Commentary Magazine


California-The America to Come:
The Vitality of the Provinces

I have now lived four years in California. Obviously I cannot regard myself as a native, but the time has long since passed when I felt any real sense of strangeness and isolation. Now may be the moment to assess what this new life has meant, to try to give those who have never attempted to live there a sense of its anxieties and rewards. Nearly all the literature on California is the work of extremists, whose sharp division of opinion reflects the contradictions that even the casual visitor cannot fail to observe. Yet unless one is to forswear entirely the function of intellectual judgment, one must try to find some common ground on which the hymns of praise to this sun-drenched state and the savage attacks of its detractors may both be lodged a little closer to reality.

I came to California with no strong desire to move West, with few preconceived ideas (and those mostly inaccurate), with almost no previous experience of the place—lured by nothing more romantic than a good job. I had visited the state briefly before the war—but in California a decade is sufficient to make nearly all one’s information obsolete. Indeed, the Second World War forms the third of the great dividing points in California’s history—each separated by roughly a century-the first two, of course, being the arrival of the Spanish and the discovery of gold. The war started (or, to put it more accurately, vastly accelerated) the growth of population and industrialization that are the dominant features of California society today. And it did something of even greater psychological importance: it integrated California with the rest of the nation.

The West Coast provided the base from which the Pacific War was fought, from which millions of servicemen poured out to their scattered battle posts and then flowed home again. They came back with their geographical perspective permanently altered. No longer did California appear simply as a kind of isolated outpost. It had been in the very center of the war effort—indeed, it had been the only part of the country that for a brief moment had felt itself directly threatened. (And the reaction to that threat in the form of interning the Japanese-Americans is something of which every Californian to whom I have broached the subject is now heartily ashamed.) It would be hard to estimate how much of the state’s postwar growth in population is ascribable to the settlement of veterans who first were drawn to this new land during their period of war service: certainly one encounters many of them. These newer inhabitants have not cut their ties with their original homes to the extent that was the case a generation ago. A great many of them regard their residence in California as only semi-permanent. To cross the continent no longer represents the cruel rupture of pre-aviation days.

This foreshortening of psychological distance explains a great deal about California’s new position in the nation. Even those West Coast citizens who never set foot in a plane feel less “cut off” when they know that the major centers of the East are only a few hours away. The intellectuals no longer regard a move to California as a perilously attractive exile. Politically, it is something more than the sudden jump from fifth to second place in population that has put the state of California squarely in the center of the national picture. It is rather that Californian political leaders are now normally accepted as national figures rather than as picturesque provincials. (One may note that the outstanding Californian of the pre-war era, Herbert Hoover, spent nearly all his years of public service outside the state and now resides regularly in New York.) In fact, the more traditionalist Californians have not yet caught up with their state’s altered position on the national scene. To many it comes as a surprise to discover that the three most prominent Republicans after the President—the only three who were ever seriously talked of as alternative presidential candidates—are all Californians, and that the California Democratic primary is universally considered the most important in the nation.

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Yet the provincial attitude dies hard. The new arrival in California finds himself puzzled by the anxious, tentative fashion in which he is asked how he likes it—long before he has any basis for judgment. In other parts of the country people simply say that they live there—and if the new arrival does not like it, so much the worse for him. In California a more positive reaction seems to be called for. A mixture of diffidence and truculence has carried over from the old days of geographical isolation. In confronting the East, a sense of an indefinable cultural inferiority wars with a proud consciousness of all that California can add to one’s physical and psychological well-being. Hence the tendency to assert differences, to stress the uniqueness of California living. The new arrival is tempted to remonstrate gently, to try to explain that these differences (both favorable and unfavorable) are far less marked than they used to be—or than the Californians still imagine them to be—and that it would be better for all concerned simply to relax and to accept the phenomenon of California less emotionally, as a part of the country blessed by nature beyond all others but still embarrassingly deficient in some of the basic equipment of a modern urban society.

