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Southern California: An Island on the Land

(American Folkways)

4.23  ·  Rating details ·  262 ratings  ·  38 reviews
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. ...more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published March 15th 1980 by Gibbs Smith (first published December 31st 1970)
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Average rating 4.23  · 
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Jun 28, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: shadow-man
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
Sep 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
“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.”
Jul 29, 2012 rated it really liked it
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 acknowledg ...more
Feb 27, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A real pleasure
Sep 30, 2011 marked it as to-read
"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" (Mc ...more
Mar 01, 2019 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Claudia Skelton
Jan 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.

Jacques Esterhuizen
Sep 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Feb 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: los-angeles
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.
Margery Osborne
Sep 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
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).
Sep 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing
There's a reason why this book is a classic...wish I'd read it earlier in my life. ...more
Scott Cox
Jan 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
"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 Amer ...more
Brittany Batong
Aug 12, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 rel ...more
Jon Boorstin
Feb 05, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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 foundat ...more
Dec 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Dushan Milinovich
Sep 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Jun 21, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Bryan Alexander
Shelves: nonfiction
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.
Apr 01, 2009 added it
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.
Elisa Parhad
Mar 27, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: socal
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... ...more
Jul 04, 2010 rated it liked it
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. ...more
Sep 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Essential history of Southern California. The version I read was titled "Southern California Country." And it dated from the 60s, I believe. ...more
May 19, 2010 rated it it was amazing
McWilliams is the maestro.
emilee mcclain
May 07, 2011 rated it really liked it
An in-depth history of Southern California; McWilliams finished it in the 1940s.
Just re-read it and am even more fascinated.
Jul 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Even though this book was written more than 60 years ago, it remains the most comprehensive book covering southern California's history. ...more
Jul 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
My favorite book on Southern California history and the interest groups whose conflicts that began decades ago have ramifications today.
Karla Callejas c
Aug 06, 2012 rated it really liked it
A classic. Good intro to history of Southern California.
Nov 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
Written in 1946, McWilliams clarifies what it is to be an Angeleno. As someone who grew up there, if she only knew what was coming just AFTER 1946!
David Rainey
Mar 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own
Loved this book. It takes you back to before urban sprawl, when there were still orange groves in the area. It's quite a shock when you compare the author's So. California to what it is today. ...more
Dec 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A great book on SoCal. I read it years ago and an adding it here so I will remember the title.
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