Monday, November 19, 2012

Tom Wolfe’s California

This is a great article in City Journal about Tom Wolfe's writing about California. Wolfe spent much time on the West Coast delving into what made it tick.

The Second World War brought a massive wave of people to California.

These people, now revered as the “greatest generation,” built modern California. Wolfe’s essay “Two Young Men Who Went West,” the finest short history of the early Silicon Valley ever written, details the cultural baggage that Intel cofounder Robert Noyce brought with him to California from Grinnell, Iowa, after the war:

Noyce was like a great many bright young men and women from Dissenting Protestant families in the Middle West after the Second World War. They had been raised as Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, United Brethren, whatever. They had been led through the Church door and prodded toward religion, but it had never come alive for them. Sundays made their skulls feel like dried-out husks. So they slowly walked away from the church and silently, without so much as a growl of rebellion, congratulated themselves on their independence of mind and headed into another way of life. Only decades later, in most cases, would they discover how, absentmindedly, inexplicably, they had brought the old ways along for the journey nonetheless. It was as if . . . through some extraordinary mistake . . . they had been sewn into the linings of their coats!

No single paragraph—written by Wolfe or anyone else—better explains the paradox of modern California. It was built from scratch, overnight, at the farthest reaches of the world, land’s end for Western civilization, on a foundation of virtues cultivated and nourished in Old Europe and the American heartland. But something in the character of the place and of the people who chose it drives them restlessly to seek (or invent) new virtues, new modes of living, to sweep aside all that has come before and start over, unencumbered. .. . In hindsight, it’s clear that the virtues sewn into the linings of those coats were at least as instrumental as any quality inherent in the land.

California had the cultural capital of the older dissenting Protestants, as well as the zany inventiveness of the new. I wonder if the postwar boom there was a classic example of the right degree of fluidity: rules or virtues being relaxed, but still present, as has happened before in many creative cities and places. But it is also a transitional state of mind that cannot last, any more than Venetian power or Athenian cultural supremacy.

California's history is fascinating. I read and hugely enjoyed Kevin Starr's Coast of Dreams (postwar history) and California: A History (Modern Library Chronicles) a few years ago while travelling all around the beautiful state.


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