Delta Narratives, pt 4: Writers and artists in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
Dr. Gregg Camfield surveys literature written about the Delta, focusing on an American humorist’s vision of Benicia
“Stories matter. Contemporary neuroscience fairly certainly supports our basic intuition that individual human beings construct their identities out of stories, and what is true for individuals is also true, though usually in a more complex way, for cultures,” writes Dr. Gregg Camfield in his report, Writers and Artists in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The report is part of the Delta Narratives project which was commissioned by the Delta Protection Commission; the project is a collaboration between scholars, museum professionals, and archivists to research ways in which the Delta experience relates to regional and national history. Dr. Gregg Camfield is a professor of literature from UC Merced, and in this last of four installments, he surveys the early literature written about the Delta.
He began by noting that the scholars working on the Delta Narratives project were organized by Bob Benedetti at the University of the Pacific, and one thing that had struck him was the degree to which the Delta as a cultural site was often below people’s radar. “People just didn’t really have a sense of the Delta as a place; it was much more as a resource to be exploited or protected but not as a place in its own right,” he said. “So Dr. Benedetti collared a whole bunch of us to try to put some of those stories together … Bob asked me to look at the literature of the Delta, and my first response to him was, ‘There’s not very much.’ He says, ‘Yes, but that not very much still should be recorded,’ and so I said, ‘All right, I’ll do it, and we’ll see what comes of it.’”
“Bob assumed that because Mark Twain had been out here, and he knew I was a Mark Twain scholar, that I would be able to talk about Mark Twain’s discussion of the Delta, but I told him, ‘There ain’t none.’ He just didn’t talk about it. And that, all by itself, is really strange,” he said, noting that Mark Twain had written three books about the Mississippi River. “Now, given his interest in rivers and given that this is a man who, over the course of a very long and very rich literary career, went around the world and never met a river he didn’t like. He wrote extensively, for example, about the Rhine River with all of its boat traffic … but while he’s in California, he goes through the Delta and he never mentions it at all. Nothing about the boats. Nothing about the place. Nothing. The closest he gets is he mentions stopping in Stockton on his way up to the Gold Country. So I think Bob was disappointed when I told him, “I’m sorry. You’re not going to get anything funny from Mark Twain talking about the Delta to put Delta on the map.”
“But I was able to tell him that the first western humorist of note, George Horatio Derby, did write about the Delta,” he said. “Not only did he write about it, he mapped the Sacramento Valley. And Derby’s discussion of the Delta may, in fact, have set the stage for much of what we now think of it.”
Dr. Camfield said that when he arrived in Stockton 20 years ago, he was astonished at how little the Delta figured, because looking at various cultural hubs in the world, the city at the mouth of a river, the trans-shipment point for taking the goods and people from the interior waterways to the ocean-going waterways, usually figure very prominently culturally. “In New Orleans, there is the sense of a thriving culture – we’ve got music, we’ve got food, we’ve got the celebration of a Creole culture, and a radical mix of people from all over the world. You could talk about New York City that way as well.”
“There is no city here,” he pointed out. “There’s a town, Benicia – why didn’t Benicia become our Delta city? Why is San Francisco the center of cultural gravity in the West? And it is. San Francisco is the world city. San Francisco became the cultural capital, as well as the capital capital of the West Coast. … If you compare San Francisco and Benicia in the early days and look at what early settlers said about both places, you’d get an unflattering picture of both. San Francisco was just a bunch of sand hills, a lot of people said. The wind blew all the time. It was foggy. It was miserable. Benicia: Just a bunch of swamps. The wind blew all the time. I mean, if you go to some of these early accounts, they seem very similar. … There’s nothing obvious to suggest that San Francisco should have been the center instead of Benicia. And so why?”
Well, you know, there are all sorts of accidents, and there are good reasons that have to do with the geography, I suppose, but one of the things that strikes me as a cultural critic is how often stories map how people are going to behave. As sentient beings we tend not actually to think about ourselves by objective identifiers. We tend to think of ourselves by stories.
Dr. Camfield said that when he was invited to come and speak, he went to the website to look at what the Delta Science Program said about itself:
“That sounds great, and I heartily endorse that mission, but what strikes me as a critic of culture is, why on earth do we have to have unbiased scientific information to judge decisions on? Because human beings are biased and unscientific at root. We’re story telling animals. People make sense out of the world and in turn act on stories and on fictions that are always partial in both senses of the word. That is, they have incomplete information and they are biased. They’re partial in that sense of biased as well. So I am interested in stories, and I’m wondering if the first stories about the Delta may, in fact, have had this biasing effect.”
