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American Folkways

Southern California: An Island on the Land

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Packed With Magnificent Material On Southern California's Galaxy of Person Alities, This Book Provides Insights Into Subjects Ranging From The Origins Hollywood To The Flowering of International-Style Architecture. and It Does That By Looking At Personalities As Diverse As Helen Hunt Jackson To Aimee Semple McPherson, Huntington The Finan- Cier To Hatfield The Rainmaker.

416 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1946

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Carey McWilliams

31 books8 followers
Father of Wilson Carey McWilliams/Carey McWilliams Jr.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 46 reviews
Profile Image for Gabriel.
Author 14 books124 followers
July 28, 2009
Like Mike Davis before Pynchon, Carey McWilliams presents a sunny but not-too-sunny version of Los Angeles, where nothing is quite so sinister as Nathanael West makes it out to be, but everything is a great deal more complicated than the boosters want it to be. McWilliams shakes the palm trees until rats come flying, but he doesn't try to hunt them down, he just wants you to know that, yes, there are rats up there.

The basic premise is this: every weird, bad, bizarre, stupid, inconceivable thing about Southern California can be explained by the way that it was populated, and the constant shifts in population that it is always undergoing. It is a very loose community of people from everywhere but Southern California, attracted by, but unwilling to adapt to, the notorious climate. They are all tourists (McWilliams even posits that the word "tourist" was invented to describe visitors to Southern California), in their own peculiar ways, and none plan to stay longer than a season or two. Thus the architecture, the (atrocious lack of) civic planning, the nature of industry (tourism, oil (see-- on the go), and entertainment), and even the agriculture.

Where Davis's excellent books focus on the disastrous and pestilential, McWilliams is cheerily clued in to Day of the Locust spectacle, but not overwhelmed by it. Partly, this is due to the circumstances: McWilliams wrote this book before Watts, Rodney King('s beating), Northridge, Bloods, Crips, Charles Manson, and Richard Ramirez. The book is focused on the boom period (just one of them, as McWilliams points out) between 1916 and 1930, even though it is slow to get to that period. Tortuously slow, actually, as nearly a third of the book has gone by before we get to the promised 20th century. But it's interesting material anyway, or, at the very least, a slightly more holistic, less dubious, approach to common material. A good survey, from Mission to World War II, something of a supplement to Davis's postwar Ballardian fantasias.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
Author 32 books1,132 followers
September 19, 2018
“I am convinced that the popularity of the cafeteria in Los Angeles is primarily due to the loneliness of the people. A cafeteria is a friendlier type of eating place than a restaurant. The possibility of meeting someone--just someone--is much greater in a cafeteria than in a café or restaurant.”
Profile Image for Andrea.
Author 5 books172 followers
July 29, 2012
A general and journalistic account of Los Angeles, but a detailed and rather fascinating read for all of that. Written in 1947, it is very much of its time with some sweeping generalizations and quick, delicious and totally unsubstantiated impressions. On the other hand there is a well written and researched and devastatingly detailed sections on the Indian genocide in California, which I was not expecting at all and very happy to find. Somehow I thought this was history only recently acknowledged by whites in general, I enjoyed a damning indictment from 1947, and he writes:
Lastly, the brutal treatment of Indians in Southern California in large part explains the persistence of an ugly
racial arrogance in the mores of the region of which, alas, more than a vestige remains..
Sadly he doesn't develop that thought more deeply, he left it to Tomas Almaguer 50 years later. McWilliams also spends a lot of time debunking the myth that the Spanish were 'good' to the Indians, more than on the massacres that happened later, but they aren't covered up. He has a very liberal standpoint, highlight police and other official corruption, the campaigns against labour and the homeless and etc.

That said, much of the book contains references to news and commentary and fiction, Some choice bits:
Los Angeles has the largest number, and the best-equipped, dog-and-cat hospitals of any city in America. It boasts dog training schools, dog rcst homes, special dog-food stores, dog equipment shops, dog resorts in the mountains to which pets can be sent for a vacation, and magnificent dog-and-cat cemeteries. The Hollywood Pet Cemetery might well be regarded as a monument to the lack of industry in Los Angeles prior to 1940. In this thirty-acre, elegantly kept cemetery lie the remains of countless dogs, cats, canaries, parrots, horses, and pet turtles. Bill Bounce, the horse, lies buried here in a $2,000 metal casket, side by side with Kabar, a Doberman Pinscher owned by the late Rudolph Valentino; Puzzums, Mack Sennett's talented cat; John Gilbert's Topsy; Miriam Hopkins' Jerry; Corinne Griffith's Bozo; Dolores Del Rio's Da Da; and Dumpsie who once acted with Eddie Cantor."

