California Dreaming

By Gillespie, Nick | Reason, December 1998 | Go to article overview
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California Dreaming

Gillespie, Nick, Reason

In 1993, my wife and I moved from Buffalo, New York, to Los Angeles - a trip that cannot be measured in miles alone. As envious - and horrified - friends and relatives were quick to point out, we were not simply changing an address or time zone. We were going to California, the place that has singularly fired the nation's imagination for decades both as a golden land of hope, growth, and limitless opportunity and as a dark locus of fear, decadence, and broken dreams - a dichotomy perhaps even more descriptive of Los Angeles than the state as a whole.

For every person who regaled us with Beach Boys-inspired reveries of an Endless Summer, someone else held up the Manson family as the true apotheosis of the California lifestyle. (In fact, such extreme fantasies may well be inextricably linked: The Beach Boys, after all, recorded a Manson-penned song under the unlikely title "Never Learn Not to Love.") Surely no piece of American real estate conjures up as many good, bad, and ambivalent images as does California.

That's a major reason why moving to California - immortalized in popular tunes as absurdly different as "California, Here I Come" and Led Zeppelin's "Going to California" - is to participate in a great mythic American adventure, one expansive and resilient enough to encompass the experience of gold miners in the 1840s, movie pioneers in the 1910s, Okies in the Depression, hippies in the '60s, and continual waves of immigrants from all over the world. While it's conventional wisdom to say that California is a political bellwether for the rest of the country, it's less recognized that the state is also a sort of psychic gauge for the nation as well. The way we envision California tells us something larger about who we are and how we feel about the future.

Two recent books by self-consciously Californian writers - Peter Schrag's Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future and Stephen Schwartz's From West to East: California and the Making of the American Mind - do precisely this. In different but related ways, each explores the deep meaning of some aspect of the cult of California. Tellingly, each also suggests that the version of the California dream its author most cherishes is either played out or ruined beyond repair.

Schwartz's From West to East is a long, sweeping history of California - it begins with the 1542 landing of explorer Joao Rodrigues Cabrillo in what is now Baja California and runs up to the present day - that is consistently engaging and interesting. Schwartz, a staffer at the San Francisco Chronicle and a sharply critical historian of the American left, is interested in what he calls the "hidden" or "secret" history of California's intellectual and cultural identity and its ultimate "conquest of the world."

As his title suggests, Schwartz's provocative thesis is a refutation of Bishop Berkeley's famous phrase that "Westward the course of empire makes it way." Schwartz argues persuasively that, due to a singular confluence of geography, people, and historical providence, California has never been a blank screen upon which Americans projected various manifest destinies. Rather, California colonized those who came to settle it. It was "a mirror for the world that ended up changing the face of human society forever." For Schwartz, the essence of California is "radicality...not based on a radical ideology or ism per se but, experientially rather than conceptually, ever embodying the new." It, he says, "has never really undergone a period of pure stability and institutional conservatism. Of no other human aggregation in history can the same be said."

As the above illustrates, and despite his explicit rejection of "booster" history and "official legends," Schwartz is not at all reserved in his California exceptionalism (which is perhaps the ultimate legend, official or otherwise, about the place). Still, his basic framework allows him to weave interesting threads through centuries of history and to present the reader with a cast of fascinating characters, ranging from Junipero Serra, the 18th-century Spanish missionary who has always been seen as both a beneficent "civilizer" of native Americans and "a tool of pure Spanish imperialism and a brutal enslaver of the Indians"; William Walker, the San Francisco-based "filibuster" who, in the mid-1800s, launched various attempts to take over Latin American countries, including one that left him, briefly, in charge of Nicaragua; and Jaime de Angulo, the Paris-born ethnographer who helped transform Big Sur into a Bohemian arts center.

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