Literary History of San Jose

San Jose State University is situated in a region of central California which has a rich literary history. Beginning in 1840 when Richard Henry Dana sailed into the bay at Monterey, writers have been drawn to the Central Coast and the Santa Clara Valley at the southern tip of the San Francisco Bay. At the end of the nineteenth century, Mary Austin helped found the Carmel Colony, and was soon joined by such figures as Jack LondonGeorge Sterling, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

In the 1890's, poet Edwin Markham settled into a house near what is now the SJSU campus. The tower shown on the Creative Writing home page is portion of SJSU's historic Tower Hall, a building dedicated to Markham. Of the same generation,Frank Norris set his famous 1899 novel The Octopus in Hollister, at the southern end of the Santa Clara Valley. In 1919, Robinson Jeffers came to the Carmel coast where he designed and built his own stone house and tower, Tor House. For four decades he wrote lyric and book-length narrative poems depicting "the divinely superfluous beauty" of Carmel and the Big Sur coast.

In the thirties, John Steinbeck left his native Salinas for Monterey where he wrote novels and stories that were responsible for creating "Steinbeck Country," central California's representation in the public imagination. Henry Miller's ghost still broods over the Big Sur Coast, where he retreated in the fifties, returning from Europe.

In the early fifties, Neal Cassady and his wife Carolyn came to the Santa Clara Valley. First living near downtown San Jose, then in Los Gatos, Cassady's presence drew writers from the Beat Generation to the Valley, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac prominently among them. Kerouac and Ginsberg, alongside Cassady, worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Jose. In Santa Cruz, "over the hill" from San Jose, the poet William Everson was establishing his poetic practice. Up the road, Wallace Stegner, novelist and preeminent western nonfiction writer, was creating a legacy at Stanford. In the early sixties, one of Stegner's most notable students, Ken Kesey, was living in La Honda in the Santa Cruz Mountains and writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. From the turbulence of the late sixties, new Chicano writers raised their voices in San Jose, notably among them the poet Lorna Dee Cervantes, a graduate of SJSU. Also Juan Felipe Herrera, founder of the "Chicanismo" movement. At the same time, novelists James D. Houston and his wife Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston (SJSU graduates) came to prominence together writing the book and screenplay Farewell to Manzanar, the story of Jeanne's family's internment as Japanese-Americans during World War II. In the eighties, Amy Tan (another SJSU graduate) rose to the top of the bestseller lists after working as a Silicon Valley technical writer.

With the technological revolution has come a whole new generation of writers to the Valley. Formerly known as the "Valley of Heart's Delight" when it was a sleepy agricultural region overshadowed by San Francisco, the Silicon Valley has been chronicled by journalists and nonfiction writers. But the recent history of the Valley is only beginning to be turned into fiction and poetry. For example, Po Bronson, among other young writers, has sensationalized the Silicon Valley lifestyle in his novel The First Ten Million Is the Hardest and in his nonfiction pieces collected in The Nudist On the Late Shift.

Keeping pace with the Valley's rapid technological change has been the breathtaking pace of cultural change. Because of opportunities created by its burgeoning economy, the Valley has truly become ground zero for a worldwide migration unequaled since the California Gold Rush. Few places in the world have brought so many cultures and diverse ethnicities into close proximity. This mingling and clashing of cultures has helped spark our region's artistic and literary renaissance. One of a new generation of Indian-American writers, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, has emerged from the Valley and received critical acclaim for her poetry and fiction, and found national audience. Also, young Vietnamese-American writers like Andrew X. Pham have found their voices and initial publication here.

These are but a few examples of the Valley's rich cultural production. Amidst the technological networks, an experimental arts community has sprung up, a community that welcomes writers who want to collaborate and explore technology as a means of artistic and literary production. The literary scene in the Valley is continuing to redefine itself at a dizzying speed. For writers, the Valley is a wild frontier full of unforeseen opportunity. Someone here, maybe like you, will write the next book that makes history.