A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up. The Sacramento River, the main source of surface water in a state where distrust of centralized governmental authority has historically passed for an ethic, has its headwaters in the far northern ranges of Siskiyou Country. It picks up the waters of the McCloud and the Pit rivers above Redding, of the Feather and the Yuba and the Bear below Knight’s Landing, of the American at Sacramento, of the San Joaquin below Steamboat Slough, and empties through San Francisco Bay into the Pacific, draining the deep snow-packs of the southern Cascades and the northern Sierra Nevada. “The river here is about 400 yards wide,” one of my great-grandfathers wrote in the journal of his arrival in Sacramento in August of 1850.
The tide raises the water about two ft. and steamboats and vessels are here daily. From this place to San Francisco is about 150 miles by water. All of this distance the river has low banks and is subject to inundation for several miles back.
That the land for which he had four months before left his wife and two children was “subject to inundation” seems not to have presented itself as an argument against immediate settlement. Yet this was a river regularly and predictably given, during all but the driest of those years before its flow was controlled or rearranged, to turning its valley into a shallow freshwater sea a hundred miles long and as wide as the distance between the coast ranges and the Sierra Nevada: a pattern of flooding, the Army Corps of Engineers declared in 1927, more intense and intractable than that on any other American river system including the Mississippi.
The creation of the entirely artificial environment that is now the Sacramento Valley was not achieved at one stroke, nor is it complete to this day. This remains a war, for those waging it, in which no armament can be too costly, no strategy too quixotic. There are, according to The California Water Atlas, 980 miles of levee, 438 miles of canal. There are fifty miles of collecting canals and seepage ditches. There are three drainage pumping plants, five low-water check dams, thirty-one bridges, ninety-one gauging stations, and eight automatic shortwave-radio water-stage transmitters. There are seven weirs opening onto seven bypasses covering 101,000 acres. There are not just the big headwater dams, Shasta on the Sacramento and Folsom on the American and Oroville on the Feather, but all their predecessors and collateral dams, their afterbays and forebays and diversions. The cost of controlling or rearranging the Sacramento, which was to say the “reclamation” of the Sacramento Valley, was largely borne, like the cost of controlling or rearranging many other inconvenient features of California life, by the federal government.
The extreme reliance of California on federal money, so seemingly at odds with the emphasis on unfettered individualism that constitutes the local core belief, was a pattern set early on, and derived in part from the very individualism it would seem to belie. Charles Nordhoff, the grandfather of the co-author of Mutiny on the Bounty, complained of California in 1874 that “a speculative spirit invades even the farm-house,” too often tempting its citizens “to go from one avocation to another, to do many things superficially, and to look for sudden fortunes by the chances of a shrewd venture, rather than be content to live by patient and continued labor.”
Predicated as it was on this general notion of cutting loose and striking it rich, the California settlement had tended to attract drifters of loosely entrepreneurial inclination, the hunter-gatherers of the frontier rather than its cultivators, and to reward most fully those who perceived most quickly that the richest claim of all lay not in the minefields but in Washington. It was a quartet of Sacramento shopkeepers, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford and Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins, who built the railroad that both linked California with the world markets and opened the state to extensive settlement, but it was the rest of the country who paid for it, through a federal cash subsidy ($16,000 a mile in the valley and $48,000 a mile in the “mountains,” which were contractually defined as beginning six miles east of Sacramento) plus a federal land grant, ten or twenty checkerboarded square-mile sections, for each mile of track laid.
Nor did the role of the government stop with construction of the railroad: the rest of the country would also, in time, subsidize the crops the railroad carried, make possible the irrigation of millions of acres of essentially arid land, underwrite the rhythms of planting and not planting, and create, finally, a vast agricultural mechanism in a kind of market vacuum, quite remote from the normal necessity for measuring supply against demand and cost against return. Eighty-two thousand acres in California are now planted in alfalfa, a low-value crop requiring more water than is used in the households of all thirty million Californians. Almost a million and a half acres are planted in cotton, the state’s second biggest consumer of water, a crop subsidized directly by the federal government. Four hundred thousand acres are planted in rice, which involves keeping the fields under six inches of water from mid-April until the August harvest, months in which no rain falls. The 1.6 million acre-feet of water this requires (an acre-foot is roughly 326,000 gallons) is made available, even in drought years, for what amounts to a nominal subsidized price by the California State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, an agency of the federal government, which, through the commodity-support program of the Department of Agriculture, also subsidizes the crop itself. Ninety percent of this California rice is glutinous medium-grain Japonica, a type not popular in the United States but favored in both Japan and Korea, each of which bans the import of California rice. These are the kinds of contradictions on which Californians tend to founder when they try to think about the place they come from.
Josiah Royce, who was from 1885 until his death in 1916 a central figure in what later became known as the golden period of the Harvard philosophy department, was born in Grass Valley, not far from Sacramento, grew up there and in San Francisco, and in some sense spent the rest of his life trying to make coherent the discontinuities implicit in this inheritance. “My native town was a mining town in the Sierra Nevada—a place five or six years older than myself,” he said at a Festschrift given in his honor at the Walton Hotel in Philadelphia in 1915.
My earlier recollections include a very frequent wonder as to what my elders meant when they said that this was a new community…. The wide prospects when one looked across the Sacramento Valley were impressive, and had long interested the people of whose love for my country I heard much. What was there then in this place that ought to be called new, or for that matter, crude? I wondered, and gradually came to feel that part of my life’s business was to find out what all this wonder meant.
Here we come close to a peculiar California confusion: what Royce had actually made it his “life’s business” to do, his work, did not resolve “what all this wonder meant.” Instead, Royce invented an idealized California and made it part of an ethical system in which “loyalty” was the basic virtue, the moral law essential to the creation of “community,” which was in turn man’s only salvation. Yet the community most deeply recalled by the author of this system was what he acknowledged to have been “a community of irresponsible strangers” (or, in another reference, a “blind and stupid and homeless generation of selfish wanderers”), a community not of the “loyal” but of “men who have left homes and families, who have fled from before the word of the Lord, and have sought safety from their old vexatious duties in a golden paradise.”
Such calls to dwell upon the place and its meaning (and, if the meaning proved intractable, to reinvent the place) had been general in California since the first settlement, the very remoteness of which was sufficiently extreme to raise questions about why one was there, why one had come there, what the voyage would ultimately mean. The overland crossing itself had an aspect of quest: “One was going on a pilgrimage whose every suggestion was of the familiar sacred stories,” Royce wrote.
One sought a romantic and far-off golden land of promise, and one was in the wilderness of this world, often guided only by signs from heaven…. The clear blue was almost perpetually overhead; the pure mountain winds were about one; and again, even in the hot and parched deserts, a mysterious power provided the few precious springs and streams of water.
Each arriving traveler had been, by definition, reborn in the wilderness: the decision to set forth had been a kind of death, involving the total abandonment of all previous life, mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters who would never again be seen. This was my great-great-great-grandfather’s farewell to his mother, as recalled by one of his children.
