Tag: Literature


Photography and Public Lands: Seeing Yosemite

Hetch Hetchy

Stone trail work at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

A review of Nancy Robbins, A Sense of Yosemite, with essays by David Mas Masumoto. Yosemite National Park: Yosemite Conservancy, 2016.

Sublime photos of heaven-high cliffs, canyons, and waterfalls have long defined Yosemite. In her book, A Sense of Yosemite, photographer Nancy Robbins builds on this tradition of photography as both an artistic medium and an articulation of the importance of public lands.

Robbins lives within Yosemite’s boundaries, and her familiarity with the park serves as her greatest advantage. She offers her audience a refreshing glimpse of Yosemite beyond familiar black-and-white stock images. Her detailed perspectives treat the landscape with the keen observation that intimacy provides.

Robbins’s eye for detail takes us beyond the usual vistas of the park. She focuses on the textures of scabbed bark, the veins of yellow leaves encased in a sheet of ice, and brilliant waterfalls of fiery light. These rich images guide the reader through the might and brilliance of each season, documenting foxes to cottonwood trees, rivers to gauzy starlight, and more.

By excluding people from her images of the park, Robbins joins other landscape photographers in perpetuating the myth of pristine wilderness. The only noticeable photo of people depicts distant climbers on a cliffside bivouac at night. This image beautifully speaks to the adventurous spirit of Yosemite but fails to tell the whole story. It’s rare to experience the park without people.

Tuolumne Meadows_1843_16x20 copy (2)a_2000While Robbins’s photos of the park through its seasonal cycles are impressive, the book’s structure and written commentary leave us wanting more. Her captions and David Mas Masumoto’s essays convey little about Yosemite’s intricacies. Robbins’s vivid images speak far more powerfully about the park than the text, which in comparison comes off rather bland.

As a farmer living outside of Yosemite Valley, Masumoto provides a perspective that many readers can identify with: a neighbor to Yosemite who feels a connection to the place. However, the relationship between his essays laced throughout the first half of the book and the photos can feel a bit jarring. The reader is pulled from the visual flow of Robbins’s work that frame Yosemite through both the senses and the seasons.

Unfortunately, the book neglects to mention the park’s indigenous history and Yosemite’s central role in the development of the national park system and conservation movement. Nor does it touch upon the grave ecological challenges facing Yosemite precipitated by a changing climate and ever-increasing human visitation. Briefly, Masumoto writes: “We all have a stake in the destinies of these sacred geographies.” But in this narrative of the visual sublimity of Yosemite, an opportunity is lost to prompt readers to grasp its complex, pivotal history, and to contemplate what is at stake for its future.

Although A Sense of Yosemite may not offer such fully discerning reflections upon this iconic park, for any reader wishing to experience Yosemite through a collection of colorful photographs with striking light, this book will satisfy. Robbins’s work celebrates the park in every season, portraying both light and color with a softness that reflects the subtlest moods of the landscape. Through her technical mastery, her access to singular weather phenomena and rare moments, and her obvious affection for Yosemite, Robbins successfully captures the splendor of one of the most inspirational places in North America and the place she calls home.

Milky Way over Yosemite Valley

The Milky Way over Yosemite Valley, photographed from Tunnel View.


  • All photographs taken by Nancy Robbins. All rights reserved.

Reviewed by Jai Bashir, Ayja Bounous, Casey Clifford, Bianca Greeff, Dan Hohl, Kailey Kornhauser, Brooke Larsen, Kathleen Metcalf, Maya Silver, Francesca Varela, and Josh Wennergren, graduate students in the Environmental Humanities writing seminar, University of Utah, taught by Stephen Trimble. Trimble’s publications include, Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America (UC Press), The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin (University of Nevada Press), and Red Rock Stories: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands (Torrey House Press). Trimble makes his home in Salt Lake City and in the redrock country of Torrey, Utah.

Copyright: © 2017 The Authors. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


The Deserts of Los Angeles: Two Topologies

Gary Reger

“Night falls quickly in Los Angeles,” observes the narrator of Alison Lurie’s The Nowhere City (1965), “as in the desert which it once was.”[1] “The desert” looms over much fiction set in Los Angeles, from Raymond Chandler’s detective novels to Bret Easton Ellis’s decadent rich of Less Than Zero (1985) or the quasi-future city of Steve Erickson’s Amnesiascope (1996). The desert figures powerfully too in non-fictional treatments of the city, like Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946)[2] or Mike Davis, City of Quartz (1990). These invocations of the desert might strike a positivist geographer as strange. The Los Angeles basin is not arid enough to count as a real desert. The greater Los Angeles region lies nestled in the clasp of mountains: the Santa Monicas north and west, beyond which lurks the little paradise of Santa Barbara; the San Gabriels, just north of the city, which link up, across Cajon Pass, with the towering San Bernardinos, culminating at their east end in the 11,503-foot peak of San Gorgonio; to the southeast, the basin-and-rangy ridges of the Santa Anas; and, beyond the Perris valley, the San Jacintos sheltering Palm Springs, with the Santa Rosas to their south. Beyond those mountains—north of the San Bernardinos, east of the San Jacintos—the great Mojave and Colorado deserts roll across an arid countryside all the way to Las Vegas, and beyond.

Cultural snobbery aside, Los Angeles is no desert.[3] By the standard definition of geographers, deserts receive annual rainfall under ten inches (c. 254 mm); Los Angeles’ average yearly accumulation of about 14.77 inches (c. 375.2 mm) situates the city safely out of the arid fold. Of course, interannual variation is considerable; across the 139 years for which records exist, Los Angeles has experienced a desert-level shortage 39 times, or about 1 year in 3.5. Anton Wagner insisted many years ago that microvariations abound; although the semi-arid steppe climate of the Köppen-Geiger BS classification predominates, topographical variation, coastal influences, and the sea all conspire to impose different climatic regimes across the broad LA basin.[4] Sober observers have known that Los Angeles isn’t desert. Los Angeles occupies, Carey McWilliams observed, “this fortunate coast walled off from the desert by the great arch of mountains….”[5] But the pull of the image is powerful, and fiction need not be bound by the strictures of the geographer. For many writers LA is a desert, not only metaphorically, but also in physical fact. LA as desert clearly has had deep meaning, literal or metaphoric or both, for writers seeking to evoke something of the feel of the city.[6] The desert carries multiple, sometimes opposing valences, both derived in western thinking from tropes in the Hebrew Bible. It is on the one hand a space of austere purification, where sins are atoned and the purified can see the face—or at least, hindquarters—of God, and on the other a vile, useless wasteland; other tropes come out of, or are related to, these two oppositions.


These two valences, I suggest, may explain, in part, the pull of the desert in writing about LA. On the one hand, the desert out east or north, the Mojave of Huxley’s Antelope Valley home or movie stars’ Palm Springs, may represent an escape from LA to something “realer” or “purer” (and see already the contrast between corrupt Hollywood and revivifying country in The Girl from Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs [1923], although his rural setting is the mountains, not the desert[7]). Clay of Less Than Zero may be seeking something like this when he turns in memory to family time in Palm Springs (though in fact his family there is as corrupt and nihilistic as his life in Beverly Hills, as in Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park [1955]). On the other hand, seen as plopped down in a desert, LA can be figured merely as the gaudy disguise of a desert wasteland, ready to reassert its hideous uselessness and, in fact, unable to foster anything genuine (“nothing means anything here,” is the refrain of The Nowhere City)—watered by stolen moisture, it is but an urban Imperial Valley, a faked landscape.[8]

These two topologies stand in dialectical opposition to each other. They demand from a writer a representational choice: is the relation of Los Angeles to the desert one of geographic distance and distinction, such that they occupy two different spaces that only come into conjunction through the movement of characters (whether physically or mentally) or the invasion of the space of Los Angeles by the desert itself or its representatives (the Santa Ana winds, in particular); or is the relation one of superposition, of a Los Angeles on a desert, a unique ecological and ideological phenomenon such that its intrusion into LA may come at any moment, in any place, here but not here, or indeed may shape the whole personality of the city by an invidious but invisible and irresistible presence below the surface? In what follows I would like to explore the play of these tropes, and others, in some fiction set in Los Angeles. Obviously far too much has been written about the city to treat even a modicum of this fiction,[9] and the themes I hope to elucidate hardly exhaust the ways the desert has been used in stories about LA. (I have left film and television completely aside.) But I hope that even such an incomplete, fragmented, and selective exploration may contribute to how we understand the ways the presence of the desert has shaped writers’ conceptualizations about this complex, alluring, frightening city.

 The desert in the American imaginary

Broadly speaking, American ideas about desert space derive from tropes deeply embedded in the Bible. These tropes do not form a coherent picture of desert space; rather, they facilitate a multiplicity of attitudes, some contradictory. In brief, biblical tropes frame the desert first as a blasted, dangerous place, abode of demons and death, abandoned by God. But the biblical desert also figures as a space where one can meet God, like Moses; the desert can be a visionary place. The biblical desert can also be a ground of testing and purification, a necessary preliminary to entrée to the Promised Land; or it can be a refuge, a safety zone for people escaping persecution or simply seeking a godly life. Finally, the desert can be a landscape of redemption: both for fallen people and as a ground that, with care and God’s help, can be made into—or returned to a preexisting—paradisiacal state, a garden in the desert. This cache of tropes served Americans to help make sense of the deserts they encountered as they moved into the arid West. To them was added, in the early twentieth century, by reaction, an insistence on desert beauty: a view that fed into the environmental movement around wilderness preservation.[10]

 First topology—the desert out there

The first topology is the desert out there: beyond Los Angeles, to the east and north, the desert one must cross and endure to reach the Promised Land, and to which one may escape or be exiled, whether to find a place of purity and cleanliness opposed to the corruption that has overtaken the Promised Land, or to serve out a punishment and (hopefully) find redemption. This desert sends its demonic emissaries into the city, borne especially on the Santa Ana winds.[11]

One important and complex role the “desert out there” plays is as a barrier or escape hatch. This theme links to the biblical tale of the Israelites’ passage through the Sinai Desert to the Promised Land, an analogy so blatantly apt to the travails of overland immigrants who suffered the Mojave and Colorado Deserts to reach California that it became a cliché. Desert as barrier or boundary pairs nicely with the Pacific to the west, thanks especially to the long trope of ocean as desert. So in 1897 Frank Norris bracketed San Francisco as between: “to the west the waste of the Pacific, to the east the wastes of the desert.” As another put it, “[t]he blinding blue desert of the Pacific….” Remember (“Mem”) Steddon, heroine of the 1922 Souls for Sale, takes a madcap drive with another actor along the coast highway, north of Hollywood, “‘on the rim of the world’ with desert on one side and the whole Pacific sea on the other.” Rose, the main character of Kate Braverman’s Lithium for Medea (1979), meditates on the boundaries of LA, desert and sea; Cynthia Kadohata’s In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992) begins with a lapidary reference to “the black desert, beyond reach of Los Angeles.” The “long haul across the deserts” prevents good theatrical companies from playing Los Angeles, and passage over the desert—by airplane—brings F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last tycoon out of the rest of the country and into the inimitable LA.[12]


For a Forty-Niner like William Manly, whose exploits in escaping Death Valley in 1849 and then returning to rescue immigrants stranded there were immortalized in his autobiography, those deserts were a challenge and a test, but they can also serve LA as a protective barrier or a release valve, a safety hatch. The hero of Steve Erikson’s Amnesiascope longs for a thousand-mile wide Mojave to keep crazy eastern evangelicals out of his city. Later, he escapes Los Angeles through that same desert, which, he hopes, will reclaim as its own during his desert passage the “evil spirits” that have bedeviled him. Rose of Lithium for Medea finds in the desert beyond Los Angeles her refuge, her escape, a desert theme found much earlier in John Fante’s Ask the Dust. Indeed, for Mem of Souls for Sale crossing the desert west to east marks a return from the unreality of Los Angeles, that “terrifying city” (yet, simultaneously, “a restoring fountain of health and hope and ambition”), to a realer, and certainly duller, world; indeed, departing, “[s]he had a little of the feeling Eve must have had as she made her last walk down the quickest paths of Eden toward the gate that would not open again.” Mem’s train is even figured as the serpent. The two days it spends passing through the desert—a space which, Mem admits, “had its charms” and stands for the world she has left: a long, level vista of “dead platitudinous levels [that] made going easier,” for “[p]latitudes were labor saving and you went faster and safer over them.”[13] This desert is simply a metaphor for the life Mem left behind, stultifying and ambitionless, cramped, ruled by a rigid father, for the fountain of hope and happiness she found in her Hollywood successes.

In John Gregory Dunne’s True Confessions (1977), Desmond Spellacy is exiled to the desert in Twenty-Nine Palms outside Los Angeles in permanent penance-making after he’s caught up in scandal. Priest and advisor to the Cardinal of Los Angeles, Des had a long relationship with Jack Armstrong, one-time pimp and later corrupt contractor who did most of the building work for the Church. In an act of revenge by Des’s dishonest policeman brother Tommy, Armstrong is framed for the gruesome murder of Lois Fazenda, the “Virgin Tramp”—based on the actual “Black Dahlia” murder of 1947.[14] In Dunne’s dark vision, everything and everyone in Los Angeles is both corrupt and not what they seem: police detectives work as bagmen, nice girls service their bosses in back rooms, upstanding married barbers like to shave prostitutes’ pubes—and kill them.

The desert by Twenty-Nine Palms doesn’t know this corruption. To a parish priest trying to fix his car, Tommy conveys the trick of adding pepper to a defective carburetor learned in the used-car business. Parishioners’ problems run to dysfunctional bowels and young nuns vocationally confused; Des’s housekeeper avers “she had never been in a man’s room alone”—unlike virtually every other woman in True Confessions. (Tommy’s wife, Mary Margaret, is chaste, but she’s also insane.) For Des, the twenty-eight years he spends in desert exile (a little joke on the name of his desert town) provide an opportunity to reflect on his sins, to recognize the role played in his life and career by his lust for power and control—sins far worse than those of the flesh, as Des’s former confessor had known. The Egyptian desert fathers knew this too—they struggled against sexual desire, but were perfectly aware that, as sins go, it was hardly in a league with pride, power, and arrogance. It is living in the desert that helps Des not merely to see his own sinfulness—he has already been thinking about it throughout the novel—but to confront it and, as it were, make peace with it. This would have been impossible in Los Angeles; the contrast between the desert out there and the city could not be greater.[15]

The desert’s proximity, in other words, offers some writers about Los Angeles a convenient locale for the performance of contrition for sins committed in, and often abetted by, the city. In deploying the desert in this way, writers are playing right into that powerful trope of “the desert” in western imagination, the desert as a locus for punishment and expiation. It seems not excessive to propose that the degradation of Los Angeles, depicted in so much of the fiction set in the city as worse by orders of magnitude than that of other cities, should be counterbalanced by a harsh environment suited, in this conceptualization, only to wear away the accumulated filth of the sinful soul. Polar opposites on the moral and environmental meter stand shoulder to shoulder, ready on the one hand to foster husband killers, daughter rapists, and all manner of unspeakable human atrocity,[16] and on the other to redeem, through suffering and deprivation, the souls so befouled.


Another powerful contrast between desert and city plays out in John Fante’s Ask the Dust (1939). Here the articulation between desert and city runs through the figure of Camilla, the object of Arturo Bandini’s lust, envy, anger, despair. Her sometime boyfriend Sammy, a would-be writer whose stories Bandini trashes, lives out in the Mojave Desert 150 miles from Bandini’s Bunker Hill hotel. Camilla moves back and forth between Sammy’s desert shack and Bandini’s dark urban landscape, but she is, in fundamental ways, in her sexuality, her shamelessness, linked to the desert, not unlike another desert woman, Barbara Worth of Harold Bell Wright’s The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911). The ironies in Ask the Dust are more subtle than in Dunne’s novel, for Camilla’s behavior violates—apparently—rules of “civilized” behavior—she sleeps around, she smokes pot, she returns to an abusive boyfriend—but in many respects she is a more genuine person, truer to herself, than Bandini and his city. In the end she abandons herself to the desert, walking off into the Mojave and vanishing over a ridge; her body is never found, and Ask the Dust ends with the startling image of Bandini inscribing a copy of his first book to her and heaving it out into the desert—an admission at once of love, loss, and defeat.

