines and actual events are sewn neatly into the fabric of each storyline, serving to build character and advance the plot. In fact, my professional curiousity had me constantly dropping the novels to research his myriad references — did such-and-such person actually exist? Could that event have actually happened? Was that a legitimate newspaper article? The answer was almost invariably ‘yes’.

“Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks”

“One-Eyed Jacks” happened to be the first volume of Hall’s series that I picked up — here are a few of the very real characters woven into just one book: dashing young publisher William Hearst and his scandalous mistress Tessie Powers; Hearst’s mother Phoebe, fierce controller of the family fortune; Mammy Pleasant, voodoo priestess and powerful puller of strings; Annie Laurie, beloved and controversial red-headed proto-Gonzo journalist; and the list goes on. Chinese “Highbinder” assassins, the Portuguese colony in Sausalito, the bustling valley town of Sacramento, restaurants, music halls, opium dens, the Palace Hotel …

And there are four other books in Hall’s straight flush!

Oakley Hall, Literary Icon

I’d never heard of Mr. Hall before stumbling onto this series, but just a couple of pages were enough to suggest that this guy was no hack. His vivid evocation of the sights, sounds, and oft-disturbing odors of the old City plunges you right into its midst, and his mastery of plotting and dialogue I’ve already mentioned. The man is an artist.

It was only after finishing the first book, though, that I discovered that Oakley Hall was a major presence on the Western literary scene — something which I suspect drew him to Bierce in the first place, as a kind of kindred spirit.

I say “was” a presence, because he passed away just a month ago — in an unhappy coincidence, precisely while I was reading these books. Hall’s obituaries invariably describe him as a serious and gifted author, the inheritor of Wallace Stegner’s Western literary mantle.

From the San Francisco Chronicle — May 16, 2008:

“With the death of Oakley Hall on Monday, the Bay Area — and, by extension, the United States — lost one of its greatest champions of literature.

“Novelist, librettist, instructor and administrator, Hall, who lived a robust 87 years, maintained an influence much larger than his characteristic modesty would suggest. He wrote more than 20 books, nonfiction and fiction, many of which were revered in a hot-eyed, proselytizing way by fellow writers who saw in Hall’s work a complete command of the craft. His fifth novel, “Warlock,” for instance, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1958, earned the pulpit-pounding praise of Thomas Pynchon, who called it “one of our best American novels.”

“Hall helped set up not one but two literary institutions – the writing program at UC Irvine, where he was the director for 20 years, and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, which he co-founded in 1969 — whose alumni (Michael Chabon, Richard Ford, et. al.) have seen their work land on the pages of top magazines, glide their way up national best-seller lists and pocket such honors as the Pulitzer.”

Should you read them?

If you’ve been paying attention, you already know the answer.

Oakley Hall’s five-volume Ambrose Bierce series represents the small foray of a literary giant into genre fiction, and frankly, it’s a lucky break for us that he decided to go slumming. I can’t recommend these books highly enough.

Read ’em … you won’t regret it. Check at your local independent bookstore, or click to order your own copy from Powells Books online. (books listed in chronological order)

*Incidentally, I can’t help wondering if Redmond was named in tribute to the executive editor of today’s Bay Guardian, TIM Redmond. What do you think?

I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if you feel moved to seek out a copy for yourself, a click on the image of the book below will lead you to an independent book seller. Read on…

An email from a Tennessee book publisher plopped into my inbox a few weeks ago, trying to whip up interest in a coffee table book about historical Paris. I found this mildly interesting, but was about to write it off as spam when my eye fell on the last paragraph. Almost a throwaway, it mentioned Rebecca Schall’s previous book, “Historic Photos of San Francisco”. I perked right up, and then read the following:

“We’d love to send you a complimentary copy for possible review consideration”.

Yes, please!

As noted above, my policy in doing book reviews is that if it sucks, my review will consist of pointed disregard.

Was that ever NOT the case here. I (literally) jumped up and down as I flipped through the pages of this 200+ page treasure chest. This book is fantastic — nothing but fun!

