Dreams and Delusions

Dreams and Delusions

California inspires people to think big, and to write big books. Take, for example, Kevin Starr.


California inspires people to think big, and to write big books. Take, for example, Kevin Starr. As a graduate student at Harvard in the 1960s, Starr decided to write a history of California, his home state, organized around an idea: the dream of a good life for ordinary people. Now, thirty-five years later, he is publishing the seventh volume in this series. How many historians have conceived of–much less written–a seven-volume history of anything? Gibbon did the decline of Rome in six. Schlesinger did the Age of Roosevelt in three.

Unabashedly cheerful and sunny, Starr’s work has invited unfavorable comparisons with Mike Davis’s more alluring California noir. The criticism has stung Starr, who acknowledges in the preface to Coast of Dreams that “it would be seductively easy to join the naysayers…. do this, and I would be considered a deep thinker.” California in recent years–“a case study in how things could go wrong”–has sorely tested his famous optimism, what with the LA riots (1992); the Northridge earthquake (1994); massive wildfires (1991, 1993 and 2003); disastrous flooding (1992, 1995 and 1998); an epidemic of gang homicides in LA; statewide power blackouts (2001); and the recall of the governor (2003). The first page of Coast of Dreams finds Starr wondering whether he has “made a terrible mistake” in committing himself to this “California dream” project, whether the “radiant golden vision” of California as a paradise for ordinary people is “still worth the living, the writing, the struggle”–as if a story that isn’t happy isn’t worth telling.

But Starr hasn’t quite given up on the dream. Defying those who have criticized his work as too rosy, he opens his book under the California sky with a chapter on surfing, unashamedly described as “a primary emblem” of “California identity.” (To underscore the point, Starr put surfers on the jacket.) His strategy here is to open with a sunny picture and then bring in the threatening darkness. That worked beautifully in his last book, Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950, whose first chapter provided an unforgettably poignant picture of Californians at play during the summer of 1940, as the rest of the world sank into war–the Iowan migrant picnic in Long Beach, spring break in Santa Monica, the season at the Hollywood Bowl. In that chapter he asked, “Was this a delusional response–or a brave and defiant celebration of life over death?” Here the conceit seems thin, since it hinges on what’s been a cliché of California life since Gidget.

After surfing comes a report on the state of religion in the 1990s, and here again, Starr seems to be goading his critics–all the religions of California, from Eastern Orthodoxy to Hinduism, were thriving; no shadows here. The Catholics were bringing together blacks and Latinos; not a word about priests’ sexual abuse of children, which has left the Church in California facing 400 victims seeking damages totaling $160 million. Starr’s Jews were flocking to museums, operas and the symphony, as well as to “delicatessens and other eateries”; not a word about the deep divisions among Jews over Israel. Buddhism gets eight happy paragraphs, but Islam gets only one sentence–and not until 600 pages later does Starr discuss the unprecedented legal harassment and public hostility Muslims have faced since 9/11.

The second section of the book describes California’s troubles: fires, floods, earthquakes and finally riots–the ordeals that provoked Starr’s soul-searching. Mike Davis covered much the same territory in Ecology of Fear, not just in a darker way but with a real argument: that fires and earthquakes had such a devastating effect not only because of nature’s wrath but also because of policy decisions by elites that endangered ordinary people–decisions to build luxury highrises in dangerous earthquake zones, and to devote fire protection resources to upscale hillsides, where nobody should be living, rather than more populous inner-city immigrant neighborhoods.

Although Coast of Dreams covers Jerry Brown and Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s not really about California politics–it’s a cultural and social history. But Starr’s cultural history isn’t always sure-footed: For example, he describes Christo’s 1991 yellow umbrellas in Tejon pass north of LA as “an artistic probe” into “what made California California.” In fact, the umbrellas had little if anything to do with California–Christo did similar projects in Florida, Colorado and of course New York’s Central Park. The error is revealing, however, of a native son who’s always looking for a reason to believe in his state. Starr concludes with a cinematic image of undocumented immigrants coming to California “by foot across deadly deserts, by ship in suffocating containers, in the trunks of cars, beneath the floorboards of trucks”–“testimony” to “the persistent dream of a better life” in California. And so “the dream lives,” even if the state is “on the edge.”