Some of the first stories about the area come from military people, and one of those was William Tecumseh Sherman, a rather famous person, he said. “In his memoirs, he tried to explain why San Francisco beat out Benicia. He says, ‘Foreseeing as he thought the growth of a great city somewhere on the Bay of San Francisco, he (Dr. Semple) selected Carquinez Strait as its location and obtained from General Vallejo a title to a league of land on condition of building up a city thereon to bear the name of Vallejo’s wife. This was Francisca Benicia. Accordingly, the new city was named Francisca. At this time, the town near the mouth of the bay was known universally as Yerba Buena, but that name was not known abroad, although San Francisco was familiar to the whole civilized world.”
“Some of the chief men of Yerba Buena, knowing the importance of a name, saw their danger, and by some action of the town council, changed the name of Yerba Buena to San Francisco,” he continued. “Dr. Semple was outraged that they’re changing the name to one so like his of Francisca, and he, in turn, changed his town to the other name of Mrs. Vallejo, namely Benicia, and Benicia it has remained to this day.”
“I am convinced that this little circumstance was big with consequences,” he said. “Benicia has the best natural site for a commercial city, and had half the money and half the labor since bestowed upon San Francisco been expended at Benicia, we should have, at this day, a city of palaces on the Carquinez Strait. The name of San Francisco, however, fixed the city where it now is, for every ship in ’48, ’49 knew the name of San Francisco but not of Yerba Buena or Benicia, and accordingly, ships consigned to California came pouring in with their contents and were anchored in front of Yerba Buena, the first town.”
“I doubt that simple explanation totally works, but it’s not worth dismissing out of hand,” said Dr. Camfield. “I think we in the 21st century do understand the importance of advertising, and it’s equally true that people in the 19th had already begun to understand it as well. There’s a huge tradition in America in the 19th century of boosterism – of people going out and picking up land extremely inexpensively and then push, push, push, push, pushing it. Actually that goes back to the 18th century, with Americans going to Europe and selling plots of land in the middle of nowhere to unsuspecting Europeans, who came out here thinking they were going to have lovely farms in well-developed communities because they’d see these maps with town halls and stores and supply yards and streets and everything all laid out. They would get there, and there’d be nothing. Well, there’d be things like trees and swamps and rocks but nothing civilized in the sense that these people were expecting to buy. It’s already an old tradition by the middle of the 19th century, so when people are boosting San Francisco or Benicia, that’s part of the game, and everybody knows it, and the question of who wins at boosting is, I think, open to debate in 1848 or 1849.”
Generally speaking, the military was hugely involved in developing the West, Dr. Camfield said. “These sketches were actually commissioned by Captain Ringgold of the Navy,” he said. “There’s a whole series, so if you picked up their book and were trying to navigate from the Golden Gate all the way up to Sacramento, by looking at these various illustrations, you could find out where you were and where exactly you should turn around which island to stay in the channel.”
George Derby was a lieutenant in the relatively-unknown Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, he said. “By an act of Congress, the Army Corps was separated into two groups. The Corps and the Topographic Corps actually had some overlapping responsibilities, so they were eventually folded back into one group, but when Derby graduated from West Point, the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was the elite coming out of West Point,” he said.
“Now West Point is an unusual institution in American history and an extremely important one,” he continued. “It was the first regularly constituted engineering program in American higher education. It also was the first collegiate post-secondary education that did not assume that the student coming into it had studied Latin and had gone through a number of other fundamental courses of study which they would have to pass examinations for in order to get in. You have to be nominated by a federal elected official – a Congressman or a Senator, and if you were coming from the West and you were politically well connected and you wanted to go to West Point, it was likely that you had not studied Latin.”
“On the other hand, every post-secondary curriculum in the United States was predicated on a thorough grounding in the classics, so West Point had a challenge in its curriculum, and that was, ‘How do we get all these kids who know not a lick of Latin up to scratch?’” he said. “They developed a rather rigorous system of catechism, if you will. And it wasn’t just Latin. It was also French, geometry, and the traditional liberal arts as well. They also established a system of ranking and that you would always be ranked in your class; given what they were starting with, the system of ranking and of discipline not only prepared people for the military, it also identified the elite coming out of West Point, the ones who would really be equivalently educated to those coming out of, say, a Harvard or a Yale or a Princeton.”
Fairly early on, one of West Point’s commanders decided to institute an engineering curriculum. “Now that’s substantial, because artillery requires engineering. Fortification requires engineering. There are so many aspects of fundamental military needs that require an educated engineering force that it made absolute sense, but even so, there was a hierarchy within the engineering programs at West Point. Those who were fairly low in the class ended up going into the artillery or the infantry. Their knowledge of engineering principles certainly helped them, but if you were at the top of the class, you could go into the Army Corps or into the Corps of Topographical Engineers. These were the people who fanned out over the United States, especially out West, mapping. Derby himself was part of a mapping expedition along the Columbia River. He was part of a mapping expedition of the Sacramento Valley. He was part of a mapping expedition of the lower Colorado. In fact, one of his best jokes when he was stationed in Yuma was he said that one of his commands died and went to hell, and the next day, he sent back for blankets. … It takes a minute.”
