Monday, February 23, 2009

Southern California: An Island on the Land

Carey McWilliams "interpretive history" of Southern California from the appearance of the Spanish missions to the time of its first publication (1946) reads less like a history than a series of articles. This is no surprise, as McWilliams was primarily a journalist, but this is not to say that it reads like a reheated compilation of old work, such as that of other newsman who turn to the long form. Rather, McWilliams' book reads more like the history section in a Fodor's or Lonely Planet guidebook: ruthlessly condensed, lacking in sources, but readable and, if not factually accurate, then something that sounds true.

Each section focuses on a specific topic, from race to weather to socioeconomics, and McWilliams never blatantly attempts for a narrative except a constant theme that Southern California is a much darker place than it appears in the propaganda of city boosters, tourism boards, and Hollywood. That seems rather unnecessary, considering the modern popular vision of Southern California is that of a polluted suburban hell-hole plagued by gangbangers and yuppie douchebags; but in 1946 this was probably shockingly original. It is easy to see how this book supposedly provided Robert Towne with the inspiration for Chinatown (even though the water wars get little attention in the actual pagecount).

I liked the book and sense the truth in much of what McWilliams is railing against (his point-of-view is very pro-labor and progressive, and he portrays the strike-breaking and racist mobs of yesteryear in a distinctly, and probably deserved, bad light), but the lack of sources render it less than ideal as a history. That said, some of what it has to say remains strong, even over sixty years after it was published. McWilliams' description of the hard lot of Mexicans, both immigrants and native-born Californians, as perpetual outsiders hostile to assimilation, remains as much a glaring wound as it did then, and his interpretation is sadly better layered than today's simplistic "good guy, bad guy" viewpoints. His description of Southern California as a series of busts and booms seems like it could be extrapolated to the state as a whole (at least the urban centers), and that might be as much a part of the Californian identity as the "everyone is a immigrant here" meme. And, for those so inclined, there is a whole chapter on occult weirdness that is a must-read for anyone setting a Call of Cthulhu game in Southern California during the twenties and thirties, not so much for details but for the zeitgeist of the period.

All in all, a good read. I just wish he had included some footnotes.

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