Literary California

February, 26th - June, 18th 2003
Community College Essen
Jörg Blecher, M.A.

California is the focal region where the US became what Europeans today label „Amerika“. In California, the US were at last free to leave their Euro-centric history behind and face a future to be modeled. After settling New England, after crossing the vast plains of the Middle West and after surviving the Rockies, California‘s ocean breeze welcomed the speartip of a society on the search for its Dream come true. And to most, California seemed to come nothing short of it. Yet, the WASP settlers were at no length the first to discover the Golden State - they arrived third, actually. The native people of the Americas with a history of 50.000 years, and the Spanish-spoken discoverers are rarely mentioned when associations or images of California are to be listed, but both groups shaped, and shape California up to today.

"The mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent."
Joan Didion


How can we approach a region that is unlike any other of the US, besides New York City, defined by its representation in mass media? Literature apparently is not the first choice when thinking of sources on California, as Hollywood successfully gained its Definitionsmacht, but there is a rich literary history to the state between the Pacific shore and the Rocky Mountains. We probably need to admit that our view is defined by Dead White Males. By the image of the lone Westerner, on horseback, John Wayne-like, and by the muddy gold-diggers along with their companions of pathfinders or by the hard-boiled detective icon of the urban jungle of L.A. We will meet frontier Ladies, daring scientists, disillusioned Oakland youth, should-be-prodigies and freewheelin Beat types.

How can we approach a region that even in the name given to it is only a fiction and a symbol? Ordoñez de Montalvo named the island for the Queen Califa, the heroine in his novel of a men-killing amazon tribe inhabiting the island "California".

How can we approach a region that for the first time confronted the people heading west to search for their dreams with the harsh reality of a continent's end? Where to go if the geographic border is reached and the horizontal movement onward is stopped and blocked? What are the forms and motifs the above mentioned premises and situations trigger in literature, and how can we relate to them?

This course was given at the Volkshochschule Essen, during the Summer Semester in 2003. The participants were provided with hardcopies of the texts and motivatedly prepared them on a weekly basis. I will try to sum up the lively and inspiring discussions and reflections, and sketch our findings on these pages.

First up, let' start with Arthur Inkersley's 1897 essay "Californian Literature" from San Francisco News Letter ->

© Jörg Blecher, 2003