At the same time this eagerness to clasp the new arrival to California’s breast has its infinitely pleasant aspects. Here no one can feel himself a stranger very long. Like the new shops that have only to wait for a new population to provide a new clientele, a new Californian has only to wait a few months for a noticeable proportion of his neighbors to be newer than he is. For as the mass migration from the East continues unabated, the population already present is constantly on the move. Californians, like other people, move for a variety of reasons—the rising incomes and the push toward ever farther suburbs are the same as elsewhere—but they seem to do it more often. Political party workers, driven frantic by the effort to keep up with their constituents, estimate that in certain suburban areas 50 per cent of the names on precinct lists need to be revised for every biennial election—representing an annual change of one-quarter the population. As this process continues, regional and national origins become blurred beyond recognition. In the parts of California I know, there is no discernible local accent. All forms of American and European speech are jumbled together in an easy tolerance. At the political and civic meetings I have attended, even the most bizarre of accents has never evoked an unfavorable reaction.

In fact, a tolerance of differences is one of the most attractive features of what I have earlier called the “phenomenon of California.” Virtually every oddity of behavior is permitted—provided it does not disturb the neighbors. For—contrary to what most Easterners think—the Californian has a strong sense of privacy. He puts a high, solid fence around his garden and uses it as an outdoor sitting room. Door-to-door solicitors seem to be fewer and less troublesome than in the East. In California the frontier independence of the Westerner of tradition has combined with the individual peculiarities of the newer arrivals to produce a near-anarchy in community and political relations. The real estate promoters operate with 19th-century ruthlessness: they put jerry-built houses on inadequate lots, they chop down the centuries-old oaks that gave grace to a semi-arid landscape, they slice off the tops of hills with no regard for slides and torrential rains; it is a rare California community that has worked out and stuck to a plan for urban expansion. Parks are few; highway construction lags far behind what has been accomplished in the last decade in the Northeastern states; the schools are magnificent to look at—but there are not enough of them, nor enough adequately trained teachers, and all too many must operate on a double shift. The newcomer has trouble understanding why things must be this way—why Californians seem to prefer a mass slaughter on the highways to a regularly enforced speed limit, why they stubbornly refuse to sanction tolls for road construction, why every new school bond issue turns into a major civic battle, why smog control is a subject for endless political chatter that practically never results in action.

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And yet, and yet—already I can see that I am becoming unfair. In California, as elsewhere in the world, the virtues of the inhabitants and their weaknesses are inextricably intertwined. The sweetness of life, the unobtrusive friendliness, the relative absence of tension—all these have as their lamentable double a lack of statewide civic vision. Californians talk with pride about the greatness of their state and its limitless future. But even this pride is proving inadequate to embrace the mighty changes of the postwar years and the still greater changes to come. The water-planners now estimate that within a generation or two California’s population may leap to 40 million—that in population as well as in area the state will be nearly as large as a major European country like France. A time may come when one American in six will be a Californian. Before these overwhelming vistas, even the most self-confident Westerner finds himself breathless and unsure. And the semi-Californian like myself can only wonder if his state will ever find political leaders who will really measure up to the greatness of their task.

Two years ago Richard Graves, the Democratic candidate for the governorship, waged a pathetic, hopeless campaign of civic enlightenment. Everything was against him—the press, the business community, even the top leadership of organized labor. To the general public his name was scarcely known, and his personality failed to carry over in the rare television programs that his campaign managers could afford. In the end he was reduced to giving lectures to small audiences on the Californian facts of life. He told them what most of the state’s inhabitants—myself included—had not stopped to think of before: that we must begin to pay for all the good things of life that California was showering upon us. We must consent to greatly increased taxes if we were ever to construct the public services in which we were so dangerously deficient. In older countries or in the Eastern states this sort of equipment had been gradually built up over many generations; in California one generation must necessarily bear a disproportionate cost. We could not go on forever irresponsibly treating our state as one vast health resort. The thought was sobering—and the election returns showed how few voters had listened and understood.

Last November I visited the Free University of Berlin, an institution with which my own university is affiliated. Here, one-third of the way round the world from my California home, as I found myself standing within a few miles of the great cultural divide, I was struck by the appropriateness of this inter-university tie. Berlin regards itself as an outpost to the East. California has lost this sense—and rightly so—in its relations with the rest of the United States. But in its relationship to the Western world as a whole, California is still a frontier. (And Californians need to be reminded at frequent intervals that they are “Westerners” in a second and more important sense of the word.) For purposes of commerce and war California faces on the Pacific Yet culturally its links inevitably run back across the American continent and across the Atlantic.