So Derby is all over the West, eventually begin sent down to San Diego. “It was when he was in San Diego he was really bored and actually bought a newspaper, so he wrote a number of columns,” he said. “Mind you, he was often bored, and he would write humorous squibs for anybody who would publish them, and he became very well known throughout the West as a very funny man. He was a good comrade, a good companion, and well educated. He was absolutely the elite at West Point. These were civilized men, especially in the Topographical Engineers Corps. These were men who were conversant with scientists around the world. They were often part of the National Academy of Science, as Derby was a member. They were instrumental in supporting the Smithsonian Institution and really developing it as a place of scientific inquiry. These were people who thought of themselves as cosmopolitan, as truly educated and at the cutting edge of things, and Derby certainly was among those.”
“Derby loved to make fun of absolutely everything, including himself,” Dr. Camfield said. “He always published under pseudonyms, which was again normal in the 19th century. His first pseudonym was Squib Bob. He was so popular publishing under Squib Bob, someone else published something under that title, so when he’s in San Diego, as John Phoenix, he’s writing about San Diego, and he says:
On entering, we found ourselves in a large bar and billiard room fitted up with the customary pictures and mirrors. Here, I saw Lieutenant Derby of the Topographical Engineers (who he sometimes called the hypothetical engineers). An elderly gentleman, he was not. He was quite young, of emaciated appearance and serious cast of features. Constant study and unremitting attention to his laborious duties have reduced him almost to a skeleton, but there are those who say that an unrequited attachment in his earlier days is the cause of his careworn appearance. He was sent out from Washington some months since to dam the San Diego River, and he informed me, with a deep sign and melancholy smile, that he had done it mentally several times since his arrival.”
These squibs were published locally and became so popular that Scrivener’s in New York collected them into a book and published them nationally. “So Derby is one of the early and most influential of American humorists; he was certainly extremely influential to Mark Twain’s writings. What he did as a humorist was make fun of almost everything that was close to him, including science. He was perhaps best known for his lectures on astronomy, and of course, as a surveyor, paying attention to the stars was rather important. It was one of the ways of keeping bearings when you were actually surveying. So he did this elaborate parody of both astronomy and astrology, confusing them quite deliberately, which happens all the time now of course but certainly would not have been something that a true scientist would’ve done, and he threw in a whole bunch of bogus mythology in order to talk about the planets. It was very, very well received nationally. But he also liked making fun of science for wanting to quantify everything.”
“Derby also did a parody military survey and reconnaissance of the route from San Francisco to the Mission of Delores, made with a view to ascertaining the practicability of connecting those points by a railroad – it’s about 2-1/2 miles away,” he said. “Now mind you, he and his companions were, at that time, engaged in surveying several routes for a transcontinental railroad, so for him to parody this and come up with congressional appropriations which he appropriates himself by putting in the bank at 3% interest and hiring all his kinfolk and coming up with crazy names for other professors who are involved in this and having over 100 people surveying this route that’s 2-1/2 miles long – he has a field day, shall we say, with his own profession.”
“So what does this all have to do with Benicia?” Dr. Camfield said. “Like most comic journalists of his day, Derby embedded sketches of wider interest in correspondence that addressed intensely local issues, among them the rivalries of California towns that were vying for commercial and political power. Derby was a partisan of San Francisco over San Jose, Sonoma, Sacramento, and Benicia. His sketches describe the travels of a wide-eyed innocent whose enthusiasm ironically conveys comic criticism of San Francisco’s rivals. Now, in almost everything he wrote about San Francisco (and he wrote a lot), he describes it as a rambunctious place but big and thriving and interesting, whereas every place else he describes ironically as rambunctious, thriving, and interesting, but the irony makes it clear that they’re not.”
“So of Benicia, October 1, 1850, he says:
So, he finally leaves the watermelons, having pocketed one of them – or I should say put it in his carpet bag without paying for it. He takes a short walk, which brought him to the portal of the best and only hotel in the city, a large two-story building, dignified by the title of the Solano Hotel …
“Here, I discussed my melon with intense relish, and then seeking my couch, assayed to sleep, but oh! The fleas! Skipping, hopping, crawling, biting! Won’t someone establish an agency for the sale of D.L. Charles & Company’s Flea Bane in Benicia? What a night! But everything must have an end, circles and California gold excepted, and day at last broke over Benicia. Magnificent place! I gazed upon it from the attic window of the Solano Hotel with feelings too deep for utterance. “
“The sun was rising in its majesty, gilding the redwood shingles of US storehouses in the distance. Seven deserted hulks were riding majestically at anchor in the bay. Clotheslines with their burdens were flapping in the morning breeze. A man with a wheelbarrow was coming down the street! Everything, in short, spoke of the life, activity, business, and bustle of a great city! But in the midst of the excitement of this scene, an odoriferous smell of beefsteak came, like a holy calm across my olfactories, and hastily drawing in my cabeza, I decided to breakfast.”
