California: A Bicentennial History.
By David Lavender. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History and New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976. Bibliographic essay. Illustrations. Index. Notes. 243 pages. $8.95.
Reviewed by Donald J. Pisani, Department of History, San Diego State University.
This book is one of a series of state histories published jointly by W.W. Norton and the American Association for State and Local History. The collection, issued to commemorate the bicentennial, boasts many distinguished contributors. For example, Bruce Catton wrote the history of Michigan, Elting and Elisabeth Morison prepared the volume on New Hampshire, Louis B. Wright surveyed South Carolina’s past and Joe B. Frantz put together the Texas story. Certainly, David Lavender was a good choice to write the California history. His many works on the American West include an earlier survey of California and biographies of two of the state’s leading figures, banker William Ralston and railroad baron Collis P. Huntington. Lavender writes well, with a discerning eye for those dramatic incidents and telling anecdotes that appeal to a broad general audience.
Unfortunately, the professional historian will not find much new in this book. It is not based on fresh research, nor does it provide a new interpretation of California’s past. Historians are already well served by Walton Bean and John Caughey’s excellent textbooks and while there is always room for new syntheses, this book does not match the originality or suggestiveness of older surveys such as Carey McWilliams’ California: The Great Exception.
In his opening chapter, Lavender notes that several important physical characteristics have marked California’s history. These include the state’s size, wealth of natural resources, geographical and geological diversity, range of temperatures, absence of precipitation between April and November, I I stunning variety of recreational settings,” and-until the air age-isolation from the rest of the nation. These natural conditions posed a series of fundamental problems including how to provide an adequate transportation system to link distant parts of the state with each other and the nation, how to adjust the state’s social, political and economic institutions to accommodate the rapid influx of settlers and fortune seekers, how to cope with the yearly six or seven month “drought,” how to amass the capital needed by local industries and how to attract a labor force. These problems made Californians “more self-reliant than ordinary frontiersmen” but also attracted a ” corrupt flood of opportunists who had little interest in the state’s future.” In such an economic arena land, water and transportation monopolies stifled the development of stable urban and rural communities. And, Lavender suggests, many features of life in California today — ranging from the unusually high geographical mobility of its residents to the diversity of political and religious convictions — have roots in the state’s early history.
These ideas are familiar to specialists in California and Western history, but no recent study explores them systematically. Unfortunately, Lavender organized his history chronologically rather than conceptually so “telling the story” took precedence over an analysis of broader themes. Moreover, because of the book’s short lengthdoubtless a limitation imposed by the publishers-the story itself often appears sketchy. For example, two of California’s most important water schemes-San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy project and the Boulder Canyon project on the Colorado River merit only two pages and there is no discussion of the impact of California’s chaotic water laws on patterns of land use.
A book of this length and format cannot be comprehensive. But a conceptual organization would have presented Lavender’s main ideas more forcefully. For example, in different chapters the author devotes considerable attention to the growth of monopolies in California, an important theme. He discusses some monopolies that will be unfamiliar to most readers, including Judge Levi “Bulkhead” Parsons’ stranglehold over the warehouses and docks along San Francisco’s harbor during the late 1850s. The battle to control the port-and indirectly much of California’s trade-pitted Parsons’ corporation against merchants in the state’s interior counties as well as the citizens and government of San Francisco. This conflict ultimately led to creation of a state board of harbor commissioners and symbolizes the struggle between private enterprise and public control so common in the 19th century American West. But transportation monopolies were important for many other reasons as well. Sixty pages later, Lavender returns to this theme in an excellent discussion of how improved techniques of transportation and manufacturing contributed to California’s unstable economy. Monopoly, “trade agreements” and the use of cheap immigrant labor-particularly the Chinese and Japanese-helped to mitigate the effects of “industrial warfare.” Combinations like the California Fruit Growers Exchange were just as important as the better knovvn railroad monopoly and they were part of an organizational revolution that culminated in the growth of labor unions and new political parties.
The careful general reader will learn much from Lavender’s book. But the historian will regret that the author’s obvious talent was not better used by the publishers.