This external desert can, of course, invade Los Angeles, too. In Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (1948) its desert dunes blanket the concrete of the city streets, like Sahara sand concealing the monuments of ancient Egypt; indeed, in this post-apocalyptic LA, the desert has spread everywhere. In The Day of the Locust (1939) Nathaniel West’s narrator Tod Hackett, gawking at a speaker at the “Tabernacle of the Third Coming,” muses that he “was probably just in from one of those colonies in the desert near Soboba Hot Springs where he had been conning over his soul on a diet of raw fruits and nuts…. The message he had brought to the city was one that an illiterate anchorite might have given decadent Rome.”[17]

 The howling Santa Anas

Perhaps no dangerous desert intrusion into Los Angeles has resonated more with many of its writers than the Santa Ana winds, emblem of “the terrible hot season from June to September when a fiery wind blows from the desert and the sky turns blood red.”[18] An early version of their impact appears in On the Lot and Off, the last novel of George Chester and his wife Lilian Chester, published in 1924:

Shrieking and moaning, the wind swept in from the desert to take its eerie part in the life of Hollywood, to wield its mysterious influence on the fourth or fifth or whatever largest industry in the United States. It was one of those summer days rare to the Pacific coast, but poignant, when through the yellow sunlight there sift vague phantom shapes of impalpable dust which bite the skin and smart the eyes, and are the prickling forerunners of a three-day withering heat from out of the very heart of the vast shadeless inferno up yonder in the waste places. It was such a day as lowers the vitality and depresses the spirit and sets the nerves on edge, and when vitality ebbs and depression reigns and nerves are aquiver, both men and women do things which they might otherwise not have done; so no one knows what tremendous extent of folly and of tragedy might be chargeable to this same shrill, shrieking, moaning, sobbing wind from the deadly desert.[19]

The Santa Ana winds act more or less as a deus ex machina, for they effect the dénoument of the plot by driving several characters to actions they might otherwise have abjured, even sometimes against their own best interests.

On the Lot and Off has a potboiler of a plot, but the central thrust is just the efforts of the protagonist Izzy Iskowitz to gain control of his own motion picture studio. For this to happen, many unpredictable, evidently impossible things must occur, and it’s the Santa Ana winds that do the trick. So, for instance, the winds cause the owner of the Producer and Distributors Trust Company to place his wholly incompetent son Tennyson in charge of the bank at the very moment that the financially toppling Sam Black of Luna Pictures is begging for an extension on his loan:

but at that moment an exotic gust of wind from right out of the blistering pit of the dust whistled around the corner and between the classic gates and through the leaded-glass windows of Sam Black’s office, and smote him hip and thigh and blue-tipped nose with such an excruciatingly shivering blast that he yelled into the phone—insulting Tennyson and sealing his fate.

Later, in a crucial move in his plans, Izzy gets his boss David Schusshel to buy Luna, and again the wind is key: “On a cooler, less enervating day, David might have withstood…. But outside howled the desert wind, and through the screens there blew a steady stream of hot, enervating air, and David’s resistance was low; and he fell.” And Prudence Joy, the actress Izzy loved but could not marry, in thrall to a no-good husband and desperately in need of money, swallows her pride and begs Izzy for advice, sitting in his office “perfectly motionless while that gale from the desert shrieked and moaned and shrilled its mournful dirge outside, while the stinging heat which came from it seemed to dry up the very life in her.” The winds are determinative—except for Izzy, who’s immune to their effects.[20]


The Chesters don’t call their “desert wind” specifically the Santa Ana, but that’s clearly what they meant. In any case, these winds then howl through much subsequent LA fiction, especially what evolves into the noir detective story in the hands of Cain, Chandler, and others. Chandler’s own most famous description of the Santa Anas, which appeared in 1939 in the story “Red Wind,” has taken on an emblematic role, thanks in part to Joan Didion’s citation of it in her essay “Los Angeles Notebook.” Two years later Earl Stanley Gardiner, writing under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, cooked up an even more “extraordinary two pages” on the winds:

In the spring and late fall southern California has peculiarly violent desert windstorms known as “santanas,” sometimes called “Santa Anas.” For hours before such winds start, the sky will be clear and dustless. The air will be warm, listless, devoid of life. The details of objects can be seen with startling clarity. Silk or rayon garments will crackle with static electricity.

Then suddenly a blast of wind comes sweeping down from the east and north, a hot, dry wind which churns particles of dust so fine they filter between dry lips, grit against the surfaces of teeth. As a rule, those storms blow for three days and three nights. Those sections which are protected from the wind itself nevertheless feel the dehydrating effects of the dry, hot air. People’s nerves get raw. They are listless and irritable. Perspiration is sucked up by the dry air so the hot skin becomes gritty with dust.


One look at the star-studded sky, and I knew a santana was coming. Stars blazed down with such steady brilliance the heavens seemed filled to overflowing. The air out of doors seemed as close as it was in the study—warm, dry, devitalizing air that made one’s nerves stand on edge.


When I had finished the third chapter, the wind struck. It struck with the force of a solid wall. The house swayed with the force of that first terrific gust. All over the place I could hear doors slamming, could hear people running, and the sound of closing windows….

My nerves are always on edge during those windstorms.[21]

The effect of the Santa Anas—both the physical impact of dusty, obscured vision, a “dryness [that] is fairly stinging, like a slightly sour amphetamine,” and the psychological disorientation they bring—match well the mood of noir; “the evil,” Norman Klein notes, “is still in the atmosphere.”[22]

In Frederick Kohner’s Gidget (1957), it is “one of those icky desert winds we call the Santa Ana” that sparks “real drama” in the plot, “that very important element labeled by [Gidget’s high-school English] teacher Glicksberg as the ‘clincher’ or climax.” Gidget has earned herself a back-handed invitation to a luau on the Malibu beach, despite warnings that it would be an “orgy” (a word she has to look up in the dictionary). During the party “a creepy wind was blowing… like something coming right out of a furnace.” This Santa Ana, rushing down from the mountains and the desert and out to sea, turns back on the land and whips sparks carelessly spread by the revelers onto the sagebrush beyond the highway, fanning up a great roaring brush fire. The desert-spawned fire serves as a blatant metaphor for Gidget’s own raging but misdirected sexuality, for in the confusion, as police and fire trucks swoop down to contain the blaze and enlist the help of the partying surfers whose drunken carelessness caused the fire, Gidget cannot get home and ends up seeking shelter in the Kahoona’s beach hut. On his return he insists that it will be impossible for her to pass the cordon of police cars and fire trucks before morning; she can, he offers, sleep in his bed, while he takes the chair. Gidget, out of a mix of guilt—after all, he’s exhausted, having just spent several hours battling the flames while she dozed in his hut—and desire, voices a daring invitation: “‘Maybe you’re not comfortable in that chair. There is room enough in the bed for both of us here.’” He accepts, and Gidget reckons “this was the moment I had been waiting for. Now it would happen. He would make me a woman.” Instead, like the sudden rains that had just doused the brushfire, the Kahoona douses Gidget: “‘[W]hen it happens between you and a man it must be beautiful…. And it must be all for love, Franzie.’” (He uses her real name—a marker that this is serious.) “‘The time must be ripe. When the time is ripe—you’ll know. You’ll be trembling the way you tremble now—but it’ll be right. This isn’t.’” The desert brings a whirlwind of endangered virtue; luckily, a good patriarchal figure is there to protect Gidget from herself.[23]


In one of the “tales” called “Sirocco” in Eve Babitz’s collection Slow Days, Fast Company, her narrator[24] repudiates the trope of the evil Santa Ana winds. “From earliest childhood,” she insists, “I have rejoiced over the Santa Ana winds…. Every time I feel one coming, I put on my dancing spirits.” As with Gidget, the Santa Anas spell for Babitz’s narrator a potent sexual compulsion—but unlike with Gidget, there’s no “grown up man” around to hit the brakes. The narrator recounts two experiences, both connected with her “just friend” William, both involving other women, both prompted by the Santa Anas, however much she “hate[s] blaming things on the weather.”

The first, narrated with a certain coyness, revolves around an Italian named Isabella Farfalla, “bored with the ancient decadence that her own country provided” who, “like the Santa Anas” “was a devastating force… it was her nature to interject chaos at the very time things had about ossified.” At the opening of a new club Isabella and the narrator engage in some heavy petting:

“You two really looked beautiful,” William sighed about me and Isabella, “kissing each other like that.”

“Well, at least we looked beautiful,” I said. “Now what do I do?”

“Maybe you really like women better,” he suggested. “Maybe that’s been it all along.”

“But what does one do with women?” I said, imagining at once exactly what one would do. “It was probably just the Santa Ana,” I said.

“You never kissed me like that,” he replied.

Her second experience came later, in October: “It was a Sunday and the Santa Ana had been afoot since the night before. It was so dry that the bougainvillea, picked, would embalm in the heat and last forever like Japanese paper flowers.” She gets a phone call from a friend, Day Tully, and invites her over; in the Santa Ana aridity Day’s “brown hair crackled from the lightning in the air.” The narrator suggests a walk to William’s; Day agrees, but cautions: “I hear this wind changes people into maniacs.” Indeed—soon after arrival at William’s and the consumption of “freezing-cold, green jigger glasses of vodka,” the narrator

was the first to pounce. What I wouldn’t do with Isabella, who knew what she was doing, I now smoothly instigated between Day and William and myself. Passion from boredom and vodka flashed through my veins, passion and fanned curiosity toppled us, Santa Ana-ed, down upon William’s bed. Only not William. I wouldn’t let William touch me, and we almost tore poor Day in half.

For Babitz’s narrator—or shall we drop the pretense and just call her “Eve”?—the Santa Ana madness brings happy release: “if we didn’t have the Santa Anas,” she concludes, “how straight we would all be.”[25]


In her celebration of the Santa Anas as a blatant catalyst for sexual experimentation Babitz plays a field she has mostly to herself. But the underlying trope remains the same; there’s no questioning of Day’s observation that the winds change folks into maniacs—they do indeed for Eve too, and fundamentally, she’s really no different from Gidget: both open themselves up to sexual experience under the influence of the winds, both indeed welcome the cover the Santa Ana mania grants to do something they have been wanting for a long time. And neither sees anything wrong with what they want—the swirling desert invitation to sexual adventure outside the bounds of marriage or heterosexual coupled conformity.

The Santa Ana winds, then, bring in the desert: a dangerous, unpredictable, socially destructive or disruptive force of nature. They are emblematic of the “dangerous desert” trope that sits at one of the two poles of desert imaginary discussed above. Corrosive, corrupting, disorienting, debilitating, the winds block thought, dissolve morals, wreak devastation; they are, so to speak, Satan and his desert demons embodied in a howling rush of air.

 The second topology—“underneath it all” [26]

The second topology clashes with a beloved trope about Los Angeles: that it is a paradise, an Eden set in a bedizened landscape; as such, the city becomes a sort of “Ellis Island of beauty” where people flock to join the American dream. This is the LA of the promotional literature churned out by the ream by California boosters in the nineteenth century (and in the recent series of California tourism ads starring celebrities) in which Los Angeles figured not as desert but an Edenic landscape, a paradise on Earth: “if not the original Eden, then a simulacrum that excelled the model.” Berthold Brecht, writing in his journal during his sojourn in LA, saw through the falsity, or so he thought—through the glittery surface of palm trees and hydrangeas, Art Deco office buildings and iconic hamburger stands, Hollywood back lots and ribbons of freeway: “as for culture: it decays unbelievably fast (like California’s artificial flora, planted on desert ground, when not watered),” for “all this greenery is wrested from the desert by irrigation systems, scratch the surface a little and the desert shows through.” Or, as Eve Babitz remarked, a propos a graffito, “In Los Angeles it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.”[27] This works, of course, because of an environmental trope about Los Angeles itself: that it sits in an arena of bountiful good health, beneficent climate, and easy living. Many years ago Carey McWilliams encapsulated this trope in a few lapidary pages of Southern California he called “The Folklore of Climatology.” Boosters like Samuel Stoney, writing in 1889, believed they’d “found a Paradise on Earth” where “lungers”—sufferers of tuberculosis—found relief, flowers and fruits proliferated, and the only fear possible enervation from living in paradise.[28]

This trope developed early in the city’s history. A proleptic Los Angeles as paradise appears already in Horace Bell’s 1881 memoir Reminiscences of a Ranger: Early Times in Southern California, retrojected deep into the Spanish past. He imagines a trio of Spanish soldiers perched on a hill, enchanted by the scene below:

The plains and rolling hills had discarded their mantle of green and donned their sere robes of summer. Gazing toward the sun, which had now marked the first segment in the circle of its journey, plains, hills, forests, lakes, rivers, valleys, and towering mountains in a splendid panorama met their wondering vision. To the rear of where the three warriors sat… lay in silent beauty the shimmering waters of a beautiful lake sheltered from the rude blasts of the ocean by a rampart of kind and protecting hills. To the left for leagues could be traced the serpentine windings of the river…. Obliquely to their rear and looking southward to the sea the waters of the Porciuncula [River, later the Los Angeles River] swept by like a silver stripe in a ribbon of green, shaded by the umbrageous white-armed sycamore and the more verdant cottonwood, under whose protecting shades gamboled countless herds of deer and antelope, while still beyond are to be seen rocky islands in the ocean posted like knights in armor guarding the portals of Paradise.

One of the soldiers, shaking off his bedazzlement at “this vision of beauty,” thanks his commanding sergeant for “shar[ing] with us this foresight of Paradise.” It is, of course, the site of the future Los Angeles, chosen by “our Blessed Lady, the Angel Queen” herself.[29]

Standing in fervent opposition to this happy talk is what J.U. Peters has called “The Los Angeles Anti-Myth,” well represented by Dunne’s True Confessions. This Los Angeles of corruption, violence, fornication, debasement, and falsity Peters traces to the city’s decenteredness, its agglutination of suburbs, a “spatial disorder” that “suggests a deeper spatial implication: the jarring and dehumanizing shock of sudden displacement which the characters in many novels undergo.”[30] Indeed—but another contributor to this condition surely is also the “false tinsel” that lurks below: “Los Angeles was a desert to begin with….” and remains part of “this western desert.”[31] Remarkably similar language in novel after novel evokes the desert qualities of the Los Angeles scene: its “hot sun” in True Confessions or the “hot dry air” of Less Than Zero; the “parched and arid heat of Los Angeles” in See’s Golden Days, a “heat like a flat pan in the High Desert.” In Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan the Englishman Jeremy Pordage first perceives LA as “mountains—ridge after ridge as far as the eye could reach, a desiccated Scotland, empty under the blue desert sky.” Ross MacDonald’s cynical Lew Archer sees LA simply as “an urban wilderness in the desert.” And when an economic recession grips the film industry, “[t]he garden of Los Angeles had reverted to the desert.”[32] Not, be it noted, a desert, but the desert: the desert that had always been lurking there.


