A New Historical Narrative for San Diego (2009)


*** In 2007, the Journal of San Diego History invited me to participate in a round table discussion of Mike Davis, Kelly Mayhew, and Jim Miller’s book on San Diego, published in 2003 by The New Press. I thought I would re-post it again since JSDH is published by the San Diego History Center and is often not consulted by the larger historical profession since the journal mainly goes to members of the Center ***

I appreciate the invitation to join the forum on Mike Davis, Kelly Mayhew, and Jim Miller’s book, Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See. I was quite excited when The New Press released the book in Fall 2003 because there was no scholarly interest, critical writing, or research being published about any aspect of San Diego history, except in the Journal of San Diego History, where I was book review editor and interim co-editor from 2002-2005. At the time, I was finishing the final revisions for my book on San Diego’s two world’s fairs, and was fortunate to meet all three of the authors at the San Diego Public Library one summer day. As you can imagine, the mutual interest in San Diego’s history led to professional relationships based on shared research interests. Those who write on the city’s history constitute a very small circle. I know the authors quite well, but I also feel that I can speak objectively about the significance and problems with the book.

There are very few writers and scholars involved in writing book-length works about San Diego. Kevin Starr has written brief sections on San Diego in his volumes on California history, but most of the information comes from the Journal of San Diego History. Roger Lotchin included two chapters on San Diego in Fortress California (1992), but most of the material was also drawn from secondary works. An older generation of scholars, including Harry Crosby, Raymond Starr, Iris Engstrand, Ramòn Ruìz, Paul Vanderwood, and Richard Griswold Del Castillo, has done important work on the city. Their collective work has focused on either San Diego proper or the relationship of Tijuana to San Diego. However, these scholars have retired or are close to retirement, even if most of their work is fresh.

The study of San Diego skipped a generation and no baby boomer scholars write about the city, except perhaps Larry Ford and Lawrence Herzog at San Diego State University and Mike Davis at the University of California, Irvine. Some journalists, editors, and lay historians like Gregg Hennessey, Rick Crawford, Richard Amero, and Roger Showley have written some very good works in San Diego history as well. Some younger scholars like Miller and Mayhew and myself have published book-length works on the city’s history (University of Oklahoma Press published Miller’s San Diego novel Drift in Spring 2007), and Kyle Ciani, Theodore Strathman, and Judith Schultz have written dissertations on social welfare and water development respectively in San Diego’s history that will reach publication soon at university presses. So far as I know, The San Diego World’s Fairs and Southwestern Memory, 1880-1940 (2005) is the only scholarly book researched from archives to be published in a generation, except for the two chapters on San Diego in Phoebe Kropp’s new book California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (2006).

So grandparents and grandchildren appear involved in writing the history of the city. There are almost no parents. For some strange reason the scholars at University of California, San Diego in the humanities have shown almost no interest in examining San Diego within the larger history of Southern California, California, the western U.S., or the United States. The exception at UCSD is Abraham Shragge, who wrote a very impressive dissertation about the role of the military-industrial complex in the urbanization of San Diego, which is necessarily a post-1941 phenomenon. He has published a number of fine articles from the dissertation in Pacific Historical Review, JSDH, and the Southern California Quarterly. Yen Le Espirtu’s work in Asian American Studies has utilized San Diego’s diverse Asian communities, particularly Filipino-Americans, and a few scholars have considered the large Vietnamese American community in Linda Vista. San Diego history is strongest at both University of San Diego, under Engstrand’s guidance, and at San Diego State University. However, these programs only offer master’s degrees in history, although the M.A. theses from these programs are often indispensable reference works on local history. The finest, most artful and insightful work ever written on the city is a product of fiction. The novelist LÍ Thi Diem Th·y’s wonderful novel, The Gangster We Are All Looking For (2003) is arguably the greatest work ever written about San Diego.

Despite some excellent contributions, scholarly work on San Diego pales in comparison to the literature on cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, Phoenix, or Philadelphia (where urban social history was codified through the Philadelphia Social History Project). In addition, San Diego history has rarely shown conceptual innovation and often lags far behind the main fields and sub-fields of American history.

I believe Under the Perfect Sun helps rectify this problem. The authors succeed in constructing a new narrative for San Diego history. This has not been done since Richard Pourade’s multi-volume History of San Diego commissioned by the Copley’s San Diego Union-Tribune Company during the 1960s. Regardless of whether one agrees with the arguments in Under the Perfect Sun about power and injustice in the city’s history, it is an achievement in terms of scholarship and cultural criticism.

