The novel waiting in the dusky wings of my mind is one of a young nation; a flawed, dynamic, hopelessly optimistic nation, already of proud achievements and horrendous racial transgressions; a nation embroiled in the Great Democratic Experiment with the eyes of the world upon them. Although my novel is set a generation or two after the Revolution, San Francisco in the mid-nineteenth century represents a new beginning, a precocious metropolis newly-born from the salty fogbanks and citrus herbs of the Californian coast; a multicultural conglomeration of immigrants seeking opportunity, drawn by the gleam and luster of golden veins that threaded through the Sierras and dusted rocky escarpments in a glittering promise of wealth and influence. In my later period, however, the gold deposits have diminished and those multitude that sought to depart weighed down by nuggets are still skulking in the dark end of Kearny Street, and loitering in Portsmouth Square. Despite devastating fires and recurring cholera epidemics, the burgeoning port city expanded across the hillside in growth ungoverned by any overarching administrative plan. There is a lack of constraint that intrigues me: manifest in mob law, racial persecution, unbridled prostitution and gambling, and the rough justice of vigilantism. I want to write a novel that examines the roots of things; to examine how 'Americanism' is engendered in such a community at such a time.
So what of other authors? Of other intents in the fictional-weave? There comes a point in the life of every novel when it first embarks, when it is newly-disseminated and the plot and characters are freshly evaluated by a discerning readership. Novels provide a reflection of ourselves as perceived through the authorial lens. The weaving of a fictional account pulls threads from the fabric of reality, creating in the process a narrative that is viscerally familiar but author-manipulated to convey a subjective truth. We discern the depths of ourselves within the projected characters, recognizing the undercurrents that propel them through the pages and ourselves through the course of our lives. This cognizance of the literary-self is not always a comfortable sensation; like the medieval hairshirt it prickles and irritates, particularly when the portrayed perspective is one unpalatable to preconceived notions (not that pointed literary truth is comparable to religious self-flagellation!) Victorian sensibilities were thusly offended when Thomas Hardy released Tess of the d'Urbervilles in 1891, widely condemned for its sympathetic portrayal of a 'fallen woman.'
And so I remain still embroiled in the Victorian period, my musings wandering from the Dickensian squalor of old London to the rural decline depicted in Thomas Hardy's great works. Jude the Obscure published four years after Tess met with an ongoing hue and cry from the Victorian public for its frank treatment of sex, oft being referred to as 'Jude the Obscene.' Lambasted for its apparent attack on the institution of marriage through the presentation of concepts such as erotolepsy (read: sexual recklessness - term coined by Hardy himself) booksellers sold the novel surreptitiously concealed within brown paper bags; the Bishop of Wakefield is reputed to have burnt his copy. In his postscript of 1912, Hardy humorously referred to this incident in the course of the book's career: "After these hostile verdicts from the press its next misfortune was to be burnt by a bishop - probably in his despair at not being able to burn me."
Slightly more than two decades later, the San Francisco News hired John Steinbeck to cover the desperate conditions wrought by the Great Depression in California's Central Valley. Discovering entire communities devastated by disease and hunger Steinbeck was enraged, and compelled, as a result, to pen his magnificent novel The Grapes of Wrath; within this work he confronted an inconvenient truth that undermined the national mythology inherent in the American Dream: hard work and virtue do not guarantee success. Upon publication in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath was accused of being false, offensive and communist; despite such detractors it sold out immediately and ultimately won him the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The Winter of Our Discontent continued the theme, fostering a new awareness of the Faustian bargain that underlay the moral degeneration of 1950's culture. During a presentation speech awarding Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, Secretary Anders Österling described the writer as an "independent expounder of the truth with an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American, be it good or bad."
Hardy and Steinbeck's novels ran the gauntlet of societal disapproval, they challenged complacent assumptions and lay bare prejudices and abuses within the political and cultural enterprise; both were roundly censured as a result: the former for daring to sympathetically portray a woman of 'blemished' virtue and his candid depiction of sex, and the latter for daring to expound upon the truth of things, to call comfortable national mythology into question. They are, to my mind, heroes of the literary pantheon who did not veer from their compositional calling, nor shy from the challenge of depicting the miseries that they perceived...regardless of the hairshirt-discomfort they may have caused to themselves and others along the way. Works of this kind challenge the status quo, present a glaring picture of consequences post-cataclysm, traveling forward upon current paths to bewail repercussions of deliberate political or social ignorance...to write a book which somehow changes the perceptions and understandings of things, which presents an alternative thought-experiment - what a thing that would be indeed! In determining my own authorial intent I only hope that I can muster a voice so clear and true as those two magnificent writers who came before.