Just ready to go, he entered his mother’s parlor. She went out with him to his horse to say the last words and to see him depart. She told him that she would never see him again in this world, gave him her blessing, and commended him to God. He then mounted his horse and rode away, while she followed him with a last look, until he vanished from sight.
This was an odyssey, moreover, with defined moral or spiritual “tests,” or challenges, and fatal consequences for failure. Children who died of cholera got buried on the trail. Women who believed they could keep some token of their worldly goods learned to jettison memory and keep moving. Sentiment, like grief and dissent, cost time. A hesitation, a moment spent looking back, and the grail was forfeited. Independence Rock, west of Fort Laramie on the Sweetwater River, was so named because the traveler who had not reached that point by the Fourth of July would not reach the Sierra Nevada before snow closed the passes.
The redemptive power of this crossing was, famously, the fixed idea of the California settlement, and one that raised a further question: For what, exactly, had one been redeemed? I was born in Sacramento, and have lived in California most of my life. I learned to swim in the Sacramento and the American, before the dams. I learned to drive on the levees up and down-river from Sacramento. Yet California has remained somehow impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma, as it has to many of us who are from there. We worry it, correct and revise it, try and fail to define our relationship to it and its relationship to the rest of the country. We make declamatory breaks with it, as Josiah Royce did when he left Berkeley for Harvard. “There is no philosophy in California—from Siskiyou to Ft. Yuma, and from the Golden Gate to the summit of the Sierras,” he had written to William James, who eventually responded to this cri de coeur with the offer from Harvard.
We make equally declamatory returns, as Frank Norris did, determined before his thirtieth birthday “to do some great work with the West and California as a background, and which will be at the same time thoroughly American.” The intention, Norris wrote to William Dean Howells, was “to write three novels around the one subject of Wheat. First, a story of California (the producer), second, a story of Chicago (the distributor), third, a story of Europe (the consumer) and in each to keep to the idea of this huge Niagara of wheat rolling from West to East. I think a big Epic trilogy could be made out of such a subject, that at the same time would be modern and distinctly American. The idea is so big that it frightens me at times but I have about made up my mind to have a try at it.”
Frank Norris’s experience with his subject appears to have been exclusively literary. He was raised in Chicago and then San Francisco, where he met the young woman he would eventually marry at a sub-debutante dance. He spent a year in Paris, studying art and writing a medieval romance, Yvernelle, A Tale of Feudal France, which his mother arranged to have published. He spent four years at Berkeley without taking the courses necessary for a degree, then a year as a nondegree student at Harvard. He covered the prelude to the Boer War for Collier’s and the San Francisco Chronicle, the Santiago campaign in Cuba for McClure’s. At the time he was seized by the trilogy-of-wheat notion, he was living in New York, at 61 Washington Square South.
The Octopus, published in 1901 and based on what was then quite recent history in the San Joaquin Valley, was, in the best sense, worked up: through well-situated friends, Ernest Peixotto and his wife (the Peixottos were a prominent San Francisco Jewish family, and Ernest Peixotto’s older sister Jessica, an economist, was one of the first women on the faculty of the University of California), Norris managed an introduction to a couple who had five thousand acres of wheat in San Benito County, and arranged to spend the summer of 1899 on their ranch near Hollister. San Benito County presented a gentler, more coastal landscape than the San Joaquin (“San Juan de Guadalajara,” the mission in The Octopus, was a borrow from San Juan Bautista near Hollister, there being no missions in the San Joaquin), but one in which an attentive reporter could nonetheless learn the mechanics of a big wheat operation.
The stuff of the novel, the incidents on which the narrative turns, came directly from actual events in the San Joaquin and in San Francisco. In the San Joaquin there had been, most notably, the 1880 shootout, at a place then called Mussel Slough but after the shootout renamed Lucerne Valley, between representatives of the Southern Pacific, which had become through its federal land grants the largest land-owner in California, and a group of local ranchers who were growing wheat on land leased from the railroad. The ranchers, under the rather wishful mis-apprehension that their lease agreements gave them the right to buy the land at $2.50 an acre (the agreements were vaguely worded, but quite clearly stated that the land would be made available at prices per acre of $2.50 “upward“), refused to pay the price, $17 to $40 an acre, ultimately set on the land.
The railroad obtained eviction orders, the ranchers resisted, and both the ranchers and the marshals sent to evict them began firing. Six ranchers ultimately died in this confrontation, which provided not only the climactic incident for The Octopus—the confrontation between eleven ranchers and the US marshals sent in to enforce eviction orders—but also the basis for Josiah Royce’s only novel, The Feud of Oakfield Creek. In 1893 in Tulare County, there had been the killing by a sheriff’s posse of John Sontag, an embittered Southern Pacific brakeman who had spent the previous three years dynamiting track and robbing trains, killing and wounding several lawmen. In San Francisco, in 1899, there had been the celebrated publication in the Examiner of Edwin Markham’s “The Man with the Hoe,” a rhetorical poem that decried the exploitation of labor but was said by its author to have been inspired, curiously, in one of the many apparent connections in California life that act only as baffles to further inquiry, by study of a Millet painting owned by Charles Crocker, one of the Central and Southern Pacific’s Big Four.
“The Man with the Hoe” appears in The Octopus as “The Toilers,” the newspaper poem that makes an instant celebrity of its author, Presley, the irresolute graduate of “an Eastern college” who is the novel’s protagonist. The publication of “The Toilers” enables Presley to dine at the table of “the Railroad King” (Blue Point oysters, purée à la Derby, ortolan patties, grenadins of bass and stuffed salmon, Londonderry pheasants, scallops of duck, risolettes à la pompadour, asparagus rushed to the hostess by special train within hours of its cutting) even as, outside in the fog, the dispossessed widow of one of the evicted San Joaquin wheat growers is literally starving to death, falling into her terminal coma on a vacant lot at the top of the Clay Street hill, her small daughter at her side, her older daughter already descended into prostitution.
Presley knows nothing of the fate of the widow, but had by chance run into the older daughter, her degradation apparent, that very afternoon, and this dinner at the house of the Railroad King is for him an occasion of considerable clarity. He sits at the opulent table as the Château Latour is poured and imagines the clink of the glasses “drowned in the explosion of revolvers” in the San Joaquin Valley. He sees, for an instant, “that splendid house sacked to its foundations, the tables overturned, the pictures torn, the hangings blazing, and Liberty, the red-handed Man in the Street, grimed with powder smoke, foul with the gutter, rush yelling, torch in hand, through every door.”
The intercutting from the dinner table inside to the widow and child outside is insistently allegorical, operatic, outsized, as is the subsequent death of the railroad’s agent in the hold of a cargo ship taking on wheat destined for Asia, consigned there by the blind force of the market even as widows and orphans starved for want of a heel of bread on the streets of San Francisco:
Deafened with the roar of the grain, blinded and made dumb with its chaff, he threw himself forward with clutching fingers, rolling upon his back, and lay there, moving feebly, the head rolling from side to side. The Wheat, leaping continuously from the chute, poured around him. It filled the pockets of the coat, it crept up the sleeves and trouser legs, it covered the great, protuberant stomach, it ran at last in rivulets into the distended, gasping mouth. It covered the face.