The Los Angeles desert frames Gavin Lambert’s 1954 novel The Slide Area from the first pages. Introducing his Los Angeles, Lambert’s narrator—a Hollywood script writer—stresses the city’s “impression of unreality”, reinforced by the “neurotic” “behavior of the air.” In fact “nothing belongs except the desert soil…. Because the earth is desert, its surface always has that terrible dusty brilliance.” The city rests on “land dried and crusted into desert… a quagmire under a hot sun”; it is, he insists, “difficult to settle in a comfortable unfinished desert” where “buildings lie around like nomads’ tents in the desert” and a motel stands “solitary in the desert of its parking lot.” Lambert isn’t completely consistent in seeing LA as built on a desert, for sometimes he remarks on the role of the “gritty mountains” in separating the city from “the dry Mojave desert” and he starts and ends his tale with electrical storms “near Palm Springs… out over the desert.” The predominant theme, though, is certainly Los Angeles as desert, and the desert fact of the city, its aridity, original emptiness, sterility, shape the stunted lives of the novel’s characters. The link is explicit in Lambert’s description of his friend Mark’s beach house after he has left for the South Pacific: it presents “[a] little desert of emptiness and stillness that people seem instinctively to avoid.”[33]

This theme is especially prominent in See’s Golden Days. The protagonist Edith Langley grows up “in the parched and arid heart of Los Angeles.” Returning after a sojourn in New York, she imagines LA as a plant in the desert, its extension from downtown “a thin stem, the Santa Monica freeway, heading due west and putting out greenery, places in this western desert where you’d love to live—if things went right.” Desert vegetation is tough, thorny, resistant to drought and abuse, but likewise not easy to approach—perhaps, in contrast to Edith’s initial impression, not so easy to live with. The house she buys on her return is tucked deep up Topanga Canyon, the “Old Canyon,” which “[s]ome people say… is the desert part”—although, in fact, “Los Angeles was a desert to begin with….” Yucca grow, taller than Edith’s daughters; there are rattlesnakes, neighbors warn, and Edith later watches two boys wrangle over possession of a three-foot long snake—but surely no rattler—that had unwisely slunk into the neighborhood market. The Canyon bakes in 120 degree heat, and, like all southwestern deserts, is subject both to flood and fire. The desert of LA impinges even on Edith’s wardrobe, as she switches from flannel shirts to silk blouses, “raw silk” being, she supposes, “the flannel of the desert.”[34] In other words, the desert does not simply frame See’s LA, offering a counterpoint out east, or north, over the passes, to serve as a locus for redemption or despair; the desert is LA, and living in the city becomes, for See’s protagonists, an adaptation to a desert world. In ways both blatant and subtle, the desert compels her characters to react to it—be it by shedding flannels for silk (the same projected persona, a different skin) or, eventually, by adapting to a nuclear-devastated landscape, a final act of desertification performed on a desert wasteland.[35]

While the deserts of Los Angeles barely inflect Aldous Huxley’s first LA novel, in his second novel written in California and set in Los Angeles, Ape and Essence (1948), the desert does not merely serve as a setting, but plays a central role in both plot and message. Two screenwriters, Bob Briggs and Huxley’s narrator, discover a rejected script in the slush pile submitted by a certain William Tallis. Intrigued, they travel out to see the author, a recluse living “on the southwest fringe of the Mojave desert.” Huxley draws a contrast between the “tough ascetic lives of the desert” and the cottonwoods and willows along irrigation ditches, “clinging precariously… to another, easier, more voluptuous mode of being.” Huxley’s desert outside LA immediately invokes the tension between the city itself, which can only exist by importation of water and thus promotes a morally corrupt way of life (already evident in the scripts Bob and his partner paw through), and an ascetic, and so purer, desert life—a framing that evokes also the role of the desert in Dunne’s True Confessions. Then, as Bob and the narrator approach Tallis’s house:

Out there, on the floor of the desert, there had been a noiseless, but almost explosive transformation. The clouds had shifted and the sun was now shining on the nearest of those abrupt and jagged buttes, which rose so inexplicably, like islands, out of the enormous plain. A moment before they had been black and dead. Now suddenly they had come to life between a shadowed foreground and a background of cloudy darkness. They shone as if with their own incandescence.

I touched Bob’s arm and pointed.

“Now do you understand why Tallis chooses to live at the end of this road?”[36]

Tallis’s script imagines a Los Angeles in 2108 after a nuclear war has devastated the United States. LA, “the great Metrollopis [sic] is a ghost town… what was once the world’s largest oasis is now its greatest agglomeration of ruins in a wasteland…. Dunes of sand have drifted across the concrete.” The plot of Tellis’s movie revolves around the arrival in Southern California of an expedition from New Zealand that includes a botanist named Poole. Captured by the gang that rules the ruined city, he meets a young woman named Loola; they fall in love, but strict eugenics rules imposed by the gang forbid their relationship. Eventually Poole and Loola escape into the desert, across the San Gabriel Mountains, headed north for a supposed paradise where love is free and children can be conceived; to do so, they seek refuge and invisibility in the “enormous expanse of the Mojave desert,” the desert beyond the desert of Los Angeles.[37]


Thus the desert plays a multiplicity of roles in Ape and Essence: it is at once the “desert underneath,” the ecological reality of Los Angeles concealed—only temporarily, and always precariously—by an overlay of water and fakery; it is that ecological reality not created but simply revealed by the nuclear bombs that stripped away the “false tinsel”; it is a more genuine ecology “out there,” where Tallis lives and through which Poole and Loola escape; it is refuge.

Perhaps we are invited to imagine a better LA had its desert never been gussified with Hollywood falsity, or perhaps the desertified Los Angeles tyrannized by the Archimandrite and his acolytes is what it deserves. In any case, the “natural” desert is clearly the better place, even if it is tough and unforgiving. Poole and Loola, in the end, must serve an apprenticeship of suffering and purgation during their desert trek north, sore feet, little food, and thirty miles and more of painful walking. It is the desert as test, another desert sojourn to reach the Promised Land—California, love, happiness, children. Ape and Essence, then, may stand for a type—prefigured almost presciently in Philip Wylie’s 1943 short story “The Paradise Crater,” which government officials feared represented a leak in the Manhattan Project—scenarios of the Los Angeleno apocalypse, especially those predicated on nuclear annihilation, which evoke a return of the repressed when the LA underlying them has been figured as masked desert.[38]

In After the Bomb (1985) young Philip Singer, his brother, and his brother’s girlfriend Cara survive a thermonuclear blast over LA because they happened to be lounging in an old bomb shelter in the brothers’ back yard. The book tells the story of Philip’s efforts to save his badly burned mother while moving through a ruined, post-nuclear landscape. The desert of After the Bomb bears, however, two valences, opposite and ironic. On the one hand, that Santa Ana which launches the plot adumbrates the desert-like destruction of the hydrogen bomb to come; on the other, it, and the desertification of the bomb itself, strip away the falsity of Los Angeles: Philip’s apparently omni-competent brother Matt proves hopeless, clueless, and almost useless, while Matt’s girlfriend Cara, whom Philip had hoped to snag for himself before his brother lured her away, now sees who’s really reliable in an emergency. In the end Matt’s redeemed, more or less; whether Cara will switch brothers remains undisclosed. But fundamentally it’s the falsity of the LA world that’s worn Philip down in his ordinary life that’s stripped away by desert wind and desertifying bomb—LA both invaded and revealed.[39]

The fundamental falsity of the desert materializes—deceptively—in its mirages, and Los Angeles is all mirage. So when Paul, a protagonist of Lurie’s The Nowhere City, drives through an LA cityscape “for once swept clear of smog by the desert winds”—the Santa Anas, as Lurie’s allusion to the season makes clear—“[t]he city shimmered in the dry, warm air, every detail sharp, but all colors bleached out by the intensity of the light, like a mirage.” Paul fears lest this mirage “wasn’t the harmless decorative sort, but one of those false visions that hover just above the horizon of the desert, luring travelers on to exhaustion and despair.”[40] So too people: in Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (1940) “Helen Grayle”—in fact Velma Vanelto—started life as a sexually promiscuous chorus girl, but after eight years has succeeded—it seems—in burying her sordid past. The reinvented Helen is a “true product of Los Angeles, a city of resplendent surfaces”; she is “a figment, inspired by a culture that glorifies illusion….”[41] That is to say Helen is a mirage: that deceptive, fatal emanation of the desert, a confection of shimmering air with no more tangible reality than a passing breeze. This image suits perfectly Hollywood, that emblem of Los Angeles in so much fiction, whose primary function (that is, aside from coining profits for its studios) is simply to deliver a gullible public confected falsity as if it were something real.

Some final ruminations and unanswered questions

The whole congeries of desert imagery and Los Angeles fiction was captured succinctly in an essay by Charles Crow, who, evoking Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, writes of

the desert, that vast and troubling presence which most Angelenos would like to ignore. The paradox of Los Angeles, geographically, is that it is both a seacoast and a desert city…. [T]he ecology of the city is so fragile that it cannot hope to survive very long; at some point that aqueducts that are its arteries will fail… and the city will disappear…. The desert, lurking in the east, is the city’s doom. Out of the desert blow the Santa Ana winds, drying the hillsides and spreading the brush fires…. Deserts have always been places of prophecy and truth-seeking, and the message of this desert, “the hard empty white core of the world,” is annihilation, nothingness… [a place where] a man walked into the desert seeking God and was killed by a rattlesnake.[42]

Which is not to say, of course, that the man in question failed to find God; he may just not have found the God he thought he was looking for.[43]

Desert redemption, desert evil, the desert out there, desert demons borne into town on the Santa Anas—desert barrier, the desert below, the desert remade in nuclear annihilation, desert truth, desert falsity, abhorrence, fascination, attraction—so many deserts shape the city, in its fiction; without the desert, indeed, there is no fictional Los Angeles. Before we conclude, however, it behooves us to consider, briefly, some non-fictional treatments of Los Angeles, for the desert tropes—whether “out there” or “below”—seem often less prominent in such works. A certain tension between Los Angeles as desert and not-desert features in Mike Davis’s two dense and remarkable books about the city. The earlier City of Quartz (1990) starts with a tour of the desert ruins of the utopian community of Llano del Rio, which he calls explicitly “desert”; here and there in the book the notion recurs, although without much emphasis, yet with implicit approval. Everything has changed in Ecology of Fear (1999), which begins with a stark rejection of the desert trope as a self-serving notion designed to justify the continuing theft of water from the Colorado River and the Owens Valley. Instead, the Los Angeles region is seen as a Mediterranean climate—although, again, Davis sometimes reverts to the possibility of desert resurfacing or desert invasion, as when he notes that the last 150 years have been “anomalously mild, and therefore atypical”; the desert, we are warned, encroached on what is now Los Angeles during the “epic drought periods” of the Middle Ages. This Mediterranean trope—which we also touched on above in a passage from Harold Bell’s book—is abundantly clear in the booster literature of the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, in which Southern California in general is a land of abundant good health, sunshine, and pleasure. Much of this literature figured Southern California as “our Mediterranean”—a view captured explicitly in the title of Peter Charles Remondino’s 1892 encomium, The Mediterranean Shores of America: Southern California: Its Climatic, Physical, and Meteorological Conditions.[44]


Of course, Davis is right in Ecology of Fear, as were the old-time boosters: Los Angeles sits not in a desert but in a Köppen-Geiger BS climate, a steppe, as we noted at the start of this essay, and as Glen M. MacDonald argued cogently in a recent contribution to Boom.[45] Why, then, have the desert tropes of “out there” or “underneath” exercised such a magnetism on so many writers of fiction about LA? I have no definite answer to the question, which would require a much longer discussion than can be accommodated in a few words at the end of this essay. It does seem to me, however, that at least three drivers may be at work.

First, there is moral coding. Since LA is so often figured as corrupt, decadent, and unnatural, the desert, whether a space “out there” or a hidden underbelly to the city, can be figured as a moral opposite. The long-standing trope of desert redemption and purity, seen perhaps most blatantly in True Confessions of all the books studied here, can then serve as a space of purgation and moral repair. This moral opposition, however, can work in another way too: the desert can come into or rise up from underneath the city and sweep away its corruption, sterilizing an urbanscape subject to vile putrefaction. So Ape and Essence, much of the “LA holocaust” literature, Golden Days, and even Watkins’s recent Gold Fame Citrus.

Not unrelated, perhaps, is the sense of the desert as an escape hatch—a refuge, a place to escape the city, to find a more genuine life, or at least a chance to start over. This driver seems connected with a very powerful sense of the West in general as a place to “start over,” where you can shed old identities and baggage and become a new person; and certainly this notion is fundamentally intertwined with the myth of California itself, as a Promised Land where the new covenant can be struck.[46]

And then there is the simple distaste for Los Angeles as a city—a kind of revulsion that seems to infect an extraordinarily large proportion of literature about the city. Reyner Banham observed some decades ago that Los Angeles “gets attention, but it’s like the attention that Sodom and Gomorrah have received, primarily a reflection of other people’s bad consciences…”, abused by the “pedestrian litterateur who finds the place ‘a stinking sewer’ and stays only long enough to collect material for a hate-novel.” It would be easy to draw up a lengthy catalogue. For such writers there may be no better fate for Los Angeles than desertified obliteration; for, even a desert, repulsive as it may be, is still better than Los Angeles.[47]

This is all rather speculative and certainly incomplete. I have begged other important questions, too. Desert spaces (and the West more generally) have figured often in the American imaginary as emplaced on our continent for the express purpose of “white redemption”: the white male, emasculated or in danger of emasculation thanks to his exposure in urban space to dangerous “others,” especially the racially or ethnically different (not to mention women), may find his hope of recovery of his masculinity by lighting out for the desert, whose harshness tests, refines, and redeems him, themes well explored by Richard Slotkin and David Teague. The “whiteness” of this narrative trope brings up another unexplored question: the degree to which the whole framing of LA and the desert is entirely, or mostly, a white and/or upper-middle class preoccupation. Finally, there is the matter of “nature.” The desert trope carries an implicit dichotomy between urban LA as “not nature” and the desert as “nature.” But of course this whole construction—of the “wild,” the “natural” in opposition to the human “artificial”—has been thoroughly challenged by scholars as diverse in their interests as Roderick Nash, William Cronon, and for Los Angeles itself Jenny Price, in her now-classic essay “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.” In other words, much of the literature I’ve examined here (and no doubt much I have missed) rests and depends on an opposition itself a confected dualism—not unlike the dichotomy of “desert out there” and “desert underneath” that I have suggested form the two topologies of the desert in LA.[48]



  • All photographs taken by and used with permission of Matt Gush (www.mattgush.com). All rights reserved.

[1] Alison Lurie, The Nowhere City (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997), 12. On The Nowhere City in particular and Lurie’s fiction in general, see Julie Newman¸ Alison Lurie: A Critical Study (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000); Susan Watkins, “‘Women and Wives Mustn’t Go Near It’: Academia, Language, and Gender in the Novels of Alison Lurie,” Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingeles 48 (2004): 129-146; Patrick O’Donnell, “Postwar Los Angeles: Suburban Eden and the Fall into History,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, ed. Kevin R. McNamara (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 65-67. Kevin Starr, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 173, praised The Nowhere City as “the best fictive portrait to capture Los Angeles as it made the transition to supercity.”

[2] In a recent essay, Eric Avila claims Southern California “reads like a subtle case for ecological determinism” (“Essaying Los Angeles,” in McNamara [ed.], Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, 178), but McWilliams insisted on the mistake of seeing Southern California as wholly determined by its ecology; the cult of climate was, for him, “folklore” (Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land [Salt Lake City: Peregrine Books, 2010], 96-112): although McWilliams admits that the climate there does indeed change people, he also insists that “the miraculous qualities of the climate were invented, not by the cynical residents of the region, but by the early tourist” (98).

[3] Although some working from smaller circumferences insist in continuing to call it one: most recently Vanessa Friedman, “Dior in the Desert,” The New York Times, 12 May 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/12/fashion/dior-cruise-2018-maria-grazia-chiuri.html?smid=tw-nytfashion&smtyp=cur&_r=0 (accessed 20 May 2017).

[4] From data at http://www.laalmanac.com/weather/we13.htm (accessed  19 May  2017). Anton Wagner, Los Angeles: Werden, Leben und Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadt in Südkalifornie (Leipzig: Bibliographisches Institut, 1936), 23, gives 379.7 mm as the annual average. On the European settlement-era ecosystems of the Los Angeles Basin, see Paula M. Schiffman, “The Los Angeles Prairie,” in Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Los Angeles, eds. William Deverell and Greg Hise (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), 38-51. D. J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), 140, rightly writes, “[T]he Los Angeles plain is semiarid. It’s not exactly a desert.” Of course, with climate change, all bets are off.

[5] McWilliams, Southern California, 110 (originally 1946). See David Fine, “Introduction,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, ed. David Fine (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984), 17, characterizing Los Angeles as “a city almost literally carved out of a desert,” paraphrasing (I suppose) Richard Lehan, “The Los Angeles Novel and the Idea of the West,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 30, for whom “Los Angeles was crafted out of the desert.”

[6] In this essay I leave aside largely the literature treating Los Angeles as an eco-disaster—greedily gulping water from the Owens valley, degrading the sere landscape with acres of cheap, ugly houses, inviting deserved eco-obliteration or sheer decay (say, the now clichéd city of the film Blade Runner) or the eco-collapse of Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus (2015) or the milder but sadder critique of Waldie’s Holy Land. I do examine some of the literature of nuclear annihilation where such disaster evokes or uncovers desert LA.