When scholars and even ordinary people think of “Southern California,” the importance and image of Los Angeles invariably comes to mind. I often wonder whether Under the Perfect Sun will generate new scholarship on San Diego history, as Davis’s famous book City of Quartz (1990) did for Los Angeles. Thanks in part to City of Quartz, the study of Los Angeles has become somewhat of a cottage industry within academe. With this book and future books on San Diego history, one hopes that San Diego’s historical significance will be greater recognized and that this will alter our understanding of both Southern California and California history.

It is true that Under the Perfect Sun does not make comprehensive use of archival research. If they had drawn extensively from archives, they never would have finished this book. I spent close to ten years researching my book on San Diego’s world’s fairs, and I only peeled off a thin layer of San Diego history. The lack of a rich historical literature makes works of broad synthesis, such as this, extremely difficult. That said, the book does use enough primary sources to forge its arguments, and the book does uncover and synthesize the “public transcript” of magazines and newspaper sources, municipal government publications, and secondary sources.

The one section that draws on original primary-source research, Kelly Mayhew’s oral historical investigation, will remain of interest to both general readers and scholars for a long time. The sections by Davis and Miller are compelling interpretations of the city, but they but they compress far too much history (over one hundred years) into their respective essays. When the next young writer or scholar does necessary work in the archives, the story and interpretation laid out by their essays will be revised and find more nuance. Still, their essays are as fruitful as Carey McWilliams’s bold, ambitious, and generous work from the 1940s.

The book is bold and ambitious, constituting an entire research agenda for future San Diego scholars. The essays offer a modern, sophisticated conceptual framework for local history. It replaces the empty rhetoric of years worth of Chamber of Commerce and local booster histories with serious and unsentimental portrayals of how private interests, greed, and power have shaped the city over time.

When The New Press released Under the Perfect Sun, it pleased me to see largely positive reviews. It received very few scholarly reviews, which is appropriate for a commercial trade title and for cultural criticism. When scholars did review the book, I could not feel anything but disappointment at the reception. Los Angeles scholars largely ignored the book, perhaps since a high-profile title on San Diego competed with the master narrative of Southern California history under their complete dominion.

The review of the book in the San Diego Union in September 2003 by Elizabeth Cobbs-Hoffman from the history department at San Diego State University focused on whether the book reached the level of muckraking insight achieved by Lincoln Steffens or Upton Sinclair, with much of her critique focused on recasting the authors’ criticisms as “cynicism.” She believed the authors had not been fair and had not cataloged the city’s triumphs over time. The reviewer thought Davis’s focus on white-collar corruption excessive, yet the Los Angeles Times recently ran a story in April 2007 entitled “San Diego Elite Shun Public Spotlight” to indicate the “closed door” nature of politics and influence-peddling in the city, thus confirming Davis’s compelling argument about the problems of “private government” in the city over the twentieth century. I believe Davis nailed San Diego’s historic lack of coalition interests on the head, and Paul Vanderwood’s new work on the “Border Barons” will also confirm Davis’s view when published.

Cobbs-Hoffman also takes Miller to task for his “Marxist interpretation” of local politics and his focus on social movements, like the Magonistas and the Industrial Worker’s of the World Free Speech Fight during the 1910s. Yet those familiar with San Diego history know that a very concerned San Diego Chamber of Commerce between 1912 and 1916 asked Governor Hiram Johnson repeatedly to mobilize the state militia to deal with the I.W.W. and border insurrectionists. The correspondence is in the Hiram Johnson Papers at the Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley.

Cobbs-Hoffman had almost no criticisms of Mayhew’s interviews. Overall, the review focused on what the book lacks rather than evaluating its stated intent. To this writer, Cobbs-Hoffman, like some conservative reviewers of Mike Davis’s other books, engaged in ad hominem attack rather than seriously addressing the intent and achievement of the book in question. The review certainly did not live up to the infamous and generous suspension of belief seen in the criticism of Susan Sontag or Joan Didion.

In the end, Under the Perfect Sun should be evaluated within both the corpus of work on San Diego history and also according to its stated goal: it is a work of both history and cultural criticism that hopes to initiate discussion about the city’s future by looking at its past. The book inherently calls for a sense of civic and municipal accountability rather than allowing private government in search of generating wealth for the bipartisan political elite of the city to undermine a larger sense of the “commons.” I think the authors offer important historical context for understanding the city’s political instability and financial insolvency since 2000. The authors also offer some road maps to a more progressive and accountable politics as the city moves into the twenty-first century.