Upon the surface of the Wheat, under the chute, nothing moved but the Wheat itself. There was no sign of life. Then, for an instant, the surface stirred. A hand, fat, with short fingers and swollen veins, reached up, clutching, then fell limp and prone. In another instant it was covered.
The Octopus has been, from the outset, a troubling work, in part because its relentlessness could be so readily dismissed. As recently as 1991, in a discussion of the railroad’s role in the development of California, the quarterly publication of the California Historical Society was trying to separate the significance of that role from Norris’s “shrill, anti-corporate rhetoric,” his “superficial and distorted tale,” and pointing out that the cartoon image of the Southern Pacific as an octopus, with portraits of Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker for its eyes, long predated his use of it. There would in fact seem to be nothing subtle in The Octopus: the novel is barely underway when Presley catches sight of a train, and immediately translates it into
the galloping monster, the terror of steel and steam, with its single eye, cyclopean, red, shooting from horizon to horizon…huge, terrible, flinging the echo of its thunder over all the reaches of the valley, leaving blood and destruction in its path; the leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron-hearted Power, the monster, the Colossus, the Octopus.
Yet The Octopus remains perhaps the most complex statement to date of the California condition, and a deeply ambiguous work. Nothing in the novel is, on examination, quite what it seems. This is not a story of an agrarian society beset by the evils of industrialization: the octopus, if there is one, turns out to be not the railroad but indifferent nature, “a gigantic engine, a vast cyclopean power, huge, terrible, a leviathan with a heart of steel, knowing no compunction, no forgiveness, no tolerance; crushing out the human atom standing in its way, with nirvanic calm, the agony of destruction sending never a jar.” There are, as drawn by Norris, serious ambiguities about even the climactic shootout, not the least of which are that the ranchers never owned the land in dispute, had chosen to misread the lease agreements on the gamble that other growers would band together in such force as to render the papers useless, and had taken up raising wheat on railroad land in the first place only because the railroad was there to transport the wheat.
These wheat ranchers of the San Joaquin Valley, as presented by Nor-ris, are in no sense simple farmers. They are farmers with tickers in their offices, connecting the San Joaquin by wire with San Francisco and Chicago and New York and finally with Liverpool. “Fluctuations in the price of the world’s crop during and after the harvest thrilled straight to the office of Los Muertos, to that of the Quien Sabe, to Osterman’s, and to Broderson’s [the ranches in the novel]. During a flurry in the Chicago wheat pits in the August of that year, which had affected even the San Francisco market, Harran and Magnus had sat up nearly half of one night watching the strip of white tape jerking unsteadily from the reel.”
Nor are Magnus and Harran Derrick and Osterman and Broderson even “farmers,” in the conventional sense: they had come to the San Joaquin as an entrepreneurial move, after other ventures (in mining, in politics, in whatever had presented itself) had failed or gone dry, and after, most importantly and most ambiguously, the railroad had opened the San Joaquin to profitable cultivation by offering, for the first time, a way to move its crops to market. The proprietor of Los Muertos, Magnus Derrick, the nearest the novel gets to a tragic hero, is nonetheless characterized by Norris as a high-stakes gambler, a miner at heart, come to the San Joaquin in search of a quick killing:
It was the true California spirit that found expression through him, the spirit of the West, unwilling to occupy itself with details, refusing to wait, to be patient, to achieve by legitimate plodding; the miner’s instinct of wealth acquired in a single night prevailed, in spite of all. It was in this frame of mind that Magnus and the multitude of other ranchers of whom he was a type, farmed their ranches. They had no love for their land. They were not attached to the soil. They worked their ranches as a quarter of a century before they had worked their mines…. To get all there was out of the land, to squeeze it dry, to exhaust it, seemed their policy. When, at last, the land worn out, would refuse to yield, they would invest their money in something else; by then, they would all have made fortunes. They did not care.
Norris’s San Joaquin wheat growers were, then, of a common enough type in California, the speculators noted by Charles Nordhoff in 1874, the entrepreneurs in search of the shrewd venture, men who might themselves have been running the railroad had they seen the opportunity, held the right cards, been quicker players. Confronted with the demands of the railroad (which was pressing not only to evict the ranchers but to raise freight rates) and its bought members of the railroad commission, the first response of the ranchers in The Octopus is to buy a commissioner of their own, but (still not quick enough players) they buy the wrong man, Magnus Derrick’s politically ambitious older son, who sells out to the railroad. That the only actual conflict in The Octopus turns out to be between successful and failed members of the same entrepreneurial class creates a deep and troubled confusion in the novel, a dissonance its author grasped but failed to resolve. This dissonance, which had to do with the slippage between the way Californians perceived themselves and the way they were, between what they believed to be their unlimited possibilities and the limitations implicit in their own character and history, might have been Norris’s great subject, but he died, at thirty-two, of peritonitis, before he could work it through.
Hollister, the San Benito County town near which Norris spent the summer of 1899 researching The Octopus, was named for, and built on land at that time only recently owned by, an emigrant from Ohio named William Welles Hollister. In 1852, William Welles Holister had driven some three hundred head of cattle from Ohio to California, sold them, and returned home. In 1853, he again made the crossing, driving not cattle but sheep, five thousand head. This time he stayed, and over the next twenty years he and two partners, Albert and Thomas Dibblee, accumulated some 200,000 acres of ranch land ranging from Monterey and San Benito countries south to Santa Barbara. William Welles Hollister was the sole owner of 39,000 acres in Santa Barbara County alone, including what was called the Hollister ranch, at the time of its sale in 1967 one of the last intact coastal properties of its size between the Oregon and Mexican borders, 25,000 acres and the twenty miles of coastline stretching from Point Conception to south of Gaviota.
Such extensive holdings, typically acquired on very little equity, were not, at the time of their acquisition, entirely unusual, nor did William Welles Hollister and the Dibblee brothers even count among the largest private owners. By the time James Ben Ali Haggin and Lloyd Tevis consolidated their properties in 1890 as the Kern County Land Company, they had acquired, throughout the Southwest, almost a million and a half acres, roughly a third of them in the San Joaquin valley. Henry Miller, another big owner, who once said that he could drive his cattle from Oregon to the Mexican border and sleep them every night on his own land, had arrived in San Francisco in 1850 with six dollars in his pocket, and gone to work as a butcher. Within twenty years, he and his partner, Charles Lux, also a butcher in San Francisco, had gained control of ten to twelve million acres in California, a million and a half acres owned outright and leases or grazing rights on the rest, vast tracts largely acquired through imaginative interpretation of the small print in federal legislation.