[7] And see Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Maid (1919), in which Earth’s salvation from Martian domination entails, among other things, the obliteration of Los Angeles; Michael Orth, “Utopia in the Pulps: The Apocalyptic Pastoralism of Edgar Rice Burroughs,” Extrapolation 27 (1986): 226.

[8] See many of Joan Didion’s essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), The White Album (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), and Play It As It Lays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

[9] Indeed: sixty years ago Carolyn See catalogued already 500 books set in Hollywood alone and read 300 of them for her dissertation “The Hollywood Novel: An Historical and Critical Study,”  unpublished dissertation (University of California, Los Angeles, 1963), a study more often cited, I suspect, than read (p. 1 for the numbers; 485-516, for the bibliography).

[10] For a thorough discussion of the Hebrew biblical tropes, see Laura Feldt, “Wilderness and the Hebrew Bible Religion—Fertility, Apostasy and Religious Transformation in the Pentatuch,” in Religion and Society: Wilderness in Mythology and Religion: Approaching Religion: Spacialities, Cosmologies, and Ideas of Wild Nature, eds. Laura Feldt, Gustavo Benavides, and Kocku von Stuckard (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 55-94; see also Gary Reger, “Making the Desert American,” Cultural History 2 (2013): 167-174, and Diana K. Davis, The Arid Lands. History, Power, Knowledge (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 23-47.

[11] So, perhaps, the winds were even responsible for the Watts Riots: Eve Babitz, Eve’s Hollywood (New York: New York Review of Books, 2015), 143-144.

[12] Frank Norris quoted in David Fine, Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000), 3; Rupert Hughes, Souls for Sale (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1978), 183 (“blinding blue”), 314 (madcap ride; originally published 1922); Kate Braverman, Lithium for Medea [A Novel] (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), 83; Cynthia Kadohata, In the Heart of the Valley of Love (Berkeley: UC Press, 1997), 1; Hughes, Souls for Sale, 340 (William R. Gowen, “Hoo-ray! ri! ro! row! roo! rah! Rupert Hughes and his ‘Dozen’,” Newsboy [November-December 1995]:13-16, offers a brief biography; Hughes served with the US Army Mexican Border Service in 1916 [p. 14], perhaps a source for some of the desert images in Souls for Sale?); F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Love of the Last Tycoon, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York: Scribner, 2003), 18. See, “Hollywood Novel,” 58-61, alludes to the sense that crossing “the great desert” (58) “often functions as a rite de passage” (57), but without developing the analogy to desert purgation in the exodus to the Promised Land; she quotes Dorothy Hughes, Dread Journey (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1945), 138, on the three-day trip through a “wasteland.” See does, however, argue that the trip west marks “a period of penance” which “divests [the traveler] of his past and all its appurtenances”; he “metaphorically dies and is born again in the long eerie train trip across the Great West to Hollywood….” In an ironic twist, the Promised Land into which such travelers are reborn is not a land of milk and honey but the locus of “sins… so rarified and vile that in his old life he has perhaps never even heard of them…” (58).

[13] Steve Erikson, Amnesiascope: A Novel (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 80, 217; Braverman, Lithium, 358-362; Hughes, Souls for Sale, 372-375. William L. Manly, Death Valley in ’49: The Autobiography of a Pioneer (Crabtree: The Narrative Press, 2001), 141, for a classic evocation of the desert as worthless space.

[14] George Pelecanos, “Introduction,” in John Gregory Dunne, True Confessions (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006), v. See Kevin Starr, Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 213-222, for a brief discussion. There have been multiple book-length studies of the case; the most recent is John Gilmore, Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder (Los Angeles: Amok Books, 2015).

[15] Dunne, True Confessions, 340; see Des’s reflections on his fantasies about Mary Ginty, a parishioner whose husband went to prison: “He dreamed about her. That was all. He would awake in a state of arousal, his bedding wet from the nocturnal emission…. The impulses of the flesh were the darkest sins in Tommy’s canon. How wrong he was. Those impulses could be sublimated. Pride was a substitute. Power. The urge to manipulate. Vices that I have in abundance, Desmond Spellacy thought” (191). See, briefly but cogently, Michael Adams, “Sin and Guilt in the Fiction of John Gregory Dunne,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 25 (1984): 156. Timothy J. Meaghan, “Cops, Priests, and the Decline of Irish America: True Confessions (1981),” in Catholics in the Movies, ed. Colleen McDannell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 245, sees Des’s exile as situating him in “the desert… the empty space where relationships can be constructed,” but Des’s desert space is not in fact empty: it is full of people and pre-existing relationships.

[16] Husband killer: Phyllis Nirdlinger in Cain 1992 (original 1936); daughter rapist: Noah Cross (John Huston) in Chinatown (1974).

[17] Aldous Huxley, Ape and Essence (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992), 62, 123. Norman Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (London: Verso, 2008), 98, suggestively remarks that in the film Blade Runner the city invades the desert, LA “smog finally destroying the desert climate itself.” Curiously, Hughes, Souls for Sale, 70 and 73, refers to a movie being made of Charles Kingsley’s novel Hypatia, whose climax comes with the vicious assassination of the pagan woman mathematician by an enraged crowd of monks in from the desert.

[18] Gavin Lambert, The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1998), 56. Wagner, Los Angeles, 26, calls the Santa Anas “föhnartige Wüstenwinde,” which seems about right; also Didion, Slouching, 218-219. McWilliams, Southern California, 10-11: “desert winds.” On the causes of these winds, see Mimi Hughes and Alex Hall, “Local and Synoptic Mechanisms Causing Southern California’s Santa Ana Winds,” Climate Dynamics 34 (2010): 847-857, and Sebastien Conil and Alex Hall, “Local Regimes of Atmospheric Variability: A Case Study of Southern California,” Journal of Climate 19 (2006): 4308-4325.

[19] George Randolph Chester and Lilian Chester, On the Lot and Off (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1924), 267. Briefly Chester’s life and career, Jenny E. Robb, “From the Periodical Archives: Winsor McCay, George Randolph Chester, and the Tale of the Jungle Imps,” Periodical Comics and Cartoons 17 (2007): 249-251. It should be noted that the Chesters’ book is saturated with the anti-Semitism so common in Hollywood novels.

[20] Chester and Chester, On the Lot, 285, 298-299, 275, 268; later, Meyer, Tennyson’s father, violates his own ethics by foreclosing on Luna: “it may have been the enervating wind from the desert” that did it (304).

[21] Raymond Chandler, Stories and Early Novels: Pulp Stories / The Big Sleep / Farewell, My Lovely / The High Window (New York: The Library of America, 1995), 368 (originally published 1938); Didion, Slouching, 218-219; “extraordinary two pages”: Klein, History of Forgetting, 239; A.A. Fair [Earl Stanley Gardner], Double or Quits (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1941), 21-23. Chandler’s famous passage reads: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” As so often with Chandler, a mocking, ironic deflation at the end.

[22] Klein, History of Forgetting, 239, 240. For Joan Didion (White Album, 172), those days when “the wind is coming up” presages the onset of a migraine.

[23] Frederick Kohner, Gidget (New York: Berkeley Books, 2001), 124, 110 (orgy), 109, 124 and 128, 140-142; Klein, History of Forgetting, 81-83, on LA as “the city burning.” Gidget’s agonized sexual meditations are pretty blatant: “As I was lying in the darkness I felt real alone and helpless like never before in all my fifteen years. There wasn’t enough woman in me yet, and the gidget in me didn’t know how to handle it. Will it always be like this, I thought unhappily, will I always be scared of it and scared of being scared?” (140). Ironically, the Kahoona’s refusal denies Gidget the “climax” she expected. See Ilana Nash, “‘Nowhere Else to Go’: Gidget and the Construction of Adolescent Femininity,” Feminist Media Studies 2 (2002): 348, on the implications of this passage, and in general on the Gidget phenomenon and the patriarchy; but Nash exaggerates when she claims that Gidget never turns to her mother “for support and camaraderie” (352); at least in the first book, Gidget’s mother is the one who divines immediately that her daughter’s problems stem from sexual desire (see their conversation at Kohner, Gidget, 58-60), and her mother sides with her against her father by okaying her date with Moondoggie (91). For a brief account of Kohner’s career, Gerhard Mack, “Frederick Kohner,” in Deutsche Exilliteratur seit 1933. Band I. Kalifornien. Teil I, eds. John M. Spalek and Joseph Strelka (Bern-Munich: Franke Verlag, 1976), 762-770; John M. Spalek, Joseph Strelka, and Sandra H. Hawrylchak (eds.), Deutsche Exilliteratur seit 1933. Band 2. Kalifornien. Teil 1 (Bern-Munich: Franke Verlag, 1976), 68-71, for a bibliography of Kohner’s work (to 1976). Kohner died in 1986. He does not figure in Erhard Bahr, Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism (Berkeley: UC Press, 2007), the most recent study known to me of the German colony in 1930s and 1940s Los Angeles, which included Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Berthold Brecht, Theodor Adorno, and many others; another account in Kevin Starr, The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 342-396 (Kohner and Gidget, very briefly, at 388-389); see also now Johannes Evelein, Literary Exiles from Nazi Germany (Rochester: Camden House, 2014) on German exile literature more generally. Didion White Album, 210-211, on a 1975 Santa Ana that blew “in off the Mojave for three weeks and set… 69,000 acres of Los Angeles County on fire” and another, in 1978, that fanned a brush fire and “[w]ithin two hours… had pushed this fire across 25,000 acres and thirteen miles to the coast, where it jumped the Pacific Coast Highway as a half-mile fire storm generating winds of 100 miles per hour and temperatures up to 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. Refugees huddled on Zuma Beach. Horses caught fire and were shot on the beach, birds exploded in the air. Houses did not explode but imploded, as in a nuclear strike” (White Album, 222-223).

[24] Eve Babitz, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), 71-83. “Tales” from the coyly ambiguous “Tales by Eve Babitz” on the title page: while categorized as “fiction,” it is hard to know whether Babitz’s narratives are invented at all, or just lightly disguised recountings of her own experiences.

[25] Babitz, Slow Days, 76 (italics in original); 74-75 (“just friends”); 76 (blaming weather); 79; 78 (long quotation, original italics—“it” because William wants the narrator but she’s refused to sleep with him; so like a man, to find relief in evidence that it’s not his own deficiencies that have turned a woman off); 80-81; 83.

[26] I steal my heading from the title of Traci Lords’ autobiography (Underneath It All [New York: Harper Entertainment, 2003]). Though exploration would take us much too far from Los Angeles and images of the desert, the same trope of “uncovering” the glitz to reveal something else, usually (but not always) sordid, vapid, arid, and sterile underneath, plays out in analogous ways in the pornography industry. Pornography itself relies literally on “uncovering,” by making visible bodies and sexual couplings, but is at the same time a false uncovering, in its meretricious depiction of sex and its urgent need to cover up the abuse, sexism, and violence that accompanies so much of its production. The San Fernando Valley was the epicenter of American pornographic filmmaking in the heydays of the 1970s and 1980s; with the spread of digital photography and cheap, high-quality cameras, the product has been democratized. Still, Laura Pulido, Laura Barraclough, and Wendy Cheng, A People’s Guide to Los Angeles (Berkeley: UC Press, 2012), 224, claim that “[a]ccording to one source, 90 percent of all legally distributed pornographic films are made in the San Fernando valley,” without, however, citing the “source.”

[27] Douglas C. Sackman, “A Garden of Worldly Delights,” in Land of Sunshine, 247, with further references to scholarship of boosterism at 329-330 n. 5; especially notable: Richard Orsi, “Selling the Golden State: A Study of Boosterism in Nineteenth-Century California,” unpublished dissertation (University of Wisconsin, 1973); Kevin Starr, Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 128-175 and Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1914 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 365-414; William Deverell and Douglas Flamming, “Race, Rhetoric, and Regional Identity: Boosting Los Angeles, 1880-1930,” in Power and Place in the North American West, eds. Richard White and John Findlay (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 117-143; and Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 59-91. Bertolt Brecht, Arbeitsjournal. Zweiter Band, 1942 bis 1955, ed. Werner Hecht (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1973), 293, entry for 9 August 1941, and 733, entry for 20 March 1945. This theme comes out especially nicely in Liahna Babener, “Raymond Chandler’s City of Lies,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 109-131. On Brecht in LA, see Bahr, Weimar on the Pacific, 69-147. Babitz, Slow Days, 8.

[28] See Starr, Inventing the Dream, 44-63, for an overview (Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s [New York: Oxford University Press, 1990], 90-119, on Los Angeles in particular), and Orsi, “Selling the Golden State,” for a detailed study of booster literature. Samuel Stoney, To the Golden Land: Sketches of a Trip to Southern California (London: Walter Scott, 1889), 30, quoted without attribution in McWilliams, Southern California, 98; floral magnificence, 105; enervation, 107.

[29] Horace Bell, Reminiscences of a Ranger: Early Times in Southern California (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 55-57.

[30] J.U. Peters, “The Los Angeles Anti-Myth,” in Itinerary: Criticism. Essays on California Writers, ed. Charles L. Crow (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Press, 1978), 24; see also Babener, “Chandler’s,” 115, and “Chinatown, City of Blight,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 243-244. Lambert, Slide Area, 18, calls Los Angeles “not a city, but a series of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes.” Edward Soja, My Los Angeles: From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization (Berkeley: UC Press, 2014), 21-23, argues that this view of Los Angeles is now outdated.

[31] Mark Royden Winchell, “Fantasy Seen: Hollywood Fiction Since West,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 148 with 166 n. 6; Carolyn See, Golden Days (Berkeley: UC Press, 1996), 121 and 6.

[32] Dunne, True Confessions, 203; Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 67; See, Golden Days, 4 and 7; Aldous Huxley, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 8: The contrasts between “nature” and “urban artifice” that surface in a few passages (see 10, 60, for example) are never developed. The inspiration for Swan, “his Hollywood novel” (Peter Munro Jack, “A New Novel by Aldous Huxley,” New York Times Book Review [28 January 1940], 2), came from the antics of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies: Franz Baldanza, “Huxley and Hearst,” in Itinerary, 35-47. David King Dunaway, Huxley in Hollywood (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 106-110, on the writing of Swan. J. Ross MacDonald, The Drowning Pool (New York: Knopf, 1950), 19; Hughes, Souls for Sale, 369. See, “Hollywood Novel,” 178-180, sees artificiality of setting as a fundamental structural feature of the Hollywood novel, though without mentioning the desert (but see also her more extended discussion of the role of climate at 388-402).

[33] Lambert, Slide Area, 15, 16-17, 35, 94, 15 and 211, 52.

[34] See, Golden Days, 4, 6, 9, 121, 10-11, 13. When Edith brings her business partner to be, Skip, home for the first time, her house, lights ablaze, looks “charmed, with golden light pouring from every window like a just-landed space ship” (21): a flying saucer touched down, appropriately, in the midst of the desert. On See’s fiction, see Davis, Ecology of Fear, 316-318; Fine, Imagining Los Angeles, 251-255; O’Donnell, “Postwar Los Angeles,” 70-72. In Dunne, True Confessions, 82, Tom complains of his wife Mary Margaret, good Catholic girl: “It could be a hundred degrees with a hot dry wind off the desert and still she would wear flannel” to bed.

[35] See had already foreshadowed this desert beneath in her dissertation, where she wrote of a “parched” geography, “the constant assumption” in the Hollywood fiction she studied “that Southern California is a desert,” indeed a space that, after rain, “as soon as the sun comes out… again turns into an incipient desert” (“Hollywood Novel,” 388, 398, 392).

[36] Huxley, Ape, 17-18. Kerwin Lee Klein, “Westward, Utopia: Robert V. Hine, Aldous Huxley, and the Future of California History,” Pacific Historical Review 70 (2001): 474, makes the important observation that Ape and Essence “aired Huxley’s nostalgia for his lost desert years….”

[37] Huxley, Ape, 62, 202.

