River City Write

Posted on November 8, 2010 – 2:55 AM | by OldManFoster
  • Share

Compiled by William Burg, James Cameron, Tim Foster, Becky Grunewald, Guphy Gustafson, Niki Kangas and Liv Moe

While William T. Vollmann is probably the most respected author to ever intentionally settle down in Sacramento, the River City has had its fair share of bright literary lights over the years.  Though some of these authors have made little reference to Sacramento in their writings, others like Joan Didion and Eva Rutland have featured the city prominently in their work.  The following is a selection of some of the most noteworthy figures in Sacramento’s literary history.

Deborah Blum

Science writer Deborah Blum’s sojourn in Sacramento was from ‘84 to ‘97, and in 1992 her series in The Bee on the ethical issues raised by primate research garnered her a Pulitzer Prize.  She later turned this series into a gripping book – The Monkey Wars – which drew heavily on interviews from primate researchers at UC Davis.  She now teaches journalism at the University of Wisconsin and continues to write for publications such as The New York and Los Angeles Times.  Her most recent book is titled: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Science in Jazz Age New York.

Buck Busfield

Brothers Buck and Tim Busfield are powerhouses in the Sacto cultural department.  Playwrights, directors, and actors, the brothers are co-founders of Sacramento’s B Street Theatre and the touring Fantasy Theatre.   Though Tim Busfield has had the higher profile career in front of the camera (including an Emmy for Thirtysomething), it is brother Buck who has made a mark as a writer.  Buck has written over 30 plays, each of which has been produced at either B Street or the Fantasy Theatre. He is a two-time recipient of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission’s New Works Award for his plays Unfinished Business and Raze the Stone, and a semi-finalist in South Coast Repertory’s 1992 New Play Competition.  He makes his home in Sacramento.

Herb Caen

Measured in terms of readership alone, Herb Caen (1916-1997) might be Sacramento’s favorite author. The man who coined the term ‘Baghdad on the Bay’ after joining the San Francisco Chronicle was born in Sacramento and spent most of his formative years here.  His daily column, “It’s News To Me”, often mentioned his “Sacamena” or “Sacratomato” birthplace and it clearly remained dear to his heart.  The author of four books and recipient of a special Pulitzer Prize in 1996, Caen authored his column for 59 years and popularized terms like ‘hippie’ and ‘three-dot journalism’.  A portion of San Francisco’s Embarcadero was named in his honor.

Pete Dexter

Pete Dexter was a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and then syndicated to a number of newspapers before turning to fiction.  He was an overnight success and has since written five novels.  Paris Trout won the 1988 National Book Award for Fiction and The Paperboy was awarded PEN Center’s 1996 Library Award. His latest novel, Spooner, was published last year.  Dexter has also written five successful screenplays and the non-fiction Paper Trails, a compilation of columns he wrote for the Bee and the Philadelphia Daily News from 1970 to 1990.

Raymond Carver

Author, poet, and teacher Raymond Carver (1938-1988) lived in Sacramento during the mid-sixties, attending classes at Sac State and working as a custodian at Mercy Hospital.  Encouraged by local poet Dennis Schmitz, Carver completed his first book of poetry, Near Klamath, which was published by the English Club of Sacramento State College in 1968.  With his distinctive minimalist prose style Carver became a major force in American fiction during his all-too-short lifetime.  Many of his short stories are considered 20th Century classics, and his books Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love are essential American literature.

Joan Didion

At age 75 Joan Didion is one of America’s most renowned writers.  A novelist, memoirist, and essayist, she grew up in Poverty Ridge and as a youth once attended a slumber party at the Governor’s Mansion.  Hired by Vogue immediately after her graduation from Berkeley, she moved to New York but has always referred to Sacramento as her home.  Didion has published over twenty books, including Notes from a Native Daughter (a must read for Sacramentans) in which she writes, “All that is constant about the California of my youth is the rate at which it disappears.” Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The Year of Magical Thinking, an ode to her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, are often referred to as classics.  She is the recipient of the National Book Award and other honors.

Tim Holt

A strong proponent of community journalism, Tim Holt published his Suttertown News in Sacramento for close to twenty years. In his paper Holt championed issues like historic preservation, mass transit, cycling, and community development; in short, he was a man after our own hearts, and Suttertown News was a key model in the development of MidMo.  Holt has written several books, including On Higher Ground, and Songs of the Simple Life. After closing the Suttertown News in 1993, Holt relocated to Dunsmuir, California where he and his wife have been operating a farmstand; he continues to focus on community development and thoughtful living.

