California, An Illustrated History. By T. H. Watkins. Palo Alto: American West Publishing Company, 1973. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index: 543 pages. $19.95.
Reviewed by Andrew Rolle, Cleland Professor of History, Occidental College. Among his published works is the popular California : A History (1969).
I am not as impressed by the various picture histories of California and of the American West as are reviewers for popular journals and newspapers. Seldom innovative, except as to photography and accompanying art work, these books borrow notoriously from the work of more worthy researchers. Indeed, these latter-day “histories” remind one of nineteenth century scissors-and-paste eulogies. This book is a step up from the procession of “picture books” that inundate booksellers and which confuse-the lay public; but one must call attention to the deficiencies of the species.
A major supposition of recent books on California and the American West has been the uncritical assertion that physical growth and energy have been a source of strength. This premise should no longer go unquestioned by professional historians. Yet they too have not looked very seriously at despoliation of the environment. Like the popularists, trained scholars tend to foster the myth that economic expansion remains a primary goal of a culture.
In a section entitled “The Dance of Growth” the author does have some second thoughts about extolling boosterism. But he seems hardly to realize that his book also highlights a phantasy history that generally equates bigger with best. Only tangentially does he acknowledge that California’s accelerated expansion does not mean that growth has either been healthy or desireable. Such a congratulatory interpretation of history is dated. It continues the bias of those journalese panagyrics of the 1960s when transient Life and Look reporters pontificated about California’s “explosive futurist lifestyle.” These magazines also commissioned local raconteurs who should have known better (including Irving Stone) to see about them men who also matched California’s mountains. In actual fact the state has suffered from poor political leadership with which to confront the awesome problems that have accompanied nascent mass growth.
Like other histories, this particular work treats California’s past from its IndianSpanish period to the present. The hide and tallow trade, gold rush, politics, economics, and some social problems are presented. But to label unoriginal research “the great book of California,” as does the publisher’s blurb, is arrogant, in fact unbelievable. This is a beautiful and readable book but not a profound and original one.
If we must have popularized history for the layman, may it be by those researchers who also write clearly and well. Such a breed long ago replaced the turgid Hubert Howe Bancroft. Remember Herbert Eugene Bolton, Robert Glass Cleland, and Charles Edward Chapman? Their non-pedantic successors do exist; these are the authors who should be commissioned by the “western history industry” publishers. Lay authors who intrude romantic and sentimental popularizations between the uninstructed public and original researchers serve to water down the final product. I do not prefer books which end with the sentence: “Californians still carried the light of tomorrow in their eyes, which was only as it should have been in the land of the Sundown Sea.” One must leave it to uncritical newspaper reviewers to promote and merchandise such writing.