“Because of this region’s unique pattern of settlement, English-language literature blossomed early in California, especially in San Francisco. That city-to-be quickly became a transplanted East Coast seaport, with a diverse and surprisingly well-educated population, a situation roughly reflective of the entire territory.
By the 1850s, when men much outnumbered the women in the population, Louisa Smith Clapp (Dame Shirley) joined John Rollin Ridge (Yellow Bird), Alonzo Delano (Old Block) and George Horatio Derby (John Phoenix) in making significant literary marks in Northern California. Sexual roles had, of course, been loosened by frontier pragmatism, but gender prejudice had certainly traveled west too, Clapp’s writing revealed.
By 1860, San Francisco boasted America’s 13th-largest urban population, and there were then more college graduates per-capita in California than any other state; it was already a recognized literary setting. That decade was dominated by the Golden Gate Trinity: Ina Coolbrith, Bret Harte and Charles Warren Stoddard, as well as their pals Samuel Clemens and Amrose Bierce. Literary standards in the region at that time had become high indeed for the Wild West.
Heyday Press’s timely reissuing of Ida Rae Egli’s innovative and valuable anthology, No Rooms of Their Own: Women Writers of Early California, 1849-1869, illustrates an aspect of that scene and, as a result, enriches our understanding of those two seminal decades.
This collection presents work by 15 female authors. It is commendably long on variety, understandably short on brilliant selections, since great writers are always few.
This book does include some acknowledged good ones, though, including Dame Shirley, Mary Hallock Foote and Coolbrith. But it is most estimable because of the many largely forgotten voices – and the excellent mini-biographies – presented by editor Egli, who is chair of the Santa Rosa Junior College’s English department.
Two of the most memorable selections are literally derived from voices. One is a transcription of Charlotte Brown’s testimony after a San Francisco streetcar conductor told her that “colored persons were not allowed to ride.” Her response was both eloquent and modern: “I told him I thought I had a right to ride, it was a public conveyance'” She was nevertheless booted off, but won the landmark lawsuit that resulted.
Lucy Young’s personal history is perhaps the book’s greatest treasure. This Lassik woman, originally from Humboldt County and later from Round Valley, saw the demise of her culture. She recounts how her grandfather’s vision was fulfilled when whites killed the tribe’s men, kidnapped many women, and effectively destroyed the society.
As Lucy told it, “My grandpa say, ‘White Rabbit’ – he meant white people – ‘gonta devour our grass, our seed, our living. We won’t have nothing more, this world.'”
She concluded with this poignant observation: “I hear people tell ’bout what Inyan do early days to white man. Nobody ever tell what white man to Inyan. That’s reason I tell it. That’s history. That’s truth. I seen it myself.”
Although there is drama aplenty in the book’s other inclusions, nobody else “seen it” quite as powerfully as Lucy did.
The range of other selections includes everything from the incipient suffragism of Georgiana Kirby to the frontier diary of Sara Royce, from the conventional fiction of Ella Sterling Cummins Mighels to Ada Clara’s satirical essays from “Golden Era” (“The sacred precinct of home is the real sphere of man. Modesty, obedience, sobriety are the true male virtues.”) – with much in between.
Echoing a western motif, many of the authors found themselves leading lives they could never have imagined prior to emigrating, and the writers are diverse, complex and genuine.
The sharpest material collected by Egli is non-fictional – journal entries, memoirs, letters and the like – while the fiction and poetry included are stylistically pedestrian but interesting because of their early use of California settings.
Alas, no known greats are revealed in this collection, but the editor certainly does present a number of memorable figures, some of whom were contemporarily important – Coolbrith, the state’s first Poet Laureate; or Mighels, declared the “first historian of literary California”; or the mercurial actress and poet Ada Menken, called “another woman born too soon” by Walt Whitman.
Ida Rae Egli widens our sense of early western writing with a book that belongs in every library of California. In her first-rate introduction, the editor reveals that “of the fifteen women represented here, seven died in poverty”; perhaps the writing profession hasn’t changed much in all those years.”