California: The Great Exception by Carey McWilliams

Mitchell Schwarzer

Featured in:

11: Design and Class


Two centuries ago, California was one of the most remote coastal stretches in the world. Today, lit by the fluorescence of television and motion pictures, the state’s landscape has become globally recognizable. Innovator of pop-culture phenomena and lifestyle happenings, California can easily lay claim to being the pomp in the world’s circumstance. The July 19, 1999 issue of the New Yorker reports that the Harvard Business School set up a research center in Silicon Valley to study the region’s extraordinary entrepreneurship, because “California is almost like an ecological lens, like the Galapagos: infinite variety and specialization.”

In Carey McWilliams’s California Groove

Uncanny California is a global gesture. Over the last century and a half, millions have emigrated to the Golden State from all over the world and created a society that is dynamic, idiosyncratic, and desperate. Through the waters of the Golden Gate, the tarmac at LAX, the I-5 corridor leading north from Tijuana, and the great Sierran passes of the deserts to the east, migration and displacement have been constant. Such upheaval vexes both the newly arrived and the long established. Nonstop growth has prevented any particular cultural mix from congealing or any stable identity from hardening. Here, the abstract concepts that drive other societies break down. Up to the moment when the bloody sunset is obscured by fog, we keep believing that the maddening contradictions of California will resolve themselves and assume the distinct shapes of a civilization. But it never happens.

Then the sun’s up, and we notice the directness of the light and the sharpness of the sky, the patches of blue bobbing and weaving with low clouds, the fragrance discharged by native and exotic plants. A new spectrum of color unfolds, green masquerading as brown or yellow or gray, red and violet renouncing sameness and producing superior hues. No matter where you are, on the coast, deep in the desert, or on the edges of the Great Valley, the land too seems to imagine higher things, dragging itself upward, rising through chaparral, oak grasslands, redwood forests, often soaring into granite peaks. Over the course of its history, writers, painters, naturalists, and architects have sung the praises of this land. At the same time, California’s natural environments have been stretched, manipulated, and eradicated by ruthless and relentless economic predation. Driving along the freeway and glancing between the center median of flowering oleander and the Botts dots separating the lanes, I get the idea that nature is the otherness that frames the ordinary moments of life, yet one that can tear us out of those moments and cause us to question whether we are looking at life from the wrong end.

From the Gold Rush that began in the late 1840s to the current Silicon Frenzy, California has proven difficult to pinpoint, a last world whose commentators seem convinced they must propel beyond any expected definition. In 1959, Wallace Stegner famously remarked that “California was America only more so . . . the national culture at its most energetic end.” A decade earlier, Carey McWilliams wrote that “Californians are more like the Americans than the Americans themselves. . . . For California has always occupied, in relation to other regions, much the same relation that America has occupied toward Europe: it is the great catch-all, the vortex at the continent’s end into which elements of America’s diverse population have been drawn, whirled around” (63, 83-84). These prophetic words are from California: The Great Exception, published in 1949, the 100th anniversary of the Gold Rush. In this book and other writings, such as Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946), McWilliams provided one of the most perceptive interpretations of that unpredictable spectacle called California.

Half a century later, pinpointing California hasn’t gotten any easier. Astonishing changes have occurred. The image of California as a land of dreams has been replaced by the dystopic view of the place as a nightmare of progress run amok—of the Hell’s Angels rampage at Altamont, of Charlton Heston in The Omega Man driving through the empty streets of a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, of the Dead Kennedys belting out California Über Alles. In 1949 there were hardly any freeways. There were 13,700,000 people. Today there are 33,000,000 people and counting, far beyond McWilliams’s prediction. Subdivisions spiral out of control. Valley after valley of orange and apricot orchards is torn up, graded, and covered in concrete, lawn, or golf course. The endless boom tolls heavily as traffic congestion and skyrocketing real estate mark the high cost of too much paradise.

