I am on a mission to convince you that the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is a cultural treasure. Many have argued for its significance as a habitat and as a transfer point for water. Others notice its importance for native peoples, for the development of agriculture, for immigrant populations from Asia, and for leisure activities. What I argue is that it has stimulated writers of note. They have seen in the Delta timeless tensions between humanity and the natural world.
Here I am going to consider eight authors of considerable reputation who set pieces of fiction in the Delta:
Bret Harte is best remembered as a colleague of Mark Twain who, with Twain. captured the spirit of the gold mining camps. They both thrived for a time as part of a Bohemian circle of writers in San Francisco. Subsequently, both men left for the east coast. Harte wrote for The Atlantic magazine, but later his writing declined in popularity. He sought and was appointed to diplomatic positions in Germany, England, and Scotland. He continued to produce essays and stories, but was still best known for those he wrote early in his life about the gold fields. He died in England in 1902.
In his short story, “The Legend of Monte Diablo,” Harte describes a meeting of a Jesuit priest and the Devil on the top of Monte Diablo. The devil reveals to the priest that the Spanish culture emphasizing the aristocratic value of honor and the conservative perspectives of Catholicism, which had dominated the culture of California under Spanish and Mexican colonization, were about to pass away in the face of an Anglo-Saxon challenge which emphasized wealth and free enterprise. For Harte, the Delta was a stage on which a significant shift in values was being played.
Josiah Royce was raised in Grass Valley and attended UC Berkeley. His talent was in philosophy and, after his education, be joined a distinguished group of philosophers at Harvard including William James and George Santayana. Like Santayana, he wrote one novel. The remainder of his work explored philosophy and history, including a history of California that is still referenced. He was particularly interested in religion and community, exploring ways they bind human groups together,
In The Feud at Oakfield Creek, Royce focused on the tensions between early settlers concerning the way to develop California, whether to pursue the accumulation of wealth or the building of community. He focuses on the struggle between squatters and investors, moving the retelling of an actual event from the area around Tulare to Contra Costa county, in sight of Diablo.
Frank Norris was a journalist by trade. Born in Chicago in 1870, his family moved to San Francisco. He studied in Europe where he was exposed to the French novelist, Zola, but returned to complete a degree at UC Berkeley. He studied briefly at Harvard, but became a foreign correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle as well as other publications. The Octopus was Norris’ fifth novel and the last to be published before his untimely death at 32 in 1902,
While much of The Octopus takes place in the Central Valley, the novel ends in the Delta highlighting the importance of the ports on the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers for distributing agricultural products worldwide. Norris contrasts the brutal confrontations between the railroads and ranchers with the provision of food for a hungry world. He sees an ultimate good arising from the Darwinian social struggle between economic actors.
Jack London wrote 1000 words a day from much of his life. He was a journalist, novelist, and short story writer as well as a socialist and sailor. He was raised and spend his early years in Oakland and hoped to build a dream home in the Valley of the moon. Throughout, he loved the water and sailed San Francisco Bay, the Pacific Ocean, and the Sacramento River extensively. His Tales of the Fish Patrol document his experience enforcing regulations on Bay and Delta fisherman. London began his “research” as an “oyster pirate” but later became a deputy helping to enforce legal rules and regulations. He noticed the many ethnic conflicts which complicate their enforcement, The seven stories in Tales, taken as a whole, describe the importance of fishing to the Delta and the lawlessness of the period after the rush for gold.
George Steward is less well known than other authors on this list. He is, however, receiving something of a renaissance, based on his novel Earth Abides, which tells the story of the fall of civilization from deadly disease. Steward was a professor of English at UC Berkeley and often set his novels in the Delta and Bay region. His novel, Storm, documents a super storm that hits the Sacramento River and surrounding areas. It highlights the tensions between various groups who fear for their livelihood. While the storm recedes before catastrophe, credit is given to the balanced decision-making of the military officer in charge. Steward is known for the skill in which he weaves natural science and history into his stories. Storm continues to be relevant in part because he presents the storm itself so vividly and precisely.
Leonard Gardner was born in Stockton and educated at San Francisco State. He has written articles, short stories, and screen plays as well as one highly acclaimed novel, Fat City.
This novel tells the stories of boxers in Stockton and describes how agricultural work in the Delta helps the boxers support themselves. The novel was made into a movie which was well received. In Gardner’s telling, life for the boxers is never easy, but they could survive. The availability of part time work made the pursuit of a sport possible. These boxers are able to achieve a portion of the American Dream, but the physical and mental costs are high.
Joan Didion was raised in Sacramento and learned to swim in the Sacramento River. She is best known for her essays, but was also acclaimed for her novels and screen plays. Her first novel focused on a Delta ranch family. As often in her essays, Didion focusses on how belief in the exceptionalism of California undermines the potential of its citizens. In Run River, a Delta ranch family has great advantages, but is unable to achieve economic, political, or interpersonal successes. The guilt associated with failure destroys them. Didion is a master in interpreting the impact of values on lived lives, here understanding the cost of exaggerated dreams on a Delta family.
Ursula Le Guin has been widely praised as a science fiction writer. Her parents were anthropologists associated with UC Berkeley who studied the native peoples of the Delta and Northern California. Her last novel, Always Coming Home, has a complex organization. The perspective is that of an anthropologist from some future time reflecting on a series of settlements which emerge after San Francisco is destroyed in a geological disaster. These emerging settlements are similar in size and independence to the villages established by native peoples before Spanish settlement in 1800. Le Guin has a keen appreciation of the negotiating necessary to keep such a decentralized system peaceful. Travel and communication are particularly challenging in the face of a mosaic of cultures.
While these writings are imbedded in different times and focus on different issues, they draw much of their power from the interface between human society and the natural endowment of the Delta. Hart selects Diablo as a place from which perspective is possible and focuses on the role of gold in changing human behavior. Royce contrasts different views of the relationship between land ownership and community. Norris observes the human conflicts which arise from cycles of agricultural production. London records how nature’s abundance and human greed make the enforcement of rules for preservation of nature difficult. Steward observes the tensions which arise when natural disasters strike. Gardener investigates the link between agricultural jobs and other human endeavors. Didion exposes the conflict between the natural potential of California and what humans can achieve. Finally, Le Guin suggests the way humans could adapt to a very different natural environment.
There are younger fiction writers who have followed in the footsteps of these established authors. The following list is not exhaustive, but suggestive:
I have found S.Y. Ryan’s Water Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston’s Warrior Woman and B. Robinson’s Legends of the Strait of particular value.
In sum, writers find in the Delta a setting for the discussion of the ways nature challenges human culture and the ways in which it responses. At a time when many are concerned about the interaction between the natural environment and society, Delta writers who have long focused on such issues have much to teach.
Robert Benedetti is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, University of the Pacific. He recently published Imaging The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta Fonthill Media, 2022).
Dr. Benedetti is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of the Pacific and a Research Associate at the Center for California Studies, Sacramento State University. He co-directed an exploration of Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta history and culture for the Delta Protection commission in 2014-15.