David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Yesterday’s California. By Russ Leadabrand, Shelly Lowenkopf, and Bryce Patterson. Miami: E. A. Seeman Publishing, Inc., 1975. Illustrations. 272 pages. $14.95.
Reviewed by Andrew Rolle, Cleland Professor of History, Occidental College. Among his published works is the well-known California: A History (1969).
The history of no state has been so plagued by popularization as that of California. I use the term “plagued” because our people deserve a growing sophistication in their historians. Here we have another of those popularizations in the lengthening parade of books about California. Publishers continue to foist these volumes upon unsuspecting readers who have also been seduced by television.
In this case, Yesterday’s California samples history by the use of photographs. The book contains 511 historical photographs, engravings, and maps in an oversized format. It presents some rare photos of the missions, the mining country, farming, ship building, airplane production, and the motion picture industry. But other symbols of the past remain undeveloped and uninterpreted in such books. The technique is to employ editors who caption each picture with material mined from the work of more substantial scholars. The result is a slick (really fuzzy) product such as the “western history industry” continues to grind out year after year. Totally disregarded are pollution and brutalization of the environment, racial and class tensions, poor governmental leadership, and all those negative factors that the booster-mentality would prefer to forget. Nostalgia and sentimentality is their substitute for reality.
Too many publishers, meanwhile, peddle this form of non-sophisticated historical pablum. The cliches remain masked by gorgeous photographs and facile editing. Furthermore, newspaper reviews pander to such books, usually labelling them as “beautifully designed and lavishly illustrated.” The deprived reader comes to rely upon a type of history once suited to simpler days when California’s problems seemed primitive and easily solvable.
One can argue that the lay public would never read history of a scholarly sort. Popularizers say that what readers want is (in the words of this book’s dust jacket): “a positive expression of those older days, and with all manner of personalities ranging from Herbert Hoover, Howard Hughes, and Shirley Temple to Upton Sinclair, John Muir and John Steinbeck.” The book boasts that it presents “the broadest spectrum possible of heroes and celebrities.” Uncritical newspaper reviewers will surely applaud, promote, and merchandise such reveries.
George Bernard Shaw once said that if we give the public what it wants long enough it will want only what it has been getting. That is the kind of “progress” that historical journals, colleges, universities, and other centers of learning ought not to encourage.
Reflective of its tone and substance, the book has no index or bibliography. Finally, the caption for the picture on page 54 (bottom) belongs at the top of page 55 (the San Francisco skyline is not the “Central Terminal Building.”)