Northern California has always attracted creative superstars, and the list of famous writers who either come from NorCal or spent important time here is a long one. Some of these names you are sure to recognize, but we’re willing to bet a few may surprise you. To learn about more writers with Northern California roots, see The Literary Titans of Northern California – Part 1.
Three of the well-known writers in this installment are no longer with the living, so we’re going to start with the one who is still with us:
Anne Lamotte is a well-loved American novelist and fiction-writer hailing from Marin County. Her largely autobiographical nonfiction tackles some of the struggles she has endured in her life like alcoholism, being a single mom, living with depression and her faith. She is a popular public speaker and writing teacher as well having taught at UC Davis. Through it all her self-deprecating sense of humor manages to bring an irresistible authenticity to bear, and it’s hard to read her work without feeling like you’re having an intimate chat with a cherished friend.
A prolific writer, Lamott has authored a dozen non-fiction, and at least seven novels. Lamott was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1985 and was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2010.
We covered writer Hunter S. Thompson in our first installment, inventor of “gonzo journalism,” the guy who spent a year riding with Hells Angels so he could write a book about it. Anne Lamott could be described as the exact, polar opposite of Thompson, kind of a literary heart with legs, an open book (pardon the pun) with much to say about life and love.
Ursula Kroeber Le Guin
American novelist Ursula K. Le Guin passed away in 2018, but her writing career spanned nearly sixty years. Le Guin was the daughter of University of California, Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber who famously cared for Ishi, presumed to be the last of the Yahi people, when he emerged from the wilderness in 1911. Le Guin’s mother Theodora authored the book Ishi in Two Worlds, which served as partial source material for Active Norcal’s investigation of that topic.
Growing up, Ursula and the Kroeber family split their time between Berkeley (during the school year) and their summer home in the Napa Valley. Reading was a very popular activity for the whole family, and from an early age Ursula developed a taste for science fiction and fantasy, which had a profound impact on her future writing. Le Guin is best known for writing in a broad category known as “speculative fiction,” an umbrella genre encompassing science fiction, horror, fantasy, superheroes, utopian and dystopian fiction. Her novels A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness are often described as masterpieces, the latter winning her both Hugo and Nebula awards for best science fiction novel.
Before she started writing Le Guin earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in French from Columbia University. She won a Fulbright grant to continue her studies in France, and while traveling there aboard the Queen Mary met Charles Le Guin, who she was destined to marry. When Charles became a history instructor at Portland State University in 1959, the family moved to and remained in that city for the rest of their lives.
Le Guin produced more than twenty novels, a hundred short stories, poetry, literary criticism and children’s books. Over the course of her career she won eight Hugos, six Nebulas, twenty two Locus Awards and in 2003 was honored as Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. After her death critic John Clute wrote that Le Guin “presided over American science fiction for nearly half a century.”
John Muir’s essays, letters and books, especially on the Sierra Nevadas, have been read by millions across the world. He was also a naturalist, environmental philosopher, botanist, zoologist, glaciologist and early advocate for preserving wilderness. Born in Scotland in 1838, Muir found his way to California where he became co-founder of the Sierra Club. He also helped preserve Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was so impressed when he met Muir that he offered him a teaching position at Harvard University, which Muir declined. He could not bear to leave the Sierra Nevada mountains. Shortly after a three-day camping trip with President Theodore Roosevelt, the latter founded the National Park Service. In 1877 Muir published his short story “Snow Storm on Mount Shasta” describing getting snowed in on the old volcano, spending a harrowing night close to the summit next to some hot springs.
Muir has been described as experiencing the “presence of the divine in nature.” His personal letters expressed the feelings of ecstasy he felt when in the wilderness. He looked up to writer Henry David Thoreau so much he often referred to himself as his “disciple.”
Cincinnatus Heine Miller used the pen name Joaquin Miller and is often called “The Poet of the Sierras” after writing Songs of the Sierras. Not a native Californian, his family found their way from Indiana first to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, then to Northern California where he spent a year living with Native Americans. He was wounded in the cheek and neck in the Battle of Castle Crags in 1855, after which he recuperated in the upper Sacramento River mining camp called “Portuguese Flat,” now “Pollard Flat,” Exit 712 north of Redding.
Miller bounced around NorCal for a while, sometimes fighting Native Americans, sometimes living with them. Three of his novels deal with this period, Life Amongst the Modocs, An Elk Hunt and The Battle of Castle Crags.
Unlike a lot of writers, Miller achieved a level of celebrity in his own lifetime. His poetry was considered “too romantic” for most American readers, but his work was immensely popular in England. A real “character” in every sense, Miller worked hard to maintain the image of a Western frontiersman. In keeping with this image, Miller once admitted, “I’m damned if I could tell the difference between a hexameter and a pentameter to save my scalp.” Nevertheless, a lot of readers the world over loved his work. He was less popular in the writing community.
Two of Miller’s biggest critics were short story writers and poets Bret Harte and Ambrose Bierce. Befitting the character he was, Miller developed a reputation for dishonesty and womanizing. Both critic and good friend, Ambrose Bierce once said of him, “In impugning Mr. Miller’s veracity, or rather, in plainly declaring that he has none, I should be sorry to be understood as attributing a graver moral delinquency than he really has. He cannot, or will not, tell the truth, but he never tells a malicious or thrifty falsehood.” Miller famously replied, “I always wondered why God made Bierce.” Northern Californians have always loved flamboyant heroes.
Miller’s poem “Columbus,” about Christopher Columbus sailing to America was once one of the best-known American poems. It was memorized and recited by school children, especially the repeated refrain, “Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!”
While not really about the settling of the American West, the familiar verse helped inspire legions of pioneers traversing prairies and mountains as thousands of families made their way on the Oregon Trail, many to the California gold mines.