[38] On nuclear devastation in Los Angeles’ fiction, see David Seed, “Los Angeles’ Science Fiction Futures,” in Cambridge Companion, 123-134; a brief survey of Los Angeles literature in Davis, Ecology of Fear, 311-318, with a focus on See, Golden Days. For “The Paradise Crater,” see P.D. Smith, The Doomsday Men. The Real Doctor Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), 294. In The Nowhere City, Paul is awoken at 4 am one morning by terrific noise; “[h]e thought it was, first, a nightmare; then, an atomic war.” But it was just another instance of the constant re-invention of LA: a house being moved to make way for a freeway (Lurie, Nowhere City, 256). “For [Raymond] Chandler,” observes Liahna K. Babener in a trenchant essay, the “falsity is so prevalent that the truth, if it surfaces at all, is neither redeeming nor ameliorative” (“Chandler’s,” 111). If the underlying desert truth of Los Angeles in Ape and Essence be desert, then Babener’s observation becomes chillingly true.

[39] Gloria Miklowitz, After the Bomb (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1985), 2. Note, of course, the patriarchal trope: “Who will rescue me,” is the real question in Cara’s mind, “when true danger looms?”

[40] Lurie, Nowhere City, 285.

[41] Babener, “Chandler’s,” 120-121. “Helen Grayle” summons up “Holy Grail”—the unattainable object of unending search—and Helen of Troy, destroyer of men through sexual allurement and, in the Odyssey, memory-erasing drugs; Chandler, Stories, 767-984.

[42] Charles L. Crow, “Home and Transcendence in Los Angeles,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 194-195. The embedded quotation comes from Didion, Play It as It Lays, 162.

[43] As indeed Edward Abbey, writing of Datura meteloides, another desert hazard, remarked: “The correct dosage is said to be spiritually rewarding, but the problem is that a microgram too much may lead to convulsions, paralysis and death—also rewarding, perhaps, but usually considered premature” (Beyond the Wall: Essays from the Outside [New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1984], 88).

[44] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 3-14 (Llano del Rio); 50: “Yet not all Europeans were estranged by either the façade or the desert behind it” (an implicit endorsement, I think); 82-83. Davis, Ecology of Fear, 10-14, 17-18 (Mediterranean climate); 25, 23 (quotations); 202 (LA now bordered by deserts and mountains rather than farms). Peter Charles Remondino, The Mediterranean Shores of America: Southern California: Its Climatic, Physical, and Meteorological Conditions (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Co., 1892). I am indebted to Boom’s anonymous reader for reminding me of the importance of this literature.

[45] Glen M. MacDonald, “The Myth of a Desert Metropolis,” Boom: A Journal of California 3 (Fall 2013): 86-94; see also https://boomcalifornia.com/2017/05/22/the-myth-of-a-desert-metropolis-los-angeles-was-not-built-in-a-desert-but-are-we-making-it-one/.

[46] See Patricia Nelson Limerick, Desert Passages: Encounters with the American Deserts (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985).

[47] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1971), 235 and 243; perhaps Banham had in mind something like The Flutter of an Eyelid, by Myron Brining (1933), or Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948). Much the same judgment on Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan in See, “Hollywood Novel,” (1963), 39, but of course Huxley never left.

[48] Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973) and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998); David W. Teague, The Southwest in American Literature and Art: The Rise of a Desert Aesthetic (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997). Also useful: Catrin Gersdorf, The Poetics and Politics of the Desert: Landscape and the Construction of America (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009). Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001); William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995), 69-90; Jenny Price, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.,” in Land of Sunshine, 220-244. I owe many thanks with this essay. A previous version was presented in Reno, Nevada, at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Western Literature Association; my fellow panelists, Joseph William Morton and Sarah Nolan, and our moderator, Tyler Austin Nickl, made this a memorable occasion and contributed many suggestions for improvements. Kate Bergren and Heather Dundas read a draft, offered excellent comments, and encouraged submission to Boom. The anonymous reviewer read the text with remarkable care and sensitivity, and made many suggestions (including bibliography) for strengthening my argument. Any remaining idiocies are mine.

Gary Reger is Professor of History and Classics at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. His work on the ancient Greek and Roman economy began with Regionalism and Change in the Economy of Independent Delos and continues with a project, based on case studies, surveying Greco-Roman economic history, for which he received an NEH grant for 2017-2018. His other main interest is the history of human interaction with deserts broadly conceived across time and space. He has published essays on the southwestern deserts in Extrapolation and Cultural History and has in press a study of Roman reaction to the Sahara Desert.

Copyright: © 2017 Gary Reger. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


Indian Summer

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Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco. Photograph by Robert Berowitz via Flickr.

Karen Tei Yamashita

On 9/11, I flew out of JFK on a 6:00 am flight headed for SFO, ignorant of danger and spared the consequences of the disaster in my wake. Though preoccupied for months later by my narrow escape and devastated by any news of friends and old acquaintances, I had long resolved to leave New York for a new start in the central coastal town of Santa Cruz on the northern peninsula of the Monterey Bay. Upon arrival, I turned selfishly to unpacking and situating myself in a comfortably clean and furnished rental, bathed in warm dry winds and swirling heat, hot days interspersed with cool, the fall season intervening in fits and starts. We call these days Indian summer, supposing that the Indians had long ago marked our calendar with their climate wisdom. By contrast, having just traveled in Europe from August to September, I was surprised to note, while in Fiesole, the autumn coolness trade away the summer heat, as if on schedule from 31 August to 1 September, which made me think that the parsing of seasons is a European expectation of time passing.

I had been offered a lectureship in art history on the subject of American architecture and the arts and crafts movement. My particular focus was the design of Frank Lloyd Wright and the architects of his Taliesan Fellowship, and the turn toward and uses of a Japanese aesthetic. On arrival in California, I thought I knew little of this coastal town, but this assumption of ignorance was eventually reversed. My previous forays to California had been brief and directed: for example, a tour of works by Julia Morgan including Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Asilomar in Pacific Grove, and various YWCA centers and gracious homes in San Francisco and on the East Bay—Oakland and Berkeley. While quaint Victorians, trolleys running beneath bay windows of pastel painted ladies were charming, I focused on the modern—the use of concrete and natural stone, exposed beams of giant redwood and extended garden landscapes, seaside cypress, crooked and windswept, reaching beyond glass open to natural light, wavering through sunset and fog. I was thus pleased to discover in Santa Cruz examples of the architecture of Aaron G. Green, protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. Aaron Green had in the 1950s established himself independently in San Francisco and was the West Coast representative of Wright himself. I happened upon a building by Green somewhat by accident, a combination of fortune and misfortune, fortunate for my research and misfortunate in view of my health.

Soon after arriving in Santa Cruz I was plagued by dizzy spells, and while walking to class across the wooden bridges spanning long gullies that cut through the redwood campus, I experienced a curious sense of vertigo. I would stumble into my lectures, grip the podium for several moments to regain my balance, trying with difficulty to assure myself and any students who bothered to notice my distress that I had control of the situation. I learned that if I directed my concerns quickly to technology, in those years the use of a Kodak carousel projector, I would soon forget my dis-ease and turn to the subject of my lecture that day, whether interior design and craftsman furniture or perhaps the use of water as natural falls, pools, and flowing sound. So it was: I sought medical advice and was directed to a laboratory for a series of blood tests. The laboratory was located in a medical plaza of low roofed structures. As I walked into the waiting room, I immediately recognized the architectural style, the latticed windows just above waiting room seats—built-in couches facing a brick fireplace. While the narrow windows stained amber afforded very low light, light tumbled into the waiting room through a central Japanese garden atrium enclosed in glass. Such a waiting room for a medical laboratory seemed entirely out of character, but it was, as I knew, the architectural design of Aaron Green influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1964. I would come to frequent this waiting room numerous times and would note over the years subtle changes that remade and distorted the original intensions of design and aesthetic, but these were changes of time and age and inevitable forgetting.

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House. Photograph by Mariano Mantel via Flickr.

You walk around the architectural model placed at the center of the large conference table and smile. You note the location of your future office with the insertion of a Japanese garden atrium. From above, you can see an open square in the low roof encasing a miniature maple, stones, and a pond embedded in moss. At the plaza center, a pharmacy is placed strategically in a pagoda, buildings graced with low eaves and convenient circling parking. You’ve driven up to San Francisco with your colleagues in your maroon Rolls Royce, enjoying the day and the pleasant ride along the coast up Highway 1. You exude a sweet confidence, your dress casual however smart, a red and gold silk scarf tied jauntily around your neck—your signature stylishness. Perhaps you, your doctor colleagues, the builder contractor, and the architect will dine in nearby Chinatown. You order for the group: Chinese chicken salad, roast duck, pork tofu, gai lan, bowls of steamed rice, beer for your companions, tea for you. Red lacquer and circling dragons swirl through the dining hall. You see yourself reflected infinitely in the surrounding mirrors, seated next to the architect as you discreetly suggest that you may be acquiring a mountain-side acreage; would he be interested in visiting the site?

Initially I was put off by the laboratory phlebotomist in charge, a commanding woman who seemed to bark out orders from behind the desk ensconced behind a half-door that served as a check-in station. Insurance card? Medicare? No doctor’s orders; who is your doctor? Are you fasting? Drink some water before you leave. What, no urine sample? Can’t pee today? Take this home, and bring me back some pee. Passing through the half-door, I realized she was a one-phlebotomist show—intake, paperwork, and phlebotomy all in one draw. That she managed this operation with efficiency and accuracy was a tribute to the job. She could slap my arm, tighten the rubber strap above the elbow, locate the vein, stick in the needle, and suck out my blood in five tubes in a matter of minutes. And despite all this, she remembered all her victims by name and likely our blood-types and disorders, and when in her infrequent absences, I truly missed her, those replacing her would commiserate with me. Ah yes, the general is on vacation.

Yet despite the general’s efficiency, I found myself on that first day sitting for perhaps 45 minutes in the waiting room with a pile of student papers, which I intended to grade in spare moments. Losing interest in student responses, I drew out the parameters of the space. The fireplace had ceased use, a potted plant in its altar, dark traces of smoke and ashes clearly smearing the brick within and above. The cubby designed to hold firewood was empty. I walked to the tall slabs of glass panes that served as the transparent wall to the garden and peered in. There was a pond with a small fall of flowing water and gold fish surrounded by grass and moss and flowering azaleas. A small maple shaded the area. And to one side was a bronze plaque set over a cement block imprinted with five names. Presumably the garden was a memorial to these names. Studying these names, I felt an uncanny awakening, a sudden sense of familiarity. I returned to my seat pressing a nervous palm into a slippery stack of papers and waited for the general to bark out my name.

You hike up an uneven path, the architect behind you. You point out trees and markers that designate the perimeters of the ten-acre hillside you’ve recently purchased. At some point in your trek, you turn around and look out toward the town below and the bay beyond. The view is spectacular that day, sunlight glinting off blue waves, the outline of the bay sweeping with lush clarity across the horizon. The architect nods with sympathetic pleasure, notes the southern facing direction, and agrees that this is the perfect open vista; no trees need to be cut or removed from this clearing. You will require a survey and structural engineering evaluations, but the architect imagines that retaining walls and foundation pylons to secure the structure to bedrock will pose no problems. The architect understands your intentions to create a home in concert with the living site, low to the ground and unobtrusive, bringing the natural outside into the gracious space of the home. You trade thoughts about your admiration for Frank Lloyd Wright. While living near Chicago, you’d admired examples of Wright’s homes; you admit your fascination for his architecture, bicycling through Oak Park and viewing the houses from the street, one by one. But you were a medical student and an intern in those days, and practical matters set you on a course away from your artistic pursuits. Your hobby has been furniture, following a craftsman aesthetic. Included in the plans, you’d like a carpenter’s studio separate from the house, a place to which you can retreat. You and the architect trade thoughts about the work of Isamu Noguchi and George Nakashima, but you demure, of course, yours is a hobby, something to pass the time away from your busy practice, your boisterous family.

I jumped to the general’s command, passed into the general’s quarters, and sat obediently at my designated seat. She peered, skewering her head toward my hanging face, staring into my eyes, and surprised me with her sharp query: Are you going to faint on me? I shook my head and woke to attention. I could not succumb to a dizzy spell at that moment if I were to discover the source of my malady. I thought that she must first draw my blood, and then, I could faint. Look that way, she ordered and pointed away from her needle, rubber hose, and tubes. I was offended; I had no such problem with the sight of blood. I purposely showed my strength and determination in this matter and caught her every movement with a purposeful fascination. I watched my blood syphon away into the general’s rubber hose, filling glass vials, one by one. By the last bloody vial, I knew the source of my discomforting remembering. The face of young woman rose in my vision, someone I had not thought of in more than 20 years.

Over time, you and the architect form a close relationship. He wants to see your furniture design ideas, incorporate them into the interior, and you’ve read about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship, prompting the architect to talk about his tutelage with the great master. The architect studied with Wright during the pre-war years, became a conscientious objector contending that his work with Wright was an important effort for democracy. He explains his keen enthusiasm for Wright’s philosophy of organic architecture, an architecture tied to natural space and the education of the individual. He spreads his initial draft plans over your dining table. Architecture with Wright was a calling, but when the war really began in 1941, the architect volunteered for the Air Corps. You bond over the Air Corps; both you and your brother volunteered to fly as well; your brother was a paratrooper in the war. You say your brother survived, came home, got his degree, then got back into training, but died only a year later, a jet pilot over Bavaria in ’51. You guess the war isn’t ever over. Democracy is a hard mistress. Your last stint was in Dayton, Ohio, at Wright-Paterson Air Force Base, in ophthalmology. When that was over, you piled the family, the wife and four kids and three cats and some of your furniture into a Volkswagen van and drove across country to Santa Cruz. Camped out for a while at your sister’s place, then started your practice. Despite everything—the war, prejudice, you believe that America has done right by its people, given you the opportunities your parents dreamed for. You peruse the ground plans surrounding the house—landscaping, swimming pool, garden with a pond and small fall. The architect asks if you know any Japanese landscaper or gardener friend with whom you’d like to work.

I remembered her exquisite beauty, perfect Eurasian features. It was 1976, the year I began my graduate studies in architecture at Columbia. I was in the elevator scaling the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to the top. Through the faces and bodies in that rising box, I spied her in the corner, shy but with a certain nonchalance and happy innocence. I followed her through the elevator doors and wandered after her at a careful distance. I lost track of time and purpose and spent an entire and long afternoon in the museum as if smitten. I had originally intended to view a particular Léger and perhaps a matching Picasso, carefully attempt to memorize the structural design of the building itself, and then to rush off to my afternoon class. Instead I wandered and lingered in rooms, leaned from various viewpoints to view the hanging Calder—a cloud platter of red blood cells turning silently, ponderously, and followed her slow snail descent to the bottom. She wore the jeans of the day, bellbottoms over boots, covered by an oversized heavy pink Irish fisherman’s sweater, hand-knitted I assumed. On her head she wore a worn brown leather cap, which at some point she pulled away. I remember gasping at the glorious motion of her thick hair falling in graceful rivers across her face and shoulders. I was at the time studying architecture with an emphasis on historic preservation at Columbia. That moment in the elevator followed by my circling decline through the museum was the beginning of a tumultuous and torturous year for me in which I seemed to have lost all sense of direction.

You follow the execution of architectural plans with the extreme precision of a surgeon. In your line of work, perfection is a requirement. From the structural integrity of the foundation to the application of a subtle shade of paint, you meticulously manage every detail. The architect and contractor are conciliatory as you are kind but assertive, even forming your commands as gentle requests followed by astute observations and independent research. That is to say, before you make your recommendations, you hit the books, study the matter, prepare with knowing. Your assumption of authority has been learned in the military, but of gentleness, trained at the hospital bedside. But there is another veneer not so easily interpreted. You were born into one of the few Japanese families in a small rural town in Montana. Your father came at the turn of the century, labored as a foreman to complete the Northern Pacific—Minnesota to Spokane, and one day made enough to pay for your mother’s passage, a picture bride. As you come of age, you and your family represent an enemy from a place you have never known. To compare the small tightknit fishing villages of your parents to the rugged mountainous cowboy town of your upbringing is to imagine a folktale about two distant and exotic lands. If only it were a folktale and not a navigation through territories of hatred. Within months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, you are aware that less than 200 miles away, across the border in Wyoming, 10,000 Japanese Americans evicted from the West Coast have been incarcerated in the same spectacular but desolate landscape in which you continue to be free. But it is a perilous freedom, especially for your immigrant parents designated enemy aliens. Thus every movement, every action, every facial expression must avoid trouble, anticipate a precarious future. Like any other kid from Montana, your older brother volunteers for the military. Your mother embroiders a thousand knots into a woven cotton belt that he obediently wears under his uniform, a protective talisman; so he returns but only to be killed in peacetime. You follow your brother’s path as if to complete what can never be completed, but you are driven to succeed. You skip lunch and drive from your practice at midday to see the rising stone escarpment, 650 tons of quarried Arizona sandstone, flashing a toothy grin toward the Pacific, a gesture of grandeur and place against a precarious future.

