California: The Vanishing Dream. By Michael Davie. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1973. Illustrations. Index. Notes. 272 pages. $7.95.
Reviewed by Neil Morgan, columnist for the San Diego Evening Tribune and Copley News Service, and author of Westward Tilt, The Pacific States and The California Syndrome.
This is another view from abroad. It is stylishly written and offers the fresh perspectives that a competent journalist is expected to bring to the task. Unfortunately they are already out of date.
Davie drops in at the State Capitol on Jesse Unruh, leader of the Democratic opposition. He discovers a commune of homosexual actors in the Haight-Ashbury. Strolling around the Esalen Institute at Big Sur, he wonders if he has stumbled over an intellectual’s successor to Aimee Semple McPherson’s cult. At the Los Angeles Times, he asks Nick Williams who runs Los Angeles, and Williams puts him off with a gloomy, “No one.” He settles for it.
Without seeming to recognize it, Davie has run afoul of the most basic truth about California, the one which makes the state intriguing and still, perhaps, significant to the future of America and the world. It is a truth which must be understood to understand California. It is simply this: California is both cause and result of a unique accelerating process.
In a closet off my study is a two-foot stack of California issues of magazines both living and dead, for some of which I share blame. The hysteria to make journalistic snapshots of the American future in California peaked in the 1960s. Teams from Life and Look took turns racing about the state buttoning down their pet behaviorists, their pioneer industrialists, their golden youth, their free lovers, their seers of the new age.
It was not their fault that the stuff reads so poorly today. That is the risk of the trade, and that is why historians yield the recent generations and their times to journalists. Everybody who wrote the California journalism of the 1960s was presumably sincere, and at least some of us tried to follow the standard set 140 years ago by Alexis de Tocqueville, that brilliant Frenchman who did such a superb study of American institutions in his classic Democracy in America.
De Tocqueville came on a specialized mission to study what was then a phenomenon in forms of government. Democracy in America was intended to advance the role of the people in their own government while curing excesses of power and strengthening individuality.
He has served as a model for many, including Davie, who is deputy editor of The Observer of London. But Davie spent most of his time in California from three to five years ago, following many of the same trails and seeing many of the same contacts that had been worked during the 1960s by American journalists.
To read a California issue of Look or Life from a decade ago is to know immediately that this state has changed its directions dramatically. To read even Davie’s observations of California is to be fixed with nostalgia. That place is gone. Esalen has become a pop consumer package. The Haight-Ashbury has crashed of its own weight. Jesse Unruh has long since left the halls of the Capitol and run a distant third in the race for mayor of Los Angeles. Nick Williams has left the Los Angeles Times to be near his grandchildren in Trinidad on the northern California coast, and besides, he would not have been likely to answer Davie’s question because his principals and the Committee of 25 really run Los Angeles.
But Davie should not fret. If he is like most of us, he will blame his publisher for delaying so long in getting his words into print. And he can comfort himself with looking back at a ten-year-old special supplement of the New York Times with these breathless headlines:
IN CALIFORNIA, CHILDREN GROW A LITTLE BIGGER AND STRONGER.
MIGRANTS TO COAST SHAPED AMERICA OF TOMORROW.
Remember when such claims were articles of our faith? Not that we have foresworn such foolishness today. When the world tired of hearing about California’s new age, it was offered imminent cataclysm and ate it up. The destruction of California by earthquake became a fabled folkway.
So what should a visiting journalist seek out today, if his readers are sated with earthquake scares, freak-outs, and nude encounter groups?
The accelerating process has moved the concerns of the moment, if this piece is not too long delayed in print, to other matters. Zero Population growth approaches at a rate so rapid that demographers doubt their charts. With the virtual halt in in-migration to California, some sense of community emerges within a classically vagrant society. It is restless, militant, and unawed by an establishment of changing faces. Trends still surface sooner and swing wider in California.
The most recent mark of the Californian is his proprietary concern for his setting, rather more than for his society. This places him at once in the mainstream and at the vanguard of American concern. Again the nation may watch California to see if something novel can work.
I’m writing a book about it. But I’m doubtful of getting it into print before California veers off again.