Contradictions and Heritage
I recently started reading Joan Didion's Where I Was From. In it she explores the various aspects of what she considers to be California heritage and popular history. Frontier stories, the stories of parents about great grandparents, elementary school histories, and the like. She is preoccupied by the contradiction and asymmetry evident in so many.
To that preoccupation, she frequently references California's place in American history as a sort of pinnacle of "Manifest Destiny." That self-perception amongst Californians, to her, throws into sharp relief the hypocrisy and lack of self-criticism inherent in people who deserve land, by virtue of their American-ness or pioneer heritage, that was settled hundreds of years prior by other Europeans and tens of thousands of years earlier by indigenous people.
Didion takes particular interest in the sort of folkloric California origin story. The mythology and pantheon of pioneers and whatnot. Of writers like Jack London. In reference to one set of characters in his book Valley of the Moon she mocks London's invocation of real American heritage saying:
"This truculence on the question of immigration was by no means an unfamiliar note in California, which by the time London wrote already had a tenacious history of vigilance committees and exclusionary legislation."
She continues in describing London's characters' sense that they were due a future on unsettled (but publicly owned) land:
"This conviction of entitlement was another familiar California note, and a particularly complicated one, since the idea of depending on the government of course ran counter to the preferred self-image of most Californians."
Didion traces this odd sense of entitlement and dissonance between Californians' ideas of themselves and the reality that they actually want for their state through a century and a half. She tugs at one such thread in examining the importance of massive landowners to the development of the California she knows now (she writes in the early 2000s). Their descendants, who sold their massive tracts of land, apparently left a wealth of statements, journals, and memoir in their wake. They are, evidently, strikingly short on self-awareness, but Didion sees a parallel in her own family and others she knows.
In examining a memoir by a daughter of one of California's largest ranchers, whose decisions with regard to how, when, and upon what conditions to sell the massive tract, shaped the way Orange County exploded in the latter half of the 20th Century, Didion finds:
"... an extreme example of the conundrum that to one degree or another confronts any Californian who profited from the boom years: if we could still see California as it was, how many of us could now afford to see it?"
I'm not yet finished with the book, but I wonder if Didion realizes how much this mentality is a mirror of the country as a whole. It's hard to think of a statement that better reflects the arrogance and self-centeredness of American nostalgia than Didion's. "If we could still see California as it was, how many of us could afford to see it?
This amnesia litters the self-conception of those of us on the east coast as well. And the northwest. And the midwest, the great plains, the rocky mountains, the southwest, the deep south, and the mid-Atlantic. It appears along side the rapid whiplash shift from hard-scrabble immigrant to defensive native that she describes in London's writing as well as the smoothing over of history to make the story rugged, individualistic and free of helping-hands.
I'm quite sure she realizes the parallel. She is, after all, Joan Didion. I suppose I just wonder if she'll state the parallel explicitly. I doubt it. She tends to favor telling stories and presenting them as loose sticks and allowing her reader to bundle them as he or she chooses.