California by Kevin Starr: The Higher Provincialism

california (1)I’m about halfway through California the book and the history of the state as chapter six ends with the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.  Mr. Starr’s history has left strict chronological storytelling in favor of  a chronological/thematic approach.  While chapter 6, The Higher Provincialism covers the period after statehood through to the great earthquake its focus is on  development of how California is represented in the arts.

Early visual and written arts focused on the landscape.  Later impressionist and post impressionist painters tended toward plein-air painting while the writers moved towards nature, naturalism and bohemia.  Among the writers and artists California produced between 1850 and 1915 are well known names like photographers Eadweard Muybridge and Charleton Watkins and the writers Brett Harte, Jack London, Frank Norris, Ambrose Bierce and Robinson Jeffers.  Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, and Mark Twain all spent time in California.  (Samuel Clemons’ pen-name Mart Twain may come from a Mississippi Riverboat term or it may come from a Virginia City saloon term meaning “two free drinks,” according to Mr. Starr.)

During this period a sanitarium culture grew in Southern California which became a destination not just for people in search of fresh air for their health but for Easterners looking for warm weather in winter time.  New Englander Helen Hunt Jackson created the central metaphor for Southern California with her book Ramona.  Ramona was meant to be an Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the behalf of repressed Mission Indians but instead it stumbled upon the Mission Myth — California as a place of imagined romance among beautiful Spanish architecture.

California was always concerned with the arts as Mr. Starr shows.  The generation that moved here post 1850 was literate in a way few other generations have been before or since.  The Civil War generation wrote extensive letters, and kept detailed journals and diaries all through their lives.  Both men and women used these to write memoirs later in life which became a popular genre widely read in early California.  There was a vibrant art market in San Francisco as early as 1870.  San Francisco was already a world city, a place important enough to attract the likes of Enrico Caruso who appeared in Carmen on April 17, 1906 only to wake up the next morning to an 8.3 earthquake that lasted 45 seconds.  (The 1989 earthquake was 6.9 and lasted 15 seconds for comparison.)

Mr. Starr’s book is focused on state history so he spends little time on the Earthquake in California.  He does mention historian Philip Fradkin whom I must read further.  Mr. Fradkin claims that martial law was never declared in San Francisco after the earthquake.   He claims the mayor gave the order to shoot looters although there was no evidence of widespread looting and that inept dynamiting was the cause of the firestorms that devastated the city, which is not the story I was told.

As always with good history book–the more you learn, the more you want to learn.