In 1884, Harrison Gary Otis was looking for newspapermen to staff the Los Angeles Daily Times, the modest paper he edited in a very modest Los Angeles. The city’s first paved road – Main Street – had been laid down less than four years before. With only 12,000 residents, Los Angeles was the provincial seat of a rural county with hardly 34,000 residents.
But more would come, Otis was sure. The Southern Pacific railroad linked the city to the transcontinental rail network (but it wouldn’t be until the end of 1888 that trains arrived directly from the East). An “orange empire” in the county’s inland valleys had begun to boom. The whole nation wanted the golden promise of navel oranges from Los Angeles.
Civil War veterans suffering from PTSD and “lungers” – men and women suffering the urban scourge of tuberculosis – had a promise to redeem too: the promise of renewed health in the easeful sunshine of the valleys and foothills. The new rail connection from the East would bring them by the thousands.
Los Angeles, so favored by nature, Otis thought, was not destined to remain in the shadow of San Francisco, the center of industry, finance, and population in California. What Los Angeles needed was a storyteller, a weaver of tales, a poet really, to further Otis’ demand that the city deliver on its promise of wealth for those, like him, who intended to turn millions of vacant, dusty acres into farms, orchards, and house lots for millions of migrants.
Otis found a poet in Charles Fletcher Lummis, who pitched himself perfectly to the irascible Times editor. From his home in Ohio, Lummis thought Los Angeles might be a promise too, a promise of adventure and romance in the Far West. He planned to achieve both by convincing Otis of his Republican Party loyalty, his bravado, and his capacity for the strenuous life. Otis was impressed by Lummis’ skills as a writer but even more by Lummis’ proposal to walk the 3,507 miles from Chillicothe to Los Angeles, sending dispatches along the way. Otis offered him the job.
For all its real dangers, walking to Los Angeles in 1884 was essentially a newspaper stunt, a way for Lummis to replay for Times subscribers the heroic narrative that heading west had already become in the Californian imagination.
Lummis greeted Otis in San Gabriel 143 days later, having nearly died in the snows of Colorado and New Mexico and having broken and then reset his arm while crossing the Arizona desert.
For all its real dangers, walking to Los Angeles in 1884 was essentially a newspaper stunt, a way for Lummis to replay for Times subscribers the heroic narrative that heading west had already become in the Californian imagination. Getting here has always been part of what being here means. The more arduous, the more demanding the passage, the more legitimate was the payoff on the promise. Lummis’ suffering, even as part of a stunt, seemed to prove that he had earned the golden destiny that Otis imagined for Los Angeles.
That’s how California native Joan Didion framed her family’s journey. Didion’s family – five generations of Californians on her mother’s side – had crossed the plains and deserts in a train of covered wagons in the 1840s. Along the way, they pitched over the wagon’s side nearly all the finer things they had accumulated “back East” until they had only the essentials. A reed organ was left by the side of the trail. Babies were buried there. So were husbands and wives. So were certain assumptions.
That the survivors acquired, Didion argues, was a stripped down “wagon train morality” that she thought she still found in the descendants of pioneer migrants. “One of the promises we make to one another,” she writes in her essay “On Morality,” “is that we will try to retrieve our casualties, try not to abandon our dead to the coyotes.”
But the test of California may have taught some of them a different lesson, Didion feared. The crossing “might not after all be a noble odyssey, might instead be a mean scrambling for survival.” Perhaps the promise wasn’t mutual support in adversity or even health, wealth, and happiness in the sunshine but something perverse that the strong snatched from the weak.
What if what you earned in coming to California wasn’t Eldorado but Donner Pass, not a gift of fortune but a dehumanizing slide into despair, brutality, and cannibalism? “When you jettison others so as not to be ‘caught by winter in the Sierra Nevada mountains,’ do you deserve not to be caught?” Didion wondered. “When you survive at the cost of [fellow migrants], do you survive at all?”
When Didion writes of flying home to California from New York, she feels a strange lack. “The more comfortable the flight, the more obscurely miserable I would be, for it weighs heavily upon my kind that we could perhaps not make it by wagon.”
Didion’s ancestors didn’t have to make the survivor’s choice. Nancy and Josephus Cornwall (Didion’s great-great-grandparents) split off from the Donner wagon train before the fatal error of seeking a shortcut to California.
Shortcuts still expose a character flaw. When Didion writes of flying home to California from New York, she feels a strange lack. “The more comfortable the flight, the more obscurely miserable I would be, for it weighs heavily upon my kind that we could perhaps not make it by wagon.”
Overlooking the lessons Didion’s kind learned are the parents of the teenagers with whom Didion went to school in Sacramento in the 1950s. The parents had been migrants putting the tragedies of the Dust Bowl behind them. By the end of 1945, an estimated 600,000 of these “dusters” had arrived to work in the cotton fields and oil camps of the Central Valley and the defense plants of Santa Monica and Long Beach.
