This week’s issue of The Nation is devoted to California: its politics, its economy, its climate. Though it has been published in New York City since its inception in 1865, The Nation has always kept one eye trained on the Left Coast.
This was especially true during the long editorial reign of Carey McWilliams (1955–75), one of the great chroniclers in California’s history. Among his works are Factories in the Field (1939), an unintentional non-fictional accompaniment to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, published the same year, and Southern California Country (1946), later the basis for Robert Towne’s Chinatown screenplay. Campaigning for the governorship in 1942, Earl Warren said his first act in office would be to fire McWilliams, then the state head of immigration and housing.
Some of the most interesting Nation articles about California were written for the two “These United States” series the magazine has run, first in the early 1920s and then in the early 2000s. Both series included contributions from the most prominent writers of the day on the states of their origin or residence, both have been published as books, both are true gems: dip into the first for W.E.B. Du Bois on Georgia, Theodore Dreiser on Indiana, Mencken on Maryland, Willa Cather on Nebraska, Edmund Wilson on New Jersey, Sherwood Anderson on Ohio, Sinclair Lewis on Minnesota; the second, edited by the late and great John Leonard, for Lee Siegel on Hawaii, Walter Kirn on Montana, Marshall Berman on New York City, Molly Ivins on Texas, Michael Tomasky on West Virginia, Annie Proulx on Wyoming.
To consider California in 1922 The Nation turned to one George P. West, a journalist and aide to Senator Hiram Johnson, a leader of the Progressive faction in Congress. (Johnson had been Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose running mate in 1912.) In “California: The Prodigious,” West looked over the whole of the expansive state: “California lies wide and luminous and empty under the infinite blue between the high Sierra and the sea. Horizons are not miles but counties away, and between distant mountain sky-lines the land, lustrous and radiant in pastel shades of blue and green and golden brown, swims in warm sunlight.“
Describing the history of the settlement of the area, West offers this observation:
For northern Europeans made somber and stringent by a centuries-long struggle with obdurate soil and unfriendly climate to stumble upon such a land and discover it empty and waiting was in itself a dramatic episode in the life of the race. The people who call themselves Californians are not yet over their surprise. A sense of the prodigious abides with them. They are like children let loose in a new and wonderful nursery.
Empty? Not quite.
It long ago became a commonplace that California is not one state, but at least two. (An initiative to split California into six separate states, pushed by venture capitalist Tim Draper, will appear on the ballot later this year.) West acknowledged this tendency back in 1922: “Only the map-makers and politicians still think of California as an entity. In its human aspects it is sharply divided into north and south.”