The copy I procured from the library of Mary Hunter Austin’s lyrical prose-m, California- The Land of the Sun (read it online) was the second 1914 edition, sadly with most of its pictures torn out, the empty pages noted with precise librarian handwriting that “picture missing!”, and as you go through the book encountering yet another empty illustration page your heart droops just a little bit. Other readers added their own commentary to the empty pages, “The ingratitude of some person!” I guess it’s not a great sign for the text itself if I spend more time talking about the physicality of the book. As mentioned, this was pub’d in 1914, and the pages are super thick, so thick that I could not bear to dog-ear any pages b/c it would be like bending a tree branch.
To quote her section on San Francisco at length (emphasis mine):
And round about the foot of city and mountain the waters of the bay are blue, the hills are bluer. The hills melt down to greenness in the spring, the water runs to liquid emerald, flashing amber; the hills are tawny after rains, the waters tone to the turbid, clayey river-floods ; land and sea they pursue one another as lovers through changing moods of colour ; they have mists for mystery between revealing suns. Unless these things count for something, San Francisco is the very worst site in the world for a city. You take your heart in your mouth every time you go out to afternoon tea in the tram-cars that dip and swing like cockles at sea. They cut across streets so steep that grass grows between the cobbles where no traffic ever passes, to plunge down lanes of dwellings perched precariously as sea-birds’ nests on the bare bones of hills that for true hilliness shame Rome’s imperial seven. The bay side of the peninsula is mud, the Pacific side is sand. There great wasteful dunes blow up, they shift and pile, they take the contours of the wind-lashed waters — the very worst site in the world for a great city’s pleasure-ground, and yet somehow it is there.
For this city is one of those which have souls; it is a spirit sitting on a height, taking to itself form and the offices of civilisation. This is a thing that we know, because we have seen the land shake it as a terrier shakes a rat, until the form of the city was broken ; it dissolved in smoke and flame. And then as a polyp of the sea draws out of the fluent water form and perpetuity for itself, we saw our city draw back its shapes of wood and stone, and statelier, more befitting a spirit that has endured so much. Nobody knows really what a city is except that it is something more than a collocation of houses. From Telegraph Hill, where the old semaphore stood, which signalled the far-between arrivals of ships around the Horn, you can see the trade of the world pass and repass the pillars of the Gate, the wall-sided warships. But none of these things really explain how San Francisco came to be clinging there to the leeward of a windy spit of land, like a great, grey sea-bird with palpitating wings.
True to her situation, San Francisco is nothing if not dramatic. One recalls that the earliest foundation was dedicated to Our Lady of Dolors, Nuestro Senora de Dolores ; the Indians fought here as they did nowhere else against Christian dominion. There were more burials than baptisms, and in the old cemetery of Yerba Buena the dead were so abandoned of all grace that the sand refused to hold them. One who spent his boyhood in the shifting purlieus of the old Laguna told me how in the hollows where the scrub oaks shrugged off the wind and the sand waved like water, the nameless coffins were covered and uncovered between a night and day. But if the dead could not hold their tenancy, the living succeeded. They did it by the very force of that dramatic instinct awakened by the plot and counterplot of natural forces.
No Greek tragedy moved to more relentless measures than the moral upheaval of ’56, when the whole city, in solemn funeral train behind the victim of one of those wild outbursts of lawlessness peculiar to the “gold rush,” saw the lifeless bodies of the perpetrators hanging from the upper windows of the Vigilance Committee. Fifty years later came a wilder rout, down streets searched out by fire, snatching at humour as they ran, as so many points of contact for the city’s rebuilding.
The very worst location in the world, as I have remarked, is this windy promontory past which the grey tides race, but so long as a city can dramatise itself, one situation will do as well as another in
which to render itself immortal.