These links no longer suggest a position of provincial dependence. In fact, they may suggest just the contrary. They may mean that California has become some sort of ultimate point in the development of our culture—the model of the future, the most “modern” area in which a standard of living that has risen to unprecedented heights already gives intimations of a classless society. Those who have moved to California can rest in the assurance that they need roam no farther. They have reached the point of extreme advance, both geographically and socially: only the ocean and the huge riddle of Asia lie beyond. The virtues of California and its faults are those of 20th-century society in their most sharply delineated form. Geographically, the Californian has nowhere farther to go: but politically and culturally he will have to engage all his energies to keep up with the dynamic processes that have caught him so casually unaware.

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Politically, as in so much else, California is really two states. As one accustomed to the north-south split that plays so large a part in the national psychology of such European peoples as the French and Italians, I have been amused to find similar attitudes faithfully reappearing on the Pacific Coast. The northern Californians—of whom I have become one—like northerners the world over, profess a sovereign scorn for those to the south of them, ascribing to them the classic vices of slovenliness, political immaturity, and cultural unawareness. In most parts of the world, it is the northerners that dominate, and the same was true of California until the Second World War. But as Los Angeles and its surroundings began to grow to their present appalling dimensions, the population balance decisively shifted in favor of the south. Today whatever is left of the traditional preeminence of northern California rests on such intangibles as the conviction (ruefully concurred in by many southerners) that the San Francisco Bay area still gives the lead in the arts of civilization, and the almost magical prestige of the Bay city itself, whose legend has been nourished by generations of travelers and whose buoyant attractions even the most skeptical observers seem unable to resist.

California’s political parties have realistically adjusted to this situation of fact by establishing the precedent of alternating senatorial candidates and state chairmen between north and south. As a rough-and-ready way of handling a delicate situation, the device works reasonably well. Yet on many occasions in both parties northerners and southerners organize and caucus separately. In general, the political extremes have been more at home in the south than in the north. In the 30’s and 40’s, Los Angeles was the center of left-wing fellow-traveling, and more recently it has become strongly affected by nativism and anti-intellectualism within the Republican party.

To those familiar with California politics it may seem more than accidental that Senator Knowland is a northerner and that Vice-President Nixon is from the south. Their similarities and differences suggest something of the current range of California Republicanism. The Warren tradition appears to have died with the present Chief Justice’s elevation to the bench. At least I have found little trace of it—except perhaps in the persistent practice of registered Democrats voting Republican. As of today, California Republicanism is overwhelmingly conservative and nationalist. No more than shadings of meaning within commonly accepted premises—plus the inevitable personal rivalries—divide Nixon from Knowland or either of these two from Governor Knight. Six months ago California Democrats were cheerfully predicting a bitter battle within the Republican presidential primary. Instead, they are now confronted with a “unity delegation” in which the state’s embarrassingly numerous Republican aspirants succeeded in merging their differences even before President Eisenhower announced his candidacy.

If the California Republican party is a smoothly running machine, virtually monopolizing the media of mass communication and oiled with plenty of money, the Democrats find themselves oppressed by factional fights, poverty, and defeatism. The party has been out of power for so long that it has no tangible rewards to offer. In lean years it has been almost completely dependent on the money and devotion of a few key individuals and families. Yet the reserves of amateur enthusiasm on which it can draw are greater than those available to the Republicans. A new vigor has been injected into the Democrats since the 1952 election.

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Under the stimulus of the November defeat, a large number of the unofficial Stevenson-Sparkman clubs that had played a major role in the presidential campaign reconstituted themselves as local Democratic organizations. Walking into a political void, the clubs began to provide the city and precinct structure that up to then had been almost completely lacking. And the regular Democratic organization had the good sense to welcome rather than to oppose this unexpected reinforcement: the club movement received official sanction as a supplementary organization paralleling the regular county committees. Since their first convention at Fresno in February of 1954, the local clubs have become the driving force within the California Democratic party. And some of the amateurs of three years ago have attained semi-professional status as members of county committees or statewide party officials.

