OLD SAN FRANCISCO by Doris Muscatine


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Muscatine has managed to write a biography of San Francisco at once lusty and scholarly. After the waning of Spain's influence in California, even before the U.S. took it over in 1846, San Francisco was on its way from a wide-open miscegenated mining town to the sophisticated metropolis it was to become by the turn of the century. By 1906, the year of the Great Earthquake, it had become a polyglot sprawl of plutocrats, railroad magnates, artists and restaurateurs; indeed ""a passion for eating and drinking is still one of the trademarks of the city."" Muscatine handles subjects as diverse as San Francisco politics and its celebrated sourdough (she is the author of A Cook's Tour of San Francisco) with equal elan. She has a wealth of material to draw on, from the journals and letters of disillusioned '49ers to the writings of Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and that most misanthropic of San Francisco writers, Ambrose Bierce. Despite the depradations practiced against the city's Chinese population--which early on became the focal point for the fierce xenophobia which was the underside of Frisco's casual tolerance--Muscatine makes it sound as if the town of the old Spanish missions was the mythical melting pot of America. In its early days it was almost entirely a male society (eight percent women during the Gold Rush days) which coined such names as Chicken Thief Flat, Brandy Gulch, and the Cut Throat Bar and Gouge Eye. Nor were the years of the Silver Bonanza and the garish ostentation of the parvenus who rode to riches on the railroads more genteel. Muscatine has mined the city's newspapers (beginning with the San Francisco Star which started publication in 1847), the broadsides and ballads of the sourdoughs, and the memoirs--so it seems--of every adventurer and eccentric who came with high hopes and small capital to make his fortune in that beautiful city by the sea.

Pub Date: Oct. 29th, 1975
Publisher: Putnam