Q&A with “Short History of San Francisco” author Tom Cole

Photo by Jim SanoIn 1981, Tom Cole published A Short History of San Francisco under the banner of his small press, Lexikos. The book went on to become the bestselling history of the city (The City), and it’s not hard to see why: Cole packs a lot of information into the small page count, taking readers from 2.5 million years ago to the present day with the charm and effortlessness of a seasoned tour guide. I recently spoke with Tom Cole about the Heyday rerelease of A Short History of San Francisco, the experience of revisiting one’s earlier work, and returning to the Bay Area after decades of globetrotting.

MC: What compelled you to write this book? Were you particularly bored by reading a particularly verbose tome of the city’s history, or…?

TC: I wanted to start a publishing company. A small press. I needed a book. I thought I myself might be a good, pliable candidate for my first author; knowing even then that most publishers look at authors as distractions from their important work, I imagined I might distract myself less than some royalty-hungry would-be John McPhee.

I hit upon the idea of an oral history of San Francisco. It seemed like a good and ungrandiose idea, and I found a few promising folks who agreed to be interviewed. But it was quickly clear that I didn’t know enough about San Francisco’s near and far history to ask intelligent questions. So I looked around for a nice, short history. And couldn’t find one.

So I learned about San Francisco as I wrote about it (on a whirring electric typewriter. This was in the early 80s, remember). I was lucky; the city has a lusciously engaging history, and there were times when I was so immersed in it that it felt like being in love, or aching for a lost love. That added a certain piquancy to the writing process.

Reacquainting with that love with the help of Heyday has been a wonderful experience. Not in the least because Heyday, far from seeing me as a distraction, has brought me into the publishing process with graciousness.

If you don’t love the land you’re on, you’re making a big mistake, a mistake long-established people don’t make.

Although the majority of the book goes into greatest detail about the past two hundred years or so, you begin the story far, far before the Gold Rush: in the Pleistocene Epoch, about 2.5 million years ago. Is change—its inevitability, whether gradual or dramatically abrupt—the dominant theme of Short History?

When you’re in the midst of a love affair, I’m not sure you’re inclined to sit back and ruminate on its themes. Sure, the constant of change seems a little more constant in San Francisco than most places. But what bubbled up for me as I wrote is that San Francisco is a very beautiful place where a lot of fascinating and dramatic things just seemed to happen one after another.

In the end, though, geography is destiny—much of the time, at least. And San Francisco, for all its wild humanity, is really a creature of its commodious and gorgeous Bay and the conveniently eroding lodes of gold in the Sierra foothills. Frankly, when I wrote A Short History’s afterword, I found myself less interested in the city’s contemporary human history than in its geologic and pre-Columbian history, and the possibility of placing oneself imaginatively—but heartsoothingly—in its sublime landscapes as they were before our dear and messy species got so busy.

If you don’t love the land you’re on, you’re making a big mistake, a mistake long-established people don’t make. So it’s utterly subjective, but I think it’s possible that before Western Man came barging in, there was, for reasons subtle and shiningly manifest, no better place on earth to live than in and around the Bay (this includes Hawaii, whose old kapu system was a little stern and stultifying). After traveling all over the world for more than thirty years, I am happy to be in residence in a land that I love.

A Short History of San FranciscoDid you reread the book in preparation for its republication? If so, was there anything in it that took you by surprise?

I was surprised at my writerly energy and that I had much the same voice then that I do now—though it’s a little frayed these days, not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve been writing professionally for a long time, and I still rely far too much on adjectives (“the enemy of the noun,” Voltaire famously and fruitlessly said) and I’ve never grown out of a taste for arcane words.

I was heartened and a little surprised at the results of Heyday’s expert editorial sleuthing; my youthful research held up well.

Several times in your chapter about the Ohlone, you cite Malcolm Margolin’s The Ohlone Way. When you came in to meet with Malcolm to discuss the republication, did he match up to the author’s voice?

Well, actually, I knew Malcolm, back when. After I wrote and published A Short History of San Francisco my erstwhile partner and I went on—under the Lexikos banner—to publish short histories of Chicago, San Diego, Charleston, and New Orleans. We published reprints of George R. Stewart, Galen Rowell, brought back to life a bunch of other mildly interesting old books, created some kids’ books, some more regional books, and had a marginally successful little thing going. I got to know Malcolm through small press circles; we once shared a booth at some book fair or the other. He was a happy but appropriately modest recipient of my fanboy enthusiasm for The Ohlone Way. I sold Lexikos, got deeply involved with adventure travel, and had an instructive stint as a literary agent; the last time I saw Malcolm before the revival of A Short History was on Fifth Avenue in New York. I was making my rounds, and there he was, right in front of Tiffany’s. But to the spirit of your question: if I hadn’t met Malcolm before now, I would have imagined him as a Liam Neeson sort of a guy, Liam Neeson playing a mystery-solving professor of anthropology. Needless to say, I find the reality far more interesting, if slightly less comely.

The Gold Rush was a highly self-conscious proto-social media event; those young Argonauts knew they were involved in a sensational epic, and many of them sent handwritten selfies and cursive tweets back home at every opportunity.

In your opinion, is there a defining moment in the history of San Francisco?

Of course,the most defining thing that ever happened to San Francisco is the discovery of gold up in the Sierra foothills. I’m not sure it’s widely (enough) appreciated that the city is a world historic wonder, a classic, surely the classic boom town. I’m fond of  reciting the stats: Within 10 years of the Gold Rush San Francisco grew from a muddy village to a crackling metropolis with a population it took Boston 200 years to reach, New York 190 years. And, unlike most boom towns, it lasted, prospered. (Sometimes I wonder if people ever stop and think about the name of the city’s football team. “49ers. A team named for, what? A number? What’s that all about?”) Also little-noted is the first flourish of San Francisco’s ongoing love affair with itself: despite the fact that in 1849 complex information traveled at the same speed it had been traveling since the days of Homer—the speed of a fast, document-carrying horse—the Gold Rush was a highly self-conscious proto-social media event; those young Argonauts knew they were involved in a sensational epic, and many of them sent handwritten selfies and cursive tweets back home at every opportunity.

Without all that gold (and the silver that followed it within a decade or so) San Francisco would have become a great port city, and America would certainly have expanded to the west, but not nearly as suddenly or dramatically. In fact, that sounds like a good idea for a counter-factual novel. Maybe I ought to slide over to fiction writing, maybe start a little publishing company….