And then he goes out on a stroll after breakfast, and he says,
“There isn’t a tree in all Benicia. ‘There was one,’ said the guide, ‘last year—only four miles from here, but they chopped it down for firewood for the ‘post.’ (i.e., the Army post). ‘Alas, why didn’t the woodman spare that tree?’ The dwelling of one individual pleased me indescribably—he had painted it a vivid green! Imaginative being. He evidently tried to fancy it a tree, and in the enjoyment of this sweet illusion, had reclined beneath its grateful shade, secured from the rays of the burning sun, and in the full enjoyment of rural felicity even among the crowded streets of this great metropolis. How pretty is the map of Benicia!”
There is this tradition of the maps being the way you hook people, but you’re supposed to show the map when people aren’t actually there, said Dr. Camfield. “So he goes into this long description of the map and notes how many of the lots are actually underwater in swamps and just generally paints this place as not only a backwater but a place of conniving and cheats. Now that sketch goes on a long time, and then he follows with a sketch that’s supposedly about his trip to Sonoma, but he spends most of that talking about Benicia and complaining that they misconstrued him, thinking that he was satirizing them when in fact he was praising them and he expected to be given some lots for free for having boosted them in the press, which again was not an uncommon practice in the West.”
Then he returns to San Francisco and has to go through Benicia, and Derby writes:
“Five years later, as John Phoenix, he’s now posted up at the Army Post up there, having done more surveying, and he writes a new sketch. He says:
“After a pun like that, who could want to live in Benicia?,” Dr. Camfield said. “Now, I’m dealing with a humorist, and humorists are intrinsically extravagant, so I’m making an extravagant claim to suggest that George Derby singlehandedly destroyed the Delta, or at least stories of the Delta, but I think it is true that he was one of a number of people who established San Francisco as the real cultural center, and San Francisco became Bohemia. Almost every person with any artistic inclinations went to San Francisco. As much as they may have complained about certain aspects of San Francisco, they kept giving San Francisco billing. And eventually, San Francisco became not just the financial center of the west, but also the cultural center.”
“When Mark Twain left Virginia City, Nevada, where he was first going to mine for silver and then realized that he could mine money much more efficiently by being a newspaper reporter, It’s not surprising then that he went down to San Francisco. After the roughness of Virginia City, he went to various hotels, and one of them he described as “heaven on a half shell.” He could get oysters and champagne there. He could get anything he wanted in the most cosmopolitan way. He could also go down into some neighborhoods in San Francisco and write about brothels. He could write about operas if he went somewhere else. He could write about fashion. He could write about anything he could write about in any other major city, and indeed, when he went to New York City shortly thereafter and was writing to the West Coast, he did much the same thing in New York and would often use San Francisco as his touchstone of civilization when he was comparing other cities around the world.”
“I’m not saying that he really did it singlehandedly, but I am saying that the way he framed the debate – and it was a debate at first – the way he framed the debate was consonant with the framing of other significant people, and altogether, I think we can see that, in a good American fashion, the real focus and weight of a city came substantially out of advertising,” concluded Dr. Camfield.
During the question and answer session, Dr. Camfield was asked if there was any literature related to Stockton.
“That’s a much larger topic,” replied Dr. Camfield. “There is some literature from Stockton. I mean Fat City you’ve probably all read – or have heard of – but not a lot really. Mostly late 20th century and forward. I haven’t really found much. I mean, there are passing references to Stockton and Sacramento … like Taylor, his stories of his trips around California, he mentions both quite flatteringly. He was a good American booster, working for Horace Greely. He was writing for the Tribune. And he made everything out here sound idyllic and wonderful, so Stockton and Sacramento both came off very well in Taylor’s writing. But there’s a huge and surprising gap to me. I mean, again, in the 1920s and 1930s, well actually you can push it back into the 19th century, literature was mass communication, and especially in the 1880s and 1890s and well into the 1920s, the so-called local color movement – you have all these people writing about very specific localities, and I can’t find any having to do with either Stockton or Sacramento. It comes later.”
For more information …
- Click here for the essay, Writers and artists in the Delta
- Click here for much more information on the Delta Narratives project.
- Click here to view all Delta Narratives articles posted on the Notebook.
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