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Across the Border

ISSUE:  Winter 1998
Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California. By David Wyatt. Addison-Wesley. $25.00.

There is more than one American dream. The one that sells itself is the pursuit of happiness, the idea of individual opportunity, the chance to make “it,” whatever “it” is, or to get “ahead,” no matter who else is left behind or left out. Less popularly successful has been the quest for justice, despite the eloquence with which Americans from John Winthrop to Martin Luther King have identified the nation with the idea of “Christian charity” or “social equality,” the dream of democracy. At least since gold was found at Sutter’s Mill, millions of people have gone to California looking for the promised land of individual opportunity. In Five Fires, David Wyatt offers an admonitory version of that story. To him the promised land is the truly democratic society we have yet to achieve, and the history of California represents the wilderness we need to find a way out of.

Wyatt’s title refers to the metaphor that organizes much of his account: the pattern of “catastrophic” change that he traces from the 18th century through the present. He devotes a chapter to each of five traumatic events in California history: the displacement of the Native Americans by the Spanish in the 1770’s and its corollary, the displacement in the 1840’s of the Californios by the Americans who proclaimed the Bear Flag Republic; the Gold Rush; the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906; World War II and the military-industrial boom it produced in southern California; the racial riots in Los Angeles in 1965 and 1992. The figure of fire suggests the violence and suddenness with which history seems to happen in California. Out of that fact have come a lot of doomsday cults and apocalyptic works of art—”The Burning of Los Angeles,” for example, is the name of the great painting that Todd is working on throughout Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust. But although he recounts a lot of violence, from Indian wars to the “Zoot Suit Riots” of 1943 to the fires that broke out in Watts in 1965, Wyatt’s own sensibility is anti-apocalyptic. If, as he notes while writing about the writing about the Gold Rush, much of what is written about California is “meant to produce awe rather than analysis,” Five Fires is a patient, subtle, thoughtful pursuit of the human experiences that can easily be obscured by the smoke and heat of the prophetic mode.

While one of the seductive promises held out to California dreamers is the chance for a fresh start, Wyatt, a native Californian living in the East, is engaged here in an act of returning. The idea of a brighter future sustains the whole book, but he makes it clear that it can be imagined only after the origins that Americans love to erase or mythologize have been unrepressed and looked in the face. The historical catastrophe that concerns him most is less dramatic than quakes and fires, but one that destroys lives even more surely and pervasively: the persistence of what he calls “California’s stubbornly exclusionary politics.” Propositions 187 and 209 are only the most recent examples of the tradition of “Exclusion Acts” that determine the book’s structure and purpose. Five Fires actually contains eight chapters, so that Wyatt can include accounts of 19th-century anti-Chinese sentiment and World War II’s internment of Japanese Americans. Perhaps “the border” is an even more appropriate metaphor than fire to epitomize Wyatt’s focus, in particular as that figure suggests “the violent distinction between an American self and an immigrating other.” He sees California as exemplary because it is “the place in which, by virtue of the past two hundred years, the greatest number of borders meet.” Native American, Spanish, “American,” Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, African American—as the story of California unfolds, the border is continually being redrawn, but always as a site of conflict rather than community. The past recorded here is defined as the story of repeated “relocations, exclusions, and scapegoatings.”

