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TAC Bookshelf: The Golden State’s Golden Age

Here’s what our writers and editors are reading this week.

Gilbert T. Sewall, TAC contributor: I’ve been reading Material Dreams, Kevin Starr’s much-admired history of early 20th-century Southern California, an era often viewed as its golden age. Starr begins with the turn-of-the-century import of Sierra water, which gave Los Angeles the capacity to grow from about 100,000 in 1900 to 1.5 million in 1930. He goes on to describe the amazing rise of an economic and cultural colossus. In Starr’s estimation, exceptional civic pride and ambition marked this urban empire—“the Great Gatsby of American cities”—a place of dreams and iron will. High-minded Pasadena created the California Institute of Technology and Huntington Library, and later the Norton Simon Museum. August figures like George Ellery Hale, the astronomer, and Bertram Goodhue, the architect, embodied the Brahmin spirit come west. Polished naturalists and polo players arrived, as did hordes of strait-laced, Bible-thumping Midwesterners who closed down Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms on vice charges and had its actors jailed. Literary critic Edmund Wilson, for one, loved Southern California, but thought it dangerously debilitating. While fetishizing the prairie, Grant Wood loved to hang out in Malibu.

There’s another view of Los Angeles, of course, one saturated with noir. I’ve also recently looked at Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, exuding class frictions in a California of steel towns and slag heaps far away from the polo ponies. David Rieff’s Los Angeles, subtitled “Capital of the Third World,” celebrates the passing of a “European”—i.e., white and gentile—city, while characterizing Starr as a civic shill. In her cleverly titled Where I Was From, Joan Didion declares California to be little more than a self-burnishing illusion.

When Americans think of Southern California today, they most likely think of Hollywood, an element that respectable California once considered disreputable (even as it eyed the glamour with prurient interest). The heirs to pioneers and missionaries have checked in to Hotel California-style bliss—or left for tax havens north and east. Amid breathtaking natural beauty and clement weather, what remains of the golden age blends with ethnic fracture and mistrust, an explosion of vagrants, congested streets, and neighborhood watch. Starr, who died in 2017, never lost his jaunty optimism and love for what Los Angeles and California accomplished, in spite of open distress late in life at their chosen directions. Regrettably, Starr’s expansive, affectionate account now seems overly cheerful and triumphalist. Davis, Rieff, and Didion’s darker visions seem more prescient.

Michael Warren Davis, TAC contributor: Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of the Southern Gothics. Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Walker Percy—love ‘em. Yet as a proud Yankee traditionalist, I can’t help but wonder: why is there no such thing as Northern Gothicism?

Sure, Hawthorne and Poe are both sons of Massachusetts. But the Gothic spirit north of the Mason-Dixon seems to have been crushed under the steel-toed boot of industrialism. I’m no longer a Puritan, but once the ultra-rational Unitarians displaced the old-school Calvinists in the Congregational Church, something died in the soul of New England.

Yet the master of modern American Gothic is undoubtedly a northerner. He holds another title, and not one to sneeze at: the Father of American Conservatism.

One of the best-selling writers of fiction in his day, Russell Kirk’s novels are little-known in our own age. Yet they rank among the best this nation ever produced. In fact, they earned him the esteem of Ray Bradbury, of all people. Why, then, would his books ever go out of print? Perhaps because Kirk backed Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Pat Buchanan in 1992. While professed conservatives are badly over-represented among the most prominent poets (T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats) and novelists (Evelyn Waugh, Tom Wolfe) of our age, the literati have taken great pains to erase their memory. So, perhaps, with Kirk.

Yet The New Criterion—America’s most estimable conservative journal except, of course, The American Conservative—recently published a new edition of Kirk’s first novel, Old House of Fear.

To reignite the Gothic tradition in America, Kirk looked to his ancestral homeland: Scotland. The title itself is a marvel: “Fear” in Scots Gaelic means “Man”—but, ah! I don’t want to spoil anything.

The early chapters of the book have some amusing, amateurish foibles, like the over-use of first names in dialogue. (“How are you, Hugh?” “Good, Duncan. And you?” “Good, Hugh, thanks. Would you like a drink, Hugh?” “Thanks, Duncan. Are you partaking yourself, Duncan?” etc.) But Kirk quickly shakes off his nerves and treats the reader to a gripping, lyrical, and haunting read that will play on his imagination for weeks—months, even, or years—after he turns the final page.

One last note. I can’t help but brag: my wife and I spent Halloween at Kirk’s home in Mecosta, Michigan, with his widow, the ineffable Annette. She gave me a copy of Criterion Books’ new edition of Old House a few days after she returned from the launch in New York. We sat by the yawning hearth and listened to recordings of Dr. Kirk reading his ghost stories on the Victrola. There are no lost causes here: only sleeping giants waiting to awaken once again.