Didion doesn’t see many parallels between Nancy and Josephus Cornwall in their covered wagon and the migrants in battered Fords and Chevrolets that brought them across many of the same trails – now national highways – to California. Along the way, they paused for weeks – sometimes months – in army surplus tents and tar paper shacks by the side of the road. Years later, many of those who survived despair and displacement ended their journeys in one of the tract house suburbs of Los Angeles like mine.
When I lived among suburban Okies and Arkies and Texans, they had decent jobs in aerospace, paid the mortgage on a small house, followed milder forms of faith than the strenuous religion of their parents, and listened to the melancholy country music coming out of Bakersfield. Within the compass of those consolations, Southern California seemed to them to have delivered on as much of its promise as they were likely ever to see. They generally didn’t expect more, only enough.
Didion thought my not-quite-middle-class neighbors had not earned these comforts. She thought of them as an “artificial ownership class” of insubstantial believers in California’s false promises, unlike the generations of the Didion family, flinty realists burdened by history and ties to the land. Did their suffering on their journey give them more legitimacy than my neighbors to claim anything from California? I can’t judge.
Even if coming here was at best contradictory, and the promises just a scheme to sell real estate, Californians still wanted to manage who came and who bought. Chinese were excluded by law in 1882 and Mexicans by long habit, unless cheap labor in the fields of Orange County or in the garment factories of Los Angeles was needed. Their journeys taught something, perhaps less about “wagon train morality” and more about the fierceness of desire.
Just ask Gustavo Arellano, editor of the OC Weekly and memoirist of the migration north, which he understands to be as storied as the Oregon Trail. “My father?” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2008, “He fondly remembers the comfortable space in the trunk of a Chevy Bel Air that was his ticket to the American dream. In 1968, Dad left his dying village of Jomulquillo, in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, to join his three older brothers in East Los Angeles.” Lorenzo Arellano was eighteen, full of bravado, and with a fourth-grade education.
In fact, Lorenzo Arellano made the journey north over and over, twice cutting through the fence that secured the border and once crawling through a sewage-choked drain that entered the US near a McDonalds in San Ysidro. The older Arellano, now a naturalized citizen, “never tires of telling these stories to anyone who'll listen – his eyes light up, he gestures wildly and a smile always cracks wide.” His journey had also become an instructional narrative, this time a mixture of humiliation and comic triumph.
Gustavo Arellano does not say what promise of California his father dreamed. Perhaps there was none except the bare possibility of something better than Jomulquillo. He does not wonder if the promise his father crawled through sewage to reach was a mirage. We commonly speak about Los Angeles that way, as both illusion and waste.
Coming to Los Angeles (reduced to arriving in Hollywood) is mostly a satire in the literary tradition that runs from H. L. Mencken through Nathanael West, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Evelyn Waugh to Peter Plagens, Bruce Wagner, and Geoff Dyer. William A. McClung, in Landscapes of Desire, says that travelers from that tradition found Los Angeles “a strange place, reached by a journey, enjoyed, railed against, and ultimately rejected.” It was an absurd Los Angeles at the journey’s end, a place whose people, climate, geography, architecture – even its landscape – are contemptibly insubstantial yet perversely resilient.
Wave after wave of migrants still came by trains, planes, and automobiles because, the skeptics agreed, along the way they had substituted for the deficiencies of the real Los Angeles something false: Hollywood stardom, a house in the suburbs, a reinvented identity, a second chance, an escape. And although the skeptics of Los Angeles were unlikely to admit their prejudice, the malign power of the journey here was supposed to be as true for African Americans getting out of the segregated South in the 1950s as it was of Chamber of Commerce beauty queens getting out of their small towns in the 1940s and “dusters” escaping their ruined farms in the 1930s.
The way west was hard by covered wagon, but not by way of the Super Chief. Avoiding Donner Pass legitimized your claims to the promise of California in 1846, but avoiding the immigration agents of “La Migra” in 1968 didn’t.
There’s another path to earning Los Angeles and just as risky. “As a child, growing up in . . . the north of England,” the painter David Hockney explains in “Hand Eye Heart: Watercolors of the East Yorkshire Landscape,” “I remember how my father used to take me along with him to the Laurel and Hardy movies. And one of the things I noticed right away . . . was how Stan and Ollie, bundled in their winter coats, were casting these wonderfully strong, crisp shadows. We never got shadows of any sort in winter. And already I knew that someday I wanted to settle in a place with winter shadows like that.” For Hockney, being in Los Angeles meant seeing shadows in winter.
Hockney’s desire to be here after watching a train of moving shadows in a Yorkshire movie theater transformed him, as travel in the imagination often does. And so Hockney, out of longing for what those shadows implied, became Californian before coming to California. After all, being remade by the experience is the purpose of making it here.