Uneasy Temporariness: Rosecrans Baldwin’s Los Angeles


ONCE UPON A TIME, Los Angeles was a product in need of a buyer. The former Mexican colony was still dusty and underdeveloped decades after San Francisco had become the financial and cultural capital of the West. So, the advertisements began. California for Health, Pleasure and Residence, a book published in 1872 by the journalist Charles Nordhoff, was one such enticement, a best seller that single-handedly attracted Easterners to Los Angeles based on its climate. It was an early example of a successful marketing campaign that sold sunshine and sea breeze.

But sometime between the climate-based sales pitch of the fin-de-siècle and Joan Didion’s famous proclamation, six decades later, that “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse,” a distinct category of L.A. lit was born. This genre is devoted to dredging up the dark side of the City of Angels — of which there is, it would seem, an abundance. Think of Didion on the edge of breakdown, checking into a psychiatric hospital, telling us about her ramshackle Hollywood home and the would-be intruders who come to her door. More recently, think of Mike Davis, whose seminal 1990 book City of Quartz conjures a grim dystopia, politically, ecologically, and otherwise.

But the standard-setter was Carey McWilliams, a lawyer turned writer, and author of Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946). McWilliams’s book chronicled the racism, genocide, and cultural erasure of Los Angeles’s past; its dangerous climate (he was warning about the future of vast wildfires even then); its unnatural and unsustainable relationship to water. And he was a talented aphorist to boot. “[I]n California the lights went on all at once, in a blaze, and they have never been have dimmed,” is one of his trademark summations. But for all the faults he detailed so remorselessly, he still loved Los Angeles. In fact, his passion for the city is memorialized on a wall in Pershing Square, where the following inscription is still visible: “It suddenly occurred to me that, in all the world, there neither was nor would ever be another place like this City of the Angels. Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano; here, indeed, was the place for me — a ringside seat at the circus.”

To my mind, McWilliams has never gotten his full due. He was more than just a historian, he was Zelig, casually mentioning his own presence at a startling number of local flashpoints and sites of interest. He eventually moved east to become editor of The Nation, but his Southern California: An Island on the Land remains one of the most complete and prescient histories of Los Angeles, a timeless and astute portrait of a protean city.