American Town is the working title of my book project on the social, political, and cultural history of San Francisco. What I am most interested in is less the familiar Gold Rush and Barbary Coast stories (though they come into play), than how the history of San Francisco reflects some of the major issues of our own day: America’s role as a Pacific and global power, our divided politics, and our development into a plural society. All of these themes are vividly present in the history of San Francisco.
Popular nonfiction about San Francisco generally consists of travel guides and stories for the visitor or general reader, image collections and coffee table books, and books about certain periods, neighborhoods, or individual historical figures of interest to the layperson. The category is abundant in Gold Rush and Barbary Coast lore and trivia designed as entertaining reading. Additionally, the professional historian or academic has access to many monographs on specific topics, such as urban studies or the gay rights movement. And, while travel guides are by their nature reasonably current, much of the generalist (as well as academic) literature on San Francisco goes back several decades since its original publication.
Thus, a visitor to the ‘San Francisco’ section of a trade bookstore, online retailer, or public library shelf will tend to find a collection of backlist titles from the 1950s and 1960s, picturebooks of images from different periods of San Francisco history, and, most commonly, general guidebooks or expanded travelogues with more detailed historical and cultural essay, background to supplement walking tours and general sightseeing recommendations.
American Town will sit in the missing ‘center’ of this offering, filling the gap between popular interest about the city in general, and individual historical monographs generally inaccessible to the layperson. The book aims to go beyond the imaginative re-spinning of Gold Rush stories and traditional California tales to show how the development of San Francisco was vitally relevant to the creation of the America we know today, and that the strengths and challenges of 21st-century America (power, pluralism, and division) were vividly in the forge of early San Francisco.
Additionally, because the major general works of San Francisco history were published many decades ago (and in turn are frequently based on even earlier historiographies), a general history of San Francisco written towards the layperson, that incorporates newer understandings on topics such as urban studies, sociology, ethnicity, global politics, gender and sexuality does not exist.
Finally (and most importantly to this author), current scholarship on the larger context of American power, people, and politics of the 1840s and 1850s has yet to be interwoven into the story of San Francisco. This story almost invariably begins with the Gold Rush population movements of late 1849, leaving out the ‘why’ of the city, and providing only the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.
In short, there has not been a current general history of San Francisco, such as what the immensely popular two-volume Gotham provided for New York City, in the last forty or fifty years. The time has come for such a book.