By Wilmer B. Shields
San Diego writing may be said to have begun with the appearance in 1856 of George Horatio Derby’s volume of sense and nonsense, Phoenixiana. In the hundred years since, San Diego authors have fathered many books on many subjects. About one-third of the way along the time interval between George Derby’s first and Max Miller’s latest appeared one of the strangest books so far penned by a local writer.
When the novel, Better Days, or a Millionaire of Tomorrow, rolled off a San Francisco press in 1891 there is no indication that the first (and only) edition was instantly absorbed by an eager reading public. There are good reasons for the novel’s failure to become a “best seller”, the principal one being that its author was no Charles Dickens – nor even a William Dean Howells (though two of Howells’ novels have a theme similar to that of Better Days).
The writer of Better Days was not a novelist, and this is clearly evident in his one experiment in that form. Thomas Fitch was, however, a professional writer, and, judged by the standard of writing in his own field at that time, a good one.
Smythe says, in his history of San Diego: “Of the literature of the boom it would be embarrassing to even attempt to describe it in all its richness and variety. The best writers in the land were brought to San Diego and gave their talents to the service of the real estate dealers. One of the ablest of these writers was Thomas L. Fitch. Mr. Fitch easily outdid and outdistanced his fellow scribes in the glowing fervor of his panegyrics upon bay and climate”.
Historian Smythe then devotes three pages to examples of Fitch’s flights into both prose and poetry, inspired by the wonders of San Diego real estate. These gems of impassioned ad-writing were not allowed to be lost in the files of the San Diego Union, where they appeared. In April 1887, Howell and Lyons, Real Estate Agents (and the fortunate underwriters of Mr. Fitch’s talents) issued a booklet,
Souvenir, stating in the introduction that “we have, during the past few weeks, received many letters from all parts of the country asking us to procure and forward back numbers of the San Diego Union containing our “Specials”. The back numbers are all exhausted – hence this Souvenir.
Fitch’s happy weddings of business and literature were carried over into Better Days, but they were not sufficient to counterbalance the lack of plot, structure, development and characterization in the novel. In spite of these deficiencies and others, the extraordinary ending of the book, with the final scenes laid in and around San Diego in the 1890’s, should still be of interest to local readers.
A love story of sorts appears and disappears, like a Southern California river, throughout the book. There is the fateful letter from the heroine to the hero lost unread for a time in a roller-top desk, the girl’s marriage to a brutal (but titled) German, his eventual elimination, and the final happy ending. As Mr. Fitch’s wife, Anna, is co-author of Better Days, it may be charitable to him to assume that this part of the novel is her work.
In addition to the love thread there is much else to be encountered in this singular book before the “explosive” end is reached. The opening chapter sets the imaginative pace. Two of the minor characters at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1892 watch a thrilling four-mile race by “seven of the largest locomotives in America”. The Chauncey M. Depew of the New York Central was nosed (or, more fittingly, cow-catchered) out by the Collis P. Huntington of the Southern Pacific.
We next learn that another minor character is “honorably dead” in Missouri, and can never return to that state because he was “killed” there in a duel in which life-size pictures of the duelist were substituted for the men.
This prepares us somewhat for the next strain on our imaginations in which a fortuitous Arizona cloudburst lays bare before the hero’s eyes a canyon-bed of solid gold. After a quick mining-engineer’s survey, the hero concludes that “If the ledge extended downward a thousand feet it contained as much gold as three times the sum total of all the gold, silver and currency of the world.”
From there on Better Days begins to fall in step with Bellamy’s Looking Backward, published three years earlier. With unlimited financial power the hero proceeds to stabilize the national currency, eliminate capital and labor strife, construct cooperative housing, put an end to stock-market manipulation, place the farmers on a firm basis, irrigate the desert with water from the Colorado River, and open a canal across Nicaragua.
This heavy involvement in the Utopian economics of the 1890’s is lightened somewhat by action (a bloody picket- strikebreaker battle in San Francisco) and by passages of alleged dialect. A “deep south” tenant farmer drops his r’s to say with noticeable lack of foresight of today’s farm-control methods, “I don’t see no use of a limit nohow, suh. Govunment don’t limit the bales of cotton or bushels of cohn, or numbah of hogs a man can raise.”
All of this heady food for speculation only leads up to the dramatic and prophetic end of the novel, and for this the stage is set altogether in San Diego. The hero charters the newly-built Hotel del Coronado for one month and invites as his guests representatives from the principal governments of the world. The United States, England, Germany, France, Russia, Mexico, Brazil and others accept, sending a galaxy of notables including Prince Bismarck and King (a trifle prematurely) Edward VII.
The latter makes a decidedly favorable impression on San Diegans as indicated by a remark of a “leading citizen” who says: “That King is a dandy. What a roaring team he and Jack Dodge and Sam Davis would make for a county canvass for either the Democratic or Republican nomination for the best offices in the county”.
The flower gardens of San Diego, San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara are stripped for the decorations for the banquet hall. In the author’s words, “The effect was surpassingly beautiful. Suspended from the great dome by ropes of smilax was a gigantic figure of Peace, wrought in calla lilies, bearing in her right hand a branch from an olive tree while her left held to her lips a trumpet of yellow jasmine.”
On the morning following the great dinner at the hotel, the shores of Coronado Beach are black with spectators as a cigar-shaped airship, one hundred feet long by twenty feet wide, leaves its berth and rises to a height of seven thousand feet. In thirty-five minutes the Petra is hovering over the Coronado Islands (previously purchased from Mexico). In a few minutes more the crew have released the two hundred shells of “potentite” the airship carries This new explosive is a combination of gelatin and fulminate of mercury, possessing “a power equal to thirteen hundred tons to the square inch” — not a bad forerunner of the atom bomb.
Again in the words of the author: “It was a clear day and the islands were distinctly visible. Sight travels more swift than sound, and before any sound was heard the immense mass of rock, crown shaped, from which the islands take their name, was seen by the gazers on the beach to leap from its place and fall into the sea. Then came roars of sound as if heaven and earth were coming together. For twenty minutes this awe-inspiring exhibition continued, and when the tremendous cannonading ceased the Coronado Islands were no more.”
The last word properly belongs to another representative of the British Empire at the test, the Marquis of Salisbury, but he is not given it in the book. (There is a second successful experiment in which a submarine equipped with “potentite” destroys a warship, the hero offers his devastating weapon to the U. S., and the villainous German baron is conveniently removed by “hyperemia of the brain”). The Marquis observes, in words hauntingly familiar to San Diegans since 1917, “It seems to me that a convention of civilized powers to adjust international relations and provide for a Congress and Court of Nations, to which all international differences must be submitted, will be an absolute necessity in the future.”