(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Stephen Schwartz is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is an engaging, skilled writer given to subtly wry observations and ironic wordplay. His previous history books include A Strange Silence: The Emergency of Democracy in Nicaragua (1992) and Brotherhood of the Sea: A History of the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, 1885-1985 (1986).

California has long been celebrated and, just as often, vilified as a unique and bounteous land populated by a diverse collection of trendsetting visionaries, fad-following dilettantes, self-indulgent hedonists, solipsistic hermits, iconoclasts, environmentalists, and moguls. Originally appearing on fifteenth century maps as a separate landmass surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, California continues to be depicted as a figurative island, removed from the conventions, mores, and even the economic and political environments that putatively characterize the rest of the lower forty-eight states. The reality of California’s land and people is much less exotic than the myth that enshrouds it, but the persistence and acceptance of this notion provides the state with an unusually powerful influence in the realm of ideas.

It is this influence, this psychological power, that Schwartz examines in From West to East: California and the Making of the American Mind. As suggested by the title, Schwartz seeks to explain how major facets of American culture and politics—the American psyche, in effect—have been shaped by California. Not merely notable individual Californians, but rather the entire entity, or organism, that is California has worked upon the nation that annexed and admitted it during the mid-nineteenth century. Such, at least, is the author’s argument, attributing to California a liberalizing and, at times, radicalizing influence on “the American mind.” As the author writes, “This volume is intended as a counterargument to conventional histories of American expansion, in which California is described as a mere pawn of such.”

The book develops as a historical narrative, uncluttered by footnotes or other references to sources. (At the end of the book there is a bibliography and a set of acknowledgments.) At the same time, the text carries considerable authority, reflecting care and craftsmanship in its writing and making extensive use of historical detail. If the book lacks the quantitative data, precise dates, and tables of academic history texts, it excels in its ability to convey the emotions and ideas that helped drive California’s social and political development during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The book is divided into six parts (following a brief prologue), proceeding in a chronological order. Part 1 concerns the arrival of European explorers during the sixteenth century and the subsequent events leading up to the admission of California into the Union. Part 2 examines the effects of California’s early economic and demographic growth, owing, in large part, to the railroads. Part 3 opens with the dawn of the twentieth century and traces the rise of communism as a force in state and global politics. Part 4 examines communism’s eventual dominance of radical politics in the late 1920’s and 1930’s—the Red Years. Part 5 concerns events coincident with World War II and its immediate aftermath, an era that involved various societal revolutions and initiated a new Red Scare. Part 6 examines the postwar transformation of California radicalism from an elite-based intellectual movement to a mass social movement in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. A short epilogue briefly assesses the subsequent three decades and offers some striking and powerful conclusions.

Schwartz begins by examining the arrival in California of a Portuguese explorer, Juan Rodrígues Cabrillo, who claimed the land for Spain. Cabrillo’s landing presaged an influx of explorers and settlers from various countries, including Great Britain, Russia, and China. The competition among the different powers for control of California, including missionary settlements and sundry wars and rebellions, is traced in sequence, though in no particular depth. This is by design. Schwartz presents California’s preadmission history not for its own sake but rather to trace the origins of the state’s multiethnic society and its activist, at times rebellious, political environment.

Even when examining the history of California as the Union’s thirty-first state (which is the book’s focus after the first seventy-five pages), the author treats major historical events only...

(The entire section is 1871 words.)