One of five top books on Southern California he discussed with Eve Gerber at The Browser:
Southern CaliforniaRead about a novel McDougal tagged at The Browser.
by Carey McWilliams
“An Island on the Land” is what Carey McWilliams called LA. Your first choice is a book with that subtitle by McWilliams, the former editor of The Nation, in 1946. It chronicles the evolution of Southern California in the early 20th century. What will we learn by reading it and why have you recommended it?
An Island on the Land is narrative journalist Carey McWilliams’s attempt to trace Southern California’s cultural inheritance back to its roots. The book looks at what the city sprung from – for instance, the missions and missionaries that were established in the area as far back as the 18th century. He looks at the early activists, like Helen Hunt Jackson who worked to improve the treatment of Southern California natives. And he highlights the charismatic characters that preceded the movie stars, like Aimee Semple McPherson, a California evangelist showwoman who combined revival with Hollywood fireworks. She laid the groundwork for Southern California being characterised as “the land of fruits and nuts”.
It’s a fun book to read and reread. An Island on the Land, for me, is a fundamental text for getting a grasp on what makes Southern California tick.
Please explain the title.
The first thing you have to understand about Southern California is that it’s a desert. The Los Angeles Basin is a small crescent of land ringed by a minor mountain range that has a climate comparable to the Mediterranean. But beyond that everything is arid. That’s why Carey McWilliams called LA “an island on the land”.
Water powers everything. If you don’t have water you don’t have a city. There is no [fresh] water in the Los Angeles Basin so the people who wanted to take advantage of the fabulous year-round weather for which Southern California is quite justifiably famous had to bring water to the land. Los Angeles boosters in the late 1800s – the chamber of commerce, the newspaper, the engineers, all those people who wanted to see the city increase in size – had to bring water to the city. The way they did it was by robbing farmers in the Owens River Valley, which is southeast of the Sierra Nevada mountains and bringing the water by aqueduct across the desert to Los Angeles, a distance of a couple of hundred miles.
People called it water theft. But the aqueduct, which was built in the early 20th century, enabled LA to become what it is today. Now, in the opening couple of decades of the 21st century, Los Angeles has more people than ever before, they are thirsty and the water supply is running short.
McWilliams wrote about the so-called water wars first and best. This book engendered the plot of the movie Chinatown.