Writers Inscribe Legacy on Post-'60s Bay Area Culture

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The Bay Area has been sounding its barbaric yawp since, well, whenever whenever was. The 1956 publication of Allen Ginsberg's modern anti-epic "Howl" sent readers (and censors) running for the proverbial hills. He showed us how the best minds of his generation walked the "romance of the streets." That poem, and Ginsberg, really did wade deep in the gutter, pulling an otherwise lay readership out of the flotsam and into the cultural fabric.

Though the bustling kaffeeklatsch of the Beat Generation - Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, among other "angel-headed hipsters" - has been left for days bygone, some figures like Gary Snyder and David Meltzer are still hanging around, shooting the shit and rhyming it, too. The Beat Generation left its tortured heart in San Francisco, but it still beats!

The turn of the century brought a new form of literary machismo to the Bay. Prolific novelists Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers, also the co-founder of McSweeney's, are among the most nationally prominent Bay-based writers; each is the half of a literary power couple. Chabon is married to Ayelet Waldman, who is known to be a little too forthcoming about their sex life in her essays. Dave Eggers' plus one is Vendela Vida, with whom he co-wrote the screenplay for Sam Mendes' 2009 film Away We Go. And Lemony Snicket? It's merely a pseudonym. His name's actually Daniel Handler, and he lives in San Francisco (fun fact: he's an on-and-off accordion player for the Magnetic Fields). But unlike the Beats, these guys wear a chip on their shoulders. In fact, sometimes the Beats didn't wear anything at all (re: Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs' nudie shots).

McSweeney's may officially be a San Francisco-based publishing house, but it's more of a large, imposing umbrella that encompasses most of the Bay's glittering literati. Their magazine "The Believer" boasts monthly features, columns and interviews with and conducted by local writers. UC Berkeley English majors drooled over Professor Namwali Serpell's elegant and delectably lascivious essay on "Lolita" in the May 2010 issue.

As a bookworm and a movie geek, too, I feel Hollywood's been especially remiss of late to notice San Francisco. It hasn't adopted the filmic lore of New York, but film's absence in the Golden City has been filled by a plentiful literary culture. New York has its angry neurotics, and we just have our neurotics. (BTW, though I settled for "the Golden City," a Google search of colloquial nicknames for San Francisco returned the phrase "The City That Knows How." Tell me WHY this is archaic! Can we puh-lease bring back this into the lexicon?)

For those new to the Bay, you don't have to cross the bridge to pick the fruits from the tree of literary knowledge. Poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti or members of the post-Beat LANGUAGE school movement (such as the English department's own Lyn Hejinian) flock to Berkeley to hone their pun-manship.

Berkeley's unofficial street poet, Julia Vinograd, hangs and hobbles around our very own Caffe Mediterraneum on Telegraph. She might ask you for an ice cream sundae in exchange for one of her whacky books of poetry.

Caffe Med was host to a number of writers before acquiring its status as a fly-strip for buzzing transients and the community's most disheveled. Mark Z. Danielewski, the warped genius who wrote "House of Leaves," is said to have written his manuscript at Med along with other places around Berkeley. You could say Danielewski brought the avant-garde into the rank and file.

It seems only a place as berserk as Berkeley could serve as a kind of salon for such radical freethinkers, where the best minds of our generation continue to write and rewrite the way we experience the Bay. Alas, I can only offer a microcosm of a microcosm of the Bay's literary history. You might try City Lights Books and the Beat Museum in San Francisco, or even Moe's in Berkeley to get a better idea of it.

I could bust my book-loving nut all over your face if you want me to, but it wouldn't compare to feeling the girth of the Bay Area literary horse-dick up your ass. And I've only lived here for two years, but that's enough to start a revolution on paper, right?

Tags: BERKELEY, DAVE EGGERS, BEAT CULTURE, MCSWEENEY'S, LEMONY SNICKET, CAFE MEDITERRANEUM


Traverse the City That Knows How with Ryan at [email protected]



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