Excerpt: California Dreams and American Contradictions

Monique McDade is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Kalamazoo College. Her book, California Dreams and American Contradictions: Women Writers and the Western Ideal (Nebraska, 2023), was published this month.

California Dreams and American Contradictions establishes a genealogy of western American women writers publishing between 1870 and 1965 to argue that both white women and women of color regionalized dominant national literary trends to negotiate the contradictions between an American liberal individualism and American equality. Monique McDade analyzes works by María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Helen Hunt Jackson, Sui Sin Far, and a previously unstudied African American writer, Eva Rutland, to trace an archive of western American women writers who made visible what dominant genres subsumed under images of American progress and westward expansion.


A Frontier Ethic and the American Paradox

The Dream of Progress

In her 2003 memoir, Where I Was From, Joan Didion recalls the eighth-grade graduation speech she delivered to her Sacramento, California school in 1948. She begins the speech, as all Didion’s beginnings must, with “our great-great-grandparents, [who] were pushing America’s frontier westward, to California.” The speech is ripe with images of California’s pioneers jettisoning “homes and security” for the “the biggest cities in the west” and the “greatest dams in the world.” Didion’s young voice rings through perhaps some of her earliest documented writing as she describes how much “California has accomplished” and celebrates California’s staunch dedication to progress. “It would be easy for us to sit back and enjoy the results of the past,” eighth-grade Didion tells her audience, “but we can’t do this. We can’t stop and become satisfied and content. We must live up to our heritage, go on to better and greater things for California.” Young Didion captures a California character forever on the move toward something better. Didion also articulates a California always on the run from “the results of the past.” In retrospect, Didion finds irony in her eighth-grade speech as it tries to find an “our” and a “we”—a shared heritage—in an audience of California children largely arrived in the state as a consequence of the 1930s Dust Bowl rather than the 1849 gold rush. But as she tries to make her readers understand, “Such was the blinkering effect of the local dreamtime that it would be some years before I recognized that certain aspects of ‘Our California Heritage’ did not add up.”

The California dream is a dream of progress. The dream envisions a utopic society in which the dispossessed are reinvented and the inequities that plague other regions of the nation are cured by an affirmation of the American work ethic. As such, “progress” here refers to the relentless belief that America, while good in theory, has yet to be achieved and that it is in the West, and in California in particular, that America will finally be realized. But as Didion points out, somewhere along the way the California dream degenerated into a “dreamtime,” a calcified version of the dream paralyzed in the past and, by Didion’s twentieth-century moment, useful only for selling postcards of a “vintage” California complete with palm trees, ocean waves, and snow-capped mountains.

California represents a particularly gripping American enigma because progress implies an always in-flux state. To be “in progress” means to be in between what was and what is hoped for in the future. In addition, to “have made progress” is to indicate movement away from some unwanted state of being but to also admit that there is still more to be desired. Articulating the American West through a rhetoric of progress traps the region’s identity within an always incomplete history. As such, the discourse of progress enables the region to perceive itself as separate or as having moved on from other regions and their histories while it also stops the West from ever becoming settled. Because the West is misperceived as a new beginning and even the start of a new America, eighth-grade Didion is proud of the California dream and understands it to be progressive. But older Didion is critical of the dream and experiences California progress as a false promise, detecting “a terrible secret, a kernel of cyanide,” at the center of the western American story. For this reason, critics have said that “Didion is in love with her disillusionment,” but this is not the whole truth. Didion is in love with the nation’s disillusionment, for Didion’s body of work reveals the ways the West’s story is the nation’s story. California Dreams and American Contradictions is interested in the ways American literature participates in disseminating narratives of progress and tracks literary histories that intervene in those narratives. In this book, I follow a genealogy of western American women writers who compete with the literary histories behind Didion’s calcified California dream of progress. Specifically I evaluate literary products by María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Helen Hunt Jackson, Sui Sin Far, and Eva Rutland as they engage with and reinterpret American notions of progress and, thereby, western American regional identity. Didion offers a helpful starting point because in her mid-twentieth-century moment, she is writing in and about an American West that is finding it increasingly difficult to sustain the very narratives of progress that brought her family West in the mid-nineteenth century.