Miller, for example, made deals with cash-hungry veterans, buying up, at a discount, the land options to which they were entitled as a service benefit. He also made deft use of the federal Reclamation Act of 1850, which had granted California’s “swamp and overflow” land to the state, which in turn sold it for $1.15 to $1.25 an acre. Henry Miller was instrument in getting large parts of California classified as swamp, in one instance by hooking up a team of horses to tow a rowboat over the land in question. Nor was this even, at the time, an obscure angle: Power and Land in California (now available as Politics of Land), the 1971 report of the Ralph Nader Task Force on land use in California, noted that two of the state surveyors responsible for classifying land as “swamp and overflow” each left office with 300,000 acres.
Such landowners tended to have not much interest in presenting themselves as the proprietors of farms or estates on the eastern, which was to say the English, model. William H. Brewer, who came out from Pennsylvania in 1860 to assist Josiah Dwight Whitney in the first geological survey of California, complained that the owner of 80,000 acres between Gaviota Pass and San Luis Obispo lived “about half as well as a man would at home who owned a hundred-acre farm paid for.” Some ninety years later, Carey McWilliams, in California: The Great Exception, remarked on the almost total absence of conventional “rural” life in California, which would be, were it a country, the world’s seventh largest agricultural producer:
The large shipper-growers “farm by phone” from headquarters in San Francisco or Los Angeles. Many of them travel, nowadays, exclusively by plane in visiting their various “operations”…. Their relationship to the land is as casual as that of the migratory workers they employ.
To live as farmers would have been, for the acquisitors of these operations, a bewilderingly alien concept, since their holdings were about something else altogether: they were temporary chips in the greater game of capital formation.
This is well known, yet remains an elusive point for many Californians, particularly those with a psychic investment in one or another heightened version of the founding period. Almost no one in California speaks of “farmers,” in the sense the word is used in the rest of the country, and yet a persistent suggestion of constructive husbandry continues to cloud the retrospect. What amounted to the subsidized monopolization of California tends to be reinvented either as “settlement” (the settlers came, the desert bloomed) or, even more ideally, as a kind of foresighted commitment on the part of the acquisitors, a dedication to living at one with both the elemental wilderness and an improved patrician past.
“We had all shared in the glamour of immense, privately owned land,” one of William Welles Hollister’s seven grandchildren, Jane Hollister Wheelwright, wrote in The Ranch Papers: A California Memoir, the book she published in 1988, twenty-one years after the sale of the Hollister cattle ranch.
We lived in a fantastic but real world of our own discovery: square miles of impassable terrain, wild cattle threatening on the trail, single coyotes caterwauling like a pack, pumas screaming, storms felling giant oaks, washouts that marooned us for days, wildfires that lasted weeks and scorched whole mountain ranges.
Her father, she tells us, rarely wore his chapaderos, and did not use his silver-inlaid saddle, “but our Mexican ranch hands knew him for what he was. They called him ‘El Patrón’.”
Jane Hollister Wheelwright’s sense of her entitlement seems, in The Ranch Papers, more layered than that of many inheritors, more complicated, even tortured. The Hollisters, she concludes, “had been given a chance to live a part of history, to experience an era virtually extinct elsewhere in California.” Yet she remained reluctant to confront the contradictions in that history. Her idea of what the land meant remained heightened, and in the familiar way. She mentions in passing that the ranch supported “a large herd of white-faced Hereford cattle,” but offers no sense of a working cattle operation. She sees her father as “one of the last of the gentlemen cattlemen of the era of large family ranches in California.” She accompanies a photograph of herself at twenty with an apparently meaningful quotation from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac: “There are two kinds of people: those who can live without wild things and those who cannot.”
Yet she seems to have quite deliberately chosen, at age twenty-four, to live without wild things: she married a psychiatrist, became a lay analyst, was herself analyzed by Jung, gave birth to a daughter in China and a son in London, and returned to San Francisco with her husband to found, in 1943, the world’s first Jungian training center. What we seem to have here is a story of an acquisitive grandfather, a father who retreated, and a daughter, Jane Hollister, who struck out in other directions. It was nonetheless she, not her brothers or cousins, who inherited the power to vote more than half the shares in the ranches. “My father must have known that I was as stubborn as he and would try to tackle the problems; and as the only woman I would be outside the male competition,” she wrote in The Ranch Papers. “But the outrage it caused only compounded the existing situation, and so the struggle began amongst the seven of us.”
That the nature of this struggle is not described in the The Ranch Papers is a telling lacuna. It would appear to have focused, since the need to sell was a given, on the terms of the sale: to whom, for how much, in exchange for what contingent agreements. One senses that the daughter may have favored, perhaps more than her brothers and cousins did, the ultimate buyer: a Los Angeles developer described in The Ranch Papers, again ideally, as “an enterprising but environment-minded Los Angeles man,” whose plan was to rezone the property into hundred-acre parcels and present the whole as an exclusive planned retreat.
In California as elsewhere, a buyer with a plan for this kind of low-density development signifies something quite specific: this is a buyer who means to pay less for the land than one with a plan for more intensive development. Joan Irvine Smith , even as the Hollisters were falling out, insisted, against the opposition of some in her own family, that her great-grandfather’s 88,000 acres in Orange County be intensively developed. Whether Jane Hollister’s decision to divide her grandfather’s ranch into hundred-acre parcels was in the end more intrinsically tuned to the spirit of the place remains an unconfronted question.
I recall seeing advertising for what came to be called “Hollister Ranch,” emphasizing how very few and what selected achievers could hope to live there. As it happens my father was at Berkeley with one of the Hollisters, someone of an age to have been one of Jane Hollister’s brothers or cousins; I do not remember his name and my father is dead. I remember this at all only because, every time we drove south and again at the time the ranch was sold, my father mentioned that the effort to keep their holding intact had left the Hollisters unable to afford, in 1930 or 1931, during the Depression, to let one of their children finish Berkeley. This was offered as a lesson, I am unsure to what point.
The lesson Jane Hollister Wheelwright took from the sale, proceeding as she did from within what amounts to a fable of confusion, concerned what she called the debatable questions: “Whether land can belong to anyone or whether one belongs to the land.” She concluded, unsurprisingly, that land belonged to no one. Yet it did: at the time the Hollister ranch was sold, roughly two and a half million acres of California still belonged to the Southern Pacific. Almost half a million acres belonged to the Shasta Forest Company. A third of a million acres belonged to Tenneco, another third of a million each to the Tejon Ranch Company, Standard Oil, and Boise Cascade. Two hundred seventy-eight thousand acres belonged to Georgia Pacific. Two hundred fifty thousand belonged to Pacific Gas &38; Electric. Two hundred thousand belonged to Occidental Petroleum, 192,000 to Sunkist, 171,062 to Pacific Lumber, 155,000 to Fibreboard Corporation, and 152,000 to the Newhall Land and Farming Company. Another 1,350,045 acres belonged to, among them, American Forest Products, Times Mirror, the Penn Central, Hammond Lumber, Kaiser Industries, the Masonite Corporation, J. G. Boswell, International Paper, Diamond International Corporation, Vail, Miller and Lux, and the Irvine Ranch Company. Some of these were California companies; some were not. The majority were diversified, no more interested in what grew or grazed on their land than Jane Hollister had been on hers, but quicker players, all of them, than the Hollisters had proved to be.
