Land of reinvention

Scene on Western Avenue, south of Sunset Boulevard, in 1906. "California has been the most risk-taking economy and society in the nation. Maybe in the world," one historian says. Since the days of the Gold Rush, the Golden State has been just that to hordes of newcomers who came to find their fortune or simply to start over.

In 1510, a Spanish writer named Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo published a fantasist novel called “Las Sergas de Esplandian,” about a golden island ruled by a dark-skinned Amazon queen called Califia. This book would end up giving California its name.

About a hundred years later, another Spanish writer named Miguel de Cervantes wrote a book about a character who happened to own a copy of that earlier novel — a character who was arguably the first modern Californian.

Cervantes’ creation, Alonso Quijada, believed that he was not a prisoner of time and place and class but that he could reinvent himself as who he wished to be, and the man he wished to be was … Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Don Quixote, a Californian in spirit before any such name existed on the world’s mental map. Was he an idealist or a delusionary? Does it really matter? You could ask the same question about almost every Californian, every ship-jumping, border-hopping newcomer, every small-town beauty queen with a one-way bus ticket to Hollywood, every garage-band musician and garage start-up computer geek.

To each of the multitudes of men who swarmed into California after the gold strike at Sutter’s Mill, the 10,000-to-1 odds of panning himself a fortune meant only that 9,999 poor dopes would be out of luck. The one — well, that was always him.

Like the Magi, every nation, every culture, leaves some gift of itself to the world. California’s is the gift of reinvention, the push to the next frontier, the break through the next boundary: the American frontier, the space frontier, the nano-frontier of science and technology, even the boundary of self. Here, we are all Eves and Adams, with no past, no class, no patterns to follow, the only limits the ones of our own making.

The celebrity is the ultimate incarnation of this ideal — the nobody who suddenly becomes everything the world desires and admires. But street by street and town by town, California is peopled with those who have done just as well. Their stories are fill-in-the-blank tales of triumph: I was born in poverty and decided that I could do better than I might have had I stayed. So I studied/worked/escaped to pursue my dream and found my way to California.

For a brief time during the Gold Rush, one in every 90 Americans was making his way to California. Like Quixote, they were idealistic or delusional, or perhaps they had run out of prospects and hope elsewhere and had nowhere else to run but to the end of the continent. The difference was this, as historian J.S. Holliday, the great chronicler of the Gold Rush, reflected to PBS:

“As nowhere else, you can fail in California. And I think the California Gold Rush taught people that failure was OK. And the reason being that everyone failed in California — everyone, every day. So failure was not a distinction, not a burden, not a mark, not a shame. Failure in Des Moines, failure in Youngstown, failure in Savannah, failure in Philadelphia, well, you’d hear, ‘What’s the matter with you? Your father’s disappointed in you.’ You don’t want to fail at home. But you feel free to fail in California. The result is that people accepted failure — which is the equivalent of saying they are willing to take risks. And California has been the most risk-taking economy and society in the nation. Maybe in the world.”

In California, then, there was no failure — there were only delays on the way to success. It is the single, shared, defining element of being Californian, the capacity for endless reinvention. Got something to sell? To create? To popularize? A gimmick, a diet, a school, a religion? Yourself? Welcome to California.

The young Carol Burnett was as broke as they come, living with a grandmother who pinched the toilet paper from the Hollywood movie palace where Burnett was eventually fired from her job as an usherette. She asked that her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame be placed smack in front of that theater. And in the fashion of these things, Burnett wound up buying the Beverly Hills home built by Thomas Thorkildsen, the “Borax King” who made millions with household cleansers, which were sold on television by Ronald Reagan, who fashioned himself into an actor and then a governor and president. Thorkildsen died a pensioner.

California burst into being in the modern age, always moving at the speed of its contemporaries, the railroad, the steamship, the jet, the Internet. Its mythology is not in antiquity but in memory, inspirational and aspirational. Its Olympus is populated by gods of their own making and remaking: Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, John Muir, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, César E. Chávez and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The nation sometimes finds us risible and slightly alarming, an invert of the natural order. A barely-year-old online venture called YouTube makes joint billionaires out of its 20-something creators. And an 89-year-old billionaire mogul grapples with a paternity fight. Age is stood on its head. Grow old with dignity? Who needs to grow old at all? Plastic surgery is only a means to make the face match what the spirit wills.

Even the deep, shuddering earthquakes and vast fires that the rest of the country smirks over — a proper chastisement for our ways, surely — are the kinetic landscape’s means of doing what Californians do: renewing itself, shaking out, starting over.

Californians have a natural collaborator in their perpetual rewrites of themselves: the climate. In Southern California in particular, the endless, seamless flow of seasons makes time itself seem, if not to stand still, then to dawdle its way through the calendar. Here we don’t feel the tightening cycles of years as people do in other, more immoderate climates. Look outside today, tomorrow, next week, to this changeless place; there’s all the time in the world to try again, fail again, try yet again.

And that book, that mischief-making book “Las Sergas de Esplandian” that put such ideas in the brain of that poor hidalgo, Alonso Quijada? In the Cervantes novel, it was plucked from among the bookshelves of Quixote’s library, and in the curate’s purging decision to banish from Quixote’s deranged mind all the nefarious influences of imagination, “Sergas” was the first book flung out the window, destined for the bonfire.

Every burned book, said Ralph Waldo Emerson, enlightens the world. Emerson was a clear-eyed utopian. He would have liked it here.