Los Angeles is the kind of place where perversion is perverted and prostitution prostituted. As Myron Brinig once said, "Los Angeles is a middle-aged obese woman from somewhere in the Middle-West, lying naked in the sun. As she sips from a glass of buttermilk and bites off chunks of a hamburger sandwich, she reads Tagore to the music of Carrie Jacobs-Bond,"

It's an enjoyable mix.
Profile Image for Dylan Lamb.
8 reviews20 followers
February 14, 2021
Albeit a bit dated, Carey Mcwilliams's ambiguous treatise on the history of Southern California is a fun and interesting little book that still holds weight after all these years. In short, this book is a quirky gem and is still highly readable and engaging (not bad for being from the year 1946). Yes, there is some over-generalization and ambiguity, but all in all, there is a lot of good stuff in this book if you can look past your own modern biases and just appreciate the book for what it is.

Indeed, it is not a bad place to start if you're interested in LA's history and surrounding areas from the 19th to early 20th century. While there are probably better books out there on the subject (and more historically precise), this one is its own unique thing and deserves a read. It is a classic piece of non-fiction writing, and I really enjoyed the wit, humor, and style of the author. McWilliams does a pretty decent job of putting together a massive trove of complex historical information into one compendium that is still accessible to the modern reader.

I don't care what they say about it; I love this book!

I can guarantee you will not regret reading this one, and who knows, you might learn a thing or two about the constantly changing enigma that is Southern California: An Island on the Land.
Profile Image for Kara.
128 reviews14 followers
February 28, 2009
Finally read the whole book after having read the last two chapters for an Urban History course in university. While we only read two chapters in this book, we also used most of the other references McWilliams refers to, so I recommend those as well.
Great perspective on the creation of Southern California, it's cultural isolation, and why it's followed by the world. Most interesting was that many of the problems discussed in the book, originally published in the 40's, is that they are still the same concerns for SoCal today; immigration, wealth descrepancies, man vs the envirionment, 'dirty' politicians. Perhaps it's time for SoCal to be a bit more introspective...but then again, per McWilliams, that's not something people do there.
I recommend this book to anyone intersted in US, California, or LA history as this book helps you to understand all of the above better. This is not, however, a 'yay' California book - it's a straight forward analysis of the region from almost an East Coast perspective. Which means, if you live in SoCal, this book can either give you enlightenment, make you love it more, or make you wonder what you're not getting.
Profile Image for Jim.
2,002 reviews660 followers
June 9, 2021
Southern California has been through a number of boom and bust cycles, stretching all the way back to the days of Spanish rule. Carey McWilliams's Southern California: An Island on the Land, written in 1946, tells the whole squalid story of the missions, the massive migrations, the boosterism, Hollywood, the fires, the earthquakes, and so on -- and always in an interesting way.

Having lived in Southern California for over 50 years, I have been blissfully unaware of what makes this place tick. Oh, I knew some of the stories, but McWilliams puts them all together in unforgettable fashion.

If you are thinking of making the trek here yourself, his is an indispensable read before you set foot on your journey.
Profile Image for Tim Martin.
690 reviews45 followers
January 24, 2021
I found this book referenced several times in recent readings on the history of Los Angeles, saw glowing reviews of it, but was still hesitant. It was published in 1946, reprinted in 1973 but as far as I could tell it just meant a new (though interesting) introduction was added. Lacking illustrations and maps, it looked like it might be dry reading too when I got my copy.

This was a really good book! It was a nice blend of poetic, scholarly, and a narrative drive at times to relate various events as well as unlike some of the books I read recently much wider in scope in what it covered, it most of all helped explain why Southern California is the way that it is. I was surprised again and again why so many things I think of when I think of Southern California were pretty well established by the time the author published this book, so many historical, economic, environmental, cultural traits were in existence by 1946 and in many ways, Southern California in its broad outlines hadn’t really changed. I think this is one of the best books I have ever read that revealed what made a region tick, whether it was the choice of housing styles or the particulars of church attendance or the dynamics between newcomers and old families or how agriculture intermixes with urban areas or how various immigrant groups were (or weren’t) welcomed and/or assimilated. Particularly if you are interested in Los Angeles from the late 19th century through the mid-1940s this book would be invaluable.