Jane Hollister Wheelwright’s mother, Lottie Steffens Hollister, was the sister of Lincoln Steffens, who wrote The Shame of the Cities and later said of the Soviet Union that he had seen the future and it worked. Lincoln Steffens was Jane Hollister’s “Uncle Steffie,” and she his “Lady Jane.” The Steffens children had grown up in a house in Sacramento a block from the house in which, in 1908, my father was born. The Steffens house later became the governor’s mansion, in which both Jerry Brown and his sister Kathleen lived during the years their father, Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown, was the thirty-second governor of California. Jerry Brown was himself the thirty-fourth governor of California. Kathleen Brown is preferred, by 53 percent of those registered California voters polled in May be the Field Institute, to become the thirty-seventh. I went to Berkeley with their sister Barbara.
There are many connections in California life, and like Charles Crocker’s Millet as the inspiration for “The Man with the Hoe,” not much connects: my mother’s father, who lived in Sacramento but grew up on the Georgetown Divide in El Dorado County, remained convinced to his death that Edwin Markham, who had been superintendent of schools in El Dorado County from 1882 until 1886, did not write “The Man with the Hoe,” but was given the poem by, in my grandfather’s words, “an emigrant wayfarer from who Markham purchased it for a small amount of money, and thereby helped the traveler along his way.” Item: the New York Times, August 27, 1993, “Diner’s Journal,” subhead “Poetry in Eating”:
Clark Wolf and Ansell Hawkins have decided on Markham as the name for their American restaurant opening in October at 59 Fifth Avenue, at 13th Street, in Greenwich Village. It’s after Edwin Markham, a 19th-century American poet whose most famous work was “The Man With the Hoe.” “We like the idea of a poet who wrote about farmers and we also liked the name,” Mr. Wolf said. As for who will be the man with the whisk in the kitchen, the partners have hired Mark Spangenthal, who was in charge of the cooking at Luxe after the departure of Rick Laakkonen last month.
Jane Hollister Wheelwright, who was herself born in Sacramento, saw as a kind of death the intrusion onto the Hollister ranch of two Chevron pipelines but, still living within the fable of an ideal past, was untroubled, even comforted, by the presence of the Southern Pacific, which her grandfather had actively supported, and to which he had given a sixty-foot right-of-way along the coast. On her farewell rides through the ranch she observed the daily appearance of The Daylight, the Southern Pacific’s principal passenger train to Los Angeles, and noted that it “seemed to belong there, and did not jar the feeling of the coast in the slightest. The noises it made recalled my childhood when we had no other way of telling time, and the sound of a whistle in the distance meant we were hopelessly late for lunch.”
The eighth governor of California, Leland Stanford, was at the time of his election the president of the Central Pacific and later the president of the Southern Pacific. Hiram Johnson, the twenty-third governor of California, was elected as a reform candidate pledged to break the power of the Southern Pacific. Hiram Johnson’s father, Grove Johnson, had fled upstate New York under indictment for forgery in 1863, settled in Sacramento, become clerk of the county Swamp Land Board, been implicated in two vote-rigging scandals, and been elected, in 1877, to the California State Assembly. “The interests of the railroad and Sacramento are identical, and should always remain so,” the elder Johnson declared during this campaign. “They should labor together like man and wife, only to be divorced by death.” When Hiram Johnson went to Berkeley in 1884 he lived at the Chi Phi house, as did, forty-five years later, my father and my uncle and the Hollister who had to drop out of school. When I went to Berkeley some years later I lived, as did Barbara Brown, at the Tri Delt house. This was a California, into the nineteen-fifties, so hermetic, so isolated by geography and by history and also by inclination, that when I first read The Octopus, at age twelve or thirteen, in Sacramento, I did not construe it to have a personal relevance, since the events described took place not in the Sacramento Valley but somewhere else, the San Joaquin.
Not much about California, on its own preferred terms, has encouraged its children to see themselves as connected to one another. The separation of north from south and even more acutely of west from east, was profound, fueled by the rancor of water wars and by less tangible but equally rancorous differences in attitude and culture. My mother made the trip from Sacramento to Los Angeles in 1932, to see the Olympics, and did not find reason to make it again for thirty years. In the north we had San Francisco, with its Beaux Arts buildings and eucalyptus, its yearnings backward and westward, its resolutely anecdotal “color”; a place as remote and mannered as the melancholy colonial capitals of Latin America, and as isolated. When I was at Berkeley and had gone home to Sacramento for a weekend I would sometimes take the Southern Pacific’s transcontinental City of San Francisco back down, not the most convenient train (for one thing it was always late) but one that suggested, carrying as it did the glamour of having come across the mountains from the rest of America, that our isolation might not be an indefinite sentence.
I see now that the life I was raised to admire was entirely the product of this isolation, infinitely romantic, but in a kind of vacuum, its only antecedent aesthetic, and the aesthetic only the determined “Bohemianism” of nineteenth-century San Francisco. The clothes chosen for me as a child had a strong element of the Pre-Raphaelite, muted greens and ivories, dusty rose, what seems in retrospect as eccentric amount of black. I still have the black mantilla I was given to wear when I stared to go to dances, not the kind of handkerchief triangle Catholic women used to keep in their pockets and glove compartments but several years of heavy black lace. It had been my great-grandmother’s, I have no idea why, since this particular great-grandmother was from Oregon, with no reason to have bought into a romance-of-the-ranchos scenario.
We lived in dark houses and favored, a preference so definite that it passed as a test of character, copper and brass that had darkened and greened. We also let our silver darken, which was said to “bring out the pattern.” To this day I am put off by highly polished silver: it looks “new.” This predilection for the “old” extended into all of domestic life: dried flowers were seen to have a more subtle charm than fresh, prints should be faded, wallpaper streaked by the sun. Our highest moment in this area was the acquisition, in 1951, of a house in which the curtains on the stairs had not been changed since 1907. These curtains were of unlined (and faded, naturally) gold silk organza, hung almost two stories, billowed iridescent with every breath of air, and, if touched crumbled.
Stressing as it did an extreme if ungrounded individualism, this was not an ambiance that tended toward a view of life defined as limited or controlled, or even in any way affected, by the social and economic structures of the larger world. To be a Californian was to see oneself, if one believed the lessons the place seemed most immediately to offer, as affected only by “nature,” which in turn was seen to exist simultaneously as a source of inspiration or renewal (“Born again!” John Muir noted in the journal of his first trip into Yosemite) and as the ultimate brute reckoning. Much of the California landscape has tended to present itself as metaphor: the redwoods, the Mojave, the coast at Big Sur, Mono Lake, the great vistas of the Sierra, especially those of the Yosemite Valley, which, Kevin Starr has pointed out, “offered Californians an objective correlative for their ideal sense of themselves: a people animated by heroic imperatives.”