Sara_Stasi_UCSC Arboretum_2364320956_e928f2dea8_o

UC Santa Cruz Arboretum. Photograph by Sara Stasi via Flickr.

I followed her out the museum’s glass doors down Fifth Avenue to 86th where she disappeared underground and caught a train downtown. Impetuously and mindlessly, I hopped on and emerged at Astor Place, following her to Cooper Union and into a classroom that I immediately surmised as a drawing course. Conveniently, I removed a drawing tablet from my satchel, sat unobtrusively in the rear, and leafed past my architectural renderings, mimicking other students with pencil or charcoal in hand. To my thrill and distress, I saw the object of my pursuit, now robed, walk barefoot to a middle dais. The white silk kimono slipped from her body, and there she stood, sans pink fishermen sweater, sans jeans and boots and leather cap—my Eurasian Aphrodite rising. I drew frantically, lousy drawings, one after the other, a cubist montage of breast, nipple, waist, shoulder, buttocks, nose, pubis, and eyes, my heart racing, my mind a bubble about to burst, and all my sensations a loaded gun.

You host an open house. The architect calls a few days before delighted about the invitation. He asks if a writer for Architectural Digest might also be invited. The writer would come with a photographer. You generously agree. The day is perfect, though somewhat chilly, but this is Santa Cruz. Guests who arrive early are greeted with the full expanse of the bay and sit in the stone veranda watching the fading sunlight cast a quiet orange glow. Your wife has ordered catering for the event—large platters of sushi, barbecued teriyaki on skewers, elegant pastel petit fours, saké cocktails, and champagne. You’ve gathered your entire family. Your mother from Montana and mother-in-law from Illinois have both flown in to visit. Your two young sons run in and out of the house with their friends with abandon. Your two daughters, teenagers now, appear and disappear with their cadre of friends, nodding politely when asked about their individual bedrooms, choice of colors, and décor. You watch your wife as she becomes visible through the interior light beyond glass doors. The bubble of her blonde coif shines in a halo. You fondle the stem of a champagne glass and nod at the comments of the writer, but your mind wanders to the day you first met your wife, your initial insecurity; could you hope to win the heart of such a beautiful girl? It hasn’t been easy, the loss of your first son, but she has weathered every difficulty, growing more beautiful as the years pass. You have become the perfect couple, the perfect family, and this house itself is confirmation. The photographer weaves about, surreptitiously it would seem, pointing a Nikon, capturing the house and décor from every angle, backdrop for beautiful people. Transmitted over pool waters, you catch the waves of a distant argument, something about bombing in Vietnam, and you wander in that direction with a wide smile, wanting nothing to spoil this perfect evening. Your very presence dissipates disagreement, a change of subject, compliments about the house, and you Japanese really understand nature. You glance again toward the lighted fireplace where your relatives seem huddled with your mother apart. In another room, your wife is showing off her current project on the loom; she’s weaving natural fibers dyed naturally for throw pillows. You feel your heart might burst. Meanwhile, the architect is telling the story of his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright to a group of rapt listeners. Wright built for his second wife the house he named Taliesin on family farmland in Wisconsin. Tragically, while Wright was in Chicago, this wife and her children and four of his apprentices were murdered by the housekeeper, a man from Barbados, who also set the house on fire.

At the break, twenty minutes later, I rushed from the classroom to the toilet, stood inside a stall, trying to calm the shaking in my knees. I threw cold water on my face and stared at myself in the mirror unsure of my own reflection. During the course of three hours, I did the same at every break, but I could not tear myself away. At the end of class, I lingered, waiting for her to emerge from the dressing room. A young man entered the room, and sure enough, to my sinking heart, he greeted her clothed body, and together they left the building. By this time, it was evening, and a slight drizzle had wet the dark streets. I watched the couple under an umbrella merge and disappear into the crossing crowd in a blur of car lights and neon. Reflecting back on this day, this was the moment at which I should have simply returned to my apartment in Harlem and continued my studies at Columbia, but I was ensnared in a design with a destiny I felt sure I must pursue to know. To be brief about the ensuing year, foolishly, I all but abandoned my coursework and research and was placed on probation. I forgot and lost contact with my friends and colleagues; if they showed concern, I shrugged away their questions and kept my secret counsul. I cannot precisely or chronologically relate with any detail what I did or how I lived during this time. All I remember is that my fulltime occupation was that of a detective, self-hired and certainly unpaid to know the daily life and moment-to-moment whereabouts of that young woman. I admit that my curiosity was made of infatuation, but it was an infatuation without any idea of finality, that is of meeting or consummating a relationship. Late into the early mornings, I pulled sheet after sheet of architectural drafting paper over my drawing table and feverishly designed structures of every sort, engineered houses in lilied valleys or on craggy promontories, next to astounding waterfalls, under snow pack, among bamboo groves, in tropical and desert climates. As much time as I spent as a detective, I was also enmeshed in geographical, climate, and environmental studies, always concerned with aspects of natural space and local materials. I was astounded by the beauty of my designs, the organic interwoven nature of place and structure, and always, she hovered ghostly above myriad drafts, rising perfectly from a white silk kimono.

The last time you speak with the architect is over the phone. The architect’s voice tremors, then retrieves his confidence with an edge of anger. He wonders what Frank Lloyd Wright would say if he were alive? The Marin County Civic Center was Wright’s last project; he died in 1959 and never lived to see the final inauguration of the building. It was the architect who completed the work. Every aspect of the center—its spacious elegance, skylight roof over interior gardens, arched windows framing the soft rise of distant hills, innovative jail design, the carefully studied configuration of the courtrooms themselves—honored Wright’s desire for democratic space. But this: first, the hostage-taking in the center’s courtroom and the shootout, the deaths of the prisoners and the judge and now, bombing the courtroom. You’ve read in the papers that some group called Weathermen say they are responsible. You commiserate with the architect’s sense of confoundedness and outrage. Everything the architect and you believe in is being contested and turned upside-down.

At first I thought she led a charmed life, prancing around the city from art to dance class to photo shoot. For example, I managed to follow her into the New York art scene—art receptions and openings where the likes of Yoko Ono, Isamu Noguchi, Nam June Paik, or the young up and coming, such as Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, might be the featured artists or emerge among the invitees. Despite her youth, she moved with an easy grace among celebrity. Always fashionably attired, she wore designs both chic and elaborate with a casual body language that said, of course. Modeling for art classes turned out to be a side job she did occasionally as a favor to her former teachers at Cooper Union. Professionally, she worked with a prominent agency, and I was able to catch glimpses of her strut the runway, for Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent, Hanae Mori, and Stephen Burrows, to name a few. Despite her success, I followed her weekly to the office of a psychiatric therapist. I waited patiently for the hour to end and tried to discern the results of each session; I comprehended nothing. I clipped her photographs from Vogue and Elle, taping them to every inch of my small one-room studio. In the night, sleeping on an old futon, I could hear the tape peeling away with the bad paint job, the magazine photos fluttering to the floor like autumn leaves. One particularly snowy night, I entered my cold apartment, banging on the old lever of the radiator, and finally noticed gashes of blood-orange paint beneath the powder blue, scarring the walls, her colorful images scattered. I saw my breath in the cold air of that horrid old apartment and wept.

You stare at the man with the gun who can’t be much older than your eldest daughter, thankfully safely far away, studying art in New York. He accuses you of crimes against the environment. You think you recognize him, a long-haired fellow, but they are all long-haired these days; even you are letting your hair grow out stylishly. Perhaps he came to the office for a case of pink eye. He told you how much he liked the garden in the middle of the office, never seen an office with a garden. His eyes were so infected they were almost glued together in gunk, but he could see the garden. But, he said, you can’t live in a little garden like that; maybe the Japanese could, but anyway he lived in the forest up there in the mountains, lots of room and close to God, he said. Nothing artificial. You nodded in agreement. Japanese gardens are artificially natural, miniature vistas to create the sensation of distance and expanse. Gardening is an art. You were thinking about your father’s garden in Montana. He thought about this and said he liked his art original, wild. No stunted bonsai for him, but of course he’d never been to Japan. Neither had you, except for a short R&R at a base in Okinawa before returning to the states. Looking at your watch and into the crowded reception room, you knew you didn’t care to reply. He had no insurance, no money to pay. You waved him off, told the receptionist to make an exception. She looked up, and her eyes said, another exception. As the fellow left, the mail arrived, and your receptionist handed you a box with a small card. You opened the card: Doc, a small token of thanks for your handiwork on my cataract. Sure is great to see clear again. You handed back the box of See’s candies and pointed to the reception room, gesturing, pass it around. Perhaps it is not the same long-haired fellow, but you, your wife, your two sons, and the receptionist will die today.


Photograph by Karyn Christner via Flickr.

One day late in October, I scanned the Halloween paraphernalia decorating shop windows, the proliferation of jack-o-lanterns, witch hats, black cats, and skeletons along my route. I had affected a disinterested manner, gazing with feigned interest in odd directions, at window treatments or sidewalk displays. At this particular shop, I pretended interest in a skeleton mask, knowing she was passing on the sidewalk behind me. In all the time I followed her, our eyes never met, and I supposed she never knew or felt my presence. But this time, for some reason, she turned back to look my way, and our eyes met through that mask. I saw her disgust and terror. She stumbled away, walking hurriedly if not running into the underground. I abandoned the mask and followed with trepidation, chasing my sightline for her white trench coat, the slip of red and gold silk scarf trailing in the overheated draft of our descent. Surfacing at 86th Street, she walked quickly toward Fifth Avenue, fall colors of Central Park sparkling beyond. I slowed my pace, knowing her frequent destination. It was her habit to visit Magritte’s False Mirror, staring into that surreal sky eye. I should have anticipated this day, but I was obsessed with my own arrogance, my manic certainty of my own artistic genius, poet and prophet. That day, only I looked upward from the rotunda into the last rays of that October day streaming through the glass dome and saw her body tossed from the top of Wright’s magnificent nautilus, her white trench coat flapping, windswept black hair separating in silky strands, red and gold scarf fluttering along, passing the silent Calder, imposing an unusual commotion on those glorious clouds of vermillion.

Even though you were buried Catholic, you wander the past as a Buddhist. There is no extinguishing your anguish. The beauty of this place has betrayed you. After the murders and the fires, they rebuilt it all completely new again, but unlike your wife and your children, it returns no love, a temple of permanent and radiant beauty. A real Japanese has been hired to keep the gardens in a state of eternal beauty, constantly trimming and replanting, leaves and fading blossoms flutter onto rock and still water to form exquisite traces, never rotting. Koi flap about, red and gold and white, turning their bodies in chaos or moving gracefully in liquid silence. The bodies of you, your wife and children and associates lie beneath in the dark shoals where your blood pools like lead. One night in Indian summer, I climb the hill to your house and meet you there. In the tepid night, I see you shape-shift between father and lover, doctor and architect, artist and prophet. I guide you to the Rolls Royce, and together we syphon gasoline, spread it gallon-by-gallon at the most vulnerable corners of your beloved architecture.


Karen Tei Yamashita is professor of literature at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her novels include I Hotel, Circle K Cycles, and Tropic of Orange, and the forthcoming Letters to Memory (September 2017), all published by Coffee House Press. A 2016 interview with Karen was conducted in Boom California by Jonathan Crisman and Jason Sexton.

This is a work of fiction, however based on true events. With gracious thanks to Frank Gravier, bibliographer for Humanities at UCSC McHenry Library; Paul Shea, director of the Yellowstone Gateway Museum in Livingston, Montana; and Lucy Asako Boltz, research assistant.

Copyright: © 2017 Karen Tei Yamashita. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


A California Requiem

Dana Gioia

I walked among the equidistant graves
New planted in the irrigated lawn.
The square, trim headstones quietly declared
The impotence of grief against the sun.

There were no outward signs of human loss.
No granite angel wept beside the lane.
No bending willow broke the once rough ground
Now graded to a geometric plane.

My blessed California, you are so wise.
You render death abstract, efficient, clean.
Your afterlife is only real estate,
And in his kingdom Death must stay unseen.

I would have left then. I had made my one
Obligatory visit to the dead.
But as I turned to go, I heard the voices,
Faint but insistent. This is what they said.

“Stay a moment longer, quiet stranger.
Your footsteps woke us from our lidded cells.
Now hear us whisper in the scorching wind,
Our single voice drawn from a thousand hells.

“We lived in places that we never knew.
We could not name the birds perched on our sill,
Or see the trees we cut down for our view.
What we possessed we always chose to kill.

“We claimed the earth but did not hear her claim,
And when we died, they laid us on her breast,
But she refuses us—until we earn
Forgiveness from the lives we dispossessed.

“We are so tiny now—light as the spores
That rotting clover sheds into the air,
Dry as old pods burnt open by the sun,
Barren as seeds unrooted anywhere

“Forget your stylish verses, little poet—
So sadly beautiful, precise, and tame.
We are your people, though you would deny it.
Admit the justice of our primal claim

“Become the voice of our forgotten places.
Teach us the names of what we have destroyed.
We are like shadows the bright noon erases,
Weightlessly shrinking, bleached into the void.

“We offer you the landscape of your birth—
Exquisite and despoiled. We all share blame.
We cannot ask forgiveness of the earth
For killing what we cannot even name.”


*Dana Gioia, “A California Requiem,” 99 Poems: New & Selected (Graywolf Press, 2016).

Photograph by Matt Gush.

Dana Gioia is the ex-chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and Poet Laureate of California. He received an MA in comparative literature from Harvard University and has published five full-length collections of poetry between 1986 and 2016.


A Boom Interview with California’s Poet Laureate

Dana Gioia

Editor’s note: Having served as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009, Dana Gioia has long been known for his provocative essays, for his work in literary criticism, and especially for his poetry and advocacy of the craft. A native Californian born to Sicilian and Mexican immigrant parents in 1950 and raised in the southwest Los Angeles County industrial town of Hawthorne, as a first-generation college student, Gioia earned his BA from Stanford, MA in comparative literature from Harvard, and MBA back at Stanford, leading him into the business world decades before becoming a full-time writer.

With a seemingly ever-growing emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education in contemporary K-12 learning and in universities, a natural tendency has been to dismiss the arts and humanities as less important. This is as true in California as anywhere. And yet, as big questions remain and loom ever larger for California and its people, so does the importance of the arts and humanities for learning, for critical thinking, and for engagement with wider societal concerns. Consistent with California’s rich literary tradition, Gioia has contributed in many ways, with California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present (Heyday), The Misread City (Red Hen), his essay “Fallen Western Star,” and in poems from his many collections including Pity the Beautiful (Graywolf) and 99 Poems (Graywolf). Together with his essays, Gioia takes up the task of the poet, for whom California reserves a special place.

While the title of State Poet Laureate has been held by California poets for over a century, the position became official in 2001 and is overseen by the California Arts Council, which conducts an intense nomination process, after which the governor chooses the poet laureate from three top candidates; then the appointee must be confirmed by the California State Senate. On 4 December 2015, Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. appointed Dana Gioia to this role. What follows is Gioia’s accounting of his work as California Poet Laureate, originally delivered to the California Senate Rules Committee and here revised with new questions for our Boom readers.

You are California’s tenth poet laureate, serving a two-year governor-appointment. California has changed a lot over the years, as has the dynamic makeup of our state. What do you hope to accomplish in this role?

