California: Land of New Beginnings. By David Lavender. New York: Harper and Row, 1972. Bibliography. Index. Maps. 464 pages. $10.00.
Reviewed by Donald A. Nuttall, Associate Professor of History, Whittier College, and author of several articles on Spanish California.
In California: Land of New Beginnings, prolific David Lavender, adding yet another volume to his already impressive list of works on Western America, has produced a 430 page narrative which traces the Golden State’s past from prehistoric times up into the early 1970s.
Lavender’s book differs from the type of California history to which we have grown accustomed, for rather than comprehensive, it is selective in its treatment. Lavender views California’s development as essentially the product of constant growth, nourished by an unbridled exploitation of natural resources, motivated by a get-rich-quick philosophy and promoted without regard for potentially disastrous consequences. And in his “account of a beautiful state’s reckless rise to gigantism,” it was that particular story which he primarily strove to relate.
The effective and thought-provoking manner in which he realized that objective constitutes Lavender’s major contribution. Culminating his basic theme in the last two chapters, he draws a picture of California in the 1960s and 1970s which is both unpleasant and frightening, as he describes and analyzes the numerous developments and conditions which have arisen to plague the state. Constant population growth, massive water projects which threaten ecological disbalance, smog, the product of Californians’ almost obsessive reliance upon the automobile, racial and other problems of inner-city ghettos spawned by the flight to proliferating suburbs, student unrest and riots on university and college campuses, and a “recreational stampede which brings overcrowding and pollution to natural beauty spots are among those upon which he elaborates.
A California resident since 1938, Lavender obviously is fond of his adopted state, but he also clearly is disturbed by its present condition and somewhat pessimistic with regard to its future. Those feelings are, of course, shared by many other Californians of long-standing who have personally experienced the profound transformation of their environment during recent decades.
The most conspicuous attribute of California: Land of New Beginnings is readability. Lavender writes in a narrative style which should arouse the envy of most, and the history which flows from his pen is realistic and exciting. Once taken in hand, his volume is difficult to set aside.
In creating his popularized version of California’s history, however, Lavender employed devices which some might call into question. Sensational content often seemed to be the criterion utilized for selection of topics to be treated. The seamier side of most subjects usually is that exposed to the reader. And Lavender found it difficult to ignore the physiognomy, the physical size, particularly if it was exceptionally large or small, the physical and mental defects, the illnesses, no matter how sensitive, and the moral lapses of individuals. His book, as a result, sometimes takes on the character of a historical gossip column.
Lavender’s work contains two features which might draw criticism, but it must be issued with care. His major emphasis is upon five themes which are most relevant to his central purpose, the cores of which are what he calls the “dynamics” of gold, oil, land, transportation and water. As a result, economic matters dominate his story. Politics generally enter the narrative only when they impinge upon the principal themes, and readers interested in intellectual-cultural history will find little to satisfy their curiosities. This limitation may disturb some, but it should be noted that Lavender simply provided no more than he promised.
A distinct disbalance of space allotted to chronological periods also is apparent. Lavender extricated himself from the nineteenth century with difficulty, not essentially doing so until page 329. Fifty-one pages of narrative remain when the Great Depression of the 1930s is reached, and only thirty-three pages are devoted to the post-World War II years. This circumstance resulted from the fact that while Lavender’s principal themes are woven into more traditional and detailed treatments of earlier periods, they later are brought into sharp focus with all non-essentials eliminated. Much of significance in California’s recent past is absent, but once again no breach of intellectual contract is involved.
Lavender’s book, however, is irrefutably and seriously flawed by its frequent errors of historical fact. Lavender possesses a commendable grasp of the general contours of California’s history, but his scholarship often lacks the depth necessary to fill in the supportive details with precision and accuracy. This weakness, as well as misspellings of Spanish words, was particularly noticeable to this reviewer in the Spanish period, his area of specialization, but it also was apparent in the Mexican and American periods. In the belief that no good purpose would be served, examples of the detected errors will not be cited. The compiled list, however, will be made available to interested individuals upon request.
Lavender, in sum, has written an extremely readable and interesting book which this reviewer is pleased to have in his Californiana bookcase, and which he can enthusiastically recommend to those knowledgable enough to recognize its shortcomings. To the unitiated, it can be commended only with reservations.