The book is mainly about Los Angeles and the surrounding towns, though San Diego does come up a good bit and though not about San Francisco per se, this part of California comes up from time to time, often by way of providing a contrast.

Chapter I was a good general introduction to the region “South of Tehachapi,” introducing a discussion that comes up again and again in the book, how “the entire region, Los Angeles, its heart and center, has developed in spite of its location rather than because of it,” how it is “man-made, a gigantic improvisation,” how that “a league of cities is coming into existence in Southern California under the hegemony of Los Angeles.”

Chapter II discussed the history of Native Americans in Southern California, perhaps surprising to many people, “so thoroughly has the region buried its Indian dead.” In a chapter that absolutely pulled no punches, the author went into detail about the Spanish missions and how awful they were to the indigenous people, of how with “the best theological intentions in the world, the Franciscan padres eliminated Indians with the effectiveness of Nazis operating concentration camps,” of how not “only was Mission existence a nightmare for the Indians, but it is exceedingly difficult to see how they profited by the experience to the slightest degree.”

Not just about the Spanish colonization of Southern California, Anglo settlements get discussed as well, how “the Indians of California were ground to pieces between two invasions: the Spanish from the south up the coast, and the Anglos from the east and north” though the “two invasions were characterized by sharp differences in policy and practice” which the author went into.

Chapter III discussed the decline of Spanish influence in the “Cow Counties” of Southern California beginning in the 1880s and the class structure of Spanish Southern California, the differences between the gente de razon and the pobladores.” Also covered are the trends that lead to “Mexican banditry,” largely the result of the resented and disruptive presence of American settlers (in “the main, this lawlessness represented a kind of organized resistance to American rule”).

Chapter IV was about the “baffling, at first blush…intense preoccupation of Southern California with its Mission-Spanish past”, the creation of legends that “the Missions were havens of happiness and contentment for the Indians, places of song, laughter, good food, beautiful languor, and mystical adoration of the Christ.” A really interesting cultural study, figuring prominently in the chapter is Helen Hunt Jackson, who with her novel _Ramona_ , published in 1884, one of the most widely read American novels of the time, was the novel that “firmly established the Mission legend in Southern California,” a book that though had many local detractors saying it was a “travesty on history, a damnable libel on Southern California,” was beloved by waves of tourists and newcomers.

Chapter IV also discussed how, “popular legend to the contrary,” Los Angeles “is not a city of churches” and went into other superficial Anglo romanticizations of a Spanish past, such as annual “Spanish fiestas” that are observed in such places as Santa Barbara.

Chapter V, “Cathay in the South,” went into the history of Chinese immigrants and their influence in Southern California. Among other lasting influences the Chinese left on Southern California that the author discussed were how they were pioneers in the Southern California fishing industry, something that was non existent prior to their arrival. They also were key in introducing celery as a crop (grown in marshlands, their cultivation was completely unknown to Americans) and in developing the citrus industry. The book did not shy away from showing the awful treatment suffered by Chinese immigrants.

Chapter VI was another cultural study chapter rather than a profile of a particular group or detailing a certain aspect of Southern California history, in this case in a well-named chapter titled “The Folklore of Climatology” went into a great deal of interesting detail how Anglo settlers viewed the local climate and what effects this had on settlement patterns, culture, literature, etc. The chapter early on noted that the climate of Southern California represented “mid-America’s first contact with the exotic in environments” and that for decades while the eastern U.S. viewed Europe as their preferred exotic destination, for mid-America Southern California was their choice, as it was “nearer home” and “an Italy without the Italians, an Italy in which they could feel at home.”

Chapter VI looked at how climate was basically sold as a commodity, how the climate ended up attracting invalids across the country, essentially going to Southern California to die (and what locals thought of this), and that one of the fears Southern Californians fight (alongside fears of running out of water) is the “fear of enervation that most Southern Californians fight like a kind of sleeping sickness.”

