Harold Gilliam’s San Francisco Bay

I hate Californiana. Sneak up behind me and whisper, “Emperor Norton!” or “George Sterling!” and I get running and barking fits that last for hours. Popular geography of the state is the most vulgar ballyhoo. Popular history is usually an attempt to glorify the worst period of barbarity and rapacity in the savage story of the American frontier. In literature and the arts sentimental anecdotes about a handful of mediocrities are used to justify ignorance of and contempt for the living culture of contemporary California. Here is a book of Californiana that has none of these faults.

Harold Gilliam, a native Californian and former feature writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, has tried to do for San Francisco Bay what Rachel Carson did for all the oceans of the world. Geology, history, physics, economics, natural history, ecology and meteorology, he covers them all, and a few other things as well — the building of the two bridges, Alcatraz, the last World’s Fair, future prospects and promises. By and large he does a very good job, close to a perfect job of — what would you call it — geographic journalism.

Just looking at it, in innocent ignorance, San Francisco Bay is a lovely spectacle. But the lover desires knowledge of his beloved. From the description of the salt works to the tale of the wreck of the Rio, Mr. Gilliam has turned up all sorts of fascinating information, as well as all sorts of very solid knowledge. Read his book and you should certainly come to share what so obviously in himself lies behind that knowledge, a deep love for the Bay, the finest kind of identification with his, or your, environment. It is this kind of identification with one’s physical, historical, social, background that, in the highest sense of the word, makes one a cultured man. You can know all about what Henry James really meant, or the art of the fugue, but if you are not at home in the world under your feet and before your eyes, you are actually uncivilized.

Books like this one go further to produce real civilization than any and all mediocre or pretentious efforts in serious literature and high art. I hope they teach Mr. Gilliam in the San Francisco schools. I hope books like his have been or will be written about Lake Michigan and the waters of the Port of New York. There are too many homeless people in America, many, perhaps most of them, with well-shined shoes. Make yourself at home. It is not just good for you, it’s a pleasure.



This review of Harold Gilliam’s San Francisco Bay (Doubleday, 1957) originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (27 October 1957). Copyright 1957. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

For many more Rexroth columns and articles on San Francisco, see Rexroth’s San Francisco.

Other Rexroth Essays