Over the past five decades California has more than ever defined the edge of today and the middle of tomorrow. It has created the figures and trends that shape the nation’s ratings-dictated culture. The list is long—Hollywood, most TV, beatniks, deadheads, Trekkies, Burning Man, surf music, psychedelia, hardcore punk, NWA, Esalen, Chez Panisse, aged merlot, McDonalds, ranch dressing, The Gap and Esprit, the new VW Beetle, American submarine-launched ballistic missiles, Pachucos, gay rights, the Black Panthers, Patty Hearst, the People’s Temple, Charles Manson, the Free Speech Movement, Cesar Chavez, Jerry Brown, Ronald Reagan, and the Aryan Nation. Disneyland opened in 1955 and ever since has overgrazed the lands of fantasy and entertainment. Personal computers, once the exclusive faith of a few nerds in the Santa Clara Valley, are now becoming the basis for global commerce and culture. In light of all this, it is fair to ask: Is McWilliams’s premise of California as the great exception truer than ever?

In many respects, McWilliams was prescient. Continuing an analysis begun in his Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Labor in California (1939), McWilliams’s observations of the hidden world of migrant farm workers, a sub-culture of low wages and high exploitation, still ring true today. Nor are the swinging and swaying politics of the contemporary state so different from those of the past. McWilliams argued that political machines and party regularity were negligible factors in a land where the large number of newcomers promoted social disunity, and he noticed that California was prone to libertarian political innovations, eerily similar to the later corralling of local government by Proposition 13. Finally, McWilliams’s censure of “the lack of candor, the occasional double-dealing, and, above all, the reliance on brute power, which have all too frequently characterized the region’s quest for water” (316) still resounds.

Some situations he did not foresee. Nowadays, forest fires are understood not simply as a problem to be prevented but also as a necessary part of the ecosystem. The once-powerful labor movement has declined, as have the wartime and Cold War industries and, especially, San Francisco’s great port. McWilliams acknowledged the huge role that land speculation and propaganda have played in California history, yet curiously devoted little attention to motion pictures or the real estate industry, both of which contributed mightily to the imaging of the Golden State worldwide. Likewise, he underplayed the isolating culture of the automobile and suburban ranch house, never “dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage,” as did Allen Ginsberg in his 1956 poem “A Supermarket in California.”

“California has not grown or evolved so much as it has been hurtled forward, rocket-fashion, by a series of chain-reaction explosions. [The] lights went on all at once, in a blaze, and they have never been dimmed,” Carey McWilliams told us (25). Such turmoil leading to an eccentric and specialized culture is central to any understanding of the evolution of California.

Looking back, McWilliams traced California’s fleet-footed race toward innovation and the offbeat to the Gold Rush, when a motley group from all over the world converged on the territory almost overnight. What had been a semi-feudal society of mission, presidio, and small trading villages became an energetic industrial economy powered by instant cities like San Francisco and Sacramento. Although most prospectors envisioned returning home after amassing a fortune in the mines, many found that their ideas of themselves and of California and America had changed over the years. Getting rich was one thing, living well afterward another. Impressed by the easy life possible on the cattle ranches and even more by the endless business possibilities, a great many miners stayed on. As McWilliams convincingly argued, the culture they created in the frenetic decades after 1849 has marked the character of the state ever since.

In 1949, McWilliams saw the Gold Rush—free mining for anyone who could survive the arduous journey west—as the first and last opportunity for the average man to get rich quick. Since pretty much everyone was new to the game, no experience or connections were needed. Since new strikes and claims were occurring all the time, an even playing field always lay over the next ridge of hills. McWilliams judged the most influential aspect of the Gold Rush to be the fact that miners worked for themselves. The small claims system—one miner to one claim—eliminated wage labor. Why would people work for someone else, if they could make untold amounts of money shoveling for themselves? Individuality and the pursuit of riches thus became bedfellows in early California, just as individuals would eventually click alone in the California-inspired Internet gold rush of the 1990s: free mining of information for almost anyone who can afford to pay the rent, and untold riches for those who prospect a

McWilliams got it right when he argued that the explosive staggers and lurches of the Gold Rush would become the template for the evolution of a distinctly Californian culture. No other state has spent as much time reinventing itself and experimenting with new products. Mining inspired agriculture and oil exploration. Then came land development, movies, wartime and aerospace industries, lifestyle production, computers, and all the while, tourism. In California, people understand there are things after things. The state’s economy takes shape on its outer crust, from the corrections, innovations, and reflections that ping and ricochet on cell-phone conversations, redwood-deck ruminations, and “epiphanies.”