Karen Kijewski

Karen Kijewski writes mysteries that are set in Sacramento. Her detective Kat Colorado has eaten at the Cornerstone, watched bodies being dragged from the American River and visited industrial neighborhoods in West Sac (Best Sac!) Unfortunately there hasn’t been a new novel from Kijewski since 1998, so we can’t be sure of her take on Sac 2.0.  Who knows what Kat Colorado would think of Frisky Rhythms, taco trucks, or Second Saturday? Kijewski still lives in Sacto, so we hope she will take up the pen again some day.

Eva Rutland

When We Were Colored: A Mother’s Story chronicles Rutland’s family’s migration from the segregated Georgia to the integrated, yet prejudiced, Sacramento in the 1940s. It is a great read that gives great insight into the black middle class in the era just before the Civil Rights Movement. Rutland wrote not about the pain of being African-American, but about any woman’s hope, no matter her color, that her children will be safe and allowed to soar. She is an extraordinary lady who graduated from Spelman, a black woman’s college, in 1937, raised a large family, and wrote over 20 historical romances after becoming blind in the fifties.

Nicholas Sparks

Nicholas Sparks, a Fair Oaks resident for much of his life, is one of the most successful writers in the nation’s history.  The Notebook, an early book, was on the New York Times best seller list for 56 weeks, sold ten million copies and was sold to Warner Brothers for a million dollars.  From there, it’s been one smash hit after another for Sparks, with long stays on the NYT list, millions of copies sold, and subsequent film contracts.  Sparks and  J.K. Rowling are the only authors in history to have books on both the hard and soft cover NYT  best seller list for a year or more.

Kevin Starr

Kevin Starr took a break from teaching at various California colleges to be the California State Librarian from 1994 – 2004.  He is a prominent historian who has written an exhaustive multi-volume history of California called America and the California Dream. He also has a more manageable one volume book, California: a History which is available at the Modern Library . He can rock a bow tie as only an emeritus librarian can. He has won the LA Times Book Award and he is a member of the secretive Bohemian Club, but we doubt that you will catch him dancing naked in the Redwood Grove.

Lincoln Steffens

Lincoln Steffens (1866-1936) grew up in the manor on 15th & H that is now Governor’s Mansion State Park.  While studying at the University of California he became exposed to then-radical political ideas that shaped his writing. His articles for McClure’s Magazine and other publications earned him a reputation as a muckraker. The focus of his investigative journalism was corruption in politics, big business and the police department. A strong moralist, he liked people, even corrupt politicians, and felt that they didn’t know the evil they were perpetrating, so he wrote articles to inform them.  Steffens authored hundreds of articles and over a half dozen books in his lifetime.

Anthony Swofford

Ten years ago Anthony Swofford seemed like just another guy throwing cases in the Fleming Foods warehouse in West Sac.  Some of his coworkers knew that he wrote in his spare time, but none expected the wave of success that hit Swofford upon publication of Jarhead, his best-selling account of his experiences in the first Gulf War.  Published in 2003, tthe book received solid reviews and was made into a hit 2005 movie, propelling Swofford into a successful career as an author.  Since then he has written for the New York Times and Harper’s, and he completed his first novel, Exit A, in 2007.   He currently lives in New York.





Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1935-1910), better known by his nom de plume, Mark Twain, has been touted as the father of American Literature by no less than Ernest Hemingway. Uncannily able to procure comedy from the struggles he endured, and uncommonly adaptable to a change of opinion in a quest for perpetual spiritual growth, Twain was best known for novels like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Pudd’n Head Wilson and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer wherein slavery and oppression were recurring themes. His entire body of work, however, is still being compiled, a frustrating task given his multitudinous pen names, many short stories, essays, travelogues, news reporting, and humorous lecture circuit material.

His first work to meet with acclaim,“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” was published by the New York Saturday Press in 1865, and soon afterward he landed a gig at the daily Sacramento Union where he quickly became a star. Twain’s first assignment was to board a steam vessel for the Sandwich Islands – now called Hawaii – and report on his adventures there and back.  While in that nineteenth century paradise the witty correspondent wrote, “How sad it is to think of the multitudes who have gone to their graves in this beautiful island and never knew there was a hell.”

