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Reviewed by Preston Jones


A California State of Mind

The dreams and follies of the nation, writ large.

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Wine country inhabitants, among others, will note that it's unfair to speak of California as a single entity. Within the state itself, L.A. is the model of urban disaster—the thing not to be. This started fairly early. Starr writes that in the decades after World War II, San Diegans wanted to avoid "Los Angelesization." But for all the loathing heaved on L.A., its manners have become the ways of the state generally. "San Diegans did not want their city to be like Los Angeles," Starr notes, "but between 1950 and 1970 the metropolitan region grew from 99 to 307 square miles, as a virtually uninterrupted urban area extended from the Mexican border to Camp Pendleton and from the coast as far inland as Escondido." The sprawl never stopped; news reports have told us about the hardness of life for people who work in San Diego and live in Hemet, about 85 miles away. And for all of Sonoma County's deep Democratic blueness, sprawl and traffic are appalling there, too, as anyone trapped on roads between Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa at rush hour will acknowledge.

So California becomes the stuff of dystopian literature, such as Marc Reisner's posthumously published A Dangerous Place: California's Unsettling Fate (2003), a weird little book that, among other things, imagines the San Francisco area in the immediate aftermath of the Big One that everyone who transits the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges contemplates. ("What if it hits right now … ") Near the end, Reisner summarizes his point:

Fate, whimsy, ignorance, sheer will—any number of things conspire to put a city where it is. Once it's there and it's big enough, it's there forever. But if it's in an earthquake zone, as populous as California is … as populous as Japan is, even more so … you've created a civilization that becomes drastically expensive to maintain.

"Give California nationhood," Reisner continues. "Saw it off from the rest of the United States. That's what they might be thinking in Oneonta, New York, where blizzards are the worst things to come around."

It wasn't always so. Empires coveted California. The British and Russians made faltering claims that couldn't be acted on. The Spaniards did act and held the ground till Mexico extracted its independence. Within less than three decades the Americans took the turf, and thus ended what Starr seems to see as an idyllic era.

Of course, Americans first went to California in large numbers for gold, a mass migration that has been the subject of many works. H.W. Brands tells the story engagingly in The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream (2002): Indian tribes, then Spaniards, then Mexicans, and then the manifestly-destined Americans who, with the help of Australians, Irish, and Chinese, made San Francisco a rollicking, boundary-pushing place. Brands sees that California has always been a melting pot of melting pots.

Brand comments on some of the many things that made early American California significant:

The Industrial Revolution had begun in America before [the gold rush], but the new wealth of the new West accelerated the revolution. The gold of California … poured liquidity east, lubricating the gears of the nation's industrial machinery (and in the process underwriting the Union's victory in the Civil War). More important, California demanded, and received, a transcontinental railroad.

What would America be without California? Brand tells us that it's where Levi Strauss first sold the "distinctive canvas pants" that now enrobe everybody. Starr tells us that California's where McDonald's began. Obviously, California hosts Hollywood and all that means. From what I gather, the waves of Hawaii are better (or bigger) than the Golden State's, but the quintessential American surfer is Californian. The L.A. Lakers are the stuff of basketball epic. And distinctive California ways of speaking have, like, done way so much to shape casual American speech. (Much less known is the endearing though now all but gone slang dialect Boontling, once spoken in Mendocino County.)

California is important simply because nearly one in eight Americans lives there. California has more than 50 members in the House of Representatives. (Texas has about 20 fewer.) By itself, California's economy is the eighth largest in the world. Americans who feel that they'd rather live in a country without California are in a position a little like Canadians who, fed up with Quebec's nationalism, would be glad to see the French province go. But if Quebec really were to go, Canada itself would be radically altered. Canada—its history and ways of being—is intimately tied to troublesome Quebec.

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