Imagine no Californian ever died. That was always the promise, wasn’t it? Move to California and live forever? Now imagine that everybody who ever visited California had never left. Not so farfetched. People have been cashing in their return tickets here since the very first steamship made landfall.
Finally, imagine all those Californians above—the natives, the non-natives, and the gone-natives alike—all talking together across the centuries, and never shutting up.
Mark Twain hitting on Joan Didion. Zora Neale Hurston cheering up Sylvia Plath. Gaspar de Portolá comparing road trips with Sally Ride. Ambrose Bierce and Oscar “Zeta” Acosta postponing their ill-fated trips to Mexico. That’s just some of the hubbub audible in the pages that follow.
Welcome, then, to Dear California: The Golden State in Diaries and Letters—a commonplace book for an uncommon place. If you’ve encountered this book’s progenitor, Dear Los Angeles, you have some idea what you’re in for. If you’re new to the Dear franchise—do two books make a franchise?—then thank you for hopping on board, or at least considering it.
On first looking into Dear California, your first reaction might well be, what’s with the hiccupping, date-by-date structure? Why not just march out all these California diary and letter excerpts (plus a few irresistible scraps of columnizing, tweets, blogs, and speeches) in straightforward chronology, like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations does? Who ever heard of a book that inches forward each day, only to ratchet back overnight, just as far or farther? Is this a daybook or the myth of Sisyphus?
It wasn’t my idea. Teresa Carpenter’s delightful New York Diaries provided the general structure, and I added letters to diaries to help round out the picture. Mercifully, most Californians don’t keep diaries, or keep their letters. If they did, we’d be here all century.
Another inevitable question to address is what got in and what didn’t. You could spend a lifetime in California libraries and archives and barely scratch the surface of what’s available. The only constraints would be publisher patience and authorial liquidity. Within these parameters, my criteria for including an entry were basically 1) relevance to California and 2) undefinable, indefensible editorial prerogative.
Mostly I liked these entries because they told me something about my state. For reasons not always easy to quantify, they played off each other in quirky, quarky, covalent ways. Some underscored how far we’ve come, some how far we still have to go. Ultimately, though, the entries had a hard time getting in if they didn’t make me laugh, or tick me off, or choke me up.
A shamefaced word here about those who didn’t make the cut often enough, i.e., poor people, minorities, women, and all the other Californians who’ve lived some fascinating but tantalizingly unrecorded lives. California’s own Tillie Olsen famously wrote that “literary history and the present are dark with silences.” Historical reasons exist for many of the silences in this book. So, probably, do careless, myopic ones on my part. Those omitted might or might not have cared that this book stints them, but I do, and I apologize for it.
That’s why I’m not done yet. Every day, dumpster-loads of family diaries and letters wind up in landfills. Descendants cherrypick the antiques for estate sales and, regretfully or not, consign the rest to oblivion. Executors of California, I implore you: Have pity on the social historians (and beach-combing pseudo-historians) of the future. Half-assed temporary preservation is easier than ever. Haul out your bubbe’s Saratoga trunk. Open up your abuelita’s closet. Read some of those yellowed notebook pages, those bundled love letters, even some of that “Sent Mail.” Snap pictures of at least a good example or two. If you don’t have anywhere else to donate them, email me a transcription at DearCA@sup.org. I’ll be working to launch an initiative that’ll give your history a home. If you’ve shelled out for Dear California, it’s the least I can do.
Finally, what, if anything, might Dear California be telling us about the fate of the Golden State at this even more fraught than usual moment in our history? We’re all used to seeing California described in the popular imagination as golden one year and tarnished the next, but at least these opinions used to take turns. Nowadays, in reputable publications on the very same day, you can see California characterized by fairly smart people as either the idea laboratory of the future or a sclerotic, debt-burdened dream of the past. There’s no consensus; there’s barely a trustworthy census anymore.
Whenever the Romans felt similarly unmoored, they liked to practice something called the sortes virgilianae, or Virgilian divination. They’d stick a finger in a copy of Virgil’s Aeneid and try to divine the poet’s advice from the first line they landed on. Unfortunately, if we’re trying to figure out whether California is really going to hell or not, a sentence like “Aeneas plowed the plains of brine with prows of bronze” may not get us very far. Something closer to home is in order. In lieu of Virgil, we might try more of a sortes Californiensis—a kind of Golden State, diary-and-letter-derived I Ching. (Call it the “¡Ay, chingón!”)
Sticking a finger in Dear California on an arbitrary date, then, what might we find? To remove even the possibility of somehow gaming the result, let’s pick a date that I don’t know without looking it up. For example, Virgil’s birthday is, I find, October 15. As a real-time experiment, what if we ask Dear California for that date to say something profound about the Golden State itself?
Turning to October 15 in search of priceless wisdom about California, we find . . . we find that we really should’ve picked another day. On that date in 1863, alas, per the landscape architect and writer Frederick Law Olmsted, the divination isn’t promising: his patch of California “is a desolate country,” he writes. In the next paragraph, in case we missed the point, he even calls it “detestable.”
So what’s a Californian to do now, when even the sortes Californiensis conspires against us? Luckily, every Californian knows the answer, or their ancestors did. If not, they wouldn’t be here. Whether they got here by plane, by car, by clipper ship or land bridge from Asia, all Californians know what you do when all the entrails spell out “Run for your lives!”:
You turn the page. You start a new year . . .