The Magazine

Slouching Towards California

Joan Didion returns home.

Oct 20, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 06 • By DAVID KLINGHOFFER
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Didion claims that the "enchantment" of this pioneer past "began to seem remote" to her in 1971 or 1972. That was when she visited, with her daughter, a redeveloped Ye Olde Towne-type section of Sacramento, fixed up (like the downtowns of many older West Coast cities in recent years) to look as it did in the nineteenth century. The falseness of this struck her, especially in contrast to the living, breathing reality of her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo (named for the state in southeastern Mexico), to whom "any ghosts on this wooden sidewalk" were irrelevant.

Yet one page later Didion is listing, in loving detail, the inherited antiques that Quintana received when the author's mother died:

There was an oval Victorian table with a marble top that had come to my mother from some part of the family, I no longer remember which. There was a carved teak chest that had been in my mother and father's bedroom when I was a child. There was a small piecrust table that had been my grandmother's. There was, from among my mother's clothes, an Italian angora cape that she had been wearing ever since my father gave it to her, one Christmas in the late 1940s. Actually I took the angora cape.

It's very hard to get over the enchantment of one's past. There is something deep, elemental about knowing the names and even just fragments of biographies of your ancestors. The blood contains ghosts, ineradicable.

The second major untruth lies in Didion's conclusion that the past and future of California are something we should feel sour about. The fact that the great ranches, such as the Hollister and the Irvine, were sold off and subdivided is to her an example of how California's history has been erased, to the impoverishment of the state. She doubts that the arrival of Americans in Mexican "Alta California" was a good thing in the first place: "The settlement of the west, however inevitable, had not uniformly tended to the greater good, nor had it on every level benefited even those who reaped its most obvious rewards."

In her opinion, it's all been downhill from there, a process of turning the beloved state into an "entirely dependent colony of the invisible empire" of certain "corporate and political interests." In her view, the San Francisco reformer Henry George was right in 1868 when he wrote an article entitled "What the Railroad Will Bring Us." It will bring, he said, "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.'"

You know that Didion's ancestor, the Reverend Josephus Adamson Cornwall, wouldn't have fretted about growing cities taking the place of farmland and wilderness. What is it with this strain of liberal apocalypticism, always tracing a path in history from innocence to ruin?

Maybe it has to do with the fact that a lot of liberals "declined to go any longer to church" and thus missed out on absorbing not only the biblical genealogies but an assumption that was commonplace until not long ago--that no matter how big and crowded the cities got, no matter how squeezed for land we might feel, it ultimately was not a problem because history was building to a conclusion, a happy one.

For the liberal secularist, there is no such prospect. California, like everything else, will keep deteriorating, the cities will keep growing, until it is all utterly unlivable, ruined--and then what?

David Klinghoffer's most recent book is "The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism."