Literary Pasadena

Jun 28, 2010

From its earliest settling by Midwesterners, the Arroyo area attracted writers. One of the best known was Charles Fletcher Lummis, who in 1884 walked from Cincinnati to L.A. for a job as a reporter at the Los Angeles Daily Times. This was a brilliant publicity stunt, of course, and he arrived in town a famous man. He remained famous, writing for the Times, fighting for Indian rights, writing editorials and poetry, photographing Native Americans and founding a magazine called Land of Sunshine (later Out West), for which he recruited such writers as Jack London and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. He also built—by hand—a river-rock house on the Highland Park banks of the Arroyo; today it is one of L.A.’s most cherished landmarks and museums.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman came to Pasadena to recover from the emotional stress she felt marriage and motherhood placed upon her and began her lifetime of writing and speaking on woman’s issues. Here she penned her most powerful and successful novella, The Yellow Wallpaper (1890), a thinly veiled telling of her journey into madness.

Mary Hunter Austin and Idah Meacham Strobridge were not only contemporaries but also kindred spirits. They both had lived with the harsh elements of the desert—Austin in the Sierra Nevada and Strobridge in the Nevada Great Basin—and had coped with the sadness of family life (Austin had a disappointing husband and a developmentally delayed daughter, and Strobridge had to bury a husband and three children). Both came to the banks of the Arroyo and became a part of Lummis’s literary circle. Both found their literary voices in the landscapes and characters of the desert, Austin with Land of Little Rain (1903) and Strobridge with In Miners’ Mirage-Land (1904), illustrated by another local, Maynard Dixon. Strobridge established the Artemisia Bindery on the Arroyo very near the Abbey San Encino, where Clyde Browne had his printing operation, and there she continued to write, publish and hand bind books.

Other important local literary figures of that early era included:

— Adam Clark Vroman, a photographer of Western and Native American culture who founded Vroman’s Book and Photographic Supply in what is now Old Pasadena in 1894. Now located a little further east on Colorado, Vroman’s Bookstore remains the literary heart of the San Gabriel Valley; in 2008 Publishers Weekly chose it as America’s Bookseller of the Year.

— Olive Percival was a lover of gardens and children’s books who combined those loves to write the Children’s Garden Book. She also wrote about gardens, and her library of children’s books was one of the best in the country.

— Alice Millard was a rare book dealer who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a home in which she could display and sell her wares, as well as host literary salons. The result was Prospect Park’s La Miniatura (1923), the first of Wright’s block-construction houses in California.

— Maryland native Upton Sinclair moved to Pasadena in 1915. He was a literary and political celebrity, thanks to the success of The Jungle (1906) and his unsuccessful but newsworthy efforts on behalf of the Socialist party. He and his wife, Mary, spent nearly 40 years in Pasadena, during which time he ran for governor of California, wrote The Flivver King, dabbled in telepathy and psychic phenomena and, in the 1940s, found another round of success with the Lanney Budd series of historical novels.

— Hugely prolific Western writer Zane Grey honeymooned in Altadena in 1906 and returned to settle in 1918. He and his wife, Dolly, lived at 396 Mariposa in Altadena from 1920 until his death in 1939; he was cremated at Mountain View Cemetery.

— Holling Clancy Holling, a Michigan native and later Pasadena resident, wrote several children’s books, most notably the 1942 Caldecott winner Paddle-to-the-Sea.

In more modern times, Pasadenan Harriet Doerr (a granddaughter of Henry Edwards Huntington) achieved international acclaim in 1984 when she published her first novel, Stones for Ibarra, at age 73. It went on to win the National Book Award. She continued to write until her death in 2002. Also in 1984, Caltech professor, physicist and bon vivant Richard Feynmann found publishing success with Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Although they didn’t necessarily stay in their hometowns, local natives who went on to publishing acclaim have included science fiction master Octavia Butler (Kindred), who died in Washington in 2006 and is buried at Altadena’s Mountain View Cemetery; legendary cookbook author and Pasadena native Julia Child; How to Make an American Quilt author Whitney Otto; and Distant Land of My Father author Bo Caldwell.

Today finds the literary culture as vibrant as ever. Southern California’s premier literary small press, Red Hen Press, is now based in Pasadena, right near book-lover-central, Vroman’s Bookstore. Among the hometown scribblers from Pasadena, Glendale, Altadena, South Pasadena, La Cañada and Eagle Rock are:

— Memoirist and novelist Mark Salzman (Lying Awake, Iron & Silk)

— Novelist Michelle Huneven (Blame, Jamesland, Round Rock)

— Crime writers Denise Hamilton (The Last Embrace, Sugar Skull, Los Angeles Noir) and Naomi Hirahara (Snakeskin Shamisen)

— Children’s book author Eve Bunting (Fly Away Home, Smoky Night) and author/illustrator Marla Frazee (All the WordMrs. Biddlebox, Roller Coaster)

— PEN-award-winning poet and Oxy professor Martha Ronk (Why/Why Not)

— Nonfiction authors Greg Critser (Eternity Soup, Fat Land, Generation Rx) and  Chip Jacobs (Smogtown)

— Academy Award–winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaption) and screenwriter/director Scott Frank (Get Shorty, The Lookout, Marley & Me)

— Novelist, poet and teacher Jim Krusoe (Iceland, Blood Lake)

— Short-story writer and novelist Victoria Patterson (Drift)

— Columnist, blogger, Satellite Sister and soon-to-be-published novelist Lian Dolan (Helen of Pasadena)

— Memoirist Wil Wheaton (Just a Geek)

— Los Angeles Times journalist and novelist Mary McNamara (The StarletOscar Season)

Laurie Ochoa, editor and founder of L.A.’s new literary quarterly book, Slake, and her husband, Pulitzer Prize–winning food writer Jonathan Gold

Ron Koertge, a poet (Fever, Making Love to Roget’s Wife) and award-winning author of novels for kids and young adults (Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, Deadville)

4 Responses for “Literary Pasadena”

  1. Nancy Jones says:

    Very interesting and informative article. I would have loved to be in Pasadena during the days of Lummis and Co.

    I believe that Indiana novelist Gene Stratten Porter (Girl of the Limberlost) moved to Pasadena in the early twentieth century where she lived in high style. I remember reading somewhere that she died in an auto accident in Pasadena. Perhaps she came here because of the Indiana Colony.

  2. How do I reach you?

  3. Colleen Dunn Bates says:

    Our email and office phone numbers are found on our main site,



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