Remembering when — and why — California inspired the world

Dec. 25, 2012

By Chris Reed

Merry Christmas, everyone!

The autumn issue of City Journal has a wonderful piece by Michael Anton on how Tom Wolfe’s 1960s sprawling, funny, rule-breaking essays about California defined the Golden State for the rest of America and eventually the world.

“Wolfe has never been afraid to venture from his home turf — this fall’s Back to Blood, an exploration of Miami, is a case in point — and his true literary second home is California. Over the course of his career, Wolfe has devoted more pages to the Golden State than to any setting other than Gotham. In his early years, from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, the ratio was almost one-to-one. More to the point, the core insights on which he built his career—the devolution of style to the masses, status as a replacement for social class, the ‘happiness explosion’ in postwar America — all first came to him in California. Even books in which the state figures not at all are informed by Wolfe’s observations of the West. Without California, there would be no Wolfe as we know him — no Bonfire, no Right Stuff, no Radical Chic or Me Decade, none of the blockbuster titles or era-defining phrases that made him world-famous.

“And without Wolfe, we would not understand California — or the California-ized modern world. At the time of his most frequent visits, the state was undergoing a profound change, one that affects it to this day and whose every aspect has been exported throughout the country and the globe. Both have become much more like California over the last 40 years, even as California has drifted away from its old self, and Wolfe has chronicled and explained it all.”

Wolfe’s key insight:

“‘Max Weber,’ Wolfe tells me, ‘was the first to argue that social classes were dying everywhere — except, in his time, in England — and being replaced by what he called “status groups.”’ The term improves in Wolfean English: ‘Southern California, I found, was a veritable paradise of statuspheres,’ he wrote in 1968. Beyond the customizers and drag racers, there were surfers, cruisers, teenyboppers, beboppers, strippers, bikers, beats, heads, and, of course, hippies. Each sphere started off self-contained but increasingly encroached on, and influenced, the wider world.

“‘Practically every style recorded in art history is the result of the same thing — a lot of attention to form plus the money to make monuments to it,’ Wolfe wrote in the introduction to his first book. ‘But throughout history, everywhere this kind of thing took place, China, Egypt, France under the Bourbons, every place, it has been something the aristocracy was responsible for. What has happened in the United States since World War II, however, has broken that pattern. The war created money. It made massive infusions of money into every level of society. Suddenly classes of people whose styles of life had been practically invisible had the money to build monuments to their own styles.’”

Read the whole deeply entertaining and enjoyable article here. And have a great Christmas, too!

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