Like Kevin Starr, Richard Steven Street dreamed of a grand California history project in grad school several decades ago–in his case, at Wisconsin in the early 1970s. His topic was farmworkers. He too has spent thirty years at work, and has now produced two volumes–a massive narrative history that tests the limits of bookbinding at 904 pages, yet only makes it up to 1913, accompanied by a wonderful volume of photographs (which is “only” 329 pages long).

Beasts of the Field, which draws inspiration from Carey McWilliams’s classic 1939 exposé, Factories in the Field, is a magnificent work, beautifully written and exhaustively researched. You might think the story of farmworkers would be one of unchanging suffering and oppression. On the contrary, Street’s book demonstrates how much difference, and how much change, can be found in that history. The story is first of all a bloody one of exploitation and resistance. For workers, writes Street, field work was a “hopelessly damaging experience” that “wore them out” and “degraded them.” Resistance was typically nasty, brutish and short; Street is careful not to exaggerate its extent or effectiveness. Nevertheless, he finds varieties of tenacity, sacrifice and courage that provoke sympathy and also curiosity–how did these different workers see the world? what did it feel like? To some in the academy, these questions, which obsessed a generation of social historians influenced by E.P. Thompson’s 1963 classic, The Making of the English Working Class, might seem “undertheorized”–naïve, even quaint. Today, “experience” has been deconstructed, along with race and masculinity, as yet another set of representations. Yet it is Street’s old-fashioned commitment to describing the experience of farmworkers that has enabled him to draw such a rich portrait of their lives.

Some clichés, he finds, are true: After years of misery and exploitation, “Indians all drunk,” one rancher wrote in his diary in 1861. Chinese workers “hit the pipe”–smoked opium–which wasn’t even against the law until 1909. After them came the “bindlestiffs,” white migrant laborers who carried all their worldly possessions in tightly wrapped blankets, or “bindles.” Street’s picture of the social world of the bindlestiff at the turn of the century is particularly rich: Tens of thousands of men spent the winters “laid up” in LA, San Francisco, Sacramento and elsewhere in skid-row flophouses, a world of greasy spoons, shoplifting and “Mexican bargain basement” prostitutes, where they dealt with bedbugs, bad teeth and brawling. He also shows them reading in libraries and listening to revival preachers and left-wing organizers on street corners.

Despite the brutal oppression in the fields, large-scale farming was, and is, vulnerable to strikes, because the harvest season is so short and so crucial. Throughout this history, Street finds successful harvest-time actions. The first successful unions were organized by Japanese workers who struck in 1903 in the Oxnard sugar-beet fields. The climax of the book comes with the first major attempt to organize farmworkers by the IWW, with its songs and “soapboxers.” They won in Fresno but were crushed in San Diego. In the end, officials arrested the entire leadership of the California IWW, convicted them of a criminal conspiracy and sent them all to Leavenworth prison.

Street is a photographer as well as a historian, and his companion volume of historic photographs (taken by others) is simply terrific. He’s got a shocking photo from 1989 of Guatemalan migrants sleeping on a hillside above a bustling Interstate 5 north of San Diego. He’s got white mobs attacking strikers in downtown Salinas in 1936. He’s got beautiful shots of lettuce fields at the Manzanar camp, where Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. He’s got stately portraits of Chinese workers from the nineteenth century, and frightening pictures of naked Mexican men being sprayed with DDT in the 1950s. And he’s got a photo from the moment he decided to take up his thirty-year project: July 31, 1973, helmeted sheriffs arresting a 16-year-old picketer, Marta Rodriguez, during the United Farm Workers grape strike at Giumarra vineyards–she is tiny, splattered with mud, frightened but defiant.

Street tells the story of California farmworkers in 904 pages; Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman of the LA Times tell the story of a single California farmer in 558 pages. But it’s not just any farmer. J.G. Boswell is the biggest farmer in America. He owns 200,000 acres of America’s richest farmland. He’s the world’s biggest cotton farmer, and he also grows more irrigated wheat, safflower and seed alfalfa than anyone else in the country. Before this book, he was unknown–which was the way he wanted it. After a lifetime of secrecy, in which he made billions of dollars with the help of massive government subsidies, he decided to talk.

