Cain essay

Vintage linen postcard showing view of Meddocino Drive as it winds through Pasadena with palm trees lining both sides of the street and mountains in the distance. (Curt Teich Postcard Archives / Getty Images / December 31, 2011)

Return to David L. Ulin's review of this essay.


I shall attempt, in this piece, an appraisal of the civilization of Southern California, but it occurs to me that before I begin I had better give you some idea what the place looks like. If you are like myself before I came here, you have formed, from Sunkist ads, newsreels, movie magazines, railroad folders, and so on, a somewhat false picture of it, and you will have to get rid of this before you can understand what I am trying to say.

Wash out, then, the "land of sunshine, fruit, and flowers": all these are here, but not with the lush, verdant fragrance that you have probably imagined. A celebrated movie comedian is credited with the remark that "the flowers don't smell and the women do," but in my observation nothing smells. Wash out the girl with the red cheeks peeping coyly from behind a spray of orange leaves. The girl is here, but the dry air has taken the red out of her cheeks; the orange trees are here, but they don't look that way: the whole picture has too much pep, life, and moisture in it.

Wash out the palm trees, half visible beyond the tap dancing platform. Palm trees are here, but they are all phonies, planted by people bemused with the notion of a sub-tropical climate, and they are so out of harmony with their surroundings that they hardly arrest your notice. Wash out the movie palazzos, so impressive in the photographs. They are here too, at any rate in a place called Beverly Hills, not far from Hollywood; but they are like the palm trees, so implausible in their surroundings that they take on the lifelessness of movie sets. Above all, wash out the cool green that seems to be the main feature of all illustrations got out by railroads. Wash that out and keep it out.

When you have got this far, you can begin quite starkly with a desert. As to what this desert looked like before it was touched by man you can get an idea by following it across the Mexican border into Lower California, where man is feeble and touches no more than he has to. On one side you can put an ocean, a placid oily-looking ocean that laps the sand with no sign of life on it except an occasional seal squirming through the swells, and almost no color. On the other side, some hundreds of miles inland, put some mountains. Between ocean and mountains, put some high hills that look as if they were spilled out carelessly with a gigantic sugar scoop, and between the hills, wide, flat valleys. Have both hills and valleys a gray, sunbaked tan; put a few tufts of dry grass on the hills and occasional clumps of stunted trees in the valleys, but see that the naked earth shows through everything that grows on it.

You are now ready for the handiwork of man. I suggest that you put it in with water-color, for if it blurs here and there, and lacks a very clear outline, that will be so much the better. The hills you can leave just as they were. In the valleys, in addition to the stunted clumps you already have, put in some trees: a few palms, eucalyptus, orange, fig, pomegranate, and other varieties that require little water. You might smear in some patches of green lawn, with hose sprinkling them: it will remind you that bringing water in by pipeline is still the outstanding accomplishment of man in this region.

Now then, put in some houses. Most of them should be plain white stucco with red tile roofs, for the prevalent architecture is Spanish, although a mongrel Spanish that is corrupted by every style known on earth, and a few styles not hitherto known. But you can also let your fancy run at this point, and put in some structures ad lib., just to exhibit your technique. If a filling-station occurs to you, a replica of the Taj Mahal, faithfully executed in lath and plaster, put that in. If you hit on a hot-dog stand in the shape of a hot dog, prone, with portholes for windows and a sign reading "Alligator Farm," put that in. Never mind why a hot-dog stand should have portholes for windows and a new line of alligators: we are concerned here with appearances, and will get to that part later.

If you think a blacksmith shop in the shape of a gilded tea-kettle would be an agreeable nifty, put that in; by the time you get it there it will be an Automobile Laundry, Cars Washed, 50¢, but leave it in anyhow. You might throw in a few structures in the shape of lemons, oranges, pagodas, igloos, windmills, mosques, and kangaroo heads, without bothering to inquire what they are doing there; if you must have signs on them, mark them "For Sale, Cheap." For the rest, long rows of wire poles, some advertising statuary done in papier maché , and the usual bungalows and tract offices. It doesn't matter much, so you paint everything up gaudily and have it different from the place next door.

