Everyone has an opinion about Los Angeles, even (or especially) people who have never set foot inside its limits. By its very sprawl and complexity, L.A. seems to invite reduction. A city so unruly and expansive, so thirsty and prolific, threatening to spread forever outward like kudzu, must be corralled, managed, labeled, idealized as a promised land or nervously laughed off as a silly place. Its complacency-inducing climate and porousness to nature, its mountain lions and droughts and fires and bougainvillea, lend L.A. a sense of unreality that is drastically heightened by the massive quantities of fantasy off-gassed by Hollywood into the global culture every day. Too often the city gets dismissed as the urban equivalent of a bimbo — superficially attractive but fundamentally vapid, transfixed by its own preening reflection, a place that induces people to make fools of themselves — when in reality it is a vast and diverse metropolis, undefinable, full of every kind of life.
“Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018,” a new book edited by David Kipen, isn’t preoccupied either with tearing down or shoring up stereotypes. Rather, it’s a thesis-free, hodgepodge-y, pack-ratty assemblage of bits of diaries, letters, speeches, blogs and general whatnot written about (or at least in) Los Angeles. Taken together, these fragments illustrate both how a city’s reputation forms and solidifies over time and also how woefully inadequate and incomplete any reputation must inherently be.
The book begins on Jan. 1 and ends on Dec. 31. Each day of the year contains snippets of writing originating on that date from a variety of sources and a range of eras. It’s not a book of notable quotables, though pithy one-liners do show up (Brendan Behan: “New York is a real city — Los Angeles has no navel.”), but something more whimsical and more ambitious. June 9, for example, contains two passages: first a deeply weird tidbit from Theodore Drieser about his wife’s gastritis in 1921 and then British broadcaster Alistair Cooke’s firsthand account of Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968. April 2 starts with a rancher’s 1858 mention of his sheep being too wet to shear, moves on to Charlton Heston’s journal entry about having a drunken diner breakfast with Orson Welles after wrapping “A Touch of Evil” in 1957, then concludes in 1970 with Richard Burton ruminating about his own impotence.
There’s a bemusing, sometimes frustrating randomness to the experience of reading straight through, a feeling not unlike catching glimpses of a city from a moving car. What’s that? Who’s that? What’s down that street? The correct attitude seems to be not to worry too much about the answers.
The oldest passages, from Spanish explorers and missionaries, provide glimpses of a lost wilderness. The 19th century contributions, from soldiers, farmers, judges, travelers and others, are sometimes dull accountings of cattle and campsites, but the big picture is thrilling and ominous: A frontier is being rapidly settled, irreversibly changed. Here and there appear flashes of what seem like startling clairvoyance. “All that is wanted naturally to make it a paradise is water, more water,” wrote botanist William H. Brewer in 1860 about the San Gabriel Valley. Others comment on the money-making potential of agriculture, the allure of the climate and wide-open landscape, the overwhelming sense of potential.
A contemporary vision of L.A. begins to emerge in the 1920s with the rise of the movies. Celebrity names pop from the pages like flashbulbs. A native Angeleno, Kipen acknowledges in his introduction that this assemblage is short on the voices of “poor people, minorities, women, and all the other Angelenos who’ve lived some fascinating but tantalizingly unrecorded lives,” and it’s true that navel-gazing by the rich and artsy dominates, amplifying the Los Angeles-as-bimbo truism. On the other hand, the knownness of celebrity provides useful context in a largely context-free book, and Kipen, the former book editor of The Chronicle, also makes good use of literary novelists like William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Aldous Huxley who washed up in L.A. either to make a quick buck at screenwriting or to live among the lotus eaters, dropping brilliant little scraps of prose behind them like molted feathers.
Phantom plot lines appear and disappear — Anaïs Nin frets about the publication of her diaries, Japanese Americans are interned during World War II, Christopher Isherwood and Tennessee Williams opine about each other, a certain Lieutenant Hollingsworth chases a series of ladies in the 1840s — but individual narratives, however tantalizing, aren’t the point of this book. The point is accumulation.
We think about L.A. the way we do partly because of all the people, known and unknown, included in this volume and lost to time, who wrote things down that other people read and absorbed and parroted. Countless stray observations and opinions and associations clumped together and built up over time into the idea of Los Angeles, an ethereal city both bigger and simpler than the real thing. Kipen’s book is about the shifting boundary between the lived-in city and the imagined one, the heritage of our notion of L.A.
Dear Los Angeles
The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018
Edited by David Kipen
(Modern Library; 559 pages; $26)
Source: “Los Angeles” – Google News