Throwing Light on LA

By Benjamin Schwarz

October 2002 ATLANTIC


The Library of America’s most recent thematic anthology, Writing Los Angeles,  collects an astonishing range of writing on a complex, stunning, and chronically misinterpreted city. Here are the authors who helped to define the place, such as Carey McWilliams, Raymond Chandler, and Joan Didion, and, inevitably, here are those celebrated writers—Simone de Beauvoir, Evelyn Waugh, William Faulkner—who stayed in town just long enough and looked just deep enough to confirm and express their stale prejudices. But the editor, David L. Ulin, has also made unpredictable choices: M.F.K. Fisher’s remembrance of a childhood outing across the San Gabriel Mountains to “a stream under the cottonwoods”; the architectural critic Reyner Banham’s analysis of the Miracle Mile; James M. Cain’s 1933 paean to Los Angeles’s “common man,” who “addresses you in easy grammar, completes his sentences, shows familiarity with good manners, and in addition gives you a pleasant smile” (sadly, Cain’s Mildred Pierce, the great realistic novel of middle-class L.A., isn’t excerpted here); Robert Towne’s lyrical and romantic preface and postscript to his hardboiled screenplay for Chinatown, in which he eulogizes the city of his childhood, where “you could stand on the Palisades overlooking Portuguese Bend and have all the dry desert breeze at your back abruptly splashed with salt air from the sea crashing on the rocks and swirling tidepools a hundred feet below”; and the memoirist D. J. Waldie’s rhapsody on Los Angeles’s uncanny light (where, McWilliams says, “the charm of Southern California is largely to be found”), during an interview with the reporter Lawrence Weschler, in which Waldie ponders “the light, clear as stone-dry champagne, after a full day of rain.” Waldie continues, “Everything in this light is somehow simultaneously particularized and idealized: each perfect, specific, ideal little tract house, one beside the next. And that’s the light that breaks hearts in L.A.” Exactly.

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