Chapter VII was another historical chapter, titled “Years of the Boom.” Some really good historical reporting of among other topics the fraudulent real estate booms of the 1870s and 1880s (how for instance “more than a hundred towns platted in Los Angeles County between 1884 and 1888, sixty-two no longer exist”), the role railroads played in promoting settlement of Southern California (covered partially in a section in the chapter called “The Pullman-Car Migration”), the railroads’ roles in the massive boom of winter tourism, how Southern California became the Midwestern version of the European grand tour, also coverage of the oil boom, the boom of the 1920s and how it differed from the land speculation boom of the 1880s (and also “perhaps the last migration to be stimulated by community promotion in Southern California”), and the rise of summer tourism in Southern California.

Chapter VIII looked at other waves of immigrants (such as Germans and Poles), the history of the grand tourist hotels (and how hotels sponsored writers to promote the region, adding to the literature railroads were also sponsoring), and some of the story of Thaddeus Sobreski Coulincourt Lowe, “the most fantastic troubadour of the period” (who had an interesting history in the Civil War, help founded Mt. Wilson Observatory, and who designed the first refrigerator railroad car).

A major part of chapter VIII was how the values of Midwestern immigrants so thoroughly became a part of Southern California, that knowing “nothing of the land, these villagers brought with them, as Steward Edward White phrased it, “the mode of existence they learned elsewhere, and have not the imagination to transcend.”” Also how different waves of immigrants from the rest of the U.S. differed from each other in terms of what part of the country they hailed from and what social strata they were in, with the 1920s especially “heterogenous” as the motion-picture industry among other things attracted “showpeople, misfits, and 50,000 wonder-struck girls.”

Chapter IX, “I’m a stranger here myself,” went into discussions of the percentage of native-born versus newly arrived residents in Southern California and how this fluctuated, how for many years newcomers to Southern California tended to form “a unique social institution, “the state society”” with newcomers meeting up with other newcomers from their state of origin, forming social clubs and famed annual picnics, with different state societies from different states, each with their own nicknames for these newcomers (if from New Jersey a “clam catcher”, those from Louisiana a “pelican” and so forth), with state societies even becoming major political players. Lots of detail on the Iowa state society and the outsized role Iowans played in Southern California politics and culture as well the transition from state societies eventually to things such as the Old Folks Picnic Association, which focused more on what we could call senior citizens groups as the influence of state societies eventually wound down in importance (generally with the “California-born grandchildren”).

Chapter X, “Water! Water! Water!” is about what you think it is. Some discussion of conditions before settlement (“Southern California is the land of the freak flood”), the tragedy of Owens Valley, the St. Francis Dam disaster, the history of the poor understanding of how to manage Southern California water and forest resources, and how “Southern Californians do not understand the semi-arid environment in which they live, they are haunted by a vague and nameless fear of future disaster,” that the belief “some awful fate that will some day engulf the region is widespread and persistent.”

Chapter XI was the history of the citrus industry in Southern California, how the citrus industry intermixes with urban areas, and its surprisingly violent history.

Chapter XII, “The Sociology of the Boom,” went into such topics as to why old and new buildings are so often found virtually side by side, of how immigrant communities tried so hard to recreate the appearance of where they came from, of how while New York is a melting pot for those from Europe, Los Angeles is in turn a melting pot for those from the rest of the United States, of how Los Angeles developed as a “city without a center,” a “collection of suburbs in search of a city,” how Los Angeles has its “period of its most spectacular growth coincided with the rise of the automobile age,” and how “incessant migration has made Los Angeles a vast drama of maladjustment: social, familial, civic, and personal.”

Chapter XIII was another great chapter, looking into the history of Southern California’s “fabled addiction to cults and cultists,” looking at general reasons as well as the history of a number of famous cults and cult leaders. Includes the history of that “poor, uneducated, desperately ambitious widow by the name of Aimee Semple McPherson.”

Chapter XIV, “The Politics of Utopia,” beginning with the sentence:
“Since the abuse of Los Angeles has become a national pastime, no phase of its social life has attracted more attention than its utopian politics, its flair for the new and the untried – a tendency dismissed by all observers as “crackpotism,” still another vagary of the climate, a by-product of the eternal sunshine.”