Twain was ever the cheerleader for the oppressed, and though he once embraced imperialist fervor, (believing Americans could bring freedom to those he thought bound by tyranny), he later changed his tune, concluding, “I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”  He also once quipped, “There are many humorous things in this world; among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.” These were brazen words in his day, concurrent with the abolitionist movement.

This month, according to Twain’s wishes, his autobiography will be published by the University of California exactly one hundred years after his death.

Cornel West

Cornel West’s family moved to Sacramento when he was 3 years old. Growing up in the Glen Elder neighborhood, he punched his third grade teacher in the face for trying to force him to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. He graduated from Kennedy High School in 1970, and attended Harvard,  where he graduated magna cum laude. He followed that up with an  M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton. Influenced by the Black Panthers, Malcom X and James Cone, West combined progressive politics with spirituality in his eleven books on race, progressivism and African art. West also appeared in both Matrix sequels. In 2001, he returned to Sacramento to record a spoken word album, Sketches of my Culture.

Tags: , , , , , ,

  1. 8 Responses to “River City Write”

  2. avatar

    By j on Nov 8, 2010 | Reply

    & Doug Rice!

  3. avatar

    By Snufkin on Nov 9, 2010 | Reply

    For years I’ve thought somebody should teach a “Literature of Sacramento” class at Sac City or UC Davis. I’d add to the list:

    Graphic/counter culture comic artists:
    R. Crumb – I always seem to go into Newsbeat in Davis right after he’d been in there with his daughter.
    Justin Brown
    Adrian Tomine
    Carol Lay
    Aline Kominsky Crumb

    Richard Rodriguez – ever notice how he always tries to pass himself off as being from San Francisco?

    Gary Snyder – best Sacramento celebrity encounter ever was standing in line behind him at the Davis Taco Bell on G Street.

    Ernesto Galarza

    Sparks was a couple years ahead of me at Bella Vista and even back then, the school golden boy. He was always nice to me, but the English Department should confiscate his student awards after he trashed Cormac McCarthy: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100330/REVIEWS/100339997

  4. avatar

    By livmoe on Nov 10, 2010 | Reply

    @ J I feel like I dropped the ball by not mentioning Doug Rice in the contributors meeting. He is in fact a fantastic writer we can call our own.

    @ Snufkin, I thought about Gary Snyder too… I did an event with him in the late nineties as part of a western lit conference but sadly though he taught at Davis there isn’t really a direct Sacto connection. Would that it were…

  5. avatar

    By Snufkin on Nov 12, 2010 | Reply

    Point taken, but following that logic then you shouldn’t have Sparks on the list because the setting for his novels is North Carolina.

  6. avatar

    By GeeBomb on Nov 12, 2010 | Reply

    We choose not to include comic books. We chose not to include Davis writers, which are many. We are Sacto-centric.

    I screwed up on the Richard Rodriguez, I had 5 books out of the library already, but I grabbed “Brown” just in case. After sorting through the other 5, I choose to leave him in the dust. He hates Sac anyway.

    I don’t think that your logic follows. Didion wrote about Sac, but also many other places, Lincoln Steffen barely mentioned the town, most of Eva Rutland’s romance novels were set in the south. And Vollman? Should we discount Vollman because he prefers foreign locals when he is probably walking the streets of Midtown right now?

  7. avatar

    By OldManFoster on Nov 12, 2010 | Reply

    Sparks may write about North Carolina, but he lives in Sacramento. The ‘process’ if we can call it that is outlined here: http://www.midtownmonthly.net/blog/editors-letter-the-literary-issue/

  8. avatar

    By livmoe on Nov 13, 2010 | Reply

    @ Snufkin…. yea, from my perspective the point was that they live in Sac regardless of what they write about. Snyder followed a not uncommon UCD model and one about half of my colleagues in the arts observe as instructors at my alma mater i.e. teaching at Davis and living in the bay. Similar to some of my colleagues there are times that I would love to claim say Lucy Puls as one of our own but the truth of the matter is she sets foot in Sac as little as possible. The causeway makes all the difference 🙂

  1. 1 Trackback(s)

  2. Dec 3, 2010: GOTG’s Must Reads of the Week | Girls on the Grid

Post a Comment