It’s organized into several sections, each introduced with carefully composed scene-setting text, but I must confess — I have yet to read a word of it. Ahem — allow me to direct your attention once again to the title: “Historic Photos of San Francisco”. That’s it — photos. Barrels full. Rare photos and old favourites, culled from archives all around the Bay Area. I’m telling you, this book is loaded.

Historical photos!

I’m going to open the volume at random, and just drop a few of these gems on you:

page 9: For my money this is the best shot of San Francisco’s old shoreline, now long-buried underneath the Financial District. You’re seeing the northwest corner of today’s Broadway and (the then aptly-named) Front Streets, with Telegraph Hill in the background. (1865)

page 18: The San Francisco Police Department’s notorious Chinatown Squad, formed to combat opium dens, gambling halls, brothels, etc. Note the sledgehammers! (1895)

page 21: Elegantly dressed family on Bush Street, no doubt enroute to one of San Francisco’s myriad downtown theatres. (1877)

page 153: The cable car turnaround at Powell and Market — years before the City turned Powell into a cul-de-sac. (1945)

And there’s so much more. A shot of a captured Japanese midget submarine being “exorcised” by a Chinese priest. Electric streetcars plowing through flooded streets. Wreckage from the 1906 Great Fire and Earthquake. An aerial shot of Ocean Beach, featuring windmills and a sparsely settled Sunset District. The opening of the Lefty O’Doul drawbridge. Rocky Marciano boxing at Kezar Stadium.

There are lots of high-profile historical events represented here, but the street scenes are my favourites — the accidental capturing-in-amber of average Joe and Josephine San Francisco just going about their business.

Whatever your pleasure, it’s probably here in glorious and crisply detailed black and white — each photo dated, documented, and nicely put into context. There are other books in the category of “cool shots of the old city”, but if you’re looking for instant transportation to every decade of San Francisco’s history, give this one a look.

Meet the author

If you enjoy it as much as I did, drop by Rebecca Schall’s book signing. Though born in San Francisco, she now lives in Paris, so it’s a rare-ish event. It’s at a place I normally don’t set foot in, a chain store in the more touristed part of town — but what the heck: June 14th, 3pm at the Fisherman’s Wharf Barnes & Noble.

Tell her Sparkletack sent you.

Click here to order from an independent online bookstore.

I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if you feel moved to seek out a copy for yourself, a click on the image of the book below will lead you to an independent book seller. Read on…

This odd little tale was brought to my attention by a listener who could not believe that I hadn’t mentioned it in my podcast about Robert Louis Stevenson.

Of course I hadn’t mentioned it because I’d never heard of it. In fact, I’d never read a single line of Stevenson’s short fiction, but with my listener’s promise that it was “spectacularly weird and wonderful”, I trundled off to the library to dig it up.

Boy did that trip ever pay off. The story actually was spectacularly weird — and impossible to put down. I read the entire (very short) book on my feet, unwilling to interrupt the flow by searching for a chair.

My reader — okay, he does have a name — “Scott” had been surprised at the absence of this tale from my podcast. Though most of the action takes place in the Kingdom of Hawaii, the bizarre little fable actually begins among the mansions of San Francisco’s Nob Hill. I hesitate to delve too deeply into the plot — I’d hate to spoil it for you — but a brief synopsis is probably in order:

The Story

Keawe, a young kanaka (as native Hawaiians were known in those days), shows up in San Francisco and buys a strange little bottle from a wealthy, sad-eyed gentleman. A hideous imp trapped inside the bottle has the power to grant every wish and desire of whoever owns it. True to the tale’s fairytale form, though, there’s a devilishly clever catch — why else would the gentleman wish to sell the article responsible for his vast fortune? The bottle must always be sold for less than the price it was purchased for. It may not be thrown or given away – a proposition which Keawe carefully tests — and if the owner dies without having sold it, “he must burn in hell for ever.”

