Regionalism in California

The latest issue of “The Univerity Bookman” (HT: Rod Dreher) is devoted to the theme of regionalism, which I believe to be essential for any cultural restoration or renaissance in this country. As Bill Kaufman writes in the introduction:

Regionalism is not an ism, or an ideology. It has always been a feature of American writing, for “America” is not so much a single unit as it is the magnificent welter of hundreds, nay thousands, of smaller places, from Sinclair Lewis’s Sauk Centre to Elmer Kelton’s West Texas. The two great flowerings of regional literature were in the 1880s (the so-called “local color” school of Jewett, Freeman, Eggleston, Garland, et al.) and the 1930s, when a regionalist movement in art (Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry, Thomas Hart Benton) also flourished, and some sainted souls even attempted to fashion a regionalist economics …

For a taste, sample Who Owns America? (1936), the programmatic sequel to the Twelve Southerners’ agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930), as well as the works of such American distributists as Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Allen Tate, and Herbert Agar. The flavor was rural Catholic and Jeffersonian Protestant, which is to say in favor of the widespread distribution of property, the preservation of small farms and encouragement of homecrafts and gardens, and the decentralization of political power.

Regionalism is complex for Californians, as it is for anyone living in places just recently settled. The city of Orland is only 100 years old this year; by contrast, the city of New York is 384 years old, Boston is 380, Philadelphia is 307. To put this in perspective, Orland may hold five generations of families at most. East coast cities have families going back 18 generations and more. In anthropological terms, it is the long-settledness of people that gives a region its specific cultural identity. Most places in California lack that long-settledness and continuity, and so regional identities are not so well defined. Complicating things even further is the fact that California was largely settled in the 20th century by what was and remains a highly mobile population.  While 50 or 100 years might be enough time to get a regional identity off to a good start, the process falters if the population is turning over every five or ten years. A highly mobile population is simply not capable of producing a regional culture.

Californians need not despair, however. We still have plenty of places outside the largest urban centers where regional cultures still flourish. The north valley, in which I have spent 33 years of my life, is unique enough to earn the disdain of many southern California sophisticates. We even have an accent, which sounds midwestern to other Californians. Many early families arrived directly from the midwest or southern states, and not a few from the east coast. My family is here as a result of a wave of LAPD veterans who, after 20 miserable years of crime-fighting in LA, retired and bought ranches in northern California and southern Oregon. Before these men were southern Californians, they were midwesterners (or from families of midwesterners).  Early immigrants from Italy, China, Japan, Mexico, and the Azores found themselves in communites with a dominant culture, and to this they eventually succombed.

Today, things are more fluid. Many small towns have been declining for years, and young people in these towns can’t wait to leave.  The latest immigrant wave in these parts is from Mexico, the numbers are large, and our institutions – including the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento – are doing very little to encourage assimilation. Due to the presence of the university, Chico is no longer rural and provincial but cosmopolitan and liberal – “Berkeley North”, I like to call it. So we are in a state of flux culturally.

The flip side of this is an opportunity. That is to say, Californians have the opportunity to shape the personalities of their respective regions for the future. It is a creative endevaor. We should build on what we have, incorporating the best of our past and present, but with an awareness that we are stepping into something of a vacuum – not a blank slate by any means, but not a finished product either – and that our regional identity will be defined in large part by what we bring to it.


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