WigWams, Wittfogel, and Joan Didion: All in One Post

"They definitely remembered the past, more than any bunch of people I've been with since, and were happy to see it over with." 
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For why we're talking "Orientalism," see this, this, and this. For the relevance of this photo from the LA Times's great collection of California-historic images, keep on reading. The scene above is of course from the building of the aqueduct from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles a century ago. For more atmospherics, why not take another look at Chinatown -- after reading the post, of course. 

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A reader who lives in the West writes:

I hope you don't mind the continuation of your Orientalism thread, but you've captured something that Donald Worster, building on the work of Karl Wittfogel, argues about the great plains in his book Rivers of Empire. In Rivers Worster summarizes Wittfogel as saying:

"During the four thousand years before Christ, in the great river valleys of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China, the state took on the function of building grand hydraulic works, which in turn required centralized managerial bureaucracies to operate. Whoever controlled those means of production--in such cases it was a group of agromanagerial experts--became perforce the effective ruling class. The common techno-environmental basis in all those ancient Oriental civilizations, giving rise to similar social structures in them, was water control, mainly a program of irrigation made necessary by inadequate or unseasonal or undependable rainfall..."

Worster goes on to argue throughout the book, similar in this respect to Marc Reisner in Cadillac Desert, that the control of water in the arid west led to the creating of the massive federal bureaucracy in the 20th century. Thus:

"Beyond the hundredth meridian the necessary goad was more starkly, emphatically present--a dry throat, a daily uncertainty, always the danger, the anxiety, of life in a desert or near desert. Travellers found themselves in an even more awesome space, grander by far than any Appalachian vista, one big enough for dreaming, all right, but a land too empty, barren, dusty, and austere, to invite the soul to loaf and take its ease....

"How could deprivation be translated into wealth and power and influence? That was the problem posed to the arid region from the beginning. The answer . . . was that people had to bend themselves to the discipline of conquest, had to accept the rule of hierarchy and concentrated force. That acceptance they seldom acknowledged, at least publicly. Again and again, they told themselves and others that they were the earth's last free, wild, untrammeled people. Wearing no man's yoke they were the eternal cowboys on an open range. But that was myth and rhetoric. In reality, they ran along in straight, fixed lines: organized, regimented, incorporated men and women, the true denizens of the emergent West. It might have been otherwise, but then they would not have made an empire."

I apologize for the long quote, but it is something to think about, I believe, as you continue your journey across the trans-Mississippi West. How has the lack of water shaped the lives of the inhabitants? Is there a stronger federal presence in the states of the arid west, the lands beyond the 98th, or 100th meridian, to use Wallace Stegner's famous phrase, than one finds in the east? What do the realities of the west say about the mythology of place?

And, perhaps equally important, do they teach us something about the "sagebrush rebellion" and the emergence of the modern Republican Party? I know that journalists and public intellectuals often make a strong case for the southern strategy, as the origin of modern conservative politics, but if it was a southern strategy, it was a southern strategy with a western face. Not to oversimplify the point, but every successful Republican presidential candidate, with the exception of Gerald Ford, from Barry Goldwater to Mitt Romney, was either of the West, or as in Romney's case held strong ties to western modes of thought: the Mormon Church, is after all, headquartered in Utah, and was one of the early sponsors of irrigation in the nineteenth century.

Now, let's turn to Joan Didion, "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream," and the Sleep In a WigWam motel she mentioned as part of the scene. (As shown below, by Charles Phoenix. It was a dozen miles from our house, but our parents never gave in to our pleas to let us stay there for a night.)

A reader writes of Joan Didion's description:

Her description of driving down Foothill Boulevard was striking for its absence of chain stores or franchises.  "Flotsam" or not, the town described by her had a unique character, filled with evocative names of local establishments.  I don't know precisely what the area looks like today, but I'd bet a similar, contemporary description would require the author to list a run of chain stores, fast food outlets and other franchises that would resemble a multitude of other American towns, perhaps with the exception of the local Mexican restaurants serving good tamales.  She'd have to work harder to identify the unique character of the place. 

I'll add some updated photos of the scenes Didion lays out to the American Futures to-do list. Finally for now, one more West Coast reader writer:

I grew up in Atherton, California [near Palo Alto], where even in the 1960's I don't believe Joan Didion could have got an expense account big enough to come and write about it. When I washed out of freshman year at UC Riverside I went to work in the groves [the orange groves of the Inland Empire]...

I take exception to your footnote, agreeing with Joan about the girls. I left Riverside forever in 1966, and while the wives and daughters of my orange grove friends may have teased their hair or worn Capris as much as the girls around Palo Alto the whole inland empire from Perris to Alhambra was full of hot exciting young babes that never saw the inside of a hairdressers' school and whose residual fumes rock stars are probably still writing songs about.

And the line immediately following, about the future looking good because nobody remembers the past is just wrong. [Joan Didion wrote: "The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past."]

The guys I worked with, who were the people who stayed in the stucco teepee hotel or cooked mid-west hot dish instead of artichokes, remembered the past a lot. Get any three of them together in the pumphouse waiting out a rainy day and they would talk the whole time about who got paid the least for a day chopping cotton back in West Texas or Arkansas, or about the different ways their whole family went bust, or about wiring Liberators during the war or getting something called a Yokahama Rope Job during their days in the service. They definitely remembered the past, more than any bunch of people I've been with since, and were happy to see it over with. [JF note: that matches my recollection of the veterans of the Dust Bowl and WW II who were our school teachers, Boy Scout leaders, and neighbors.]

She didn't do her research, just looked at it all from on top, a sort of magazine-article Malvina Reynolds living in a redwood house in the Berkeley Hills and complaining about little boxes on the hillside in Daly City.... I think that all of us then must have been emerging shell-shocked from the 30's and 40's and just couldn't see straight, or else we just didn't have internet commenters to mob us every time we said something stupid.

One last photo as a reminder of the connections among water, government, and development in the West.

 

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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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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