The bottle was said to have been brought to Earth by the Devil and first purchased by Prester John for millions of dollars; as it passed from hand to hand, the price always decreasing, the imp brought fame, fortune and power to men like Napoleon and Captain James Cook. At the beginning of Stevenson’s tale the price has diminished to a mere eighty dollars, and by the end, well — this provides the crux of the Keawe’s dilemma.

It’s a great story, but San Francisco makes only a brief appearance. As Keawe wanders up from the port in the first pages, he looks around him and observes,

“This is a fine town, with a fine harbour, and rich people uncountable; and in particular, there is one hill which is covered with palaces. What fine houses these are! And how happy must those people be who dwell in them, and take no care for the morrow!”

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson is best known for adventure novels like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, but he was a master of horror and the supernatural as well … in his own words, “engaged darkly with an ink bottle.” As an example The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde springs quickly to mind, but short stories such as Markheim and The Body Snatcher also illustrate his ongoing fascination with the subject.

The Nob Hill setting of the first chapter comes from Stevenson’s own San Francisco experience. He lived at a boardinghouse on Bush Street from 1879-80, but — as detailed in “Chinatown Treasure” — he had a propensity for avoiding the Nabobs on the hill. Instead, he spent his time with outsiders — the immigrants of Chinatown. The choosing of a working class non-white for the role of protagonist in the “The Bottle Imp” was no coincidence.


I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if you feel moved to seek out a copy for yourself, a click on the image of the book below leads to the website of the independent book seller nearest you. Read on…

“When I was a boy they built an island in the center of San Francisco Bay that was the capsule of my dreams. It was a peaceable island, crowned with towers and glittering with light, that seemed to float like a vision in a sea of gold — an earthly paradise where boys could feast on buttered scones and fried potatoes and the world was flat”

Thus begins Richard Reinhardt’s delightful and beautifully written memoir/history “Treasure Island; San Francisco’s Exposition Years”. As I plowed through piles of material while researching the Treasure Island podcasts, this book leapt out at me, outshining its fellow tomes like a diamond in a dustbin. There’s a blend of lively nostalgia, serious research, and generous helpings of vintage black and white photographs which make for the most inviting and readable history of Treasure Island that I’ve ever come across.

Reinhardt was a small boy living in a quiet Oakland neighborhood when the Great Depression struck, and the advent of Treasure Island was the greatest event of his young life. His writing is unapologetically filtered through these vivid and happy childhood memories, which makes every page a joy.


I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if you feel moved to seek out a copy for yourself, a click on the image of the book below leads to the website of the independent book seller nearest you. Read on…

The San Francisco Almanac is good. By which I mean “there’s a ridiculous amount of information here, and watch out — it may prove addictive”. This thing is so rich that I almost hesitate to expose it to the general public, in case it escalates your already debilitating obsession with San Francisciana!

Where has this been all my life?

But enough gushing. You probably already know author Gladys Hansen through the Virtual Museum of San Francisco, or through her work on the Great Register, the quest to identify the uncounted victims of the 1906 earthquake and fire.

The subtitle of the San Francisco Almanac is “Everything You Wanted to Know About Everyone’s Favorite City”, and that pretty much describes it. An almanac is, according to the dictionary, “a reference book of useful and interesting facts”, and this is nothing less than an attempt to cram every fact about San Francisco on record into a single small volume.


I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if you feel moved to seek out a copy for yourself, a click on the image of the book below leads to the website of the independent book seller nearest you. Read on…

Is one allowed to begin a book review with a quote from another book review? A line from the New York Times is printed right on the cover of River of Shadows: “Brilliant … Never less than deeply intelligent, and often very close to inspired”.

“River of Shadows” traces the life and spasmodic career of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, probably most famous for the groundbreaking photographic motion studies of the 1870s. The holy grail of Victorian darkroom alchemists was, at least photographically speaking, to successfully freeze motion onto a chemical plate. Sponsored by wealthy equestrian (and railroad robber baron) Leland Stanford, Muybridge proved decisively that a racing horse’s feet do simultaneously leave the ground — and put the lie to centuries of painterly attempts at realism.

