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Dear Los Angeles:
The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018
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English-language writers condescended to Southern California for so long that it became a national reflex, a semi-voluntary tic.
W.H. Auden called Los Angeles 'the Great Wrong Place.' Truman Capote said it was redundant to die there. Harold Ross, the editor of The New Yorker, wrote in 1941 that Californians 'live in a world of rumors, dreams and superstitions, because newspapers out there don't print much news.'
Pauline Kael described why, in the movies, everyone loves to see L.A. crumble. ('Who needs a reason to destroy L.A.? The city stands convicted in everyone's eyes.') Don DeLillo, in 'White Noise,' said the state deserves whatever doom is visited upon it because it invented 'the concept of lifestyle.'
I could go on like this for some time. I'll stop with Norman Mailer's observation, from 1960, that the radio in L.A. is so bad that 'no one of character would make love by it.'
David Kipen, in the new anthology he has edited, 'Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018,' isn't on a rescue mission exactly. He prints plenty of contumely - mostly snobbish disapproval from Eastern visitors - about his hometown.
But his book deepens and expands and flyspecks our view of Los Angeles. Consuming it is a bit like watching an orange-scented, palm tree-lined, gin-soaked version of Christian Marclay's 24-hour film montage, 'The Clock.'
Kipen, a journalist, writing teacher and Los Angeles native, organizes his excerpts chronologically; that is, the book moves from January through December. He's patterned 'Dear Los Angeles,' he writes, on a template provided by Teresa Carpenter in her excellent 'New York Diaries' (2012). This format was also used 25 years earlier in 'The Faber Book of Diaries,' edited by Simon Brett.
This is an ebullient and often moving way to organize history. Major events (wars, public ceremonies, assassinations, elections) blend with private joys and griefs, and with offbeat assertions, wild boasts, intimate details and moments of unforced lyricism.
This volume touches on the days when Los Angeles was part of the Old West. There are gold mines and roving banditti; mules are branded, and dung is hauled to smoke out grasshoppers.
Native Americans and Mexicans are placated and then overrun, forced out or slaughtered. Kipen pays close attention to racial animus in Los Angeles over time. There are passages about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes visit the city and find it less than congenial to black people. There is anti-Semitic commentary from Ayn Rand and E. E. Cummings.
Literary writers began to come west, to the studios, to cash in and sell out. Many memorable moments in 'Dear Los Angeles' derive from seeing familiar persons against unfamiliar backdrops.
Theodore Dreiser reports staging an orgy. Simone de Beauvoir drinks a zombie. Thomas Mann writes 'Doctor Faustus' amid the palms. Theodor Adorno buys yellow flowered pajamas. Jack Kerouac drinks 'jumbo beers' in the hot sun. Ross Macdonald tells Eudora Welty that he swims with seals.
Henry Miller, harassed by teenagers, goes looking for his machete. Clive James swallows a habanero while talking with Joan Didion. Bertolt Brecht strolls the beach. Richard Burton, newly sober, loses his sex drive. John Gielgud thrills to the rides at Disneyland.
Foreigners are dismayed at their inability to walk in Los Angeles. Italo Calvino tried it and, caught jaywalking and lacking a passport, was hassled by a humorless cop. Aldous Huxley warns his brother: 'You will probably be about six hours of each day in a car.'
Evelyn Waugh complained about 'lunch in wineless canteens.' He continued: 'We have trained the waiters in the dining-room not to give us iced water and our chauffeur not to ask us questions. There is here the exact opposite of the English custom by which the upper classes are expected to ask personal questions of the lower.'
This book throws complicated light on social class. The novelist and screenwriter Charles Brackett reports being turned down for membership in the Bel Air Bay Club in 1934 because 'we are connected with the movies.' He reports that Fred Astaire and his wife were excluded for the same reason.
There are letters here from Cesar Chavez. Strikes at the movie studios are recounted. Alistair Cooke reports on the shooting of Robert F. Kennedy.
There is nature writing from John Muir and John W. Audubon, among others. Nearly everyone remarks on Southern California's fearsome beauty.
Three writers emerged, for me, not merely as central voices in this volume but as writers I need to reinvestigate. These are: Dalton Trumbo, the Oscar-winning screenwriter who was blacklisted; Eleanor Coppola, a diarist and the wife of Francis Ford and mother of Sofia; and greasy old Charles Bukowski.
Trumbo's letters are, by turns, tender and manic and hilarious. Coppola's diaries are sensitive and read like first-rate fiction. Bukowski is a reliable scatterer of the peace. 'I think that people who keep notebooks and jot down their thoughts are jerk-offs,' he writes.
After winning $72 at the track, Bukowski asks: 'So? Will it take some of those white hairs out of my eyebrows? Will it make an opera singer out of me?'
There are soft spots in 'Dear Los Angeles.' Kipen doesn't have the historical richness to work with that Carpenter did in 'New York Diaries.' Among this collection's more obvious blind spots is pop music. This book's joys are pomegranate joys, feeling for seeds among the pith.
Our prejudices about Southern California are useless, Clive James wrote. 'Call Los Angeles any dirty name you like - Six Suburbs in Search of a City, Paradise with a Lobotomy, anything - but the fact remains that you are already living in it before you get there.'
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