My goal as state poet laureate is to bring the power of poetry and literature to as many people and communities as possible across California. I especially want to reach people and places outside the major metropolitan areas. The state poet laureate should serve the whole state. For that reason, I have set the goal of visiting every county in California. Reaching all fifty-eight counties in two years perhaps may be too ambitious, but it seems the right target. With proper planning and the active partnership of county libraries and art councils, that goal should be achievable. I will give it my best effort.

What are your plans to reach diverse regions and people in the state?

I want to reach all California. Our state is so large and varied that one needs to be systematic in covering the vast territory and meeting the diverse populations. That is why I have chosen the approach of trying to visit as many counties as possible. Of course, it will also be necessary to do multiple events in the metropolitan areas to reach different audiences. This second goal is easier since so many invitations come from urban areas. The key is to focus on invitations that reach different communities.

Why is poetry significant, and why does it matter in today’s society?

Poetry is our most concise, expressive, and memorable way of using words to describe our existence. Poems awaken the imagination and memory to make us more alert to life. On both an individual and communal level, poems provide the language, ideas, and images to help us understand ourselves, our society, and the world. That is why poems are so often used to great effect at public occasions. They give people the words to articulate what they experience and feel. That is also why poetry has always been used in education. It not only develops a student’s mastery of language; it also enhances creativity, empathy, and emotional self-awareness.

One of the functions of the California Poet Laureate, as with the United States Poet Laureate, is to create a cultural project during the appointment. Could you briefly describe your cultural project? How has it come to and involved artistically underserved communities?

My project has been to participate in at least one cultural event in every county in California—with a focus on creating a free event at each county’s public library. This approach is necessarily simple and flexible, then, and the events are either primarily literary or combine several arts, including poetry. In both cases, I have and will continue to involve local students, writers, musicians, and artists in each visit. I have already had local Poetry Out Loud high school champions participate in my public presentations and will continue to do so. By trying to visit every county, my public service, by definition, focuses on underserved communities.

You teach in the university, but how does poetry become accessible rather than a mere academic pursuit for cultural elites?

I have spent most of my working life outside the university—in business, government, and journalism. I believe the pleasures and enlightenment of poetry are open to most people, not simply to an academic elite. Although I take myself seriously as an artist, I don’t see much point writing in ways that exclude the average intelligent person. Art without an audience is a diminished thing. This is one reason why I have been and plan to continue working with local civic institutions, especially libraries and art centers—local venues that are open to everyone. They are the best avenues to reach a broad and diverse audience. Mixing poetry with music and the other arts also makes events more accessible to the average person.

How do you see poetry connecting to the minds of individuals in leadership and innovation throughout California, in both public and private sectors?

I have been and will continue to be open to invitations to meet and speak with leaders in both the public and private sectors. I have both held and have scheduled several talks at statewide or regional gatherings for librarians and high school teachers, with one for county officials. I also believe that our state finals for Poetry Out Loud in the Capitol building allows our elected representatives a chance to see the transformative power of poetry programs in the lives of students in their districts.

Do you plan to collaborate with your predecessor, Juan Felipe Herrera, now the US Poet Laureate, or the State Librarian of California Greg Lucas, or any other government group

It is impossible for me to be an effective state poet laureate unless I collaborate with arts councils, libraries, schools, parks, museums, and city book festivals. As chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, I learned how much could be accomplished through partnerships. I consider myself a member of the State Arts Council team, and I involve them in everything I do. I am currently working with Greg Lucas to find an effective way of partnering with county libraries to help reach my goals. His support is essential to my success. As for the US Poet Laureate, I have also already done two public events—in Sacramento and Los Angeles—with Juan Felipe Herrera and have an invitation out to him for a third event in partnership with State Parks.

Who among our California poets do you believe have had the greatest influence in California?

California has an extraordinary poetic tradition. When I led an editorial team to create the anthology California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present, I found it challenging to limit our selections to only 100 poets. If I had to pick a central poet for the state, I would choose Robinson Jeffers. His vision of California’s landscape and wilderness has inspired three generations of writers, artists, and environmentalists. There has also been a great bohemian tradition with writers such as Kenneth Rexroth, William Everson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Charles Bukowski. I also admire the great Theodor Geisel of San Diego, better known as Dr. Seuss. Among my favorite living California poets are Al Young, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Ron Koertge, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Kay Ryan. Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Award winner Ryan, who also served as US Poet Laureate, is probably my favorite living American poet. A master of ingenious, short poems that mix wisdom and surprise, she is California’s answer to Emily Dickinson.


Dana Gioia is the ex-chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and Poet Laureate of California. He received an MA in comparative literature from Harvard University and has published five full-length collections of poetry between 1986 and 2016.


Lying in Plain Sight: La Jolla’s Assemblage of Religious Art

Rick Kennedy

On 8 September 2016, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the cross on Mount Soledad in San Diego, which may be the most litigated religious symbol in America, is here to stay. Set aside for a moment matters about separation of church and state on the coast of California and specific features that were part of the recent controversy, and an opportunity emerges to reflect on the role of the Mount Soledad cross in La Jolla’s larger assemblage of religious art, which includes University of California, San Diego’s Geisel Library, Snake Path, and the neon Virtues and Vices.

Assemblage is the art of proximity. Objects that individually evoke one meaning or experience when put in proximity to other things can change or expand that meaning or experience. Assemblage art can be a flower arrangement, a collage of images framed on a wall, or the placement of buildings or sculpture in artistic relationship to each other. Few people notice that in 1992, Alexis Smith, one of California’s most famous collage/assemblage artists, pulled together her grandest assemblage by uniting two buildings and the cross with her Snake Path on the ridge above La Jolla.

The Snake Path that unites the work was the last part constructed. The first was the cross on Mount Soledad; at 824 feet, it stands as the highest promontory on the coast that sits south of Orange County’s San Joaquin Hills. At 422 feet, Point Loma rises only half the height of Mount Soledad; and further north, Palos Verdes rises only a quarter the height (220 feet).

La Jolla was a bit of a bohemia before settling into its wealth. Molly McClain, a historian at the University of San Diego, quotes Ellen Scripps describing La Jolla as “a woman’s town.”As a progressive colony, it was friendly to spiritualists, scientists, theosophists, painters, and poets. But bohemia symbolically gave way to mainline Protestant culture when in 1913 a large wooden cross was placed in a reigning position on Mount Soledad. In 1954, the wooden cross was replaced with the twenty-nine-foot-tall concrete cross of mid-century modern design drawn by a prominent local architect named Donald Campbell. Like many of the coastal enclaves founded by progressive-minded, university-trained folks, La Jolla has a long history of racism, especially against Jews and East Asians. As a kind of post-1960s university-town backlash against its racist history, La Jollans, concerned about civil rights and separation of church and state, started in 1989 what became a long-standing ruckus demanding that the cross be taken down. Like all good art, the work is too meaningful. It communicates too much too well.

The UC San Diego library opened in 1970 and is a stunningly sculptured building. Its shape has become the UCSD brand image, designed by California’s most famous mid-century modernist, William Pereira. His work on the California Bight includes the initial designs of University of California, Santa Barbara; University of California, Irvine; the Malibu campus of Pepperdine University; the urban plan of Irvine; and the unfulfilled island plan for Santa Catalina Island. His most iconic buildings in California are San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid, the spider-like Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and UCSD’s central Library. Describing his design for the UCSD library, Pereira said he was sculpting a building inspired by hands joined at the wrist, fingers spreading wide, “holding aloft knowledge itself.”2

How did the library turn from cupped hands into the tree that is now the image most often associated with the library? Pereira thought up the cupped hands, and it fit his mental conception of a university; however, the site of the library screams trees to those who visit and listen. UCSD was built in the midst of a large forest of eucalyptus trees, and in 1983 the Stuart Collection of public art commissioned Robert Irwin’s Two Running Violet V Forms, an installation designed to enhance the experience of UCSD’s eucalyptus trees. A few years later, one of Robert Irwin’s students from when he taught for a short time at UC Irvine, Alexis Smith, was asked to produce another installation for the Stuart Collection. Irwin and Smith had studios near each other in Venice where, in the decades after World War II, a new artistic bohemia gathered that shared many ideas about how to think about art and themselves as artists.

Robert Irwin wrote in 1985 about how a sculpture should be “conditioned/determined” by its site. “This means,” he wrote, “sitting, watching, walking through the site, the surrounding areas…the city at large or countryside.”At UCSD, Irwin sat, watched, walked, and understood that it was the forest of eucalyptus trees that would determine his work. In the same way, Alexis Smith would have felt the same thing sitting, watching, and walking around the library, which itself in turn became conditioned and even determined by the trees; and the library as a tree—the tree of life, the tree of knowledge—would then condition and determine the Snake Path.

Another aspect of their thought was that an artist needs to get out of the way of art. Irwin in the late 1950s and 1960s became very interested in Zen Buddhism and went so far in his anti-individualist notions of art that he stopped signing his paintings. Art must increase, and the ego of the artist must decrease.Sharing in these artistic ideals, Alexis Smith, in a 2010 interview available on YouTube, says that she thinks of herself as a novelist who lets a story lead her rather than the other way around. She wants art to reveal itself through her work. The meaning of art, she declared, should be cultural, not personal. She tells viewers that she is not interested in herself or what she thinks. In her work as an assemblage artist, she works within the “pool of cultural information,” the stories that cultures carry through time.In the video, she talks specifically about the small-framed assemblages she creates; but at UCSD, she tapped into the great tradition of a snake at the center of Western culture’s religious story of sin, disease, health, salvation, and redemption.

To those of us who visit the UCSD library, the Snake Path sucks everything around it into its narrative. Deep culture calls out in a religious tableau of tree, snake, and granite statue of a book marked clearly as Paradise Lost. That Smith so obviously calls visitors to John Milton’s classic story of the birth of sin and sickness also demands, artistically, a fuller story of the tree in Eden being linked to the cross on Golgotha. Get above the eucalyptus trees that encircle the Snake Path in the upper floors of the library and the Mount Soledad cross rules the skyline. Tree and cross, in the deep literary culture derived from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, there are types and antitypes that link history together. Early on, soon after the death of Christ, the stories of tree and cross were linked as antitypes: through the tree of disobedience in Eden came sin and death, and through the cross/tree of obedience on Golgotha comes salvation and life. Add to this someone standing at the end of the snake’s tail and looking away from the library is staring directly at another piece in the Stuart Collection: Bruce Nauman’s Vices and Virtues, the seven-foot-tall neon banner finished in 1988 that wraps the Charles Lee Powell Structural Systems Laboratory with Christianity’s seven vices and seven virtues. The snake’s body, then, links artwork about humanity’s ethical choices to the ultimate choice of disobedience or obedience at the snake’s head and in the distance on Mount Soledad.


It is significant that Smith inscribed a quote onto the granite oversized sculpture of Paradise Lost that stands, encircled, half way up by the snake’s body. The quote offers some meaning to the whole assemblage: Then Wilt Thou Not Be Loth To Leave This Paradise, But Shall Possess A Paradise Within Thee, Happier Far. When my students—and probably most passers-by—read it, they usually assume this is what the snake says to the biblical character Eve and believe that it is a promise to individuals about finding happiness—but it is not. In Paradise Lost, an angel says this line to Adam in a manner that draws in all creation. The quote on the book sculpture, then, hints to the cross on Mount Soledad off in the distance. This quote comes at the culmination of Milton’s epic when the archangel Michael tells Adam about the future coming of Christ and the eventual salvation of all creation. The angel Michael tells him of the redemption of the Earth:

…for then the Earth
Shall all be Paradise, far happier place
Than this of Eden, and far happier daies.

Adam then declares, speaking for himself and all who follow him, his final speech:

Greatly instructed I shall hence depart.
Greatly in peace of thought, and have my fill
Of knowledge, what this Vessel can containe;
Beyond which was my folly to aspire.
Henceforth I learne, that to obey is best,
And love with fear the onely God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend,
Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deemed weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek; that suffering for Truths sake
Is fortitude to highest victorie,
And to the faithful Death the Gate of Life;
Taught this by his example whom I now
Acknowledge my Redeemer ever blest.

Did Alexis Smith in 1992 plan to use the Snake Path to link the engineering building to the library in the context of the Mount Soledad cross? Maybe. By her own standards, it does not matter what she thought. The Mount Soledad cross is the dominant work of art that towers over Smith’s Snake Path. If Smith sat in, walked, watched, and listened at the site, then the cross, the library shape, and the Vices and Virtues might have consciously or unconsciously conditioned/determined what story would be artistically told on that site without her fully knowing it. A novelist can set up a story without knowing its ending or its full meaning. The La Jolla ridge itself might demand something about which an artist has only an inkling. Whatever the initial consciousness, we can recognize today that the La Jolla ridge has inscribed into it a massive work of religious art on the California coast. Although today it is hard to see all four parts from the ground, the whole assemblage is readily visible to airplane pilots, UFOs, angels, and anyone with access to Google Earth. Maybe it is best to think of this assemblage as a grand quadrapartite-geoglyph, bigger than the ancient Blythe Geoglyphs in the desert near the Colorado River and the ancient Serpent Mound in Ohio. However one thinks about it, we should recognize that the cross on Mount Soledad has a larger role as religious art than merely proclaiming Protestantism’s supposed cultural dominance over La Jolla.


1 Molly McClain, “The Scripps Family’s San Diego Experiment,” The Journal of San Diego History 56 (2010): 17.

2 James Steele, ed., William Pereira (Los Angeles: University of Southern California, 2002), 148.

3 Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries: With Essays by Hugh M. Davies and Robert Irwin (San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2008), 180.

4 Lawrence Weschler, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 41–85.

5 “Alexis Smith – Revealing Art in the Studio – The Artist’s Studio – MOCAtv,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VsNvgj8k8A (24 October 2016).


Rick Kennedy is a professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. Educated at UCSB, mostly under cultural and architectural historian Harold Kirker, he recently published The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Eerdmans).


Seeing California through the Semicolon

Jason S. Sexton

California has many official symbols: the state flower (poppy), the state fruit (avocado), the state tree (California redwood), the state animal (the erstwhile California grizzly), and others. We do not have a punctuation mark; perhaps we should.

The semicolon represents California as much as anything. It marks something of a conclusion, but not an entire one; a semi-finale to what precedes, while keeping the forgoing near, lingering, remaining; and yet the same continuum yields to new insights, new horizons, new possibilities. Not closed, but open.

Californians are not worried about this lack of closure. We can move forward with the past somewhere back there; we know that where we are is not the end or the beginning—we’re in-between, trying to hold onto something of what’s gone before, but knowing that what’s coming contains more of the point; we sit suspended but aren’t bothered by it. We shrug at the lack of finality.

Boom: A Journal of California is also experiencing a semicolon moment. With this issue, the sixth volume and print subscription run of Boom comes to an end; but the critical, timely, important conversations we’ve cultivated have just begun. The new Boom California will be a free online publication with articles that promise to continue to reframe our vision, adjust our views, and change conversations—conversations that matter not only to California but to the world.

The challenge of sustaining the printed page is real all around. In Boom’s case, as a University of California Press publication, the journal sounded off with a major grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund a strategic initiative in California Studies. The $722,000 award supported the creation of this journal and aimed to support this emerging field. The experiment raced quickly through the grant in six years (perhaps sooner), and the challenge of blending the academic with the public-facing was not always (and is still not) easy to do, trying to blend reflective journalism and beautiful art with serious refereed academic scholarship. We believe California still warrants this, and perhaps now as much as ever.

Over the last six years, we had some fantastic issues: on water innovation and scarcity; on California’s role in the Pacific world; on California in the world and the world in California; on the problem with San Francisco; on deep hanging out; on religion in California; on California prisons; and many more. Now we wish to open these conversations to the wider world, making all of our previous content free at http://boom.ucpress.edu. Meanwhile, we still wish to write for those who read; we wish to find our readers, California readers. We also wish to find our writers—courageous souls writing this place, mapping it, resisting. It may take more courage to write and read California as the rest of the country shifts from the ideals we share as Californians, which may require ongoing mapping, and increased levels of courage.