A great chapter, it has some of the wittiest writing in the book; “Judging from articles in the national press, it would appear the impression is widespread that, about 1934, Southern California became politically insane.” You can read about the history of the labor movement, the dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times building on the night of October 1, 1910, the story of a worker’s soviet by the Llano del Rio Company in Antelope Valley, the story of the Epic campaign of 1934, the Ham and Eggs movement of the 1930s, and closed with how California is a “political island,” of how:

“Sociologically detached from the rest of the country, and notably from the rest of the West, California functions in its own right, has its own patterns of political behavior, and exists as a kind of sovereign empire by the western shore.”

Chapter XV, “The Los Angeles Archipelago,” looked at how so often the “arrangement of social classes in horizontal clusters, rather than by vertical categories, is indeed a striking characteristic of the region,” that “Southern California is an archipelago of social and ethnic islands, economically interrelated but culturally disparate.” Also looked at is the return of who had been largely ‘written off as a “vanquished” element, the Mexican population of Southern California”, the zoot-suit race riots of Los Angeles in June 1943, the story of the Japanese in Southern California, briefly the story of the migration of African-Americans in large numbers to Southern California (starting in the 1880s), and closes with a too-brief section on how so many communities in the Los Angeles area are made up primarily of one socio-economic or racial group.

Chapter XVI, “The Island of Hollywood,” was an excellent chapter on the history and especially the culture of Hollywood, what the word “Hollywood” even means as a region and socio-economic entity, the uniqueness of the motion-picture industry, the huge role it plays, and quite a bit of the internal traits and conventions of a very stratified culture, both for insiders versus outsiders and then also the various ranks within the motion-picture industry.

Chapter XVII, “A Slight Case of Cultural Confusion,” looked at the disconnect between Southern Californians and their environment, including agricultural practices, the poor handling of native vegetation, planting so many plants from throughout the world without regard to consequences or compatibility, of how the region having “no architectural tradition…aside from the meager fragments from the Spanish period” encouraged newcomers to recreate the architecture from their home, whether New England or Midwestern, without regard to how ill-suited such designs might be, and of how few artists and authors have really absorbed how different Southern California is and depicted what “Southern California is really like.”

The brief epilogue talked about overall national trends of people migrating south and west, how this seems to be one-way, and what role World War II played. There is an index but no bibliography.
Profile Image for Buzz Andersen.
24 reviews108 followers
June 11, 2022
It’s incredible that this book was was written in 1946 and still seems so fresh, insightful, and relevant. I’d go so far as to say that what Joan Didion is to 1960s LA, McWilliams is to the first half of the 20th Century. A thoroughly enjoyable read from a sagacious observer of California culture.
Profile Image for Ian.
Author 2 books7 followers
Want to read
March 9, 2013
"The climate of Southern California is palpable: a commodity that can be labeled, priced and marketed. […] The climate is the region. It has attracted unlimited resources of manpower and wealth, made possible intensive agricultural development, and located specialized industries, such as motion pictures. […] For the charm of Southern California is largely to be found in the air and the light. Light and air are really one element: indivisible, mutually interacting, thoroughly interpenetrated" (McWilliams, pg.s 6-7).

"Southern California is man-made, a gigantic improvisation. Virtually everything in the region has been imported: plants, flowers, shrubs, trees, people, water, electrical energy, and, to some extent, even the soils. […] Even the weeds of the region are not native" (McWilliams, pg. 13).

