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California Literary Pilgrimages

In California, the Golden State, not all the gold takes the form of nuggets and dust. It also takes the form of novels, poems, and dramas—literary gold. 

the ruins of Jack London's Wolf House, image
Photo caption
A walk through peaceful woods leads you to the ruins of Wolf House at Jack London State Historic Park.

 

Yet the convergence of literature and place is a curious one. Even though a location may provide both inspiration and subject matter, should it also serve as a writer's monument? Do we really need physical monuments to writers? Aren't their works enough of a monument?

Glen Fuller, superintendent at a National Historic Site that was once Eugene O'Neill's home in Danville, Calif., was asked those very questions. "If you've ever been to, say, an Anasazi ruin in the Southwest, you sense the culture that allowed those people to live and thrive," he replied. "When people come here, they get that same understanding of the setting that sparked the writer's creativity."

With that in mind—as well as the notion that such an excursion is hardly different from a pilgrimage to Cooperstown, Monticello, or Haight-Ashbury—we have selected five of the most significant literary landmarks in Northern California. A visit to each of them constitutes a journey through both the pages of California's history and the lives of some of the world's most renowned practitioners of putting pen to paper.

Jack London's Wolf House
On the outskirts of the community of Glen Ellen in southern Sonoma County, you can get more than just a taste of London. You can buy a used or rare book at the Jack London Bookstore, read it during breakfast at Jack's Café, grab a few beers at the Jack London Saloon, and sleep it off at the Jack London Lodge. But whatever you do, don't miss Jack London State Historic Park.

By the time Jack London came to Glen Ellen in 1905, he was world famous for Call of the Wild, The Sea-Wolf, and other stories, some based on his own experiences. He began purchasing land in the Sonoma Valley, seeking "a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in." By 1911, he owned nearly 1,400 acres, which he called Beauty Ranch. London moved into a cottage in the middle of his holdings, and from there he supervised the construction of his dream house.

It was a four-story, 26-room, nine-fireplace mansion, made from boulders of maroon lava and redwood logs. There was a two-story living room, a dining room that seated 50, a pool stocked with bass, a gun and trophy room, a library, a sleeping tower. The entire structure, which he named Wolf House, stood on an extra thick concrete foundation to withstand earthquakes. London expected that it would stand for a thousand years.

In late July 1913, the $80,000 project was nearly complete, and London wrote, "And when it is done, I shall be really comfortable for the first time in my life." But three weeks later, just as he and his wife, Charmian, were preparing to move in, Wolf House burned to the ground. Although arson was suspected, the fire may have been caused by solvent-soaked rags left by workmen.

London planned to rebuild, but lack of money (saving for a rainy day just wasn't in his makeup) delayed the project and he died three years later at age 40. His dream house remains a haunting collection of charred rock walls and chimneys among the towering trees.

Today, the ruins of Wolf House are the park's centerpiece. You'll also see buildings that were part of Beauty Ranch, including the cottage where London died (possibly of kidney disease, but speculation about suicide persists). London is buried beneath a boulder nearby. The home Charmian London completed in 1926 is now the park visitor center and museum. Don't miss the brief film of London cavorting with his livestock only days before his death.

Robinson Jeffers's Tor House
If creating poetry is like a building a house—careful construction, reflecting both philosophy and style—then it follows that a home is like a poem. Nowhere is this more evident than in Robinson Jeffers's longtime residence in Carmel, which he expanded painstakingly over the years as he expanded his body of poetry.

Jeffers and his wife, Una, arrived in Carmel in 1914, realizing that, as Jeffers wrote, they "had come without knowing it to their inevitable place." Often, their walks would take them to a large and nearly empty tract of land known as Carmel Point, where the ocean and the elements reigned. Their favorite spot was a craggy hill, or tor, which by 1919 would mark the site of their home, Tor House, built primarily from the rocks of Carmel Point (though one can also spot lava from Hawaii, a headstone from Ireland, even a portion of the Great Wall of China).

Visitors today can experience the scene just as Jeffers did, relaxing in the poet's furniture while listening to poems written about and within those stone walls. Jeffers attracted many famous visitors over the years—from Charlie Chaplin to Charles Lindbergh. But most days were quiet and predictable. He would construct his poems in the morning and his home in the afternoon. This work included a romantic decision in 1920 to build for Una a stone tower reminiscent of ancient Irish architecture.

For five years, Jeffers rolled boulders up from his private beach and meticulously set them into place, making "stone love stone," as he put it. By the time he completed the tower, it was almost 40 feet high. "I hung stone in the sky," observed Jeffers, who named his addition Hawk Tower in honor of a frequent winged visitor.

