David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Essays and Assays: California History Reappraised. Edited by George H. Knoles. San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1973. Illustrations. Notes. 132 pages. No price listed.
Reviewed by Matt S. Meier, History Department, University of Santa Clara, author, with Feliciano Rivera, of A Bibliography For Chicano History (1972), co-author of The Chicanos: A History of Mexican Americans (1972), and co-editor of Readings of La Raza: The Twentieth Century (1974).
This volume grew out of the Stanford University Institute of American History, which on February 27-28, 1970, held a conference to celebrate 200 years of California history. At this meeting papers were presented on a wide range of California historical topics by nine outstanding scholars. Their purpose was to provide fresh perspectives on the history of a state that has had such well-known chroniclers as Theodore Hittell, Josiah Royce, Hubert Howe Bancroft, Charles Chapman, Robert Cleland. and John Caughey. In a wide ranging search for historical insights into contemporary problems the essays look at the history of the Golden State from the viewpoint of present-day concerns like ecology, population expansion, economic development, minority relations, and social and political reform. In “The Californian and His Environment” John W. Caughey starts off the volume with a concise description of the impact (and degree of damage) upon the land of the three principal groups that have inhabited the state: Indians, Spanish-Mexicans, and Anglo-Americans. The task he sets for the future is to develop for our society a value system that will permit us to live in harmony with nature. In a related essay, “Brutalizing the California scene,” Andrew Rolle chalks a cultural scoreboard for California and finds that while our state may indeed be number one in home ownership, passenger car registrations, retail sales, agricultural production, research, etc., we Californians are not doing so well in libraries, art galleries, music, historical societies, etc. Condemning our failure in the past to implement plans to save our environment, he ends the volume with a fervid plea for orderly development in the future rather than our continued blighting of both man and his environment. Walton Bean in “Ideas of Reform in California” traces political and social reform on the left and on the right as a theme in California history from the early 1850s down to Ronald Reagan and concludes that the lesson of history is that extremism on both ends of the political spectrum has often discredited and destroyed reform. Whereas Bean looks at reform in a broad chronological survey, Donald Fehrenbacher in “The Mexican War and the Conquest of California” makes a very interesting comparison and contrast of the historical interpretations of a narrow time period by both Mexican and American historians. He concludes that acquisition of California was the ultimate objective of President Polk’s policy toward Mexico.
In “The Beginnings of Agriculture: Innovation vs. Continuity,” Rodman Paul argues that the California agricultural experience was more like the earlier frontier experience of the “old” midwest than unlike it. He recognizes that while there clearly was considerable continuity in crops grown, there was important innovation in the method of California’s attack on the problems of traditional midwestern agriculture in a semi-arid environment. On the other hand, Gerald Nash’s “Stages of California’s Economic Growth, 1870-1970: An Interpretation” suggests that California’s economic development has been innovative and has paced the rest of the nation by about one generation and that this growth has produced social and environmental problems which also have been in the forefront of the rest of the United States.
Moses Rischin in :Immigration, Migration and Minorities in California,” like Nash, sees California as a pacesetter rather than simply an illustration of national trends. In his look at the implications of immigration for California history he finds that it has led to a sense of rootlessness, of anomie that Nash also sees. He makes an excellent case for the overwhelmingly important role of immigration and migration to California in all aspects of the California historical experience—including architecture. In “California Architecture and its Relation to Contemporary Trends in Europe and America” Harold Kirker reinforces and expands this view of Rischin by arguing that California architecture is, and has always been, surprisingly colonial in nature rather than a response to the state’s environment. This interpretation seems to directly oppose Nash’s concept of California the prototype—at least in the field of architecture.
Earl Pomeroy’s “California’s Legacies from the Pioneers” differs from the other eight essays in that it deals substantially with the role of the Spanish-Mexican pioneers as well as the Anglo-Americans in California’s early historical development. Unlike some of his colleagues, he finds in his topic a considerable degree of historical continuity from these earliest settlers coming north from Mexico in 1769 to the latest easterners coming west from Iowa in 1970.
These essays, then are highly interpretive accounts of California’s history in its various phases as seen by nine outstanding California historians. Having the advantage of ranging widely in their presentations, from California’s Indian days to the ecological crisis of our times, they present a valuable view of our state’s history in a comparative fashion. The result is a series of interesting broad interpretations, by the nature of their origin more oral than literary in style. From them the reader can learn much California history; from them he can especially obtain an understanding of the overwhelming importance of immigration and migration to so many aspects of California’s history. Unfortunately, in this volume the reader will not be made aware of the important role of Mexican immigrants and their descendants in the economic and social history of the Golden State.