"Although Southern Californians do not understand the semi-arid environment in which they live, they are haunted by a vague and nameless fear of future disaster. […] The belief in some awful fate that will some day engulf the region is widespread and persistent and has a history […] It is the odd combination of almost perpetual sunshine with a lush, but not indigenous, vegetation that produces this impression of impermanence. Even newcomers are vaguely aware that the region is semi-arid, that the desert is near, and that all the throbbing, bustling life of Southern California is based on a single shaky premise, namely, that the aqueduct life-lines will continue to bring an adequate supply of water to the region. The exotic has been imposed on this semi-arid land; it is not native" (199-200).
Profile Image for Jon Boorstin.
Author 6 books54 followers
February 9, 2014
Though it was written in the 1940's, this is the essential book on Southern California. McWilliams writes clearly and eloquently, and as a reporter and government official, he has a broad and deep knowledge of what he writes. This has the best brief descriptions of our special climate and flora, of the growth of Los Angeles in opposition to San Francisco, of the labor and political travails that defined the city. He is writing just a California is about to peak. It provides an invaluable foundation for understanding all the current nuttiness. It should be required reading for all SoCal high students.
Profile Image for Alexandra.
83 reviews
March 1, 2019
Having been originally published in 1946, this book does tend to minimize many of the things that people associate with Los Angeles or Southern California in general: Hollywood and the film industry, race riots regarding both native-born Mexican-Americans, Mexican immigrants, and African-Americans, etc. I did very much enjoy the first several chapters about the Spanish missions and the Native Americans that originally lived in this area, the old Spanish families and the first economic booms that had old New England families marrying Spanish-speaking brides and changing their Anglo names to Spanish ones... but after awhile the chapters about the incoming White settlers was a little exhausting - I, personally, didn't care much for the long long chapters about the Iowa State Society, or the real estate swindlers, or the many odd cults that popped up in the early 20th century. These, while important to the history of SoCal, could easily have been much shorter chapters, though I recognize my bias as a 2019 reader: these subjects were probably still very vibrant and important, at least in memory, for McWilliams in the 1940s. But in comparison to these subjects, events like the Zoot Suit riots and the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial got perhaps a page and a half, which seemed rather dismissive especially in light of the Chicano protests in the 1970s that were already in full swing when this book was printed for a second time in 1973. But, considering that this is a book printed at midcentury but a white straight man, he is decidedly sympathetic to Native Americans, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, African Americans, Chinese, Japanese, and other non-European immigrant groups. I just wish they had a tad more coverage in a book billed as a history of Southern California, especially considering that McWilliams wrote extensively about farm migrant workers and the Japanese internment as a journalist. However, while discussing the Japanese immigrants in one chapter, he did say that their contributions could fill their own book... and indeed he did fill other books about the subjects that I wish were better represented here. Perhaps I am being too harsh as a newcomer to Mr. McWilliams!
Profile Image for Joseph Hirsch.
Author 25 books89 followers
November 10, 2022
A solid, sometimes insightful and occasionally even epiphanous work on SoCal, An Island on the Land sometimes suffers from being too granular in some areas, and glossing over others. And, as is the case in many such books, it spends a lot of time on the less interesting details (crop yields, migration numbers), and much less on the truly fascinating or harrowing. The scandal of fundamentalist megachurch pioneer Aimee McPherson, for instance, barely rates a few pages, in passing And Hollywood, the dream factory with which most people most closely associate LA, rates a scant ten pages or so.
Still, Carey McWilliams has the sun deep in his bones, and does an able job of chronicling the development of California from an archipelago of Franciscan missions to the epicenter of the film industry. He personally knew everyone from LA chronicler John Fante to the ill-fated Nathaniel West, and though he didn’t personally know the “Poet of Big Sur,” Robinson Jeffers, his descriptions of Cali’s oceans, birds, and flowers makes it clear he’s a fan of the man.
Probably the most fascinating section of the book deals with LA’s transition from backwater to smalltown of smallminded Rotarians and teetotalers to finally a kind of coastal Gomorrah. It’s a strange and completely unpredictable path the city has charted for itself, and it takes an especially gimlet eye (as well as a somewhat morbid sense of humor) to take it all in and relate the strange history.
McWilliams also proves prescient in predicting the demographic shifts currently still unfolding in the Golden State, though there is no way he could have predicted the mass exodus that has taken place over the last couple years (and is likely to continue.) And his prediction that all the various people flocking to Cali will somehow amalgamate into one indistinguishable race living in agreement, if not in Utopian harmony, alas, looks not only off the mark, but downright delusional.
Still, the insights of the California of his era are keen enough to make his amiss predictions irrelevant. Recommended, for those interested in the history and development of the Golden State.
Profile Image for Claudia Skelton.
125 reviews1 follower
January 10, 2019
A compelling read by a notable author on the evolution and history of Southern California. It was a slow read due to the small font book text and with highly detailed sentences, but worth absorbing each chapter. The author was able to bring so much information and his perspective to each historical topic.

As in many nonfiction books, the final chapter - Epilogue - included this fine author's personal story of arriving in Southern California and learning what he wrote and what I enjoyed reading.

