Essay / Culture

California Literary Regionalism?

What is California literature? For a class about California in the great books tradition, I had to pick a half-dozen of the best books for students to read and discuss. Which raises the question, what counts as California literature?

The most helpful discussion I’ve read on the subject is not exactly up to date, but it’s a 1955 article full of wise counsel. The article, “California’s Literary Regionalism” by Frederick Bracher of Pomona College was published in the American Quarterly (Fall 1955, pp. 275-284). Bracher says “regionalism” is more of a “hypothesis to be tested” than an “unquestionable fact.” So it’s best to approach California literature by asking of each book or author, “does this represent the authentic voice of California?”

“Voice,” of course, is a metaphor, and Bracher laments the “morass of metaphor” that awaits anybody looking into literary regionalism: there are “roots that go down deep into, layers of cultural humus and substrata which lie below, mirrors that catch at a slightly different angle the sunlight of, long immersions in, natural blossoms as opposed to hot-house growths,” and so on. That kind of metaphorical stuff is serviceable when you’re talking about the kind of pronounced regionalism that is widely agreed on, like a certain kind of literature from the American South. But when you’re trying to name something as ambiguous as “California literature,” the morass of metaphor obscures more than it illumines.

Never mind the question of what geographic region should count as “California” for literary purposes (the spirit of a place doesn’t stop at a state line, or even necessarily extend that far, especially if you’re sampling literature from before the clear definition of states). Just consider the even thornier question of who counts as Californian. Bracher points out that native birth is not a good criterion, since that would make Robert Frost a Californian (born in San Francisco) and Robinson Jeffers not one (born in Pittsburgh). Living and writing in California doesn’t suffice either, since that would transform Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, and Henry Miller into California authors. Even writing about California isn’t sufficient, since it lets in Evelyn Waugh and John Dos Passos. “Nearly everyone comes to California sooner or later, and many of these temporary settlers dislike the area enough to write about it. But this does not make them regional writers.”

What it takes to be a California author, according to Bracher, is “a view of the area from the inside—not curiously and from a safe distance, as one might look at animals in a zoo, but with one sense of concern for, or identification with, the region.” In other words, California literature is not so much about the region as it is of the region. And Bracher adds one more requirement: California literature shouldn’t be too aware of its regional character. Bracher quotes Thomas Hardy’s rule about how to know when you’re observing a real folk tradition: “the test of an authentic folk custom is the grumpy unawareness of the participants that they are doing anything out of the ordinary.”

“The sense of identification with the region is hardly demonstrable or analyzable: it must be felt,” he says, and goes on to name seven authors in whose work this identification can be felt: John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, William Saroyan, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, George R. Stewart, Hans Otto Storm, Nathanael West, and Budd Schulberg. From among these three, he singles out Steinbeck, Clark, and Saroyan as “the most important of the regional writers.”

Even making allowances for the half-century that has elapsed since this article was published, Bracher’s essay deflates considerably once he has offered this list. Only the most dedicated readers of California literature would have read widely from these seven authors, and some are now minor names indeed.

But Bracher has the wisdom not to be dogmatic about his admittedly somewhat arbitrary choices, and spends the rest of the essay illustrating a few characteristics that he thinks mark California literature at its most regionally distinctive.

1. California authors are not urban; they do not write city novels. “There are no important novels about San Francisco or Los Angeles.” California authors have a feeling for the larger landscapes outside the cities, whether it is the long valley of the Salinas river or the whole coastline surrounding Point Sur. No cityscapes or cozy townships for these West Coast authors. Consequently, the characters are people who fit these settings: “The virtues implicit in California heroes are essentially frontier virtues—independence, adaptability, humor, an engaging naíveté, and confidence in one’s ability to take care of himself.” All good novelists make use of local climate, and California authors make the most of California’s distinctive weather: the dryness above all, but also the “seasonal alternation of short, cool winters and long dry summers which sets up the rhythm of life in the area.”