Lessons could be found even in less histrionic features: climbing Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County at sunrise was seen, in my grandmother’s generation, as a convenient transformative experience, as was any contemplation of the opening to the Pacific that John C. Fremont had named the Golden Gate. Josiah Royce, in the 1879 essay “Meditation Before the Gate,” reflected on the view of the Gate from Berkeley and pledged himself to pursue his philosophical inquiries
independently, because I am a Californian, as little bound to follow mere tradition as I am liable to find an audience by preaching in this wilderness; reverently, because I am thinking and writing face to face with a mighty and lovely Nature, by the side of whose greatness I am but as a worm.
This is interesting, a quite naked expression of what has been the California conundrum. Scaled against Yosemite, or against the view through the Gate of the Pacific trembling on its tectonic plates, the slightest shift of which could and did destroy the works of man in a millisecond, all human beings were of course but as worms, their “heroic imperatives” futile, their philosophical inquiries absurd.
There were no people in this California, or people did not matter: I have been writing about people in California my entire adult life, yet the three phrases that come first to mind when I try to define the place to myself refer exclusively to its landscape, and are not my own but borrowed, one from the language of broadcast weather reports and one from I think John Muir and the last, and most persistent, from Robinson Jeffers: Point Conception to the Mexican border. The Range of Light. Beautiful country burn again, Point Pinos down to / the Sur Rivers.
This is the point in the California experience when discussion stops, and many voices fade. Read in situ, Robinson Jeffers makes seductive sense: Burn as before with bitter wonders, land and ocean and / the Carmel water, and when the cities lie at the / monster’s feet there are left the mountains. Royce in fact seems to have maintained an exhausting but finally vain alert against the undertow of this localized nihilism. At sixty, in despair at the prospect of World War I and a few months short of his fatal stroke, Royce encountered in Harvard Yard one of his students, Horace Kallen, who, according to Robert V. Hine’s Josiah Royce: From Grass Valley to Harvard, reported that “his round blue eyes looked staring, and without recognition. And then he said in a voice somehow thinner,…’You are on the side of humanity, aren’t you?'” A few months before, describing himself as “socially ineffective as regards genuine ‘team play,’ ignorant of politics, an ineffective member of committees, and a poor helper of concrete social enterprises,” as well as “a good deal of non-conformist, and disposed to a certain rebellion,” Royce had acknowledged that the “community” he aspired to remained in some way alien to him:
When I review this whole process, I strongly feel that my deepest motives and problems have centered about the Idea of Community, although this idea has only come gradually to my clear consciousness. This was what I was intensely feeling, in the days when my sisters and I looked across the Sacramento Valley, and wondered about the great world beyond our mountains…. So much of the spirit that opposes the community I have and have always had in me, simply, deeply, elementally.
Of course he had it in him, because of what he was: “because I am a Californian,” he himself had written, “as little bound to follow mere tradition….” In 1970 I spent a month in the South, in Louisiana and Alabama and Mississippi, under the misapprehension that an understanding of the South, which had given California a good deal of its original settlement, would improve my understanding of California. One of the many differences between the South and California was this: in South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it.
The Bohemian Club of San Francisco was founded, in 1872, by members of the city’s working press, who saw it as both a declaration of unconventional or “artistic” interests and a place to get a beer and a sandwich after the bulldog closed. Frank Norris was a member, as was Henry George, who had not yet published Progress and Poverty. There were poets: Joaquin Miller, George Sterling. There were writers: Jack London, Samuel Clemens, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce. John Muir belonged to the Bohemian Club, and so did Joseph Le Conte. For a few years the members appear to have remained resolute in their determination not to admit the merely rich (they had refused membership to William C. Ralston, the president of the Bank of California), but their over-ambitious spending, on both the club in town and its periodic “encampments” in the redwoods north of San Francisco, quite soon overwhelmed this intention. According to the San Francisco publisher Edward Bosqui, a member who wrote a memoir of the period, it was at this point decided to “invite an element to join the club which the majority of the members held in contempt, namely men who had money as well as brains, but who were not, strictly speaking, Bohemians.”
By 1927, a year after George Sterling committed suicide during a club dinner for H. L. Mencken by going upstairs to bed and swallowing cyanide (he had been depressed, he had been drinking, Frank Norris’s brother had replaced him as toastmaster for the Mencken dinner), the Bohemian Club was banning any art from its annual exhibit that seemed ” in radical and unreasonable departure from laws of art.” By 1974, when William Domhoff, then a professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, wrote The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats: A Study in Ruling-Class Cohesiveness, one if five resident members and one in three non-resident members was listed in Poor’s Register of Corporations, Executives, and Directors. Among those attending the summer encampment at Bohemian Grove in 1970, the year for which Domhoff obtained a list, “at least one officer of director from forty of the fifty largest industrial corporations in America was present…. Similarly, we found that officers and directors from twenty to the top twenty-five commercial banks (including all of the fifteen largest) were on our lists. Men from twelve of the first twenty-five life-insurance companies were in attendance (eight of these twelve were from the top ten).”
The summer encampment had evolved into a special kind of enchanted circle, one in which these captains of American finance and industry could entertain, on their own turf, the temporary management of that political structure on which their own fortunes ultimately depended. When Dwight Eisenhower visited the Grove in 1950, eleven years before he made public his concern about the military-industrial complex, he traveled on a special train arranged by the president of the Santa Fe Railroad. Domhoff noted that both Henry Kissinger and Melvin Laird, then secretary of defense, were present at the 1970 encampment, as were David M. Kennedy, then secretary of the treasury, and Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. John Ehrlichman, as the guest of Leonard Firestone, represented the White House. Walter J. Hickel, at the time secretary of the interior, was the guest of Fred L. Hartley, the president of Union Oil.
During the summer encampment there are, every day at twelve-thirty, “Lakeside Talks,” informal speeches and briefings, off the record. Kissinger, Laird, and William P. Rogers, then secretary of state, gave Lakeside talks in 1970. Local color is measured: the fight songs sung remain those of the traditional California schools, Berkeley (or, this venue, “Cal”) and Stanford, yet it has been for some years a rule of the Bohemian Club that no Californian, unless he is a member, may be asked as a guest during the two-week midsummer (as opposed to an earlier weekend encampment know as “Spring Jinks,” to which Californians may be invited) encampment. The list for the 1985 midsummer encampment, the most recent I have seen, the members and their “camp,” the hundred-some self-selected groupings situated back through the hills and canyons and off the road to the Russian River. Each camp has a name, for example Stowaway, or Pink Onion, or Silverado Squatters, or Lost Angels. Some camps are elaborate, others primitive. Some sleep as few as two or three members and their guests, others more than a hundred.
