Students sample the large shelf of California literature
Marietta College, a small liberal arts school in southeastern Ohio, is 2,200 miles and a cultural universe from San Francisco.
But for English professor Beverly Hogue, the allure of California as a place of dreams and dashed hopes is powerful.
So last spring, Hogue led a class of literature students across the country on a weeklong trip to scour the Chinatown alleys of Maxine Hong Kingston, the poetry shelves at City Lights Bookstore and the misty hills of John Steinbeck’s Salinas.
“The popular culture’s image of California is a place where anything can happen,” Hogue said. “We still see it as a place of possibility.”
The pilgrimage was born from a surge of interest in California literature on college campuses across the nation.
Boosted by a new generation of students eager to explore the state’s confluence of luxury and despair, of exploration and reinvention, courses in California Lit have popped up in schools such as Bowling Green University in Ohio and Carleton College in Minnesota as well as UC, Cal State and private campuses in California.
The courses often focus on the tension between California as a fantasized place of new beginnings and the harsh disappointments that follow. They explore how fictional works unfold against a natural backdrop that combines beguiling beauty and the ever-present threat of earthquakes and fires.
Those contradictions offer a bounty of possibilities for courses with names such as “California Stories” (UC Berkeley), “Visions of California” (Carleton), “California Dreaming” (Marietta), “Literature of California” (USC), “Mythmaking and Los Angeles” (Mount St. Mary’s College) and “Global California: Crisis and Creativity” (UC Santa Barbara).
Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Assn., an organization of professors of literature and foreign languages, said California Lit courses seem to be proliferating, an observation echoed by professors who said such classes were a rarity a decade or so ago.
The publication of several anthologies of California and Los Angeles literature has made it easier for instructors to assign a variety of works in a single semester, whether Mark Twain’s whimsical Gold Rush memoirs or Walter Mosley’s gritty L.A. detective novels.
The courses resonate with students who, even if they have never set foot in the state, have been immersed in images of California from movies, television and music.
“A lot of students have never been to California, but everybody dreams of California,” said Nancy Cook, an English professor at the University of Montana and co-president of the Western Literature Assn. “It’s just such a rich fantasy space. And it’s also interesting to teach.”
Student Laura A. Moseley, who is taking a class on California authors at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, said it has to do with learning about what’s ahead.
“What happens in California eventually gets to everywhere else,” she said. “California leads things, and the rest of the country follows.”
The state conjures an image of the “Outer Limit and Farthest Edge, where land ends and dreams are put to some final test,” according to “The Literature of California,” a 2000 anthology edited by UC Davis professor Jack Hicks and others.
From its start in Native American myths, California literature has portrayed the land’s benign beauty and the familiar unease about its dangers.
“This earth is going to shift,” the trickster Coyote says in a creation tale of the Maidu Indians of Northern California. “Since it is flat and thin, it will be an unstable world. After the world has all been created, then, by and by, I shall tug on this rope from time to time, making the earth shift.”
California literature also is the story of newcomers to this uncertain landscape — the Spanish explorer, the Gold Rush miner, the Dust Bowl migrant, the Haight-Ashbury hippie, the Central American refugee.
How they coped with one another has long been grist for writers — from Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 “Ramona,” a novel of romance and ethnic conflict in Americanized California, to “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” Anna Deavere Smith’s play about that year’s riots.
New arrivals bring the hope of good times but remain anxious, Joan Didion wrote in her 1968 essay collection, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” a work often assigned in college classes.
Californians, Didion wrote, are “troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”
Carleton College professor Michael Kowalewski said his classes on California Lit are partly a way to explore his own connections to the state and his fascination with its contradictions — “incredibly beautiful in many respects and incredibly trashed and overgrown and constantly arrogant at the same time.”
He grew up in Redding and loved the area’s history. He earned a doctorate at Rutgers University in New Jersey and held on to that interest, eventually editing an anthology of Gold Rush literature.
Reading Didion and seeing the movie “Chinatown” in a Midwest classroom, Kowalewski said, lets students stand back and view California from an objective distance.
In Hogue’s opinion, California’s landscape plays such a key role in its literature that students need to see it for themselves.
Her Marietta College students visited forests and cities. They read Beat poetry — competing with a homeless man’s shouting — in front of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, the shrine to free expression co-founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
In nearby Chinatown, they gave a presentation about “Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts,” Hong Kingston’s 1975 memoir of a Chinese American family.
The students toured the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, hometown of the author whose 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath” is the quintessential tale of an arduous journey of hope to the West Coast. The Joad family from Oklahoma emerges from the desert and suddenly sees “the great flat valley, green and beautiful.” One character whispers: “It’s California.”
“California as an idea and place is such an icon in American culture,” said Lindsey Kudaroski, a sophomore who was part of the Marietta group. “The idea of the California dream is especially appealing to college students who are trying to figure out where they fit in the world.”
The themes also resonate with students within the state.
A UCLA course taught by professor Blake Allmendinger starts with John Rollin Ridge’s 1854 “The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murrieta,” considered the first novel by a Native American. Ridge (also known as Yellow Bird) wrote of a peaceful young Mexican who arrives in Gold Rush-era California “full of the exhilarating spirit of adventure,” suffers brutal attacks by whites and becomes a bandit.
UCLA senior Ryan Eshoff was fascinated by one setting in the book, an area he has often visited near Mt. Shasta. “It’s pretty sweet for me to be able to unite my personal experience to what I’m reading,” said Eshoff, an American literature major from San Jose. “That is not always the case.”
Other assigned readings in Allmendinger’s course include Nathanael West’s 1939 apocalyptic Hollywood novel “The Day of the Locust”; Chester Himes’ 1945 “If He Hollers Let Him Go,” about a black dockworker from Ohio confronting racism in California; and T. C. Boyle’s 1995 “The Tortilla Curtain,” in which Anglos and illegal Mexican immigrants deal with one another amid natural disasters.
California’s films and television shows may be better-known, but its literary traditions should also be celebrated, said Allmendinger. “We have great writers here,” he said. “To correct that misimpression that California doesn’t have great thinkers who have worked in a literary vein is important.”
At the University of Houston-Clear Lake, professor Kevin McNamara has no trouble attracting students to his L.A.-focused literature course, which examines such works as Raymond Chandler’s 1939 “The Big Sleep,” the classic noir detective story; Mosley’s “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned,” a 1998 collection of stories about an ex-con in Watts; and D.J. Waldie’s 1996 “Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir,” about life in a tract house in Lakewood.
“Nobody who is following popular culture in any way, shape or form is ever free of the idea of Los Angeles,” said McNamara, who edited “The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles,” published last year. “It is both very familiar and very mysterious to students.”
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