The book itself is an anti-exclusionary act. Wyatt makes pointed use of his own experiences growing up in California, but he treats his own as only one among the many voices that should be attended to. As a kind of collective memoir, Five Fires draws deeply from a wide range of first-person accounts. We hear directly, for example, from Dona Juana Machado, born in San Diego in 1814, and from Louise Clappe, one of four women living in Rich Bar in the 1850’s; from Toshio Mori, interned in the concentration camp at Topaz, Utah, in 1942, and from Luis J.Rodriguez, brought by his parents from Chihuahua to Watts in the late 1950’s. There are discussions of such traditionally canonical writers as Richard Henry Dana and Bret Harte, and the section I liked best is a close “reading” of the film Chinatown. More typical of the book’s larger project, however, is the discussion of works by Edith Maud Eaton, a Eurasian who published short stores as Sui Sin Far, Jade Snow Wong, whom Maxine Hong Kingston has called “the Mother of Chinese American literature,” and Amy Tan. Although at a few points it seemed to me that Wyatt’s assertions about gender were merely “correct,” his approach is not at all ideological. His goal is to appreciate each of the figures he studies as an individual; he reads their lives as testimonies to character, to “the human capacity for adaptation and resistance,” not as pieces of evidence in some critique of culture. While some contemporary readers, particularly in the academy, might complain of this as under-theorizing, Wyatt himself could reply that the worst thing he could have done would have been to exploit the lives of his subjects for any narrow interpretive or political purpose. Given the story he is telling, of how those lives were originally exploited or excluded, it is crucial to treat each human presence as an end rather than a means. One of his methodological models is Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight, a dramatic piece about the rioting that erupted after the verdict in the Rodney King case. In the highly acclaimed performances she has given across the country since 1993, Smith takes on the identities of 25 different people, women and men of all colors, who were variously involved in that violent event. Smith’s achievement, as Wyatt puts it, is to give history “a living voice.” That’s a good way to sum up one of the accomplishments of Five Fires as well.

Wyatt bears witness to the moral wrongs of the past without displaying any self-righteousness. Although he writes with clarity about the injustices committed under the banners of capitalism and racism, he resists the tendency to depict history as a kind of morality play in which the parts are either those of victims or their oppressors. He occasionally singles out particularly dystopian agents—John Charles Fremont, for example—but the antagonists here are neither individual villains nor evil empires. Instead, what he tries to expose are habits of mind that grow all too easily in California’s cultural climate and that in turn block the growth of a more democratic society. He identifies two in particular with the Gold Rush and the Earthquake, respectively: the sociology of “luck,” the idea that “fortune [is] something beyond human control,” and the “culture of spectacle,” the replacement of an active commitment to community with the solitary and passive act of watching. Throughout his book Wyatt steadily opposes these “abstractions of events from both their causes and consequences,” by repeatedly establishing the role that human agency has played in determining patterns of poverty as well as fortune, and by enacting the virtue of empathy as the antidote to spectatorship. Empathy, as Wyatt practices it, is also the antidote to the historical problem of exclusion—and to the attempt to fix that problem with the essentially cheap response of self-righteousness. As Wyatt reminds us in his discussion of Smith’s play, empathy means “feeling with.” Like Twilight, Five Fires is an “invitation to imagine a way into the feel of other people’s lives.” Whenever such moments of compassion and appreciation occur, “the most intransigent border—that between self and other—can be momentarily breached.” While the book contains a wealth of illustrations, listening, Wyatt says, is better than looking as a way to break down the boundaries between people. Wyatt is a good listener.

Perhaps a last border to cross is the one that would set California apart as somehow exceptional. There are moments where the book becomes the sort of insider’s story that actually is most often written from outside—as a Californian living in a self-imposed exile (the preface identifies Charlottesville as the place the book was written) Wyatt can be forgiven for yielding at times to the desire to embrace even California’s faults as particularly “Californian.” “California” serves him well as a focal point, but the resonance of the story he is telling—of the fault line that falls between democratic dream and exclusionary reality—is national. It is a story that should be attended to with all the intelligent sensitivity we can muster. There aren’t actually that many fires in the book, but throughout it is compelled by one burning question: can America break the cycle of exclusion and exploitation that has made it materially rich at the cost of invaluable human lives, and so “negotiate a future”? That question is one, Wyatt would say, that can only be answered collectively. Like the past, the future must be understood neither as a fate waiting to happen to us nor as a spectacle coming to theaters in our variously segregated and gated neighborhoods, but as the community or catastrophe that will be produced by human choices and actions. In the many life stories it records, his book shows us how much we have to gain by going across the borders we have created. And in its own openness and generosity of spirit, Five Fires is a glowing example of how to get there.


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