For the 1985 encampment, Caspar Weinberger was due at Isle of Aves, James Baker III at Wood. “George H. W. Bush” appears on the list for Hill Billies, as do, among others, Frank Borman, William F. Buckley, Jr., and his son Christopher, Walter Cronkite, A. W. Clausen of the Bank of America and the World Bank, and Frank A. Sprole of Bristol-Myers. George Schultz was on the list for Mandalay, along with William French Smith, Thomas Watson, Jr., Nicholas Brady, Leonard K. Firestone, Peter Flanigan, Gerald Ford, Najeeb Halaby, Philip M. Hawley, J. K. Horton, Edgar F. Kaiser, Jr., Henry A. Kissinger, John McCone, and two of the Bechtels. Still, in the traditional tableaux performed at every Grove encampemtn, the Spirit of Bohemia could nonetheless be seen to triumph over Mammon, God of Gold, and all his gnomes and promises and bags of treasure:
SPIRIT: Nay, Mammon. For one thing it cannot buy.
MAMMON: What cannot it buy?
SPIRIT: A happy heart!
The transformation of the Bohemian Club from a lively if frivolous gathering of local free spirits to a nexus of the nation’s corporate and political interests in many ways mirrored a larger transformation, that of California itself from what it had been to what it is now, an entirely dependent colony of the invisible empire in which those corporate and political interests are joined. In 1868, four years before he helped to found the Bohemian Club, Henry George, twenty-nine years old and previously unpublished, wrote a piece in the Overland Monthly in which he tried to locate “the peculiar charm of California, which all who have lived here long feel,” and concluded that it resided in the character of its people:
there has been a feeling of personal independence and equality, a general hopefulness and self-reliance, and a certain large-heartedness and open-handedness which were born of the comparative evenness with which property was distributed, the high standard of wages and of comfort, and the latent feeling of everyone that he might “make a strike.”
This piece, “What the Railroads Will Bring Us,” was intended, of course, as an antidote to the enthusiasm then general about the windfall to be realized by giving the state to the Southern Pacific:
Let us see clearly whither we are tending. Increase in population and in wealth past a certain point means simply an approximation to the condition of older countries—the eastern states and Europe….The truth is, that the completion of the railroad and the consequent great increase of business and population, will not be a benefit to all of us, but only to a portion….This crowding of people into immense cities, this aggregation of wealth into large lumps, this marshalling of men into big gangs under the control of the great “captains of industry,” does not tend to foster personal independence—the basis of all virtues—nor will it tend to preserve the characteristics which particularly have made Californians proud of their state.
“What the Railroads Will bring Us” remained, into my generation at least, routine assigned reading for California children, one more piece of evidence that assigned reading makes nothing happen. I used to think the piece overstated the role of the railroad, and in one sense it does: the railroad, of course, was merely the last stage of a process already underway, one that had its basis in the character of the settlement, in the very quality recommended by “What the Railroads Will Bring Us” as “hopefulness,” or “self-reliance,” or “the latent feeling of everyone that he might ‘make a strike’.”
Josiah Royce, who understood the negative side of this character but persisted in what was for him the essential conviction that the community corrects all character, saw 1856 as the point at which “the individual ceases to have any very great historical significance for California life, and where the community begins to be what it out to be, viz., all important as against individual doings and interests.” Royce allowed that “a general sense of social irresponsibility is, even today, the average Californian’s easiest failing.” Still, he seemed temperamentally unable to consider an “average Californian” who would not, in the end, see that his won best interests lay in cooperation, in the amelioration of differences, in a certain willingness to forgo the immediate windfall for the larger or even his own long-term good. This was the same “average Californian” who, by the year Royce wrote, 1886, had already sold half the state to the Southern Pacific and was in the process of mortgaging the rest to the federal government.
The distress in which California now finds itself has as it proximate cause the withdrawal of the federal money that kept the defense industry afloat and the subsequent decision by the surviving defense prime contractors to concentrate operations out of state. According to the Commission on State Finance in Sacramento, defense spending in California peaked in 1988 at (in constant 1993 dollars) $63 billion dollars. Defense spending in California is down to $50 billion for 1993, and will fall by 1997, under exiting budges, to $33 billion. This would seem straightforward, but is not regarded so by many Californians, who have tended to place the blame for their malaise on, variously, the “East Coast media,” immigration, the overregulation of California industry, and, most reliably, certain failures on the part of the federal government.
Among these perceived failures are: that of the federal government to supply a “level playing field” by requiring comparable industrial regulation in the southern and southwestern states; that of the federal government to adequately support conversion of weapons production to peacetime industry; that of the federal government to enforce control of its southern border; that of the federal government to provide more than the $324 million dollars already allocated for the social services said to be required by immigrants; and, not exactly the government’s but a related failure, that of the California congressional delegation to bring home not just the bacon but the whole pork.
“California has lost several lucrative federal contracts to other states because the state’s fragmented congressional delegation has not consolidated its clout,” the Los Angeles Times complained in 1991 editorial. “Now after years of trying, California congressional leaders have formed the California Institute, nonprofit think tank backed by corporate financing, to identify federal money and projects. Let’s hope this helps.”
The complaint about the “East Coast media” is an old one, a fixed idea reinforced over the years by the persistent tendency of reporters from outside California to interpret Los Angeles and to a lesser extent San Francisco as if they were aberrant or failed eastern cities. The 1992 Los Angeles riot, for example, was quite generally interpreted as a black-against-white race riot, on the Detroit model, when in fact it was demonstrably more diffuse, an amorphous confrontation of the less propertied of all races against the marginally propertied of all races. Such misunderstandings encourage a defensiveness, which, combined with the reflex toward boosterism natural to what had been a remote and rapidly developing society, emerges as the self-defeating assertion that the only problem facing California is one of “image.”
This is a mood in which virtually any comment is perceived as adverse, and any perceived adversary made animate: “Poor New York , thousands of miles away, senses that something is going on in California but hasn’t a clue,” Richard Rodriguez wrote in an August “Opinion” piece in the Los Angeles Times. “All summer, New York has been taken by the notion that the California dream is tarnished.” In a May column in the Los Angeles Times, Joel Kotkin and David Friedman (Friedman is a Los Angeles attorney, Kotkin a fellow at the Pepperdine University School of Business and Management and frequent “quote” on California) mentioned the “relentlessly negative media attacks on California,” the “doomsday fusillades from the East Coast media,” and the need for California to “rediscover its self-confidence, much as New York City did during its ‘I Love New York’ campaign of the 1980’s.” Their piece concluded on this rather sinister note: “California’s business, media, and political leaders should begin to question aggressively the accuracy and motives of our most determined detractors.”
The widely held conviction that California’s distress is the result of “immigration” was also predictable, since the state has had a remarkably tenacious history of vigilance committees, arson and rioting directed especially against Asians, and the passage of exclusionary legislation. The Foreign Miners’ License Tax of 1850 exacted a monthly fee of any non-citizen who wanted to work a claim. In 1854, an existing law prohibiting Negroes and Indians from testifying in court against whites was extended to also prohibit testimony by Chinese. The state legislature barred “Mongolians, Indians, and Negroes” from public schools in 1860; barred Chines from employment in corporations or on public works projects in 1879; excluded further immigration from China in 1892; and amended an existing miscegenation law to include Chinese in 1906. The state Alien Land Act of 1913 effectively prohibited land ownership in California to Asians. The Alien Land Act of 1920 prevented Asians from buying California land in the name of their American-born children.
