The Literary Titans of Northern California – Part 1

Hunter S. Thompson began his literary journey in San Francisco

When you think of famous people associated with Northern California, movie stars and sports heroes are more likely to come to mind than literary titans. Yet, perhaps less famously, NorCal has been a fertile ground for some of the world’s great writers. Some of these names you are sure to recognize, but we’re willing to bet a few may surprise you.

Some of these literary rock stars are from Northern California, but far more started somewhere else and were drawn to our amazing outdoor landscape and Bohemian notions.

John Steinbeck

Probably the most famous California writer of all, this 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature winner was from Salinas, just south of the Bay Area. Many of his best-loved novels were framed in both rural and urban California settings. In all he wrote sixteen novels, six non-fiction books and two collections of short stories.

 You might recognize some of his work because they’ve become popular cornerstones of high school and university literature classes. “Of Mice and Men,” “East of Eden,” “Cannery Row,” “Tortilla Flat”  and “The Grapes of Wrath,” are some of his best-loved novels.”The Grapes of Wrath” won him a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1939 and shined a light on the plight of the nearly starving migrant farm workers trying to survive here during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.

The Steinbeck House in Salinas, California

Interestingly, according to the American Library Association, Steinbeck was one of the ten most frequently banned authors from 1990-2004. “Of Mice and Men” ranked sixth out of the top hundred most-often banned books. 

The home where Steinbeck was born and lived as a boy has been turned into a popular restaurant “The Steinbeck House” and is about two blocks away from the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.

Mark Twain

We placed Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) second on this list only because he wasn’t actually from northern California, but he did live here for a time which inspired his first real literary success with the short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Like Steinbeck, several of Twain’s novels “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” are required reading in many English classrooms across America.

Almost everyone knows Twain, “The Father of American Literature” was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, but he tried his hand at several other occupations before finding success as a writer and humorist. He worked as a typesetter, a Mississippi riverboat pilot and a miner.

Replica of Mark Twain’s Angels Camp cabin

In 1861 Twain’s brother Orion became secretary to Nevada Territory governor James W. Nye and Twain followed him when he moved west. He ended up in Nevada City, NV and became a miner on the Comstock Lode. He also tried mining in Angels Camp, California where a replica cabin commemorates his time there. When it became obvious to Twain that he was a lousy miner with little chance for success, he tried his hand at writing for a local Virginia City newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise. It was here in 1863 he first started using his pen name “Mark Twain.”

In 1864 Twain moved to San Francisco where he worked as a journalist, and then as a reporter for the Sacramento Union newspaper. By this time his writing and sense of humor were garnering international attention and he became a world traveler, eventually luring him away from Northern California. But NorCal most certainly contributed to his becoming the much-loved writer and humorist he later became.

Hunter S. Thompson

Caption: Self-proclaimed Gonzo journalist HUNTER S. THOMPSON is pictured in his Woody Creek home near Aspen, Colorado in February 1997. Photographer: Helen Davis Title: Staff Credit: The Denver Post City: Aspen State: CO Country: USA Date: 19970227 CaptionWriter: JS

What? Hunter S. Thompson in NorCal? You bet! 

Thompson was not from NorCal either, but he did live here for a year while riding with Hells Angels researching his book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. He also went on to write Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, The Rum Diary and The Curse of Lono, to name a few of his other novels. Like a lot of writers, Hunter S. Thompson is an acquired taste, loved and loathed by many.

Thompson is known as the inventor of “gonzo journalism,” a writing style where the writer becomes a central figure in the story he’s writing. In one chapter of his Hell’s Angels book, he describes getting beaten within an inch of his life by other gang members.

Thompson is best-known for writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas first serialized in Rolling Stone magazine. A major theme was coming to terms with the failure of the 1960s counterculture movement, and the New York Times described it as “by far the best book yet written on the decade of dope.” Turns out “dope” was a major theme in the author’s life.

Hunter S. Thompson’s apartment in San Francisco

Famous for alcohol/drug abuse and bizarre behavior, Thompson’s very public flamboyant lifestyle often drew more attention than his writing. He authored many articles for magazines the likes of Rogue, Esquire, Pageant, Harper’s and The New York Times Magazine. He was fired from Time magazine for insubordination. Thompson never received a high school diploma because he was in jail during final exams, and often lied about his writing credentials to land writing assignments. But eventually he caught on and developed a devoted following for the rest of his life. 

Early in his career he visited Ernest Hemingway’s home in Ketchum, Idaho. Hemingway had committed suicide there three years before, and Thompson ended up stealing an enormous set of elk antlers from Hemingway’s home. He eventually regretted the theft, and after Thompson’s own suicide his widow returned the antlers to a Hemingway grandson.

Robert Louis Stevenson

This beloved author of “Treasure Island,” “Kidnapped,” and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was a native of Scotland, but spent time in both Monterey and San Francisco. He struggled most of his life with bronchial trouble, but traveled and wrote his entire life as if in defiance of his poor health. He arrived in California on the trail of a woman he had fallen in love with.

Stevenson was on a canoe trip in France when he met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, who was married at the time. She spent the summer of 1875 in France studying art, and trying to get over her husband’s infidelities. Two years later she and Stevenson met again and fell in love. In 1878 Fanny went to San Francisco while Stevenson remained behind to finish research for his novel “Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes.” A year later Stevenson boarded a steamship to New York City, and then a train to California in pursuit of Fanny.

Stevenson House in Monterey

By the time he arrived in Monterey he was having severe health problems again, and was nursed back to good health by some local ranchers. By late 1879 his health had recovered enough to go to San Francisco where he struggled mightily to make a living as a writer while his sickness returned. By this time Fanny was divorced, and she nursed the sickly, struggling writer back to health once again. 

Robert and Fanny were married in May of 1880, and spent the summer honeymooning in an abandoned mining camp on Mount Saint Helena (now Robert Louis Stevenson State Park). His summer honeymoon soon became the travel memoir The Silverado Squatters.

The two made several trips to Britain and back before settling along the English seaside, never to return to NorCal.

Gertrude Stein

Perhaps lesser known than some of the others, her validity as a writer might best be described by the people she hung around with. She was a novelist, poet, playwright and art collector who rubbed shoulders with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound and Pablo Picasso. Born in Pittsburg, PA but raised in Oakland, Stein spent her formative years in NorCal before moving to Paris, France. 

Stein hosted a “salon” in Paris, which is what they called a gathering of people who engaged in spirited conversation. Stein’s salon attracted up-and-coming writers and artists, many of whom became famous. Always a controversial figure, Stein was a gay Jewish woman, eventually living in Nazi-occupied France. She published a memoir in 1933 called The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas about her years in Paris.

1961 painting of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso

While her writing might seem somewhat obscure to most Americans, she is famous for two quotes taken from her writing. “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” is from her 1913 poem “Sacred Emily,” and another way of saying “things are what they are.”

Her second quote is often misinterpreted as a criticism of Oakland, her childhood home. “There is no there there” was really a way of describing living in part of Oakland, leaving, then returning and finding it almost unrecognizable. Her childhood home had changed that much.

Stay tuned for more famous writers who spent important time in NorCal. The list of literary luminaries who were either from or spent time in NorCal is considerable.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.


  1. Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein lived in Davenport north of Santa Cruz. He gifted several manuscripts to the UCSC Library Special Collections.

  2. Dude! You seriously need a fact checker… Mount Saint Helena??? NO SUCH PLACE!!! How’d you get this published??

    1. There is an extinct volcano named Mt St Helena in the area mentioned. However the RLS park is between the town of St Helena and Calistoga, if I remember correctly from living there late 1950s

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