Initially, the clubs’ expectations were too high. They were unduly jubilant over the fact that in June of 1954 the Democrats for the first time in recent history carried all their own primaries against the Republicans—an achievement that must certainly appear modest to those who have never experienced the miseries of cross-filing. In November the party won neither the governorship nor the United States senatorial seat—and the inevitable discouragement followed. Since then the clubs have regained much of their earlier confidence. Yet as they gird themselves for a re-run of the battle of 1952, their more experienced leaders are acutely aware of the difficulties confronting them.

Chief among these is their tenuous relation to the electorate. The membership of the California Democratic clubs is based on political interest and willingness to work: it is by no means a faithful image of the wider constituency. It has an over-representation of intellectuals and a shortage of union members. In a few areas it presents something of the character of an exclusive club-rather more so than the Republicans. I have heard of Democratic precinct workers greeted with suspicion in poorer urban areas because “they did not look like Democrats.”

Obviously, the active work of politics must everywhere be the affair of a small minority. But in the case of the California Democratic party the normal cleavage between the party militants and the. passive voters has widened to a major chasm. The former are unusually alert and well-educated—the latter inordinately apathetic. The California electorate as a whole is politically untrained, ill-informed, subject to sudden gusts of emotion from the right or the left, and unimaginatively inclined to vote for the incumbent whoever he may be. In this highly fluid population, the normal bonds of political loyalty have weakened to the vanishing point; thousands of potential voters have not even learned how to get themselves on the electoral rolls. Under these conditions it is not surprising that the Democratic leadership and club members—although overwhelmingly for Stevenson—are far from confident that Kefauver will not once again sweep the party primary.

Moreover, the Democrats suffer from a lack of qualified candidates. There are many young couples who are willing, even eager, to make speeches and ring doorbells. But there are few indeed of California’s new Democratic party workers who are in a position to run for office: they are tied down by their jobs, their small children, their lack of financial backing. Hence all too frequently nominations go by default to the mediocre or those with private sources of funds. But even this dreary aspect of California politics has its encouraging side. It suggests that a political career lies wide open to the ambitious or the dedicated. Here there is no necessity of gradually working toward electoral office through years of party drudgery. In California almost anyone can be a candidate. On my arrival in the state in 1952 I had scarcely unpacked my bags before I was called on to make a political speech, and I had been a resident for less than a year when somebody suggested I run for office. Once more, California’s magnanimity toward the stranger proved overwhelming.

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Under the blessing of the ever present sun, how fares the life of the mind? Superficially things do not appear very favorable. The population at large is blissfully unconscious of intellectual concerns, and the students we professors encounter in our classrooms have with rare exceptions been inadequately prepared and have developed slovenly mental habits in their local high schools. The newspapers are almost uniformly awful. The billboards and roadstands on the highways are more than customarily offensive. It is no wonder that so many people only casually acquainted with the state have dismissed it as a cultural desert.

Learning to live in California is largely a question of being rigorously selective. In the bewildering variety of attractions and things repellent that the state offers, one needs to develop a sense for what one really wants and what one wishes to discard. In California all types of life are possible. As opposed to more established areas of the country, where one tends to fall into a ready-prepared pattern, in California one can and must build one’s own life. Hence the pride and confidence that are noticeable in so many Californians by adoption. They have confronted the strangeness of the West and they have conquered it: out of bits and pieces of the new and the old they have constructed their lives on a pattern that is all of their own devising. And they are not ashamed to admit that in this construction the more obvious aspects of California living—the sun, the outdoors, the garden so immaculately trimmed and faithfully watered—have made their contribution to a wider sense of well-being.

All this is true of intellectuals as well as of their neighbors. Once the newly arrived writer or professor gets over his initial sense of distance and loneliness—and provided he keeps an open mind—he can begin to see positive advantages in the California situation. His neighbors may be un-intellectual; but they are usually not anti-intellectual. They may find his way of life peculiar; but they are quite prepared to let him lead it as he wishes. As one accustomed to the town-and-gown hostilities of New England university cities—based on the bitterest cleavages of religion, national origin, and social status—I have been delighted to encounter none of this sort of thing on the West Coast. When I have occasion to identify myself as a professor, I never sense any hostility in the response. It is usually one of warm approbation mixed with curiosity.