Such legislation has of course been overridden or repealed (the Alien Land Act as recently as 1952), but there lingers sturdy residue of what Josiah Royce described as “a diseased local exaggeration of our common national feeling towards foreigners.” The rhetorical evocation of immigrants siphoning the fat off the land remains, especially in hard times, a reliable vein for California politicians, very few of who this year have resisted a photo op at the Mexican border. As of August 1993, according to the Field Poll, 70 percent of Californians sampled favored the one-dollar border toll proposed by Senator Dianne Feinstein. Sixty-six percent supported Senator Barbara Boxer’s proposal to deploy the National Guard along the Mexican border. Fifty percent supported Governor Pete Wilson’s proposal to amend the Constitution of the United States in order to deny citizenship to children born in the United States of illegally admitted parents. “They can kiss my rear end if they can leap that high from the low road where they are dwelling habitually,” Wilson said after he had been criticized by the state’s Democratic leadership on this issue; who had the lower road here was hard to discern, since the criticism of Wilson centered on his having “flip-flopped,” or been insufficiently “tough” on immigration in the past.
The reiteration of the ways in which the federal government has failed California is a more complicated and elusive complaint than those about immigration or the media, because the idea of depending on the government of course runs counter to the preferred self-image of most Californians. Yet California’s current distress can in fact be seen as the logical result of its almost total reliance on the federal government, which is to say on the national and multinational companies whose interests are most closely reflected in the actions of the federal government. This process of trading the state to outside owners in exchange for their (it now seems) entirely temporary agreement to enrich us, in other words the pauperization of California, in fact began at the time Americans first entered the state, took what they could, and, abetted by the native weakness for boosterism, set about selling the rest. It was not just that federal money subsidized the weapons contracts that gave California, between 1940 and 1990, half a century of boom years. It was also, as we have seen, federal money, spent on behalf of a broad spectrum of business interests, that built the railroad and opened the state to the rest of the world. It was also federal money, as we have seen, again spend on behalf of a broad spectrum of business interest, that created what is no longer locally even called agribusiness, just “ag.”
Henry George asked what the railroad would bring, but not too many other people did. Many people are now asking whether it served the common weal to transform the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys from a shallow sea to a protected hothouse requiring the annual application of 3.87 tons of chemical pesticides on every square mile, but not too many people asked this before the dams; those who did, for whatever reason, were categorized as “environmentalists,” a word loosely used in this part of California to describe any perceived threat to life of absolute personal freedom its citizens believe they lead. “California likes to be fooled,” Cedarquist, in The Octopus, the owner of a failed San Francisco iron works, advises Presley when they happen to meet at the Bohemian Club. “Do you suppose Shelgrem [the Collis P. Huntington figure] could convert the whole San Joaquin Valley into his back yard otherwise?”
What has made California so rich a resource for the owners and managers who arrive in G-4s for the annual encampment at Bohemian Grove was precisely the readiness with which its citizens were, and seem still to be, willing to see it. Joel Kotkin and David Friedman, in another piece in the Los Angeles Times, cited, as evidence of California’s “tremendous long-term potential” (“…contrary to the crystallizing conventional wisdom…”) the fact that “at least seven new banks from Taiwan” are beginning “to make their presence felt in the local economy,” in what way was left unspecified. This piece was also enthusiastic at the prospect of “newly rich buyers from mainland China,: with more than $50 billion in foreign-currency reserves at their disposal. The city of Los Angeles is even now attempting to sell its downtown central library, the landmark Bertram Goodhue building at Fifth and Flower, to a subsidiary of the Philip Morris Company. The price agreed upon is reportedly $70 million. The deal is a sale-leaseback-buyback, calling for the city to lease the library back, at $5 million a year (the five million would come from funds previously allocated for low-income housing), for a period of time described rather loosely in the Times as “twenty to thirty years.”
The city, at the end of however long this period of time may in fact be, would have the option to buy back the building at a prearranged price, reportedly $49 million. Where the money for the repurchase would come from remains uncertain, since the city means to wipe out a $40 million shortfall in this year’s budget with cash received from Philip Morris. Seventy minus forty is thirty. Thirty minus ten, the amount needed to pay off a previous mortgage the Community Redevelopment Agency had placed on the building, is twenty. Twenty minus, six, an amount not yet accounted for, is fourteen, the amount the city intends to place in what the Times calls “security accounts” for the repurchase of the building.
Fourteen million dollars would, in normal times, returning close to 7 percent compounded annually for twenty years, yield $49 million required to buy back the building. Questions spring to mind: Who exactly defines a “security account”? What kind of secure securities have been paying 7 percent? What are normal times, and will they come our way? What would Philip Morris get to justify spending seventy to get what would be in the end, since the rent and the expenses could well even out, considerably less?
The answer to at least one of these questions is this: Philip Morris would get federal tax credits, to an unspecified amount, under legislation meant to reward the preservation of historic buildings. “This transaction will be completely invisible to the public,: an administrator for the City’s Community Redevelopment Agency, which put the deal together, told the Los Angeles Times. Mayor Richard Riordan, who in private life made $100 million as a specialist in leveraged buyouts, was said by the Times to have described the plan as “a good example of using city assets to leverage more dollars.”
This particular “good example” of leveraging dollars sounds, on the face of it, very like growing wheat on land leased from the Southern Pacific and expecting to buy it for $2.50 an acre. Yet opposition to the sale, predictably, has been so maneuvered as to focus almost exclusively on the appropriateness of a tobacco company as the buyer, bypassing altogether the question of whether or not selling off the city is an appropriate idea. “California likes to be fooled,” as Cedarquist said in The Octopus. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times is shopping its own historic building, at First and Spring, the one the paper rebuilt after two brothers, James and John McNamara, in 1910, after twenty years of increasingly bitter attempts to unionize the Times and by extension (since the Times was spearheading the fight against unionization) all of Los Angeles, bombed the building and killed twenty employees.
The Times, these past few years, has been strapped for cash, not only because its advertising has declined with the economy but because its parent company, Times Mirror, has been forced to divert Los Angeles profits to New York, where Newsday, owned by Times Mirror, has taken losses estimated by Forbes at $150 million to $200 million dollars on its New York Newsday: this, like the plan to sell the library, is a familiar California story. cut into the polished terrazzo entrance to what is still, until a buyer is found, the times building, there are two inscriptions. One, a rather stately reference to the McNamara brothers, reads: THIS BUILDING IS DEDICATED TO THE CAUSE OF TRUE INDUSTRIAL FREEDOM AND LIBERTY UNDER THE LAW. The other, which has been for many of us who occasionally passed it a small or large pleasure, a reminder that this is home, this is who we are, reads: THIS BUILDING IS THE FOURTH HOME OF THE LOS ANGELES TIMES AND STANDS AS A SYMBOL OF FAITH IN CALIFORNIA.
October 21, 1993