by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As we continue at our look at the soaring rhetoric and purple prose of the essay “A Vision for Los Angeles” by George Wharton James, the eccentric editor of the Los Angeles-based magazine, Out West, in the May 1913 issue of which the piece appeared, we begin with his quadripartite vision for the Angel City with these elements being: “Its Historical destiny”; “Its Topographic and Climatic conditions”; “Its Geographic Isolation”; and “In the Pioneer Basis of its Civilization.”
James asserted in the first point that “civilization began on the banks of the Hindu Kush,” which presumably was the Indus River and that “it has continued to move westward,” through the Mideast, Egypt, Greece, Rome and England “until now the final focalizing point of Occidental Civilization is this Land by the Sunset Sea.” By “occidental,” the writer appears to suggest that these precursors were, somehow, connected racially through a popular notion at the time that Indo-Aryan was a linear progression.
In any case, he continued that “it is in the line of civilization’s march to come here” to Los Angeles” and, as happened in Egypt and Greece, “so will this Western World attain a larger, higher, deeper, broader and more potent civilization, physically, mentally and spiritually than any that has yet preceded it.”
With respect to topography and climate, the editor held that “all philosophers of all ages agree that environment materially influences the race history of nations as it does of individuals” and that the greatest civilizations “developed and matured in the temperate zones of the earth” with Greece held up as the paramount exemplar of this concept.
Rising to his subject, James offered that California “is a cosmos within itself” when it came to this issue and inquired of the reader,
Do you seek high mountains, whose cloud and snow-capped summits companion the stars? Do you seek a pearly faced ocean, dotted with islands of ineffable charm and beauty? Do you seek gardens of variegated flowers, in which song birds of a thousand diverse voices sing their divine melodies? Do you long for canyons wherein babbling brooks, roaring streams, dashing waterfalls give new harmonies to the sweet music of Nature? Do you look for arid deserts, dense forests, sloping foothills, vast plains, anything in scenery? California possesses them all, and consequently its climate is as varied, unique and “cosmopolitan” as its topography.
James went on to observe that “such varied, diverse, glorious, awe-inspiring and sublime” elements would attract “the susceptible minds” of architects, artisans, artists, orators, poets and others and provide them the mental and spiritual inspiration to do their best work because the qualities were “in the air, in the scenery, in the secret souls of men and women.” If the climate and topography were the best in the world, so, too, must be “the ultimate expressed product” of those living in it.
The isolation of the region comprises James’ strangest argument, as he asserted that Moses, Christ, Mohammed and the Buddha, among others were “great leaders [who] have known the value of solitude,—of isolation from the mass.” Therefore, he claimed, there was a “tremendous influence California’s isolated position has had upon the material, intellectual and individualistic development.”
Moreover, he argued that this condition, not ended until the Gold Rush, was such that “its isolation had kept it waiting until the fullness of God’s time had arrived,” upon which the hordes began to migrate here, despite the barriers of ocean, mountain, desert and other topographical challenges, including the fever-ridden jungles of central America.
What the isolation led to, James commented, was that “the pioneer basis” meant “California demanded and received a peculiar, unique and selected population in its pioneers and the author pointed to a series of essays in the magazine in the last half of 1912. In these, he wrote that
the pioneers who reached California of very necessity must have possessed the power of initiative, foresight, physical strength, robust health, bravery, the spirit of the out-of-doors, they were disciplined by hardship, cosmopolitan, generous, simple-hearted, independent in thought, and resolute of achievement.
Following James’ line of thinking, those who came here before 1848, whether Spanish, Mexican or Anglo, such as the Workman and Temple family, did not partake of these values and the indigenous people apparently did not merit any consideration, being, it seems clear, so uncivilized as to have no value in this “pioneer basis.”
From the discovery of gold early in 1848 until the driving of the golden spike that marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad a little more than two decades later, “California’s isolation gave these glorious factors in the lives of the pioneers free and undisturbed opportunity for fullest, freest development.” Hardship’s discipline, sympathy and humanity, physical development from walking or riding horses, courage, independent thinking and invention characterized these pioneers who were not “controlled by Eastern standards.”
James went so far as to lament the arrival of the railroad to California because it was antithetical to “making the pioneers not only self-reliant, but in freeing them from the crystallized, fixed, conventional, bound thoughts and acts of the older communities.” There was a new civilization here “in which the noble and good things in the life of the simple-hearted and primitive man counted for more than the complexities and conventionalities of the super-civilized and academic man.”
In this worldview, the writer claimed that there was the elevation of truth over polite behavior; work over money; brotherhood over wealth; virtue beyond mere display; the carrying out of practice not just theorizing; action above words; justice beyond law; knowledge more than that found in college; humaneness instead of ability; and “life more than profession.” Because of this purported set of conditions,
These, then, are the reasons for the faith that is in me that a great artistic and religious future awaits Los Angeles and its surrounding country, as well as that commercial supremacy will become its destiny.
