If We're Talking American Orientalism ...

Janet Edwards

... as I was doing previously here and here, I thought it would be worth going back to re-read Joan Didion's 1966 Saturday Evening Post article that so offended my home town back when I was in high school and before Joan Didion was Joan Didion. It was about a locally famous murder case; it has been immortalized by inclusion in Slouching Toward Bethlehem; and part of its early scene-setting was this, about the culture in which I grew up:

The Mormons settled this ominous country, and then they abandoned it but by the time they left the first orange tree had been planted and for the next hundred years the San Bernardino Valley would draw a kind of people who imagined they might live among the talismanic fruit and prosper in die dry air, people who brought with them Mid-western ways of building and cooking and praying and who tried to graft those ways upon the land.  The graft took in curious ways.  This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke*, without ever meeting a Catholic** or a Jew.  This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book***.  This is the country ...  of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life's promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and return to hairdressers' school.****  "We were just crazy kids" they say without regret, and look to the future.  The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.  Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer....

Imagine Banyan Street first, because Banyan is where it happened. The way to Banyan is to drive west from San Bernardino out Foothill Boulevard, Route 66:  past the Santa Fe switching yards, the Forty Winks Motel.  Past the motel that is nineteen stucco tepees:  "SLEEP IN A WIGWAM-GET MORE FOR YOUR WAMPUM."  Past Fontana Drag City and the Fontana Church of the Nazarene and the Pit Stop A Go-Go; past Kaiser Steel, through Cucamonga, out to the Kapu Kai Restaurant-Bar and Coffee Shop, at the corner of Route 66 and Carnelian Avenue.  Up Carnelian Avenue from the Kapu Kai, which means "Forbidden Seas," the subdivision flags whip in the harsh wind.  "HALF-ACRE RANCHES!  SNACK BARS! TRAVERTINE ENTRIES!  $95 DOWN."  It is the trail of an intention gone haywire, the flotsam of the New California.

So if you're getting huffy about my making fun of giant lawn mowers, watch out! Joan Didion could still come visit you.


* We had artichokes aplenty, even in this bleak and blasted land.

** You might not meet many Catholics, unless you're counting the half of the population that is Latino.   

*** Tell it to my Dad, who amassed a library of tens of thousands of volumes.

**** This is right on.  

[Etching of the ominous country under discussion, above, by Janet Edwards of Redlands.]

And call this American Orientalism if you like: It's my one-time employer, Jimmy Carter, in life-sized commemoration among Rapid S.D.'s "City of Presidents" display.

James Fallows
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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