Along with Boom, a number of new and courageous voices have arisen who are writing about California in interesting, effective ways. Doug McGray’s award-winning The California Sunday Magazine carries captivating stories of California and beyond. Their partner Pop-Up Magazine also blazes a new path, with live shows on stage in different venues blending music, readings, visual displays of video art, and sometimes well over-the-top performances. There’s Tom Lutz’s LA Review of Books, which has taken the West Coast world of the literature review by storm. LARB really is a worldwide publication, and largely a book review site, accompanied by other creative print media and essays, but nobody has the California beat there. Steve Wasserman just landed back into his hometown Berkeley from his time at Yale University Press in New England, almost as if back from exile. While keeping Heyday’s presence in the Bay and LA he brings a kind of strength and chutzpa that fittingly builds on the strong shoulders of Malcolm Margolin, opening conversations in California to the world beyond in ways that fittingly commence the second chapter of California’s quintessential publishing house.

Add to this the environmental historian and my predecessor at Boom, Jon Christensen, with his timely new Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS), an incubator for new research and collaboration on storytelling, communications, and media in the service of environmental conservation and equity. With LENS (https://lensmagazine.org/) Jon and others advance important interdisciplinary questions of how we tell the stories of this place and will be important to watch. At Zocalo Public Square Joe Mathews and Gregory Rodriguez bring the kind of provocative reflection on California (and other cultures) that standard journalism simply doesn’t deliver, connecting the past to the present. The late Kevin Starr also was beginning to draw from a deeper, even religious reading of early forms of California, as shown in his recent book on the early American colonial experience, Continental Ambitions.

In the last issue of Boom, we reckon with this place and those creating it. The essays are largely autobiopic, showcasing the lives of ordinary Californians; in many cases, these lives are extraordinary. Inside this issue, some of the best California writers wrestle with loss and memory, finding one’s self, and coming of age, and the stories they write help us locate ourselves. We learn the ways of Californians, and of countercultural movements and figures who make their way, critically; seeing and yet not seeing all there is to see; becoming and yet not quite fully becoming, or even fully finding. Yet still, they help us see—their steady pens have delivered many essays helping us to reckon with this place, writing stories we all see ourselves in as their dilemmas become ours, whether we knew before that they should be or not.

After this issue, closing out the volume, Boom transitions to a revamped free and exclusively online publication at www.boomcalifornia.com. For further events and conversations, we hope you will also follow us on Twitter (@BoomCalifornia) and Facebook as we turn our focus toward California social issues and seek to cultivate underrepresented writers in the California landscape, amping things up a bit with our peer-review refereed remit.

The new Boom California may yet evolve into something in print, with the most significant articles eventually being steered for longevity in the reader’s paradise of the physical printed page, which we all love, sitting beautifully on the shelf at home; stay tuned for that. But all of Boom’s work will immediately be published online, and at a steadier pace than the quarterly print format allows. The majority of our readers appear to be online already, and we look forward to meeting you there.

With the same mission it had under the capable hands of Carolyn Thomas, Louis Warren, Jon Christensen, and Eve Bachrach, Boom aims to continue to see this place. We aim to offer readers a thoughtful and provocative look at the most vital social and cultural issues facing California and the world beyond, we will seek to cultivate the most timely critical conversations happening on or about California, which touch the heart of our identity, and help us to critically address our past, present, and future. Among many things we’ve learned throughout these six good years of having dinner party conversation pieces served up to us each quarter, we’ve learned that California simply cannot be what it is without us and our stories. And so we look forward to you joining us in the semicolon, and evolving with us in our ongoing reflection on this wonderful place.


Jason S. Sexton


Jason S. Sexton is a lecturer in the honors program at California State University, Fullerton, and a visiting fellow at University of California, Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Religion and Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law and Society; he is the editor of Boom.

Photograph by Matt Gush.


Seeing California Vol. 6, No. 4



Read the latest from Boom, Volume 6, Number 4.  All articles from Boom: A Journal of California are free and open to read.

(p. iii)

From the Editor’s Desktop
Jason S. Sexton
(pp. 1-3)

Boom List
What to do, see, read, and hear this winter in California
Boom Staff
(pp. 4-5)
California, 1980
David L. Ulin
(pp. 6-9)

From the Green of Vietnam to Toes Painted with Nirvana
Susan Straight(pp. 10-15) Seeing Through Murals
The Future of Latino San Francisco
Lori A. Flores
(pp. 16-27) A Boom Interview
Kevin Starr
(pp. 28-33)

Through the Heart of California
Seeing the “other” California through a relief map
Alex Espinoza
(pp. 34-38)

State of Being
Envisioning California
(pp. 39-51)

Between Journalism and Fiction
Hunter S. Thompson and the birth of Gonzo
Peter Richardson
(pp. 52-61)

The Smell of Gold
Passing time on the Yuba River
Caitlin Mohan
(pp. 62-69)

A Boom Interview with California’s Poet Laureate
With “A California Requiem”
Dana Gioia
(pp. 70-73)

Lying in Plain Sight
La Jolla’s assemblage of religious art
Rick Kennedy
(pp. 74-79)

Anthropologist as Court Jester
Civil disobedience and the People’s Café
Nancy Scheper-Hughes
(pp. 80-91)

What Does It Mean to Become Californian?
D.J. Waldie
(pp. 92-98)


Boom Receptions and Readings in February

Come out this month to meet some of our writers and join us for a celebration of the final print issue of Boom as we transition into the digital world as part of the resistance. We’ll be rolling out the issue over the next few weeks at http://www.boomcalifornia.com, but the final print issue is available here for free (http://boom.ucpress.edu/content/6/4), although a select number of issues will be available gratis at each event with the purchase of one of our authors’ books.

Readings will be held both in San Francisco and Los Angeles on the following days:

Wednesday 15 February, 7:30-9PM, DaDa Bar @ The Mechanics’ Institute, 65 Post St, San Francisco, 94104. Please RSVP here.

Tuesday 21 February, 7:30-9PM, The Last Bookstore, 453 S Spring St, Los Angeles, 90013. Please RSVP here.

We hope you can make it to one of them!



A Boom Interview: Kevin Starr

Kevin Starr

Editor’s note: Narrator of the desires that gave California rise and the experiences of countless Californians, Kevin Starr has written the most comprehensive account of the place. A native son and fourth-generation San Franciscan, he chronicled the dream while living it. His California Dream series tells the story of the American state’s rapid, monstrous growth, along with its struggles, dips, and dodges from moments that could have snuffed out the dream and utterly snubbed the dreamers. Reckoned by some as tending more to tales of optimism and swashbuckling heroism amidst the troubles—in true glass-half-full California style—both Starr’s personal and literary approach to California are actually much more variegated and complex. Between writing the first and second volumes of a new series some call his magnum opus—the first volume titled Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America: The Colonial ExperienceBoom editor Jason Sexton recently managed to catch up with Starr. In this interview, we see the personal side of this historian—addressing religion, values, and matters of public concern—including his wide-reaching polymathic abilities that enable his unique kind of magisterial interpretation of the golden state. With ongoing reflections on the place—its past, present, and future—here we see Starr chronicling his own place in California’s ongoing saga, living even more meaningfully into the reality of the dream. This interview was conducted by Jason S. Sexton.

If you had to choose, what are three values that matter most to earlier shapers of California?

I frequently use the phrase “a better life for ordinary people.” That, I think, sums up the top three values motivating migration to California: life, the improvement of life, the ability of ordinary people to achieve such improvement for themselves. That is the theme of most of my volumes, or at the least, the background to those volumes, since I frequently concentrate on extraordinary people coming to California as well.

What do you think are the biggest threats to those values today?

The growing divide between the very wealthy and the very poor, as well as the waning of the middle class, as expressed geographically in California by the global wealth of the coast from San Diego County to Marin County and the rapid socioeconomic falloff evident in certain interior regions.


How have your views of California changed over the years?

As I grew older and a little wiser, I became more connected to what the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno describes as “the tragic sense of life.” My first volume is only tangentially connected to this tragic sense of life, while the volume dealing with recent California, Coast of Dreams, seems almost obsessed with it. That is because the present is exactly that: present to us in all of its complexity.

What is the main goal of the historian? And how do you see your work fitting together with the other guild of California historians?

It is the task of the narrative historian such as myself to assemble a narrative of what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls Representative Men and Women, and to place such figures in the context of their times, and thereby create a pointillist-realist probe into the past.

You never went through the tenure track route in academia, opting for an entirely different track altogether. Was this a good move? Do you have any regrets about it?

I am very proud of my diverse services as an Army officer, a senior tutor at Harvard, a librarian/civil servant, a newspaper columnist, a magazine contributor, a communications consultant, and the writer of a number of histories. As Paul Anka wrote for Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way,” thanks to the support of my wife Sheila and my commitment to the education of my children and grandchildren.

People have called you a booster and an optimist, classically juxtaposed to Mike Davis,but my first intro was reading how you accounted for my own story. So I checked for your handling of Tracy, I checked for the homeboys and the matter of mass incarceration—and you had it! And it was troubling. You told things as if you were there, but you managed to not completely fall into the noir California. You kept things sunny. What would really make you despair for California?

As far as I’m concerned, despair is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Given the ordeal of the world in general, Californians would be grossly self-indulgent to afford themselves the dubious pleasures of noir instead of committing themselves to what Josiah Royce and Carey McWilliams describe as the struggle for corrective action.

Californians have serious amnesia. What do you hope to accomplish with drawing from the deepest visions of this place, even back to the conquest?

As a graduate student at Harvard supported by a Danforth Fellowship, I had the opportunity to read somewhat extensively in the history and literature of the United States and, thereby, to come to the conclusion that a fusion of forgetting and remembering, amnesia and obsession with the past, is characteristic of our entire American civilization and not just California.

On the Boom board, we have a number of figures committed to efforts to revive nativism, what about the Native Indians here is critical to sketching California’s future?

One of the pleasures of my decade of service as State Librarian for California was the opportunity to get to know the various components of Native American California and to respect the complex cultural consciousness of these First Californians, from whom we continue to learn to this day. If you want to find an example of Unamuno’s tragic sense of life, just look at the way we treated those Native Americans in the nineteenth century: which is the theme of Helen Hunt Jackson’s great book, Century of Dishonor.

What is a Californian, and can you describe the character traits of a good Californian?

I have always approached the history of California as part of the history of these United States. I, therefore, resonate with the remark of my friend the late Wallace Stegner that California is like the rest of America, only more so. I grew up in California, a fourth-generation Californian; but I discovered California as the theme for history as a graduate student at Harvard, which meant that I perceived this history from a national and comparative perspective. Lately, my thinking has taken a comparable Asia/Pacific and Latin American direction.

You used to sign your books saying that the best Californians are those who choose to come here. Is this still true?

I still adhere to that belief. After all, I was born in 1940, when California had slightly less than seven million people. Today, that figure has become something like forty million and counting. I was born into one of the states of the American Union. By the time I was in my sixties, I was living in a nation-state of global significance. Today we are all living in a nation-state that is the sixth largest economy on the planet. Talented and hard-working people from around the globe have come to California to make this happen.

I recall asking you in 2013 why you didn’t write historical theology. This book—Continental Ambitions—where did it come from?

In Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America, the Colonial Experience, I employ the same narrative technique that I use in my Americans and the California Dream series: a blend, that is, of the nineteenth-century American historians, Vernon Parrington, Van Wyck Brooks, Perry Miller, and Alan Heimert, under whom I did my doctorate at Harvard. I would describe this technique as pointillist-realist narrative, animated by an underlying and continuing dialectic that only rarely surfaces in an explicit manner.

Does the conquest sweep in the same way that California’s modern history does? Has California been a microcosm of the US even in the earliest images?


The long history of California—Native American, Hispanic, American, global—simultaneously shows discontinuities of growth and development and continuities of continuing aspiration. Certain basic paradigms continue: land and water, for example, continuing through the mining era, the agricultural era, the era of urbanization through dams, aqueducts and reservoirs; or the interaction of nature and technology; or a pursuit of pure science anchored in nineteenth-century astronomy. I am not suggesting cause and effect here but, rather, paradigms that repeat themselves.

What role do churches play in the California drama, in the past and today?

As is the case with the rest of America, religion—as a matter of imaginative and moral formation, language and metaphor, and guide to the good life—has played a most important part in the development of American California. Until very recently, we must remember, Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King and Catholic Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra represented California in the National Statuary Hall in our nation’s capital.

And how did the reformation, coming on its five-hundredth anniversary, help shape any of this vision?

Protestantism dominated the colonial era, the early republic, the nineteenth century, and the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Whatever one’s religious traditions may or may not be, this Protestant matrix goes a long way in helping us to understand our national culture—hence, the importance of the Reformation and Protestantism in the formation and emergence of our national character.

You’ve written that California grew up innovatively as both a religious and secular state, which my students are always surprised to hear. And your work famously revised Hubert Howe Bancroft. But do you think the religious and secular can continue to work together? Or does the runaway tendency of secularism prove nonconducive for the flourishing of all groups here?

I do not accept this disjunction between religion and the world, or the world and religion, in the American experience. The first 150 years of American California showed a strong presence of organized religion as a social and cultural catalyst. Thanks to our separation of church and state, we Americans remain capable of rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. These days, the great religions of the world have brought to America and to California their transformative insights. As a force, religion remains in the private sector, but as Mark Twain said of the mistaken newspaper reference to his passing, the reports of the demise of religion as a force in American life have been highly exaggerated.

What role does faith play in your work and writing, both earlier and now? And how would you describe your relationship to the Church?

As far as my relationship to the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, I am proud to be a member in reasonably good standing of this 2,000-year-old faith community. I share this distinction with 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. As James Joyce said of the Catholic Church: here comes everybody!

Will you ever write your own memoir? Especially your own “becoming Kevin Starr” years from your early professional life, along with the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s? Some have identified the novel Land’s End as filling this role. Is this true?

I don’t think I would ever write a memoir. In a very real way, my books constitute a kind of memoir or at the least some form of documentation of my inner landscape. I’m not one for much introspection. I prefer to define myself through family, friends, community, and the act of writing. I do, however, plan to augment Land’s End, expanding it to a full narrative of the life and death of Sebastian Collins, who constitutes the closest I’ve ever come to an alter ego.

Catholic social teaching informs a lot of Jerry Brown’s rationale for big decisions he’s making in Sacramento; how does it inform your own work?

As you suggest, Governor Brown has successfully internalized Catholic social thinking. Like Governor Brown and thousands of others coming of age in Catholic San Francisco, I absorbed this tradition as well. In later life, I had the pleasure of discovering Monsignor John Ryan’s classic The Living Wage, which further solidified my thinking in this area. I have also been influenced by John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, emphasizing fairness. As a graduate student, I had the honor of being a member of the Leverett House Senior Common Room at Harvard when Professor Rawls was writing this magisterial book. Other influences on my social thinking—especially relevant to public service—have been the Analects of Confucius, Cicero’s De Officiis, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Lord Peter Hennessy’s recent Whitehall.

What do you make of Pope Francis?

During my lifetime, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have served as popes. Each of these men was remarkable in differing and shared ways. Two of these popes—John XXIII and John Paul II—have been raised to the altar as saints. John Paul II was an eminent philosopher, with an ability to project himself as an ecclesiastical rock star. Pope Benedict XVI continues his work as one of the leading Catholic theologians of our recent era. Pope Francis shares many traits with his predecessors, to include a capacity for off-the-cuff commentary in common with John Paul I. Like John XXIII, Francis projects warmth, accessibility, love and friendship. Like John Paul II, he is a tireless traveler. The images that come to mind when I think of Pope Francis are the photographs of him embracing the truly afflicted. As pope, Francis has de-imperialized the papacy.

What are the movements in California that you find most hopeful, either for the future of California or else for the future of the US and the world?

I ride DASH to the USC campus on the days I teach. The movement I love the most is the movement of the DASH bus filled with human beings of every age and occupation from every corner of the earth riding to their day’s work.


Susan Moffat, “Dueling Prophets of Next LA: Mike Davis Sees Murky Decay, While Kevin Starr Embraces Shiny Optimism,” Los Angeles Times, 19 November 1994, http://articles.latimes.com/1994-11-19/news/mn-64521_1_mike-davis.


Kevin Starr (1940-2017) was for many years a California historian and a professor at the University of Southern California. He received a Ph.D. in English and American literature at Harvard University and published such works as the multivolume series Americans and the California Dream.