Arax and Wartzman tell their story with irresistible energy and style; who would have thought a book on cotton farming could be a page-turner? Today Boswell’s land in the Central Valley stretches to the horizon; it’s a blank, dusty place of endless gray fields. Arax and Wartzman show what it was like before the Boswells arrived. They quote John Muir, who visited in the 1850s: The Great Central Plain of California, during the months of March, April, and May, “was one smooth, continuous bed of honey-bloom, so marvelously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other, a distance of more than 400 miles, your foot would press about a hundred flowers at every step.” And there was a huge lake there, Tulare Lake, the largest lake west of the Mississippi, 800 square miles. The Boswells drained it–it took them sixty years. Then they got the government to dam the rivers that flowed into the lake–enormous rivers. Draining the lake and damming the rivers made Boswell a billionaire; it also brought environmental disaster to the region.

In the spring, the fish come back to the miles of irrigation trenches, followed in the summer heat by massive fish kills in the stagnant channels. Arax and Wartzman describe one day in 1997 when a twenty-five-mile canal filled with threadfin shad, belly up. Also, the spring rain and irrigation runoff create ponds–but the Boswell ponds are not like Walden Pond. They contain “a toxic gumbo” contaminated by selenium and other salts. Ducks nest in the ponds, and later in the spring their offspring are hatched–with no eyes, no beaks, no wings. (Environmentalists have forced Boswell to establish some mitigation habitat.)

The key to Boswell’s empire was damming the rivers. The key question is how he got control of so much water. That was the achievement of his uncle “J.G. the First,” also known as “the Colonel,” a Georgia cotton farmer chased west in the 1920s by the boll weevil. He grafted plantation culture onto California, down to sipping mint juleps on the front porch. His particular talent lay in taking advantage of the Depression to purchase water rights along the Kings River from the Portuguese farmers who were going broke there.

The second key to Boswell’s success was enlisting help from Uncle Sam, starting with the New Deal. Government policy at the time enforced acreage limitations on the farms using government water. Boswell fought FDR and Truman; his hold on the water was not secured until 1980, when he finally got his land exempted from acreage limitations. The culprit here was not Ronald Reagan but Jimmy Carter.

The base of the Boswell empire is the town of Corcoran–a classic company town mired in poverty and unemployment. In an effort to bring jobs that paid better than Boswell did, the Boswells got their friends in Sacramento to build a maximum-security prison there in the late 1980s. It became notorious as a place where guards set up fights between inmates and then used the fighting as an excuse to shoot and kill them. The guards at Corcoran killed more inmates in the 1990s than at any other prison in America. As for bringing prosperity to the town, that didn’t work. The guards don’t live in town; they commute from Fresno.

One-third of the food that Americans eat is grown in California. That’s not just because of fertile valleys and good weather, as Richard Walker explains in The Conquest of Bread, an authoritative account of the achievements, and the human environmental costs, of California’s agribusiness. A professor of geography at Berkeley, Walker looks deeply into each step in the chain of the agro-industrial cornucopia, from the biological engineering of crops, to the banks that finance the farms, to the world’s largest water storage and transfer system, to the vast army of migrant workers who pick the crops, to the role of supermarkets in shaping consumption.

The book combines incisive economic analysis with vivid writing, scholarship with passion. Walker opens with childhood memories of driving through the Central Valley on summer vacations, when the windshield and grill would be plastered with bugs; that doesn’t happen anymore, because pesticides have eliminated the bugs–along with “much of the rest of the wildlife.” Page after page is filled with surprises: California leads the nation in no less than seventy-six crops–not just lettuce and grapes but also goat’s milk and honey. California’s leading export crops are not lettuce and grapes but almonds and cotton.

The title The Conquest of Bread comes from a forgotten book by the Russian anarchist and revolutionary Peter Kropotkin, a contemporary of Lenin who put cooperative rural development at the center of his analysis. It was a utopia that seemed hopelessly obsolete, until the antiglobalization protests against the World Trade Organization over the past few years made the idea seem relevant again. Walker writes as part of that movement, against the “unrestrained, naked form of market society,” with its “ferocious exploitation of harvest labor”; he wants to help “stop the juggernaut” of agribusiness–and still feed the world. The Conquest of Bread provides a compelling example of how to think big about California, and a crucial contribution to a California dream that’s different from Kevin Starr’s.

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