Now take your opus out in the noonday sun, tack it down on a board, and look at it. You will find that something has happened to it. In that dreadful glare, all the color you smeared on so lavishly has disappeared; your trees do not look like trees at all, but are inconsequential things reaching not .000001% of the distance to the heaven they aspire to; your green lawns are hardly visible, and the water that sprinkles them is but a misty mockery of water; your gay structures, for all their artistic incongruity, fail to apprise God of the joke: all that is left is the gray, sun-baked tan that you started with. Well, that is Southern California. The main thing to remember is the sunlight, and the immense expanse of sky and earth that it illuminates: it sucks the color out of everything that it touches, takes the green out of leaves and the sap out of twigs, makes human beings seem small and of no importance. Here there is no oppressive heat, you understand. The climate is approximately as represented: temperate in Summer, with cool evenings when you often light a fire;almost as temperate in Winter, except for the occasional night that makes you long for the steam heat of the East. It is simply that the sunlight gives everything the unmoving quality of things seen in a desert. And of course this is greatly aggravated by the similarity of the seasons, in itself. Nothing changes. Summer follows Winter without a Spring, Winter follows Summer without a Fall. The citrus trees flower and bear all at the same time: you never get a riot of blossoms as you do in Western Maryland when the apple-trees are in bloom, or a catharsis of stinking, primitive accomplishment, as you do in Delaware when the tomatoes go to the cannery. Here the oil wells flow right along, so do the orange trees, so does everything. It is terrifying.

You may suppose that here an addict of dark days is voicing an aversion to sunlight, and that I exaggerate the effect which the sun has on things, particularly on the appearance of the countryside. I don't think so, and I adduce one curious scrap of evidence to bolster my position. About halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego is a small beach colony, called Balboa. It lies on a lagoon that makes in from the ocean, an inlet perhaps half a mile wide and two or three miles long. This must be fairly deep, as it is a deep, indigo blue. Now this patch of blue is the only thing for miles, nay for hundreds of miles„ that can compete with the sunlight, and nullify it, so that you see things as they really are. As a result, Balboa seems a riot of'color, although it is nothing but a collection of ordinary beach cottages when you get into it. You stop your car when you come to it, feast your eyes on it, as an Arab might feast his eyes on an oasis; think foolishly of paintings depicting Italy and other romantic places.

I think that this circumstance, the fact that one patch of blue water can make such a difference in the appearance of the landscape, shows what really ails the look of this part of the country; gives a clue, too, to why the inhabitants are so indifferent to the really appalling atrocities that they have committed. Balboa, although not pretentious, is built in some sort of harmony, for with its setting the residents had an incentive to build something to go with it; but elsewhere, it makes no difference what people do, the result is the same. If they erect a beautiful house, as many of them have, the sun robs it of all force and life; if they erect a monstrosity, it passes unnoticed, is merely one more thing along the road.

There is no reward for aesthetic virtue here, no punishment for aesthetic crime; nothing but a vast cosmic indifference, and that is the one thing the human imagination cannot stand. It withers, or else, frantic to make itself felt, goes off into feverish and idiotic excursions that have neither reason, rhyme, nor point, and that even fail in their one, purpose, which is to attract notice.


Now, in spite of the foregoing, when you come to consider the life that is encountered here, you have to admit that there is a great deal to be said for it.

First, I would list the unfailing friendliness and courtesy of the people. It is a friendliness somewhat different from what you find elsewhere, for it does not as a rule include hospitality. The man who will take all sorts of trouble to direct you to some place you are trying to find does not ordinarily invite you into his house; it is not that he has any reason for keeping you out, it is merely that it does not occur to him to do it.

Hospitality, I think, comes when people have sent down roots; it goes with pride in a home, pride in ancestors that built the home, conscious identification with a particular soil. These people, in one way or another, are all exiles. They have come here recently, and their hearts are really in the places that they left. Thus, if they do not do as much visiting with each other as you see in other parts of the country, or the gossiping that goes with visiting, they do have the quick friendliness that exiles commonly show, and I must say it is most agreeable. You may encounter many things you do not like in California, but you will go a long way before you meet a churl.

With the friendliness and courtesy, I would bracket the excellent English that is spoken here. The Easterner, when he first hears it, is likely to mistake it for the glib chatter of habitual salesmanship. I think that is because the language you hear here, even from the most casual garage mechanic, is too articulate to seem plausible. For one accustomed to the bray of Eastern Virginia, or the gargle of Second Avenue New York, or the grunts of the West Virginia foothills, or the wim, wigor, and witality of Southern Pennsylvania, it is hard to believe that the common man can express himself coherently, unless he has learned the trick somehow by rote. So that when the common man out here addresses you in easy grammar, completes his sentences, shows familiarity with good manners, and in addition gives you a pleasant smile, you are likely to resent it, and assume that he is parroting the radio, or the talkies, or else that he has been under the tutelage of a high-pressure salesman somewhere, and supplied with a suitable line of gab. In other words, even when you hear it you don't believe it; instead, you keep your ears open for the "authentic" talk of the region, uncorrupted by influences tending to neutralize its flavor.

Well, I have listened to it for more than a year now, and I believe it, and I think I am middling hard to fool about such things. The authentic talk of the region is simply good English, and you will hear it wherever you go. The intonation is not what you may have supposed from listening] to Aimee over the radio. Aimee comes from Canada, and her dreadful twang bears no relation to what is spoken here.