California Studies Association

The latest news, events, and perspectives from the CSA

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Wallace Stegner Centennial: NY Times Takes Notice

The New York Times commemorated the centennial of Wallace Stegner’s birth with an opinion piece by Timothy Egan which focused on the Times’ condescending treatment toward Stegner and other “western” writers.  Mr. Egan writes, in part:

Were Stegner around this week to blow out the 100 candles on his birthday cake, it’s likely he would still be mad at the East Coast Media Conspiracy, and by that he meant this newspaper.

“It was the New York Times that broke his heart,” said Nancy Packer, a retired professor of English at Stanford, who knew Stegner well in the time he nurtured writers from Ken Kesey to Larry McMurtry here on the Farm, as the university is known.

Stegner won the National Book Award for “The Spectator Bird,” which the Times never reviewed. He also won a Pulitzer for his best-loved novel, “Angle of Repose,” which the paper only noticed after the award, and then with a sniff.

Even in anointing him the dean of Western writers, the Times couldn’t get his name right, calling him “William” Stegner. He died in 1993 at the age of 84.

Living and writing in the West, Stegner wrote, left him with the feeling that “I gradually receded over the horizon and disappeared.”

The fact that a writer of Stegner’s stature felt ghettoized with the dreaded tag of “regional author” raises the question of whether our national literature is too tightly controlled by the so-called cultural elite – those people who talk to each other in some mythic Manhattan echo chamber.

–Frank Gruber

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Paper Presentation: “The Political Economy of the Service Revolution in Postwar Los Angeles” at the Huntington Mar. 21

From the Los Angeles History Research Group:

The next meeting of the Los Angeles History Research Group will take place on Saturday, March 21, 2009, in Classrooms 1 & 2 of the Munger Research Center at the Huntington.  As usual, we will meet at 10:00 a.m., with coffee available from 9:30.

Our presenter will be Thomas Jessen Adams, PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, whose paper is entitled “The Political Economy of the Service Revolution in Postwar Los Angeles.”  To request a copy, please contact Carolyn Powell at  The paper will be available after March 1.

If you have any questions, please contact one of the coordinators listed below.

Nick Rosenthal, <>

Allison Varzally, <>
(On leave)

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“The Utopian Impulse in California Culture” – Blog post by Peter Richardson

In his blog, Peter Richardson, who teaches California culture at San Francisco State University, writes, “Without really thinking about it, I started exploring a new aspect of the main theme in my San Francisco State class–the utopian impulse in California culture.”  He continues:

My exploration started with the film “Humboldt County,” which I finally saw on DVD a few weeks ago. It’s about an emotionally shut down medical student in Los Angeles who reconnects with the world after he stumbles upon an alternative (read: pot-growing) scene in Northern California. No need to rehearse the plot details here, but the people he meets are deeply ambivalent about the utopian–or is it dystopian?–community they’ve created.

More at the blog.

For me, I can’t hear the words “utopia” and “California” without thinking about William Alexander McClung’s book, Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles, in which Prof. McClung describes how the conflict between utopian dreams and arcadian dreams has defined so much of the culture in L.A.; I suspect the mythologies also have currency in other parts of the state. –Frank Gruber

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WALLACE STEGNER CENTENNIAL: Panel discussion, Feb. 18, in San Francisco

A panel discussion for the Wallace Stegner centennial, featuring PHILIP FRADKIN, author of Wallace Stegner and the American West, PAGE STEGNER, Professor of Literature, UC Santa Cruz, and NANCY PACKER, Professor Emerita of Creative Writing, Stanford University, will take place Wednesday, February 18, 6 p.m., at the Commonwealth Club, 595 Market Street, 2nd Floor, San Francisco. 415-597-6705. $12 for members, $18 for non-members.

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What is California Studies? Answers from the California Studies Association

A new page has been posted on the California Studies Association’s website addressing the question, “What is California Studies.”  The page includes links to various reports about California Studies, including the foundational 1998 report on California Studies in the State University system , by Jeff Lustig.

