The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1996, Volume 42, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

The Island of California: A History of the Myth.

By Dora Beale Polk. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. 399 pages. $15.00 (paper). Bison Book facsimile reprint from the original “Spain in the West Series,” Vol. XIII (Spokane: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1991). Buy this book.

Reviewed by Harry Kelsey, Huntington Library Research Scholar and author of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo.

For a century or so after 162O, many maps of the world depicted California as an island. In a world of geographical puz­zles, the blunder was not a very important one. Most people who had access to maps could not have put their finger on California, or do much else with this bit of misinformation. California was simply too far distant from everything that was vital to the European world.

Even so, the idea of California captured the fancy of liter­ate Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, much as it does today. It became and remained associated with the search for a Terrestrial Paradise, one that the gentlemen explorers of that era liked to fancy was inhabited solely by women, who were waiting impatiently for their arrival.

Dora Beale Polk, who is professor of English at California State University, Long Beach, has strung together all that she could locate in print referring to the California myth, particularly the myth that California was an island. Very few important sources escaped her notice, though some of the references seem more pertinent than others. In her work, professor Polk has in­cluded lengthy quotations from explorers and early writers, and a few words from twentieth-century authors as well. In fact, it sometimes seem that every second page contains another long passage in someone else’s words. Readers who do not like long quotations will soon discover that it is possible to skip most of them without losing the sense of Dr. Polk’s colorful narrative.

All of the comments quoted from exploration journals are taken from modern printed translations. None of the work seems to be based on original manuscripts. On the other hand, the fifty or so maps all appear to be reproductions of originals (except for the Gastaldi map on page 172, presented as a sketch because the original is so difficult to decipher). In the first edition of the book, the maps were printed with marvelous clarity. The copies in the present Bison Books edition are not as good.

Readers looking for information about San Diego will find only a few scattered references to the port discovered by the early Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and visited by his Spanish successors. But those readers who want a lot of information about the California myth will consider their fifteen dollars to have been well spent.


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