Welcome to Fiction and the City!

“The city of Angels is unique, not simply in the frequency of its fictional destruction, but in the pleasure that such apocalypses provide to readers and movie audiences,” Mike Davis wrote in Ecology of Fear. “The entire world seems to be rooting for Los Angeles to slide into the Pacific or to be swallowed up by the San Andreas fault.”[1] In a review of some 100 novels, consisting of pulp fiction and “’serious literature’”, along with “a few dozen films” and a helping of 20th century ephemera tossed in for good measure, Davis observed a disturbing level of giddiness with which novels and movies dispatched Los Angeles and its citizens to the proverbial dustbin of history.

Naturally, Davis wondered what gave birth to such attitudes and came to a couple of conclusions but one in particular stood out: “[T]he abiding hysteria of Los Angeles disaster fiction, and perhaps all disaster fiction – the urge to strike out and destroy, to wipe out an entire city and untold thousands of its inhabitants – is rooted in racial anxiety. [W]hite fear of the dark races lies at the heart of such visions …”[2] Fiction carries culture and in Davis’s estimation, America’s subconscious expressed clear cultural discomfort with Los Angeles’ polyglot ways.

In regard to Los Angeles and race, other historians have descended into the mine of pop culture fiction. As part of his larger evaluation of popular depictions of the city, Eric Avila examined film noir and urban science fiction movies of the 1940s and 1950s and came to a realization much like Davis. Growing minority populations, symbolized by invading aliens, and changing gender roles, exemplified by popular “femme fatale” noir characters conveyed unease over the inhabitants, fortunes, and future of the City of Angels. White antiheroes, like “Double Indemnity’s” Walter Neff were corrupted by their racial boundary crossings and associations with the “other.” “A city caught between a bygone vision of suburban idyll and a ‘black’ portrait of its urban future, Los Angeles encompassed the urban ambivalence of Americans in the age of white flight,” Avila argued in his 2004 work, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight.[3]

Yet, far greater minds than this author have pondered the role of fiction in history and not just for Southern California. The late, great Edward Said saw in British novels of the nineteenth century an elaboration and reinforcement of Britain’s political strength.[4] The work of British novelists projected a vision of imperial power upon a place, very often in Asia, Africa, or the West Indies, through which narratives emerged in what Said called a “geographical sense.” By this, Said was referring to an array of projections created by Europeans about colonies and their inhabitants. These projections took numerous forms, “imaginative, cartographic, military, economic, historical, and … cultural,” but all ultimately scripted colonial “destinies” toward imperial powers. Literary colonization begat, fueled, and undergirded its political and economic counterparts.

In more prosaic ways, engaging with fiction benefits urban historians. The process of reading fiction, watching plays and films, sorting out plots and character motivations provides training for even experienced scholars. Sources, namely archives and the primary sources therein, flow as the lifeblood of the history profession. Diaries, meeting minutes, and letters written in conspiratorial tones serve as only a few examples. Knowing this, clever novelists and filmmakers have constructed entire worlds through fictionalized primary sources. In his 1972 novel, Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine, Stanley Crawford’s narrator, the wife and “ship slave” of a Captain Unguentine records her thoughts of their four decade marriage through the ship’s log. She tells a knotty, troubling, but compelling story of marriage, but one so fantastic that the reader asks not so much if her narration might be unreliable but rather as one critic pointed out, “to what degree.” As any historian working through an archive can tell you, how you read your sources, or against them, depending on what one knows about the author’s biases can determine narrative and any argument one deploys. Reading unreliable narrators will only sharpen such critical skills.

Finally, fictions function to inform our own literary stylishness and panache. Fiction provides historians with models for narrative and style. As historian and social media savant Kevin Kruse noted in a widely shared twitter thread from 2017, historians should engage fiction in more ways than just literary criticism.

 

 

 

Before you dismiss this all as academic exercise gone horribly awry, consider the political influence a work of fiction can exert on the real world. Between The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand convinced a generation of politicians that the state was bankrupt and that the answers to the West’s problems relied on private industry and hyper individualism fueled by unfettered capitalism. Conversely, in Hamilton, though based on Ron Chernow’s biography of the founding father, Lin Manuel Miranda added his own fictions to the work, thereby, reimagining the nation’s first Treasury Secretary as a black immigrant made good and inspiring a wave of interest in Hamilton, history, and the arts.

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An L.A. classic from Chester Himes’s, Los Angeles years

Granted, at the Metropole, we are deploying the term fiction widely: novels, pulp fiction, graphic novels, plays, films, short stories, musicals, operas, and so forth. For the month of February, The Metropole will consider Fiction and the City and the multitude of ways in which fictional accounts of cities have impacted our historical knowledge of the same.

Fictions, in whatever form they take, become cultural touchstones that simultaneously can serve as the heart of political and social movements, the identity cudgel of the state, and the discordant expression of a society in given historical moments. As Walt Whitman famously wrote, “I contain multitudes” and indeed so do the fictions that surround and nurture us.

Featured image at top: “Skyline view of Los Angeles, California”, photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2013, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[1] Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, (New York, 1998), 276-277.

[2] Davis, Ecology of Fear, 281.

[3] Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles, (Los Angeles, 2004), 66, 82.

[4] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, (New York, 1993), 73.

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