On the webpage, Prof. Richard Walker writes, in part:

The problem is no more or less than the study of, say, ‘The United States’ or ‘France’. These are places, but they are taken as givens because they are nation-states. No one doubts that there is good reason to study them. California is only a subnational state & region. Yet some regions, like the American South, have a long and distinguished tradition of historiography and regional studies, without being national states. Why can’t California?

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California Story Fund Grants: Submission deadline April 1; Webinars scheduled

The California Council for the Humanities is inviting potential applicants for California Story Fund grants to attend an informational webinar about the California Story Fund grant program.

The Council will award grants of up to $10,000 to nonprofit organizations for public humanities programs that bring to light compelling stories from California’s diverse communities and provide opportunities for collective reflection and public discussion.

The deadline to submit an application for the California Story Fund is April 1st, 2009. Potential applicants are encouraged to visit the program’s website to view the guidelines.

Webinars about the program will be held on the following dates:

Thursday, February 26th: 3:30 -5:00 pm
Wednesday, March 4th: 12:00-1:30 pm
Monday, March 9th: 7:00-8:30 pm

To register for a webinar, please email rsvp[AT] on or before February 23rd. Attendance is on a first-come-first-served basis. There is a limit of 20 participants per webinar session.

When registering, potential applicants should include their:

Address/City/State/Zip Code:
Phone number:
E-mail address:

And indicate their first and second choice of webinar dates.

After registering, potential applicants will be notified of the webinar they are enrolled in and receive instructions for joining the meeting. Please note: Webinar participation will require a computer with an Internet connection and involve a long distance telephone call.

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Selling Southern California to Anglos: an Article and a New Book

The topic of how, beginning in the 1870s and 1880s, southern California was marketed to Anglo immigrants has been treated in a recent article and a new book.

The article, “Not just a Golden State: Three Anglo ‘Rushes’ in the Making of Southern California, 1880-1920,” by Glen Gendzel, assistant professor of history at San José State University, appears in the current (Winter 2008-09, Vol. 90, No. 4) issue of Southern California Quarterly, published by the Historical Society of Southern California.

The book is Paradise Promoted: the Booster Campaign that Created Los Angeles, 1870-1930, by Tom Zimmerman, published by Angel City Press of Santa Monica (2008).

In his article, Prof. Gendzel makes the point that while the Gold Rush in northern California is typically viewed as California’s “foundational event,” southern California was settled by well-to-do Anglo immigrants who came in three “rushes” of their own: the “health rush,” the “land rush,” and the “orange rush.”  These booms were not only bigger than the Gold Rush, but they also resulted in the the south becoming the larger population center, with important impacts on culture and demographics as well.

Tom Zimmerman has based his lavishly illustrated book in large part on his own collection of ephemera from the era of boosterism, starting in 1870.  While the book, as its publishers say, may be a “must for every Southern California-lover’s coffee table,” Mr. Zimmerman has also written an extensive text (and helpfully explanatory captions for the illustrations) in which he describes not only the history of but also the techniques used in the various promotional campaigns that actualized the three “rushes” identified by Prof. Gendzel.  By extending the scope of his book through the 1920s, Mr. Zimmerman also identified a fourth rush, namely one focusing on industry, or, rather, “clean industry,” as promoted by the L.A. Chamber of Commerce.  Mr. Zimmerman also carries his narrative into the 1930s, when the Depression caused the local establishment to stop recruiting immigrants and led to the rise of labor and other social movements.

The only quibble I might raise about both the article and the book, is that neither mentions the impact of the oil industry in the region during the era studied.  Southern California was, after all, one of the world’s largest producers of oil in the early 20th century.  I suspect that the roughneck image of the oil industry does not jibe well with Prof. Gendzel’s argument about the impact of genteel, middle-class immigration, nor the promotion of clean industry that Mr. Zimmerman describes.

But having said that, both works are informative, and in the case of Mr. Zimmerman’s book, the pictures really are worth putting on a coffee table.

I also want to mention that I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Mr. Zimmerman on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009, sponsored by the Santa Monica Conservancy.

–Frank Gruber