Related by time and place to Season of The Witch, and mentioned in it, is Armistead Maupin’s farcical comedy, Tales of the City. It first came out as a serial in 1976 in the “San Francisco Chronicle“, then in the “San Francisco Examiner”, and in novel form in 1978. Later it became a TV mini-series and sequel novels were written. This time capsule back to the ’70’s is packed with period and local references.The book is composed of vignettes alternating between the day-to-day lives of the major characters. In spite of its ephemeral nature it carries an enduring theme: people are often not who they seem to be on the surface. Nearly all the characters have two layers which are in ironic conflict with each other. Their facades slowly give way to their deeper identities creating both tragedy and comedy in the process. It is a good complement to Season of The Witch for experiencing the flavor of the times.
This new history book picks up on the theme of counter-culture creativity in San Francisco from our selection for June: Season of The Witch. This time, instead of San Francisco in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s, it’s San Francisco in the 1860’s and 70’s. Rather than large-scale social movements centered in San Francisco, it’s a countercultural literary movement of several writers including Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Stoddard, and Ina Coolbrith. As the title suggests, these writers brought a new style of American literature to the international stage and San Francisco served as its birthplace.
San Francisco in the 1860’s had become a free-spirited, diverse, wealthy, and sophisticated city through the influx of people and trade from all over the world during the gold rush and Comstock eras. It was the only real city west of St. Louis and it’s isolation from the East Coast, and from the Civil War, allowed for the germination of new ideas. Reading, here, was considered more a necessity of life than a luxury, hence there was a large, eager audience for writing and a demand for new publications along with writers to provide content. Previously, American literature was centered on the East Coast and derived from the British traditions. These four writers mentioned above, self-described as “Bohemian” in their unconventionality, felt unrestrained to come up with a new voice which was more relevant to the spirit of the West. “Tall Tales” is one of the hallmarks of their style.
Without Mark Twain, it’s safe to say, the others wouldn’t have achieved the national and international impact that they did, however, without, the “Bohemians” and especially Bret Harte, there probably would not have been a Mark Twain, the writer. Bret Harte helped Twain to develop his craft and persuaded him to persevere with his writing when Twain suggested quitting to go back to river boats. Harte edited Twain’s first successful piece, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” and later edited Twain’s, The Innocents Abroad. Along with these two authors, are Charles Stoddard, a gay writer and friend of Walt Whitman, and Ina Coolbrith, the first California Poet Laureate (first of any state), and the “literary mother” of Jack London.
Just as the counter-culture idealism of the 1960’s fell into decay after its initial flourish, the Bohemian movement in San Francisco, subsided by the mid 1870’s. The “Bohemian Club”, still in existence today, exemplifies a name-only continuation of the original ideal. When Oscar Wilde visited them in 1882 he said, “I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed, business-looking Bohemians in my life.”
Having heard the lecture on the book by its author, I look forward to reading the book in the next few days.
The book was entertaining and connected the dots between former headlines. It also defined an overall dramatic arc in that period of San Francisco history; the mid 60’s , through the early 80’s, which David Talbot divides into three sections.
In Summary: The first section titled “Enchantment,” describes San Francisco incubating a subculture of young people who experiment with means of freeing themselves from the straight and narrow times of the 50’s. Experiments in communal living and psychedelic drugs abound. They express their new ideas in literature, fashion, and music which become emblematic for the counter-culture . As creativity peaks, and the novelty wears off, the underbelly of negative forces, unleashed in all the new freedom, begins to dominate. This brings us to the second section of the book; “Terror.” More and more seekers arrive in San Francisco with flowers in their hair only to find needles in arms and desperation in the streets. Throughout most of the 70’s, San Francisco slips into further decline. The original idealism of the hippies is lost and wave after wave of violence wrack the city, defeating the politicians and the corrupt SFPD. Each bottom is exceeded by the next, culminating in a nadir of the Jim Jones massacre and the assassination of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor, Harvey Milk. Out of this low, “the right mayor for the times”, Dianne Feinstein, with the assists of others, takes charge and stabilizes the situation with which we arrive at the last section of the book; “Deliverance.” Several potential calamities are averted and the city is able to catch its breath. Spirits are further lifted when the worst team in the NFL, the San Francisco 49er’s, beats their rival, the Dallas Cowboys (self-proclaimed as “God’s team”), and goes on to win the Super Bowl. San Francisco is back in form and demonstrates its true potential with the handling of the next crisis; AIDS. Throughout the horrors of this epidemic, San Francisco fills the vacuum of indifference of the Reagan administration with funds, and innovative care. Many heroes emerge from the ranks of health care, the gay community, and city government, and their responses serve as models to other cities and countries around the world. One stellar example is ward 5B of SF General Hospital pioneering “the development of what later became known as patient-centered care.” At last, San Francisco survives its trials, and rekindles its reputation as a destination for freedom and creativity.
David Talbot provides the thread of facts from which each event unfolds out of what came before it. There are many dozens of individual stories told with carefully researched details which coalesce as if pixels, to form a clear and coherent whole. As a reader who lived through the times and witnessed some of it first hand, I closed the book with a much deepened and enhanced understanding.
Season of The Witch, by David Talbot, gives a history of San Francisco from 1967 to 1982 in 406 pages. Published in 2012, it borrows the title of Donovan’s hit from 1966 which alludes to times of social upheaval. During that period, San Francisco was the epicenter for two social movements, the first being the hippies of the 1960’s counter-culture and the second being the gay rights movement, also starting in the 60’s, but taking off in the 1970’s.
A monthly discussion group for books with the continuing conversation here