While touring the tower, visitors first enter two tiny rooms on the ground floor, one of them—"the dungeon"—several feet below ground level. Then they corkscrew their way up a secret stairway to Una's second-floor sanctuary, where they may enjoy a recitation of a Jeffers paean to his love. From there, visitors can ascend to a little turret on the third floor and then mount an even steeper stairway to the top of the turret, which commands a breathtaking view of the ocean and the remarkable development surrounding the once-lonely Jeffers abode.

Eugene O'Neill 's Tao House
By early 1937, Eugene O'Neill had firmly established himself as the architect of modern American theater. Having refashioned it as serious art rather than a pleasant diversion, he already had had 35 plays produced and earned three Pulitzer Prizes. But as firmly entrenched as O'Neill the playwright was, O'Neill the man was not. He and his wife, Carlotta (she was his third wife; he was her fourth husband), were living in a San Francisco hotel.

One year earlier, however, O'Neill had become the only playwright from the United States to win the Nobel Prize for literature. The accompanying stipend—$40,000—allowed the couple to purchase a 158-acre ranch near Danville, a plot of land offering a view of Mount Diablo across the San Ramon Valley. There they built what O'Neill, always a lover of the sea, hoped would be his "final harbor," a quirky house with a Spanish colonial exterior and interior decor leaning to Asia by way of Gump's.

They named it Tao House, a nod to O'Neill's interest in Eastern philosophy and his wife's penchant for Oriental art. And indeed there are several elements evocative of Taoism inside and out—from the curved walkways to the sky blue ceilings and terra-cotta floors. Despite the view, outdoor pool, and player piano, there is a somewhat shadowy aura about the house, a situation enhanced by unusual colored mirrors—green, blue, even black—that contribute both an art deco touch and ghostly reflections to the atmosphere. But as the park ranger will explain, it's not a haunted house; it's just the house of a haunted man.

Every September, the Eugene O'Neill Foundation presents the Eugene O’Neill Festival featuring full productions of classic plays. There's quieter drama in a visit to O'Neill's isolated second-floor study where he penned his final and most successful plays, including The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Because the house is at the end of a winding private road, the National Park Service provides free van rides to the site from a Park-and-Ride location in Danville; reservations are required.

City Lights Bookstore
In 1953, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin founded a simple bookstore in San Francisco's North Beach district. City Lights was the nation's first all-paperback emporium. It was not long before this unusual store came to symbolize what the store's own Web site describes as the "antiauthoritarian politics and insurgent thinking" of "beatniks."

Ferlinghetti expanded from selling books to creating them in 1955, launching City Lights Publishers. The fourth book in his Pocket Poets Series was a poem by Allen Ginsberg called Howl. Its publication proved to be a watershed moment for the book and the bookstore. Ginsberg's work inspired obscenity charges, followed by Ferlinghetti's arrest and a long trial (in which the beatniks beat the rap).

All of this turned the poem into a nexus of censorship debate, the poet into a herald of insurgent literature, and City Lights into ground zero of everything bookishly beatific. Tour buses even began to pull to a halt in front of City Lights, passengers eager to claim beatnik sightings.

Howl, which had an original run of 1,000 copies, now boasts nearly 800,000 copies in print. A first edition, originally a 75-cent sale, now has an asking price of up to $2,500. City Lights Publishers now has more than two hundred titles in print, and the bookstore has expanded several times over the years. It is no longer exclusively paperback and isn't solely a small press outlet. You can find new-release hardcovers from major publishing houses on its three floors.

Although the place has become internationally famous, the attitude remains intimate and alternative. Inscriptions above doorways pronounce things like "Abandon all despair, ye who enter here," and books are listed under quirky categories like Green Politics, Commodity Aesthetics, Muckraking, Anarchism, and Class War. Climb to the third-floor room devoted to Beat literature, and you might find a wild-haired sixtysomething sitting cross-legged on a stool and reading William Burroughs.

Antiestablishmentarianism may not be what it was: In 1998, Ferlinghetti was appointed San Francisco's first poet laureate. Even so, his inaugural speech was vintage Ferlinghetti. Taking the measure of "this far-out city on the left side of the world," he railed against freeways, warplanes, and chain stores, called for writing poems that say something supremely important, and repeated a suggestion that the Golden Gate Bridge be painted gold.

The beat goes on.

Photography courtesy of Marina Christensen/Wikimedia Commons

 

This article was first published in March 2000 and updated in March 2019. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.