In 1863, Mark Twain wrote that leaving San Francisco was like leaving heaven and going to prison. In 1891, Oscar Wilde mused that “every missing person is said to be seen in San Francisco” and speculated that the city had “all the sights of the next world.”More than a century later, in 1993, Tony Kushner envisioned paradise as a San Francisco-like city in his play american angel.
From rocky island prisons to secluded, tree-lined stairs that climb hillsides, San Francisco — and the surrounding Bay Area — is certainly a literary environment. It inspired sojourners such as Joan Didion and Maya Angelou, and shaped the careers of contemporary writers such as Andrew Sean Greer and Malinda Lo.
To celebrate Litquake, the Book and Writers Festival that returns every October. 6-22, we’ve put together a quote map to help you see the city through the eyes of some of its most famous writers.
“It was a well-weathered three-story structure made of brown tiles. It reminded Marianne of an old bear with some leaves in its fur. She liked it right away.”
– City Stories Armistead Maupin (1978)
Armistead Maupin’s heroine Marianne finds a home in San Francisco’s fictional Barbary Lane, inspired by the real-life McDray Lane on Russian Hill. One of the city’s most heavily trafficked literary destinations, the ivy-covered wooden staircase is an instantly recognizable landmark.
chestnut street steps
“She always thought there was something magical about the city, the sudden glimpse of the bay between the steep stairs and the tall, narrow buildings. It felt vast and hopeful, and every half-hidden opening reminded her of the city she was born in. Mysteries still to be discovered.”
– last night at the telegraph club Malinda Rowe (2021)
San Francisco’s stairs have a unique appeal to queer romance writers.also less and city storyMalinda Rowe last night at the telegraph club Use beautiful staircases in the everyday lives of queer protagonists. Luo created her own literary map of the city, guiding readers through the lesbian bars of Chinatown.
Ferry Terminal Cable Car Station
“The idea of sailing up and down the hills of San Francisco in a dark blue uniform, with a money changer on my belt, sparked my fantasies. …I became fearless and reveled in the physics of San Francisco fact.”
– I know why the caged bird sings Maya Angelo (1970)
Maya Angelou came to San Francisco in 1940 and overcame strong racism to become one of the city’s first black streetcar conductors, laying the groundwork for female gondola riders like Catrena Brown. You can still take the cable car from the ferry terminal at Embarcadero and experience what Angelou feels like”[sail] Up and down the hills in San Francisco. ”
“The Vulcan Steps, as they are called, curve from Levant Street. At the top, among Monterey pines, ferns, ivy and bottle trees, to a brick platform with a view east to the city The view from the center. The bougainvillea bloomed on their porch like a discarded ball gown.”
– less Andrew Sean Greer (2017)
This quintessential queer love story won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018. The protagonist, Arthur Less, lives in a house on the Vulcan Steps, just a few blocks north of Castro. Less finds love waiting for him – who knows, maybe you will too.
“Alcatraz is now full of flowers: orange and yellow nasturtiums, geraniums, sweetgrass, blue irises, black-eyed susans. . . . This is not an unpleasant place to be in Alcatraz Outside, there were only flowers and wind, a bell buoy moaning, and the tide came over the Golden Gate.”
—An article in The Age of Rock and Roll to bethlehem Joan Didion (196)
Joan Didion visited Alcatraz in 1967, four years after the prison was closed and two years before it was reclaimed by Native American activists in November 1969. In this short and nostalgic article, Didion focuses on the details of the prison garden, an important part of the island’s history that can still be visited today.
Golden Gate Park
John notices showers in late September
dyed the blond hills around the bay
With new green.he noticed flowers
Bloom before their winter.the way
That, when he was a child, the mystery
San Francisco’s restless spark,
It suddenly occurred to him now, across the park,
Taken from the old dunes in the west
Push the green belt to slow travel
The Pacific swelled, and his footsteps went.
But it was too late.birds flying to the nest
towards the sunset and the arc
Or darkness drifts across the park.
– “Sonnet 1.5” from Kinmen Vikram Seth (1986)
Only Vikram Seth could write an entire novel about San Francisco in the style of Elizabeth’s sonnets. These 14 lines capture the beauty of Golden Gate Park through the eyes of a Prufrock-like protagonist facing middle age in early fall.
“An incredible group of journalists gathered around a locked door in San Francisco City Hall.”
– Mayor of Castro Street Randy Shields (1982)
Stranger than fiction, the 1978 assassination of Harvey Milk was one of the most dramatic moments in San Francisco history. Journalist Randy Shilts eerily rendered the scene, bringing the original image of City Hall to blood.
“My sister Guan believes she has dark eyes. She sees people who have died and now live in the dark world, ghosts who leave the mist just to visit her kitchen on Balboa Street in San Francisco.”
– One hundred secret senses Amy Tan (1995)
In the space of two sentences, Amy Tan dismantles the fog of the afterlife with the fog of San Francisco. The city’s iconic weather patterns stretch from the ocean to the Richmond district—an important backdrop for both the novel and San Francisco’s Chinese-American community.
“It’s a strange thing, but it’s said that every missing person has seen it in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city with all the charms of the afterlife.”
– Oscar Wilde
When Oscar Wilde visited San Francisco in 1882, he spent an evening at the Bohemian Club, a secret fraternity that still exists today in an old brick building in Nob Hill. The associated Bohemian Grove is the club’s equally unique getaway in Sonoma County.
your money is in me
my money is in another
I deliberately put
your clothes are in
or water, no
That is lonely.
– “San Francisco” from All are guarded by benevolent machines Richard Brautigan. (1967)
An unverified inscription preceded—“This poem was found by Richard Brautigan on a paper bag in a laundromat in San Francisco. Author unknown.”—the short, whimsical verse Published on All are guarded by benevolent machinesa collection of poems by Richard Brautigan.
The novelist and poet has called San Francisco home for much of his career, and many of his stories and poems are set in the city. Brautigan is said to be a bridge between the Beat movement and the hippies. He is known for his dreamlike prose and ability to draw depth from the mundane events of everyday life.
“Pan slave patients are really uncomfortable,
I feel the tears of the family.
I hope to get to San Francisco early,
Fortunately, doubly worry. “
“…The barbarian abuse is really unacceptable.
Tears flowed from Shuangliu as my family situation stirred my emotions.
I just wish I could land in San Francisco soon,
Thus saving me the extra grief here. “
– Anonymous Chinese Detainees on Angel Island (early 1900s)
The immigration station on Angel Island, which opened in 1910, contains more than 220 Chinese poems carved into wooden walls by detainees awaiting entry. While most of the authors are unknown, the poems from the barracks persist—both historical documents and painful memories of immigrant experiences.
Litquake has been running since October. 6-22 at venues across the city.
Nick Veronin contributed to this article.
Questions, comments or concerns about this article can be sent to [email protected]