McWilliams understood that no other state has sustained an almost-continuous yet constantly mutating series of economic booms. Growth and innovation have been the norms, not the exceptions, of the California experience. As he wrote:

Great significance attaches to the circumstance that, unlike other frontier societies, California learned to talk while it was still young. The uniqueness of its experience, in other words, was captured before the experience had ceased to be. The difference is that between an experience recaptured in memory, with all the distortions which time can work, and an experience caught up and immortalized while it was still being enacted. This difference has had the most important latter-day consequences. For it has given to the Californians a sharp, vivid, unforgettable image of this unique society, and this image has in turn influenced their subsequent behavior. (59)

Unlike most other parts of the country, where extensive agricultural settlement preceded industrial development, the reverse occurred in California. Settlers moved into California and never really stopped moving.

If, as McWilliams saw it, California developed an understanding of itself as a society in nonstop motion and creation, it is worth adding that over the course of the 20th century this self-consciousness mutated into other arenas. At first, dynamism, in the standard sense of American history, resulted mostly from the conquest of land, the wresting of minerals from the earth or production of food from the soil. By the 1890s, however, when the American frontier seemed to have run out of land, California began to manifest dynamism in enterprises tied not to the exploitation of land but to its worship. Led by John Muir and the Sierra Club, California was in the forefront of the nation’s environmental movement. Perhaps in no other part of the United States have the forces of development and conservation been so active yet so evenly matched, as witnessed by endless controversies over city growth boundaries and the recent struggle over the redwoods of the Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County.

During the 1960s, a new set of nature worshipers gave up on capitalist society. The Summer of Love that began in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury was the obverse side of earlier Californian compulsions to realize Shangri-La. Like the camps of the forty-niners, the hippie communes attracted an oddball collection of dreamers from all over the world seeking satisfaction through an encounter with their surroundings—the great difference being, of course, their notion of how wealth could be extracted (or imbibed) from nature.

Time and time again, McWilliams sketches a portrait of California as a breakaway toward a better life. This breakaway is usually detailed by the senses. After all, the state’s land differs conspicuously from the green and well-watered lands east of the 100th meridian. Much of California is semi-desert, and the rest receives rainfall only during winter. Temperatures throughout the state are temperate. Since the earliest colonial settlements in Virginia, Anglo-Saxon settlers had attempted in vain to create subtropical plantations to complement Northern Europe. Now, in California, climate, geography, and topography held forth the possibility for a diversified agriculture unheralded elsewhere in the United States—grapes, garlic, avocados, olives, figs, dates, rice, apricots, and oranges.

Unlocking the richness of the land, however, meant that agriculture had to become an enterprise of immense innovation, huge scale, and the prodigious relocation of water resources. It meant that agricultural products had to be specialized for particular markets, endlessly adapted and experimented upon. “If there were other ‘Californias’ in the East or South or Midwest, the specialization which exists in California today might be much less,” McWilliams says (112). But such was not the case. California’s specialized agriculture, unlike the Midwest’s vast fields of soybeans and corn, has been more responsible for the development of culinary lifestyles than for meeting nutritional needs.

The breakaway beyond social morés and barriers may be one of California’s lasting contributions to global culture. The mixing of races, religions, ethnicities, and sexual orientations extends to a mixing of high and low cultures as well as modes of entertainment, cuisine, design, and couture. For instance, McWilliams drove home the notion that clothing production in California had important cultural and social implications. This is demonstrated by the state’s focus upon casual sportswear. Since the 1920s, California fashion designers recognized the potential for crafting lines of clothing in response to the state’s balmy climate and its emphasis upon a casual and easygoing lifestyle. They realized that California allowed a new style of clothing, one that would merge formal and informal, functional and expressive, and one that would blur social distinctions. Pioneered by the Levi-Strauss jeans produced for the mother lode miners, clothing made in California explored new territories of relaxed profiles, pastel colors, abstract patterns, and an overall breezy appearance, clothing that is sturdy yet multifunctional, ubiquitous yet an emblem of individuality. All this was made possible by the climate of experimentation, for as McWilliams wrote: “California is different than [sic] Iowa, and this difference means that it is possible to dress differently without being regarded as a ‘crank’ or ‘freak’” (219).

