Sunday, October 16, 2011

Patrick Atwater: California Dreaming

Patrick Atwater's A New California Dream: Reconciling the Paradoxes of America's Golden State feels custom-made for my Humanities 450 course at San Francisco State University. (Catalog description: "California Culture. Dynamics of California society and culture in recent times; world oasis, flawed paradise, lifestyle crucible, and creative milieu; function in American culture and Pacific relations.")

In this wide-ranging book, Atwater recounts the state's unique record of hatching economic opportunity and innovation. He's alert to the state's remarkable physical geography and what Carey McWilliams called the authority of the land. And although Atwater's identification with California is strong--there's a boosterish quality to his portrait--he also considers the less uplifting aspects of the state's history and its present governance crisis.

Like all dreams, the California one resists precise definition. Perhaps necessarily, it remains a little beneath or beyond consciousness. In some ways, though, the personal history of Arnold Schwarzenegger captures its key points: the immigrant who makes it big through bodybuilding at the beach (cf. McWilliams's "cult of the body"), then Hollywood movies, and then electoral politics. We even know Arnold's modes of transportation--the Hummer and the Harley--which no doubt reflect the state's obsession with mobility. When it comes to self-fashioning, California style, Schwarzenegger is a parade example.

But many of the state's most intractable problems can be framed as conflicts between two or more aspects of the dream. Consider, for example, land-use showdowns. On the one hand, we believe in economic opportunity, and nothing has provided more of that than real estate development. But we've also inherited John Muir's preservationist ethic, which reveres wilderness. Or food: the organic, slow food culture of the North Bay (for example) exists cheek-by-jowl with the latest Frankenfood advances coming out of UC Davis, about 30 minutes east. Paradoxical, indeed.

Atwater gets this as well as anybody. A fourth-generation Californian, he blends his personal experiences and observations with an armchair survey of the state's history and key themes. Along the way, he cites some of California's shrewdest observers, including Carey McWilliams, Kevin Starr, Mike Davis, Richard Walker, Luis Valdez, Joan Didion, Wallace Stegner, Josiah Royce, Jeff Lustig, Henry George, John Muir, James Houston, and Richard Rodriguez.

Atwater never actually delivers on his promise to reconcile paradoxes and dream anew. And despite the book's reading line, this isn't a blueprint. It's a smart, deeply felt, and frankly hortatory essay, but it feels more like a warm-up for a still inchoate project that will make the most of his passion and erudition. May this first effort lead to many more.


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