The literary sons and daughters of Napa County are as diverse as the subject matter of their works. Some of these authors were born here while others adopted Napa County as their temporary or permanent home. Regardless of their residency status, these individuals have enriched the local cultural heritage.
One of the area’s first authors was James Clyman. He was a frontier scout and pioneer. During the American westward movement, Clyman kept journals to describe his experiences throughout the western territories. Those chronicles became highly regarded by historians as a factual account of the early American expansion era. In later years, Clyman wrote poetry inspired by the beauty of Napa County. In 1881, he passed away at the age of 90.
One of the most well-known authors associated with Napa County is Robert Louis Stevenson. His three-month Napa County honeymoon in 1880 with his bride, Fanny Osbourne, inspired the book “Silverado Squatters.” This account of his experiences on the slope of Mt. St. Helena was published in 1883.
Another noted writer who established temporary Napa County residency was Ambrose Bierce. The satirist and author of “The Devil’s Dictionary” traveled to the area for health reasons. In 1886, Bierce stayed at the Angwin Camp to find relief from his asthma.
A third famous 19th century author who also passed through Napa County long enough to leave his indelible ink mark on the region was Samuel L. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. In 1871, Clemens wrote an article for the Napa County Reporter, an early local newspaper, before embarking on new adventures.
Another part of this late-1800s group was Judge Charles H. Snow. Born in 1877 in Napa County, Snow eventually became a local justice of the peace. A benchmark year for Snow was 1922 when he sold his first western genre short story. Although he became blind two years later at the age of 37, Snow began writing 12 to 15 novels annually under the nom de plume of Charles Ballew and Gary Marshall. Due to his incredible literary pace, Snow is still considered to be one of America’s most prolific early 20th century writers.
Other local western genre authors were Vingie Roe and Llewellyn “Lew” Perry Holmes. Roe (Virginia Roe Lawton) wrote her first novel in “the teens.” Published in 1912, that book was titled “Main of Whispering Pine.” About a decade later, Holmes wrote numerous westerns including his first novel, “Bonanza Gulch.”
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The 1930s brought a new genre and breed of writer, mysteries and scandals. Major George Bell Dyer resided in Calistoga for a few years while earning a living as an insurance salesman. Inspired by his daily business experiences and the local Italian families, Dyer wrote a “whodunit” featuring Napa County as the backdrop. His first murder mystery, “The Three-Cornered Wound,” was published in 1931.
A few years later, a scandal stirred the small Napa County community of Pope Valley when the novel, “Valley People,” was published in 1935. Francis Marion, the author and a celebrated early Hollywood screenwriter, said her characters and their stories were based on her conversations with Pope Valley residents while she stayed at her father’s resort, Aetna Springs. The book’s portrayal of the community as isolated in-breds bent on self-destruction and domination understandably ruffled many feathers.
An author who whetted the reader’s appetite was Mary Frances Kennedy, known as M.F.K. Fisher. The St. Helena resident wrote “How to Cook a Wolf,” “The Art of Eating,” “Two Towns in Provence,” and other culinary books beginning in the 1940s and throughout her long life. Fisher wrote some of these books while living in St. Helena for about 15 years.
And finally, no Napa County authors list would be complete without Jessamyn West (McPherson) and Arthur Hailey. West achieved commercial success with the publication of her novel about her Quaker roots titled, “The Friendly Persuasion.” The story was adapted into a feature film, which starred Gary Cooper.
Beginning in 1970, St. Helena resident Arthur Hailey was propelled to fame by his blockbuster novels, “Airport” and “Hotel.” Both of his novels were adapted into scripts for box office hits and television series.
This list is far from comprehensive. There have been, and are, numerous local writers with publication credits. Some, or all, of those highlighted above will eventually be individual subjects of future columns.