In some senses an un-intellectual community is more favorable to the life of the mind than a semi-intellectual one. It is perhaps better for the writer or professor to be left strictly alone than to be fussed over by the wrong sort of people. In the East the great menace to the intellectual’s integrity comes from the petty corruptions of middlebrow culture. In the West, where the semi-cultured are so much less numerous, the intellectual is not obliged to spend time and energy in fighting off their advances. Where the life of the mind is the affair of comparatively few and is surrounded with practically no publicity, there is little incentive to become the sort of intellectual hanger-on, the purveyor of literary chit-chat, that is so common in New York or Cambridge. There may be a Californian Bohemia, but I have not yet located it. I have never been invited to a literary cocktail party. California intellectuals lead quiet, family lives, outwardly indistinguishable from those of their neighbors. The main things that mark them off are the absence of television antennas on their roofs and their unconventional working hours.

A generation or two ago, the California writer suffered from a real sense of isolation. And it is still true today that those fare best who know exactly what they want to do and are not dependent on the stimulus of café-type conversation. In California the life of the mind is a very serious—perhaps a too serious—affair. The young Californian knows this. And if he succeeds in fighting his way through to intellectual eminence, he has the confidence that comes from having essentially done the job himself. His parents and his school have given him little help. Even at college he has had to struggle against the slackness of the majority. We university professors know at first hand the intellectual drag that this majority offers. But the gifted and interested minority are a delight to teach. They may come to us ill-prepared in the sense of formal knowledge—yet even this deficiency has its merits. Among the best California students there is little superficial brightness and sophistication: there is rather a great freshness and plasticity of mind.

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At this point one may well ask, is it healthy for intellectuals to live a life so much apart? Is it good for them—or for the community—to work so isolated from the rest of the population? I confess that the question has frequently troubled me and that I have no adequate answer for it. An additional reflection or two will have to suffice. In the first place I have necessarily exaggerated the rigidity of the separation. In one sense it is intensified by the peculiarities of California politics—by the current alignment that puts nearly all the intellectuals in the Democratic camp and the vast majority of the leading citizens of the community among the Republicans. But in another sense this same political cleavage encourages a feeling of wider participation among California intellectuals. I have already suggested that many of them take an active part in the work of the Democratic clubs. And they do this unostentatiously, without the pretension to leap immediately to national importance that has frequently vitiated the political activity of intellectuals in other parts of the country. In modest political tasks California writers and professors can meet a minority of neighbors On a basis of shared interests and values.

It is also true that the intellectual can occasionally find understanding and a warm welcome among some of the leading citizens of the community: in San Francisco, for example, the old-established Jewish families maintain a highly respected tradition of concern for culture and patronage of the arts. In California, as elsewhere, gifted minorities seek each other out. This second reflection leads into a wider question. In the comparative isolation of the intellectual, as in so much else, may not California simply be offering the model of the future? If, as some of us suspect, intellectual originality in this country is becoming an increasingly rare commodity—if the older cultural centers are sinking into sterility—then a sense of isolation may be a positive advantage, perhaps even an essential to creativity. It has happened before in history that stagnation in the capitals has driven the more imaginative out to the provinces. And from the provinces has come the fresh surge of creativity that has started a new cultural epoch. This same process may well be going on in our country today. And if life in the provinces is indeed best, why not select the pleasantest province of all, where one need not battle the climate winter and summer but can work serenely and efficiently the year round?

Yet if one were to ask my friends and me the final question—do you plan to end your days in California?—we should be puzzled for an answer. We have few apparent complaints. Yet we cannot help distrusting our contentment. Puritans despite ourselves, we set ourselves anxious and perhaps unnecessary questions. Are we falling behind intellectually? De we lack the stimulus that comes from competition and conversational excitement? How will our children feel about the pressures toward conformity that leave us adults nearly untouched? In the end probably half of us will return East, drawn back by earlier associations and professional opportunities. But we shall leave with profound regret, and we know that our dreams will be tormented by memories of our vanished paradise.

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