There were only a rare few who “have seen glimpses of the vision,” fleeting as these have been and among those cited were James’ long-time rival and contemporary Charles Fletcher Lummis, as well as Amos Throop of what became the California Institute of Technology; Arthur Letts, founder of The Broadway department store, through his work with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA); clubwoman Clara Burdette; Thaddeus Lowe of the Mt. Lowe Railway; Andrew Carnegie, the steel titan who endowed the Mt. Wilson Observatory; and Griffith J. Griffith (whose last name was misspelled as “Griffiths”) and his gift of 3,000 acres of parkland and who planned an observatory—astronomy being an early fascination for the polymath writer.
James avowed that “our youth is boiling up more and more rapidly” and “our life is pulsating with the fervent vigor of our young manhood and womanhood,” while locals were drawn to “the more glorious, the stable, the permanent things of our material life” as well as “the stable things of the soil.” Along these lines, he called for more than “temporary and inferior structures” and went into a lengthy discussion of how marble found in Arizona, where James spent significant time, “should and will stimulate the youth of Los Angeles and the surrounding cities and country to artistic emulation” of the Greeks.
Specifically, the writer looked to sculpture as key and cited such local artists as Gutzon Borglum, who lived in Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley foothill town of Sierra Madre and is of Mt. Rushmore notoriety (his racist and nativist views look to have aligned with James’ concept of “Occidental Civilization”), Robert Aiken (whose statues of Past and Future are outside the National Archives in Washington, D.C.) and Julia Bracken (misspelled by James as “Brackett”) Wendt, who taught at the Otis Art Institute and whose husband, William, was a well-known painter, and whose “The Three Graces: History, Science and Art” was sculpted for the rotunda o the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art, now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Why James, however, decided to lavish attention on sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward, who died three years prior and had no known connection to greater Los Angeles, appears to have simply been a personal admiration. Many illustrations in the article were of Ward and his work, and the writer did state that, because to Ward, “American art should deal with American subjects” and because Ward was a particularly “masculine” artist who came from humble origins, akin to the “pioneer basis” noted above,
I have shown these specimens of Ward’s work in the hope that they may fire the heart and nerve the soul of some young Californian [male, presumably?] to keen and vivid emulation. Our Western life awaits its Ward. It is crowded full of figures that should be preserved for all time in imperishable marble, and only by stimulation to [the] highest, most zealous artistic endeavors can these epoch-forming characters be set forth in living guise before the ages yet to come.
After having called for such monuments to Western (Anglo) masculinity, James called for the rich men of Los Angeles “to hand their names down to posterity as the donors to the city of their love and their pride” by building structures “of purest marble, classic in the integrity and truth of their architecture, and sublime and glorious in the adornments sculpted upon them by locally-developed artists.” When Walter P. Temple later embarked on real estate development, including commercial building projects, he was likely not quite driven by these lofty sentiments.
Griffith was lionized for his efforts with his namesake park and the observatory that was not completed for another twenty years, but there was more. James wrote that the man who was sent to San Quentin for shooting and badly injuring his wife, Christina (neé Mesmer) in a drunken rage of jealousy at the Hotel Arcadia in Santa Monica, “is contemplating another gift of majesty and grandeur, usefulness and inspiration that will forever link his name with the great benefactors of the world,”
This was to be, “somewhere in the center of Los Angeles,” a structure denoted as “a Temple of Marble” and planned to be “a building of creative and artistic skill and power, unique but wonderfully representative of the Spirit of the West.” James added that this edifice was to “be the Civic Center, and Free and Open Forum for the discussion of all questions pertaining to human uplift.” When completed, he asserted, it would be where “human love will run and be glorified in the power of its truth to inspire, convince, [and] achieve the nobles possible practical ideals.”
In this building was to be a theater only showing works that were “given on their merits devoid of mercenary or commercial considerations” and which would inspire young playwrights to conceive of efforts “that will draw men upward instead of merely pleasing and soothing them.” Also to be included were art and music studios, a science center and these were to provide “the inspiration and power that come from contact with those accustomed to large achievement.”
The structure went unrealized, but James ended his remarkable essay withthe plea,
Oh men and women of Los Angeles let us live beyond today, let us live for the future. Let us build deep and broad upon the solid foundations that endure that our sons and daughters may build on and up, instead of bring compelled to tear down, and destroy, in order that they may begin where we should have begun. Let us lay aside the selfishness, the smallness, the pettiness that will not see beyond immediate returns to ourselves . . . Rich men and women of Los Angeles I call upon you to see and gain this immortality. Give largely, give fully, give lovingly, give freely, give Now—for the day has dawned, noon is nigh, the afternoon follows and then—the Night Cometh when No Man Can Work.”
Having overcome the controversies of his Methodist ministry in Long Beach some twenty years before, James, who was generally recognized as a significant cultural figure in greater Los Angeles, lived another decade. He died in November 1923 at a sanitarium in St. Helena, in Napa County, while on a speaking tour in northern California, but, curiously, the local press did not say all that much about him by way of obituaries. Marble may be considered imperishable, but James’ legacy was, as with virtually all of us, not so nearly as durable.