But this ambitious work is far, far more than a simple biography. It’s true subject is, in the stock phrase of the day, the “annihilation of time and space” — the technological transformation of not only the American west, but of the world. San Franciscan Rebecca Solnit paints a vivid, poetic, and meticulously detailed picture of the ferment and excitement of the Victorian technological revolution… and Muybridge’s part in precipitating the inexorable advance of our highly accelerated and regulated modern way of life.

The odd (and possibly brain-injured) life of Eadweard Muybridge provides the main thread of the work, but Solnit does not miss an opportunity to follow other fascinating fragments of the Western drama: Charles Darwin, Emperor Norton, John Muir, Yosemite, Thomas Edison, the “Ghost Dance” of the Modoc War, even George Takei… you begin to flip the pages more and more quickly, wondering what unexpectedly compelling intersection will be uncovered on the next. The photographer’s experiments with image, time and speed lead to him personal glory, heartbreak, and even murder on the way to becoming the godfather of those two most influential “California” institutions: Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

Filled with striking and poetic images, this book manages to combine literary aspirations and scholarly accuracy in a way which unexpectedly results in a real page-turner… there are few in its class. And what’s more, it was handed to me by my friend Paul with the words, “I thought of you the whole time I read it” — nothing like that to prick up one’s ears. And I think you’ll like it too.

Click here to order from an independent online bookstore.

I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if you feel moved to seek out a copy for yourself, a click on the image of the book below leads to the website of the independent book seller nearest you. Read on…

I spent a few evenings this week re-reading Sam Clemens’ rough and ready review of his early experiences in the Wild West, just to see how it would hold up to my memories of it. And to tell you the truth, I enjoyed it even more.

The beauty of this book is two-fold: it’s a work in which you can see the voice of the glimpse of life on the frontier written by a man who experienced it as a wide-eyed and enthusiastic youth — but also a work in which one sees the development of an authentic American voice.

The memoir — for that’s more or less what it is — covers the years between 1861, when young Sam joins his brother on a journey to his appointment as the secretary to the governor of the Nevada Territory, to his eventual voyage to the recently subdued Hawaiian islands in 1866. During this span young Sam meets bandits, Pony Express riders, indians and Mormons; tries his hand and fails at dozens of occupations; becomes the untutored editor of a newspaper, burns down half a mountain range; is nearly drowned, crushed, and frozen to death; throws himself into mining and even becomes a millionaire, though only for two weeks — and does not miss an opportunity to poke fun at the “new western man” and his own callow youth.

It’s a novelistic account, by which I don’t mean that it’s organized and disciplined into some kind of strict and narrow structure — it is in fact sprawling and haphazardly organized — but that it isn’t, per se, a “factual account” of Sam Clemens experiences in the West. He’s created a fictionalized version of himself to deliver these reminiscinces, and though Sam was in all these places and met all (or most) of the characters involved, he exaggerates, embroiders and inflates from the opening pages to the final period. Not that there’s any intent of trickery — he’s writing with a broad wink. In fact, when he wants to impress upon the reader the actual truth of a thing, he pulls aside the veil of exaggeration and tells him so.

I can’t say that the entire work is a success; some of Sam’s digressions (he has no fear of stepping out of the timeline to recite an anecdote about a camel he met in the Holy Land, or to deliver a screed about the failings of the jury system) are distracting; some of the humourous set pieces fail to gel, but I often laughed out loud, and found many passages so deliciously composed, so gorgeous or hilarious that I discovered myself constantly interrupting my lady friend and reading aloud.

Ernest Hemingway famously wrote that all modern American literature was inspired by Clemen’s writing, and the dry wit, droll rhythms and sheer enjoyment of the new American vernacular spring fresh from every page. I may be prejudiced in favor of anything Sam writes, and even more likely when it has to do with his life in the West. Where the mention of his pseudonym “Mark Twain” automatically evokes the Mississippi, riverboats and Huck Finn in others, for me it’s the wild west — I’m convinced that the authentic voice of the man was forged out here, and the opportunity to peek over his shoulder and live it along with him is absolutely priceless.

Click here to order from an independent online bookstore.