Realms of Gold: The Colorful Writers of San Francisco, 1850-1950
Few regions in America can equal the rich literary history of San Francisco and its surrounding areas with authors such as Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Isadora Duncan, Jack London, Robinson Jeffers, Dashiell Hammett, John Steinbeck, William Saroyan, Henry Miller, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Realms of Gold gives us a fresh look at the lives of these writers and portrays the development of the city from a Gold Rush boom town through its rapid growth as a commercial port and rail head, its destruction in 1906, its rebirth, to its post-World War II status as a major urban center. - Back cover.
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(An extended version of this review is available <a href="http://www.suite101.com/content/book-review-realms-of-gold-colorful-writers-of-san-francisco-a336107">here</a>.)
George Rathmell's <i>Realms of Gold: The Colorful Writers of San Francisco 1850-1950</i> is a hybrid. Part history, part genealogy, and part literary overview, the book is nevertheless consistently entertaining, painting a fascinating yet intimate portrait of San Francisco's best creative wit.
<i>Realms of Gold</i> builds its narrative through the relationships between the writers of San Francisco and the social, political and cultural milieu in which they lived. The book discusses in great detail Sam Clemens's desire to go home rich, followed by his freefall into poverty when the bottom fell out of the silver market.
Rathmell describes the mental vacillations and resulting travels of Charley Stoddard in phases, bringing Stoddard in and out of a Stateside literary scene that involves great poets (Ina Coolbrith), not-so-great poets (Cincinnatus "Joaquin" Miller, Minnie Miller), writers struggling to survive (Clemens), writers surviving spectacularly (Ambrose Bierce), and writers suffering with personal and familial demons (Stoddard and Harte).
A brilliant book - not to be missed.
From the short description I read of Realms of Gold on a website, I was expecting to find pieces about San Francisco written by people such as Mark Twain, Brett Hart, and Henry Miller. Having lived in San Francisco, I was looking forward to this. If I’d had the chance to read the back of the book I would have known differently. As this is clearly not the writers fault, I put my expectations aside as I read this book. This is, instead, a history of one century of SF, told via the lives of it’s writers and artists. Incredibly detailed, George Rathmell has obviously spent a tremendous amount of time researching the those living in or visiting SF from 1850 -- 1950. It appears he has not left one fact out.
Rathmell’s style is not that of the typical academic tome. This book is interesting to read. The reader sees, hears, even smells the city as he moves through streets and neighborhoods. Unfortunately for the casual history fan, the book is packed with minutia and lacks a narrative focus. As an historian at heart, his structure is strictly chronological, so a brief mention of Jack London leaving for Alaska, for instance, isn’t followed by more of his life, but by intervening facts about other people. I found this disjointed style frustrating, especially since equal or more space and emphasis was given to the obscure vs. the well known. (Joaquin Miller and Ina Coolbrith, for example, compared with Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce.)
This lack of distinction between familiar with and the less well known characters makes Realms of Gold tough going for the more casual reader. I would have preferred to follow one person throughout the book. An index would have been helpful here.
Taken as a detailed, chronological compendium of the activities of writers and artists who populated SF during that decade, however, I would judge Realms of Gold a readable success.
(I received this book without charge in exchange for a review. I don’t review books that I wouldn’t consider reading anyway, and don’t give special consideration to books I receive for free. All opinions are my own. Honestly.)