2. California literature is non-political. “Despite a distinguished tradition of radical political literature, from Henry George through Frank Norris and Jack London to Upton Sinclair, the best of the present writers seem to be more interested in moral problems than in political problems—in the large general questions of human life rather than in the immediate problems of society, in Evil rather than in particular evils.” Here, perhaps, the circular nature of Bracher’s procedure is most evident. He picks the least political writers and then declares California authors non-political. But even at that, he has to squint at a great deal of rabble-rousing and social analysis in Steinbeck and Clark to decide that the spirit of California is non-political. For my part, I am struck by the exact opposite trait: California literature is inveterately political, too much so for my taste. Many of the best books have been too invested in too-current events, rendering them period pieces after a couple of decades (“File Under: Socialism Was a Big Deal, cross-referenced to Always Look for the Union Label.”)

3. California literature is broadly allegorical rather than tensely aesthetic. The preoccupation with large moral problems brings forth “a kind of naíve symbolism—naíve in the sense that the authors tend to give their characters symbolic meaning, instead of finding significance in particular characters and events.” Bracher cites Clark’s claim that “everything I write, everything I have written, is allegorical,” and notes Steinbeck’s “arbitrary assignment of symbolic meaning to characters” in East of Eden. Here I think Bracher has put his finger on something very interesting and surprisingly widespread in California literature. I am less sure that it has been a happy trait of the region.

4. Finally, California literature has “a good-natured ignorance of critical disciplines.” The state’s best authors “appear to be genially oblivious to the rules of criticism and to critical censure for violations of taste and propriety.” Bracher has in mind Saroyan’s declared intention to found “a tradition of carelessness” to ensure a plentiful supply of irreverence and creativity. But he also has in mind the besetting pathos that makes itself felt in otherwise fine works: “What other novelist of comparable stature [to Steinbeck] could stomach the over-poetic, pseudo-Irish speech of Samuel Hamilton in East of Eden? And what Eastern writer would have been so regardless of possible ridicule as to conclude The Grapes of Wrath with its final melodramatic scene?” California writers are naked and apparently unashamed. Bracher warms to his subject:

The Californians’ willingness to let themselves go, their cheerful ignoring of the restraints a writer is expected to impose upon himself, comes fairly close to the traditional stereotype of the Westerner as the child of nature, free from the trammels of tradition and the paralyzing self-consciousness of the hypercritical. There may be a germ of truth in the myth.

Whatever the merits of Bracher’s 1955 account of California literary regionalism, he concludes with an interesting note. Many East-coast critics have complained about the “unbuttoned romanticism” of California literature. Edmund Wilson said that the state has a “golden air of death” for the literary mind, owing to “the boundless sunlight which never becomes charged with human energies.” Eastern critics from traditioned schools of commentary just can’t imagine painting anything human on a canvas as vast as the big Western sky. But perhaps that is because East coast critics have made the error of thinking that all serious literature has to be urban, political, tensely aesthetic, and critically self-conscious. California literature may just have a chance to be true to itself in a way that could expand the horizons of New York critics.

The California writers are not hampered by rules or schools; illustrious examples do not intimidate and engross them. They are willing to tackle large and old-fashioned subjects, and they do not worry unduly about partial or occasional failure. At their best, they achieve an easy and unaffected lyricism of style.

I’m not sure how to move forward from Bracher’s assessment, especially with the explosion of diversity in California writing since 1955. I know that it won’t do to call California literature non-urban anymore, and it probably never was right to call it non-political. I’m also more inclined to include assessments of California from outsiders: I would sneak in shrewd observers like Robert Louis Stevenson and Czeslaw Milosz. And I would certainly include some notes about California from the rest of America, because there’s no disentangling the state of California from what it has meant to the entire nation. California literary regionalism is certainly, in Bracher’s terms, more of a “hypothesis to be tested” than an “unquestionable fact.”

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