Oakley Hall continues work on historical novels

July 25, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Oakley Hall has found a genre he loves Ė the historical novel. It appeals to three things that are immensely important to him: history, California, and writing.

In his 21st novel, "Separations," he wove together strands of stories from the Old West: An 1882 expedition down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, characters from a San Francisco literary magazine, railroad barons intent on raping the land, Mormon settlers determined to keep strangers out, pioneer girls kidnapped by Indians, and Mexican landowners scorned by society.

He must have liked the process of bringing all these elements together, for heís done it again in his 22nd novel with a slightly different cast of characters. His most recent book is "Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades" (University of California, 1998. $22.95), which he describes as a sort of Sherlock Holmes mystery set in San Francisco of the 1880s.

Hall came down to the UC Davis campus recently from his summer writing program at Squaw Valley to talk about Bierce and other Western writers.

Bierce was a writer (no student has missed reading "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge") but also a newspaper columnist so embroiled in invective and personal attack that he typically carried a gun. He wrote the well-known "Devilís Dictionary" and many short stories, ghost stories, and stories about the Civil War.

Bierce specialized in satire as did many Western writers of this time, including Mark Twain and Bret Harte.

Bierce was born on a farm in Indiana which he loathed, Hall said. He did not have a happy childhood. He fought in the Civil War, married a rich woman and lived in London for a time before moving to San Francisco. He hated dogs, left his wife, and kept a skull on his desk. His eldest son committed suicide and his second son drank himself to death. Bierce was widely believed to have joined the Mexican Army during the revolution because he wrote about his exploits. But now, Hall said, many wonder if he really did join the battle. He might have holed up in the Grand Canyon instead.

During the winter months, Hall and his wife live in San Francisco in a cottage on Russian Hill built in 1865 that survived the great earthquake and fire.

"Ina Coolbrith once inhabited the house my wife and I live in on Macondray Lane," he said. "Her poetry seems a bit flimsy now but in the late 19th century she was a California poet of national renown. She was a member of what was called the Golden Gate Trinity, the editors of the Overland Monthly, Coolbrith, Charles Warren Stoddard and Bret Harte."

Hall became interested in Coolbrith and looked up her biography in the San Francisco library. There he found a copy from the University of Utah Press, printed in unlikely purple ink. Coolbrith was born in Missouri, the niece of Mormon leader Joseph Smith, and was one of the first white children to cross the Sierra pass. She grew up in Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco where she was rumored to have a string of eligible lovers from Bret Harte to Mark Twain. She later was a librarian for the city of Oakland and is supposed to be the woman who introduced Jack London to his love of books. And she was the poet laureate of California from 1913 to 1928.

"Poetry unwritten is elevated thought not expressed," Coolbrith once said.

While doing research on Coolbrith and her crowd of 19th century San Franciscans, Hall said he found shelf after shelf in the library about Indian captivity. It seems that many women and children were taken captive by Native Americans in the pioneer days.

"There were a lot of (captives) and many women did not wish to come back," said Hall.

Sounds like a good plot for another historical novel.

A lot of people in the area know the name "Oakley Hall" but aren't exactly sure why. The uncertainty is understandable, for he has worn a lot of hats. For 20 years he was the director of the writing program at UC Irvine. For longer than that he has been the director of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. And he has written a huge number of books over a long period of time.

As for biographical data, he was born in 1920 in Mission Hills, California. He earned his bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley, and joined the Marine Corps during World War II. On Maui, awaiting the invasion of Japan, he began to write. After the war he attended Columbia University and later earned his MFA from the writing program at the University of Iowa. His first best seller, the autobiographical "Corpus of Joe Bailey" (1953) was banned in Britain and Australia. It marked the beginning of quite a career.

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