Kathy Olmsted: California... Yesterday and Today





[Kathy Olmsted is a history professor at UC Davis.]

Wallace Stegner famously said that California is like the rest of America, only more so.  But when did he say it, and in what context? Yesterday I tracked down the original quote, which appeared in an editorial Stegner wrote for a special Golden State edition of Saturday Review magazine in 1967.

The references to Max Rafferty, Ronald Reagan, and Gary Snyder may seem dated, but in many ways the essay describes the California we know today:

If the history of America is the history of an established culture painfully adapting itself to a new environment, and being constantly checked, confused, challenged, or overcome by new immigrations, then the history of California is American history in extremis.

Like the rest of America, California is unformed, innovative, ahistorical, hedonistic, acquisitive, and energetic – only more so.  Its version of the Good Life, its sports, pleasures, and comforts, are increasingly copied by the envious elsewhere.  It creates an art and literature as nervous, permissive, and superficial as itself.  It has its own intensified version of the Brain Drain, borrowing both ideas and the men who generate them.

It borrows from everywhere – in nothing is it so American….

The hippie aberration, which anyone with a sense of history has to see as a newer, younger variety of romantic bohemianism, is only one response – an overpublicized one – to California’s extreme permissiveness.  It is common for immigrants to try to mold themselves to the new conditions, with a desperate yearning to be in, to belong.  But when the new condition is as unstable as a dust devil or a strobe-light happening, then many immigrants are going to be thrown back on the conventional and the known.  The more experimental and permissive the moral, artistic, political, and social Left, the more the Right backs up in its ruts, high-centering itself on attitudes hallowed by the example of Ulysses S. Grant and Mrs. Grundy….

It will be tragic if social order and stability are imposed by the Raffertys, the Reagans, and the lockjaw right of Orange County.  It could be equally unfortunate if the Gary Snyders succeed in their aim of leaving not one value of the old order standing.  In the experimental society everything is permitted, but not everything works.  When that discovery is made, the society has tempered innovationism with tradition, even convention.

Meantime, California is a state in which it is at times almost intolerable to live.  I know people who are moving out rather than rear their children here.  Yet other places, by comparison, seem lesser, smaller, duller, less promising, less exciting.  For this is indeed where the future will be made – is already being made, with all the noise, smog, greed, energy, frequent wrong-headedness, and occasional greatness of spirit that are so American and so quintessentially Californian.




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