Southern California: An Island on the Land

Southern California: An Island on the Land



The Pequod Review:

Published in 1946, Carey McWilliams's Southern California remains one of the best and most unique accounts of the region's early twentieth century history. Kevin Starr's books may be more authoritative, but McWilliams has a richer perspective as he explores the character and personality of the region in a way that is still relevant today. His book strikes a tone that is both realistic about the exploitation that underpinned its development — including the Owens Valley water tragedy and the mistreatment of Native Americans and Mexicans, to name just a couple — as well as optimistic and enthusiastic.

I especially liked his sections on Hollywood, which from the beginning existed separate and apart from the rest of Los Angeles:

The main studio lots are walled towns, each with its principal thoroughfares, sidestreets, and alleys. On the lot people work together, live together, eat together. With from two to three thousand employees, each lot is a community in itself. Occupying from thirty to forty acres of land, each lot has its own office buildings; its factories (the stages); its theaters and projection rooms; its laboratories, dressmaking shops, blacksmith shops, machine shops, wardrobes, restaurants, dressing rooms, lumber sheds; greenhouses; scene docks; electrical plant; garages; and planning mills. No one has ever precisely defined a motion-picture lot. It is neither a factory nor a business establishment nor yet a company town. Rather it is more in the nature of a community, a beehive, or, as Otis Ferguson said, "fairy-land on a production line."

And here is his nostalgic memory about how he came to love Los Angeles:

My feeling about this weirdly inflated village in which I had come to make my home (haunted by memories of a boyhood spent in the beautiful mountain parks, the timberline country, of northwestern Colorado), suddenly changed after I had lived in Los Angeles for seven long years of exile. I have never been able to discover any apparent reason for this swift and startling conversion, but I do associate it with a particular occasion. I had spent an extremely active evening in Hollywood and had been deposited toward morning, by some kind soul, in a room at the Biltmore Hotel.

Emerging the next day from the hotel into the painfully bright sunlight, I started the rocky pilgrimage through Pershing Square to my office in a state of miserable decrepitude. In front of the hotel newsboys were shouting the headlines of the hour: an awful trunk-murder had just been committed; Aimee Semple McPherson had once again stood the town on its ear by some spectacular caper; a University of Southern California football star had been caught robbing a bank; a love-mart had been discovered in the Los Feliz Hills; a motion-picture producer had just wired the Egyptian government a fancy offer for permission to illuminate the pyramids to advertise a forthcoming production; and, in the intervals between these revelations, there was news about another prophet, fresh from the desert, who had predicted the doom of the city, a prediction for which I was morbidly grateful.

In the center of the park, a little self-conscious of my evening clothes, I stopped to watch a typical Pershing Square divertissement: an aged and frowsy blonde, skirts held high above her knees, cheered by a crowd of grimacing and leering old goats, was singing a gospel hymn as she danced gaily around the fountain. Then it suddenly occurred to me that, in all the world, there neither was nor would ever be another place like this City of the Angels. Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano; here, indeed, was the place for me — a ringside seat at the circus.

He also has some beautiful passages on the unique Southern California sunshine:

When the sunlight is not screened and filtered by the moisture-laden air, the land is revealed in all its semi-arid poverty. The bald, sculptured mountains stand forth in a harsh and glaring light. But let the light turn soft with ocean mist, and miraculous changes occur. The bare mountain ranges, appallingly harsh in contour, suddenly become wrapped in an entrancing ever-changing loveliness of light and shadow; the most commonplace objects assume a matchless perfection of form; and the land itself becomes a thing of beauty. The color of the land is in the light and the light is somehow artificial and controlled. Things are not killed by the sunlight, as in a desert; they merely dry up. A desert light brings out the sharpness of points, angles, and forms. But this is not a desert light nor is it tropical for it has neutral tones. It is Southern California light and it has no counterpart in the world.

This is a fascinating profile of “a region geographically attached, rather than functionally related, to the rest of America."