Despite the efforts of writers and historians, California has never settled on a founding epic poem or saga. The Great Exception may, in fact, be the state’s anti-epic, an argument against stasis, monumentality, and removal from ordinary life. McWilliams’s judgment of California’s volatility and individuality precludes foundational gestures as well as overarching historical themes. His Californians experience wonder as it happens and before self-conscious reflection overtakes and sedates them.

I would add that California’s inability to represent inexorable origins and destiny is not simply the result of the tendency to live in the moment and on the go. The state’s historical amnesia is due partly to the fact that its history of violent creation was so self-consciously observed. Violence is a subject that McWilliams addresses only indirectly, but it has become a central topic within local representations over the past half century, when California has often seemed to be the perfect crime coming apart.

From the Gold Rush on, the wealthy and powerful have wreaked remarkable devastation not only upon the environment but also upon the laboring classes, and especially upon indigenous peoples. No matter how diverse the population of the state has become, it does not include the diversity of language groups and cultural patterns of the original native Californians. Tragically, between the time of Spanish settlement and the end of the Gold Rush, those peoples were run off their lands and frequently murdered outright. Native Californians were “diggers,” obstacles to progress to be removed at all costs. Chinese Exclusion Acts, wartime concentration camps for Japanese-Americans, African-American ghettoization, and unfair treatment of Filipino and Mexican farmworkers are just some of the examples of subsequent racism in California.

Since the Great Depression, hard-boiled and ominous themes have characterized the films, novels, and critical essays that depict California. This development is, I believe, an indirect yet sustained response to California’s violent and exclusionary history. Films like Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) expose the state’s ruthless business practices, notions of Anglo-Saxon superiority, and unbridled technophilia. Novels like Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939) and James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (1987), and critical studies like Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (1990) and Robert Dawson and Gray Brechin’s Awakening from the California Dream (1999), depict a California whose vital energies and exceptionalism are dangerous. Overconscious of the costs of progress, film and literature express the nightmare from which California cannot awake.

Of course, in California, the dark side is often overshadowed by a saccharine force, by the Jedi fantasies of Industrial Light and Magic or bubbly tales of kindly aliens lurking in the closets of suburban bedrooms. Nowadays, the feverish pace, ingenuity, and riches of the digital revolution breed contagious optimism, belief in an endless horizon of innovation and prosperity. And so the image of California moves between extremes, from syrupy fantasy to under-the-skin despair, from the Beach Boys of “California Girls” to the melancholy Brian Wilson of “Pet Sounds.”

The value of The Great Exception today lies in its remarkable ability to cut through the myths—the sanguine vision of the land of sunshine and the dark view of the cesspool of self-loathing, the polarizing tales of the state’s boosters and detractors. McWilliams foresees a California that towers above the rest of the nation, yet is constantly being inundated by storm waves, convulsed by shifting tectonic plates. He is a master at depicting the apogee and perigee of the California orbit, the tensions that underlie its magnificent cultural and economic formations, and the threats to this all-too-accessible Eden. The tension between the quest for paradise and the fear of paradise lost is central to the culture of California. In the novel Double Indemnity (1936), James Cain captures the tensions of this feverish and seemingly irresistible pursuit of paradise: “I was standing right on the deep end, looking over the edge, and I kept telling myself to get out of there, and get quick, and never come back. But that was what I kept telling myself. What I was doing was peeping over that edge, and all the time I was trying to pull away from it, there was something in me that kept edging a little closer, trying to get a better look.”

Mitchell Schwarzer is associate professor of architectural history at California College of Arts and Crafts and an executive editor of Design Book Review.