California & the Fictions of Capital

By George L. Henderson | Go to book overview
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Many Countrysides

The stories published by the Occidental Fruit Company suggest that representations of the countryside, the city, and capitalist economy are refracted by the forms that representation and discourse take. In the following chapters, I wish to explore these relationships much more closely, focusing on the California novel and developing the argument that it matters that discourse was shaped within novels and through certain sorts of plots.

Human geography, I will be arguing, also matters. Most of the remaining chapters present some episode of regional change within California and then a reading of two or more works of fiction. Regional transformations of economy and society were not simply the background to these novels, however. They were the crucibles in which were formed the discourses to which the novels give expression. The difference in putting it this way is that California literature can be seen as a historical, geographical artifact itself. This argument has an important repercussion for what we do with a novel. It is less important here to evaluate the quality of a work on the basis of whether it tells the truth about some historical event, or whether it sells as highbrow literature, than it is to see the discourse within the work as a historical, socially produced "event." The novel and discourse, then, while situated, are not true-or-false. They are always true, and cannot be otherwise.

Because it is a purpose of the remaining chapters to particularize in various ways the basic trends set forth in part one, let us now quickly bring these into view. The development of irrigation, though it came in fits and starts-having been interrupted by the 1890s depression--marked a radical change for rural California. It enabled farmers to convert their land to specialty crops (although as Ellen Liebman reminds us, it did not dictate that they would convert). It made farming possible where none had been before, on millions of acres of arid and semi-arid land, yet also reinforced the imperative of the market and the commodity. Irrigation required unprecedented amounts of money and finely tuned


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