Here’s a good – no, great – column from John Balzar in today’s LA Times. An excerpt:
I believe in myths, or I want to–the myths of our nation and, in particular, the dauntless sagas of the West. It seems to me that a culture without legends, without ballads to sing to itself, without a dash of romance packed away in its attic, is impoverished in the worst of ways.
No doubt that’s why I was drawn to California. I cut my journalistic teeth here. This is the place where you either appreciate the fantastic or you wear rubber boots because California is knee-deep in it. So it has always seemed to me.
Just plunge into the latest installment in Kevin Starr’s vivid history of California, “Embattled Dreams.” It covers the decade from 1940 to 1950, when modern California was forged out of the sheet metal and sweat of wartime.
California’s state librarian and a scholar at large, Starr has the touch of a novelist, and he renders history as a story, not as a theory. His California is populated by zoot-suiters, cinema celebrities, women on the factory line, black Americans biting into the ripening fruits of progress, Okies making good and the transiting legions of fighting men who promise themselves a fresh start in the sunshine, if only they live long enough. Plus various Red-baiters, reactionaries, a ghostly murderer and a towering political leader named Gov. Earl Warren.
Yet I sense a yearning among Californians. I’m not the only one who wants to believe in destiny. I don’t know a single person who is content to allow a future Kevin Starr to describe this as the era when we gave up on our dreams.
I’m an immense fan of Kevin Starr’s histories of California, which I find the perfect anodyne to Mike Davis’ deliberately bleak ‘City of Quartz’. It is impossible to understand California history, or American history without understanding the hope that led the average people here.
I was bicycling through Death Valley one winter, and came across a series of grave markers next to the road. Children and adults who died while attempting to cross to California and their dream of a future.
It had a huge impact on me to realize how badly people wanted a better future for themselves and their children…badly enough to walk and ride ox-drawn wagons across the country and end up out of water, of food, and still to press on and cross Death Valley.
For me it was paved roads, a 25-pound bicycle and a support van driven by my girlfriend with water, food, and the promise of an air-conditioned hotel at the end of the day.
Why is it so much harder for us to hope than it was for them?
Who can look at Davis or Simon and believe for a moment that they could lead us to a dream?