Published in 1946, near when I was born in San Diego, I gained a tremendous view of the region where I was born, raised, and that I care about. To read a high quality historical book is truly appreciated. The book will remain on my bookshelves and likely have a few chapters reread in years ahead.
8 reviews3 followers
September 3, 2020
McWilliams does justice to Southern California's colorful history: a history riddled with spinsters, hustlers, morons, quacks, and tycoons, yet also with inventors, intellectuals, and artists. This book has solidified my love for Southern California. It is a near certainty that the region will continue to be at the forefront of social, technological, and cultural innovation.
Profile Image for Daniel Polansky.
Author 27 books1,121 followers
February 20, 2022
An engaging and insightful cultural history of Southern California between like 1880-1930. Did you know there was a running joke in the first half of the century that everyone who lived in LA was from Iowa? Or that the city once had a professional rain maker on contract, but refused to pay him after he summoned a deluge which flooded downtown? It's a strange town I live in.
Profile Image for Karen.
383 reviews
February 11, 2017
This book, published in 1946 (!!!) is an amazing recounting of the development of Southern California--people, landscape, villages, economy, politics, culture, religion--it has it all, written in compelling prose with incisive observation. Excellent.
Profile Image for Margery Osborne.
579 reviews2 followers
September 14, 2019
Love the metaphor of the title and the way McWilliams builds his argument around the metaphor. An essential read if you are interested in CA culture and history (and US culture and history).
6 reviews1 follower
September 3, 2020
There's a reason why this book is a classic...wish I'd read it earlier in my life.
Profile Image for J..
55 reviews
May 20, 2021
At long last. A review is soon forthcoming on jimbotimes.com!
Profile Image for Scott Cox.
1,095 reviews21 followers
January 18, 2016
"Southern California: an Island on the Land" by Carey McWilliams was the February selection of the Mechanics Institute Library “California Interpreted” book club series. The speaker was Jules Tygiel, Professor of History at San Francisco State University where he teaches California history. Professor Tygiel has published books including “The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oil, Stocks, and Scandal During the 1920’s,” “Workingmen in San Francisco, 1880-1901,” and “Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism.” Carey McWilliams, a native of Colorado moved to California in the 1920’s. He published this book in 1946, and the fact that the book is still in print is a testament to its continued popularity. Professor Tygiel noted that this is still one of the favorite course books for SF State students. And it is one of the more famous books written by McWilliams, his other well-read work being “Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor,” which was second only to “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck (also published in 1939) in impact. Not surprisingly, California growers intensely disliked Carey McWilliams calling him “California’s number one pest.” McWilliams goes on to tell of other migrants to Southern California from Iowa ("Iowa Day"), blacks fleeing the South, Chinese and Japanese immigrant laborers, as well as workers crossing the border from Mexico. McWilliams worked for the LA Times, and later became editor of “The Nation.” He was liberal in his political outlook; however he rarely brought up politics in this book (except for references to the “Epic” episode in the chapter entitled “The Politics of Utopia”). He was described as being a "California New Deal" proponent during the depression and subsequent Roosevelt administration. According to Professor Tygiel, McWilliam’s weakest chapter in the book is “Water! Water! Water!” where McWilliams gets some facts wrongs surrounding the infamous Owen’s Valley water wars (“Chinatown” film plot). McWilliams assertion is that the Eaton and Lippincott water deals benefiting San Fernando land speculators was secretive and conspiratorial. However Professor Tygiel notes that the Los Angeles Times actually broke the story prior to the controversial water elections, and that Los Angeles citizens still voted 12:1 in favor of the project. However McWilliam’s most poignant (and most-copied) chapter is the one describing the "Missionization" of Southern California due to “Ramona,” Helen Hunt Jackson’s famous novel describing wrongs done to the California Indians. "Ramona" and Mission-days subsequently became an epic theme for Southern California (Tygiel called it California’s first Disneyland!). Other chapters portray an emerging Southern California citrus industry amongst the foothills, and, of course, the Hollywood film industry (fleeing west from New York “process servers and the patent trust”). The Southern California migrants (“I'm a stranger here myself”), on the way to the very last possible westward stop, succumbed to just about every new cult possible in search of meaning and identity. The “City of Cults” included “Theosophists, Rosicrucians, Christian Mysticism, Hermeticism, and New Thought” with colorful personages such as the Purple Mother and Sister Aimee McPhearson (Four Square movement). Surprisingly, the early beginnings of Pentecostalism at the Azusa (“A to Z in the USA”) Street revivals is not mentioned in this book. However the essence of this book’s theme is that Los Angeles is a city in constant flux: “New York is the melting-pot for the peoples of Europe, so Los Angeles is the melting-pot for the peoples of the United States” (Sarah Comstock). It was also a city without a reason for existing – an island on the land – cut off from the rest of the country by mountains, deserts, ocean and Mexico. There was no major industry or natural harbor or resources to lure people to Southern California; Rather, Los Angeles’s growth was due to boosters who promoted it's sunny climate (luring sick, retirees & tourists). Fittingly, the following quote in "A Place in the Sun" by Frank Fenton well-describes the theme of this book, "Los Angeles was not like some Middle-Western city that sinks its roots into some strategic area of earth and goes to work there. This was a lovely makeshift city. Even the trees and plants did not belong here. They came, like the people, from far places, some familiar, some exotic, all wanderers of one sort or another seeking peace or fortune or the last frontier, or a thousand dreams of escape."
Profile Image for Brittany Batong.
Author 3 books9 followers
August 31, 2011
This is a fascinating read, not only because it comes from the perspective of someone writing in 1946, but in spite of that fact. More than once I found myself thinking, “Wow, it really hasn’t changed that much.” True, you see the differences in obvious things, such as the use of outdated terms for certain ethnic/cultural groups; and McWilliams is a few times hampered by assumptions that were prevalent in his own time (specifically the assumption of the inferiority of Eastern medicine or the relation between earthquakes and their aftershocks); but, even so, it is surprising how much he *wasn’t* representing what were the popular political and social standpoints at the time. I should note that my favorite sections of this book were actually those that I had not expected to be a large portion of it. McWilliams’ perspectives on the Mission days, the days of the “Californio”, and the early boom times of the region were insightful and sometimes had me pondering history’s relation to my own family tree (I only wish my great-grandmother was still living so that I could ask questions about her “Californio” ancestors). The only flaw in his writing is that he assumes the reader to be familiar with a great number of what were at the time current or recent events and people; and therefore the modern reader may need to do some serious internet research if not able to just go with it. On the other hand, this could prove useful if, like me, you were reading this book for research purposes. I recommend this to anyone interested in California and Los Angeles history. (Note: if you have the version I have, which is pictured, and have not read it, please do not think the awkward typo on the back cover—1050s instead of 1950s—is indicative of the quality of editing for the rest of the novel. This is a very well-edited book otherwise.)
Profile Image for cathy.
152 reviews1 follower
December 25, 2012
For a book published in the 1940s, I can't believe how fascinating and relevant "Southern California: An Island on the Land" was in 2012 for this Angeleno. I couldn't put the book down. I also couldn't believe how much my past history lessons needed tweaking. Thank you, Mr. McWilliams for your enlightened cultural commentary on the history of my beautiful land. I wish you were still with us.
Profile Image for Dushan Milinovich.
20 reviews2 followers
September 21, 2013
If there is anything you ever wanted to know about Southern California before the 1950's, it's found in this book. I thought that it had too many statistics, though I understand why they were necessary. It's also a great resource for more reading, as it references many other books in the development of the tale of Los Angeles and SoCal.
Profile Image for Steven.
186 reviews7 followers
November 15, 2014
Excellent story of Southern California from the mission days to the 1940s, entertaining and informative. Carey McWilliams was a major participant in that history from the 1920s on, perhaps best known for his role in the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial. A must-read.
15 reviews
April 1, 2009
Fascinating look at the development of Los Angeles from its earliest days--political, sociological, cultural. McWilliams, a superb writer and dedicated leftist, was editor of the Nation after years of being a newspaper man in Los Angeles.
Profile Image for Elisa Parhad.
Author 6 books23 followers
June 16, 2010
Wow. This book made my mind explode with musings about my new home. Written in the 1940s, An Island in the Land is outdated, but still relevant to this crazy land between the desert mountains and the "sundown sea." I'll be returning to this little gem again and again...
1 review2 followers
July 21, 2010
This book provides a brief history of and description of Southern California's geography, history and culture of the 1920s to the 1950s. Looking from the vantage point of 2010 SoCal after having been away for ten years, I learned how little SoCal had changed.
32 reviews3 followers
September 5, 2008
Essential history of Southern California. The version I read was titled "Southern California Country." And it dated from the 60s, I believe.
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