Table of Contents:


Nick Street, Richard Flory, and Diane Winston

The California dream

By the late 1800s, as the influx of gold prospectors ebbed and the transcontinental railroad network linked the West Coast with the rest of the United States, California’s marketability depended on the transformation of the state’s rough frontier image into a vision more compatible with the less rugged but no less lofty aspirations of a new wave of westward migrants. Developers hired advertising agents to promote California as a golden-hued utopia that offered the possibility of earthly prosperity along with the kind of spiritual fulfillment associated with a mythical promised land (Lint-Sagarena 2014, 11).

In 1949, as Californians celebrated the centennials of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill (1848), the adoption of the first state constitution (1849), and the state’s admission to the Union (1850), Los Angeles-based journalist and political commentator Carey McWilliams published California: The Great Exception. McWilliams’ pathbreaking interpretive history captures the mythology' of the Golden State even as it peels back layers of that myth to examine grim realities such as the exploitation of migrant farm workers and the rapacious development of land and water resources.

What is the allure that has drawn successive generations of migrants to California since the mid-nineteenth century? McWilliams wrote:

California has a meaning which is as clear today as when the word stood for a place not yet discovered. It is a symbol of the mountain of paradise; the fabulous isle; the dream garden of beautiful black Amazons off the Asia coast; “the good country” - the Zion - of which man has ever dreamed.

(McWilliams 1999, 5)

This frothy mix of unfettered opportunity, racially tinged utopianism, and publicrelations hype partly explains California’s long-standing reputation as a place where dreams, both modest and extravagant, are more likely to be realized than elsewhere. But McWilliams also links the state’s frontier spirit and history of experimentation to the practical fact of its extreme geographic distance from other states in the union at the time of its petition for statehood. “Isolated from the rest of the nation during two crucial decades in its early history,” McWilliams wrote, “California developed a remarkable energy and resourcefulness in the solution of its problems without consultation or assistance from the other western states or the federal government” (McWilliams 1999, 364).

California’s culture of resistance to the authority of distant institutions shapes the state’s internal politics as well. Over the past 40 years, as non-European immigration has dramatically changed the social landscape, Californians have increasingly relied on direct democracy, in the form of the voter initiative process, to set state policy on issues ranging from taxation and affirmative action to same-sex marriage and medical marijuana (Schrag 2008, 3).

Two decades after the publication of California: The Great Exception, the state’s population had doubled - from roughly 10 million to about 20 million - and the liabilities of unlimited growth and development were becoming apparent. In a special section of The Saturday Review devoted to California, the novelist and historian Wallace Stegner contributed an editorial in which he declared, “California is a state in which it is at times almost intolerable to live ... I know people who are moving out rather than rear their children here” (Stegner 1967, 28).

Highlighting the paradox that had also shaped McWilliam’s muckraking Golden State hagiography, Stegner hastened to add:

Yet other places, by comparison, seem lesser, smaller, duller, less promising, less exciting. For this is indeed where the future will be made - is already being made, with all the noise, smog, greed, energy, frequent wrongheadedness, and occasional greatness of spirit that are so American and so quintessential^ Californian.

(Stegner 1967, 28)

In the bigness of both its vices and virtues, its potential as well as its problems, Stegner concluded, California is “like the rest of America ... only more so.”

The California of today continues to embody the tension or paradox that McWilliams and Stegner observed generations ago - only more so. Forty million people now live in the state, and California’s media and tech industries - along with agriculture, aerospace, and tourism - drive the fifth largest economy in the world. Yet a recent survey of California workers revealed that one-third are struggling with poverty (Jones et al. 2018). According to the survey:

Less than half of Californians believe the American Dream still holds true. Californians are even more pessimistic about the existence of the California

Dream, defined as the idea that the American Dream is more attainable in California than in other parts of the country. A majority (55%) of Californians say the American Dream is actually harder to achieve in their state than elsewhere in the United States.

(Jones et al. 2018)

Still, like Wallace Stegner writing a half-century ago, Californians today see other places as “lesser, smaller, duller, less promising” by comparison. Two-thirds of the workers surveyed said that they would advise young people seeking opportunity to go elsewhere, in California.1

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