Joan Didion’s West: A Place of Speechlessness

Didion’s writing career documents a twentieth-century western American identity crisis as she confronts the contradictions and the fantasies upon which the American West asserts itself as distinct from the rest of the nation. In the 1970s Didion writes that she had begun to feel restless in California. She says she had a “dim and unformed sense . . . that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future. . . . I did not much want to talk about this.” Perhaps it is Didion’s Californian refusal to be “satisfied and content” that drove her South to find a new “future” in a region she associates with the past, but after spending a month traveling through the American South, Didion returned to California to realize “that the story doesn’t matter, doesn’t make any difference, doesn’t figure.” Of course, the story Didion says “doesn’t matter” is the story of western American progress and of the sacrifices Anglo-American pioneers made on the trail and that Didion’s family imagines they continue to make as they resist satisfaction and contentment in their own twentieth-century California. But on her trip South, Didion listens to a southern voice “convinced that they have bloodied their place with history” while she tries to reconcile that in the West, “we do not believe that anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it.” And while Didion prefers not “to talk about this,” she notes the South’s “dense obsessiveness” with talking about “race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style” to “keep the wilderness at bay.” Didion applies the wilderness metaphor here—a metaphor that conjures an American exceptionalism out of an American anxiety—to frame her critique of a southern “obsessiveness” with what Didion perceives to be things of the past. But the metaphor is misplaced and implies more about Didion than it does the southern community of which she is writing. If, in Didion’s twentieth-century context, the wilderness represents some past chaos thoroughly contained by Anglo-American progress, then the South does not subscribe to such narratives. The past is imbricated in the South’s present and future, and it is clear to Didion that the South remains close to its past in a way the West fundamentally does not. In using the West’s metaphor of the wilderness to think about southern “obsessiveness,” Didion reveals that even as she tries coming to terms with the fact that the story “doesn’t matter,” she continues searching for the story nonetheless. For stories do matter to Didion, and they matter because they provide the fodder that fuels the California dream. But these same stories are personally heartbreaking to Didion as she begins to recognize that in writing about the West, she is “trying to place [herself] in history” and that she has “been looking all [her] life for history and [has] yet to find it.” When Didion says the stories don’t matter, she is working to articulate her own misplacement within the western American stories that raised her. I argue that Didion’s sense of misplacement—or, to put it more precisely, Didion’s process of un-recognition in western American narratives—is what ignites Didion’s desire not to talk.

And Didion’s body of work is fraught with not wanting to talk. As prolific as Didion is as a writer, her works resist speaking or, at times, express an inability to speak with exactitude. In South and West, for instance, she actively runs away from speaking to the connections between the “bloodied” South and her golden West. “And so,” Didion says “instead of talking about it I flew south.” What makes Didion’s work so “sharp,” as President Barack Obama suggested when he awarded Didion the 2012 National Medal of Arts and Humanities, is that it is immersive. Didion writes from within the cultural space she is investigating, but she also always keeps her own sense of dis-belonging at the center of her critiques. She is driven by her speechlessness to fly South to find the words she cannot locate within her own histories in Sacramento.

I use the term “speechlessness” intentionally. Speechlessness, as I use it, is different from “voicelessness.” It does not imply that women cannot speak but that for the women in Didion’s linguistic culture— including Didion herself—the words do not exist, and so they choose to remain silent rather concede to half-truths, others’ truths, or problematic expectations. I follow Patti Duncan in arguing that speechlessness is a site of feminist empowerment because it confronts dominant culture about its dismissal of women’s experiences. Duncan challenges an activist rhetoric that uses terminology like “speak up” and “find your voice” as a language of resistance. Rather, Duncan argues, “it is not simply that silence can and must be replaced with speech (any silence, any speech),” but “both speech and silence must be continually interrogated for their meanings, both explicit and implicit.” It is assumed that in a U.S. context where “freedom of speech” is especially provocative, speaking out is connotative of power and remaining silent is the demarcation of powerlessness. But such a discourse leads to victim blaming and reinforces a Ben Franklin–like narrative that views individuals as wholly in control of their own outcomes. But speech is limited, and as Duncan and others have suggested, whoever controls language controls its access and limitations. For Didion, the western American narrative that underwrites her identity as a woman in the West is controlled by the white male language of the frontier. As such, her access to language is restricted, and the words available to her are besieged with meanings that support the Western myth, a myth that she is actively working to unravel. As such, Duncan helps us to see that “silence functions as a way of saying (and of unsaying) and is related to ways of seeing (unseeing) and knowing (unknowing), but it is useful only in contexts of other silences, whereby it signifies resistance rather than voicelessness.” Didion’s silence is her un-recognition in western American narratives—her “unsaying,” “unseeing,” and “unknowing”—as her speechlessness calls attention to the silenced narratives buried under national and regional narratives of Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, and progress.

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