produced & written by MAUREEN LEE LENKER
1939 was a banner year in Los Angeles’ history. It marked the grand opening of Union Station, a major gateway for railroad travelers in and out of Southern California. Furthermore, it saw the completion of major construction on the Arroyo Seco parkway, which would open 18 months after Union Station. 1939 is considered the greatest year in Hollywood history, as it featured the premiere of film classics such as Gone with the Wind, The Women, Stagecoach and The Wizard of Oz. Three novels regarded as some of the most seminal literary texts of the city were published in the same year – Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, John Fante’s Ask the Dust and Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust.
1939 was a year that helped crystallize Los Angeles’ identity as a city. Its events and cultural output helped to cement the paradoxical pull between LA’s mythic and anti-mythic subtexts. In an article about 1939 in Los Angeles, LA Times Book Critic David Ulin states, “it was a year, in other words, of hope and fear and self-awareness, and the literature reflects this: the ineluctable push-and-pull between opportunity and crisis, between the utopian and the dystopian again.” Historian Kevin Starr describes Los Angeles as the “Great Gatsby” of cities because of its tendency to blow people’s dreams and expectations out of proportion only to twist and crush them later.
Yet, Los Angeles does very much truthfully embody many of its mythic stereotypes – it is a land of nearly constant sunshine and beautiful weather, a place where access to natural beauty like beaches and forests is relatively quick and simple. Los Angeles even serves as a literal dream factory, acting as a base for movie studios and the products of Hollywood in their many evolving forms.
The events of 1939 helped establish and reinforce this mythology. Union Station and the Arroyo Parkway increased ease of access to the land of sunshine and natural beauty, and the films of that year defined Hollywood’s output as truly the stuff of fantasy and dreams, establishing Hollywood firmly as a mecca of both entertainment and art.
But these events, and most particularly, the literature of that year, helped to cement the anti-mythic view of LA as well – the dark underbelly.
75 years later, these works and events still resonate — their mythology, implications, and practicalities wrapped up in the core of Los Angeles’ identity. I wanted to know why this year still stands tall in the city’s history, particularly in regards to the foundational nature of these works of literature and how they established discrete strands of literary tradition in Los Angeles.
My first order of business was to approach the man who had written an article about literary LA in 1939 and its continuing impact on the city’s identity and literature – LA Times book critic, David Ulin. You can hear many of his thoughts from our interview in the audio piece featured on this page.
I also explored 1939 and its contemporary resonances more broadly as the moderator of a panel at LA as Subject’s Los Angeles Archives Bazaar, where I spoke to authors Richard Rayner, William Bradley and Mark Vieira about literature, Union Station, and Hollywood, respectively.
Richard Rayner, who has written extensively about LA in the ’20s and ’30s, elaborated on the influences and techniques of each of these writers. He also expanded upon the literary traditions they hailed from or helped establish, particularly within the literature of Los Angeles.
When asked about what the authors’ bleak views of Los Angeles suggest about the city and its literary culture, Rayner said, “they were writing, not exactly realism, but they were writing what they felt… So, I would say that these three books are quite different. They crystallize kind of something that was present in LA at the time, and they predict future strands of LA literature, and they were representative of what was an incredibly vibrant writing culture in the city at the time.”
He reflected on Chandler’s evolution as a pulp fiction writer: “His fiction comes out of this very turbulent, violent, tabloid crime culture and a huge wave of civic corruption that persisted in LA throughout the 1930s where it was possible for…crime overloads to buy an LAPD sergeantship for like 500 bucks, I think. It was a very, very corrupt city. This was widely reported in newspapers and magazines and Chandler’s fiction kind of comes out of that stream.”
Rayner deems Chandler a literary outsider where as he views Nathanael West as part of the literary set, hailing from the East Coast and having a background in screenwriting that permitted him to pen, “the quintessential pop-eyed surreal looking at Hollywood and seeing the dark side of the dream. This is still kind of one of the most corruscating works of fiction ever done about LA, and it sort of says if you come here and dream, forget about it. That’s the subtext of Day of the Locust, it’s a very savage look at the underbelly of LA.”
According to Rayner, West laid the groundwork for a particular literary viewpoint of LA: “it’s the book that enshrines a particular idea of the fascination of coming to this city and looking at it for the first time, looking at it as if seeing it for the first time.”
Rayner also reflected on how Ask the Dust came from a pre-existing socialist school of thought and cemented a crucial literary tradition in Los Angeles: “Ask the Dust is kind of proletarian romanticism. It’s very realistic, it’s also very kind of romantic and beautiful in a way. And this too enshrines a literary tradition that is already in existence in LA, which then kind of continued leading to say Charles Bukowski — of the guy who comes from outside sort of dreaming of making it in LA as a writer, and then writes about not making it as a writer in LA, which you know has happened to lots of people here, and is a part of every writer’s journey in this city.”
In reflecting on these three authors and the legacy their novels left, Rayner points to Chandler as the best describer of Los Angeles. In his book A Bright and Guilty Place, Rayner notes that he still recommends Chandler as the first choice to those looking to read and learn more about the city.
To him, Chandler captures the essence of LA: “Just as a physical reporter, a describer of the way the light in LA feels, the way LA feels during and after the rain…just in terms of the way he fixes his eye and just notices people, landscapes, and of course, he describes a city that’s very different to the one in which we live, but it’s an ambience which feels very like the one in which we live…he’d lived here for a long, long time and seen the city grow up around him, and he has this sort of love-hate relationship with the city, which again is something, a strand, that if you look at the history of literary LA you can follow that all the way through.”
But what is Literary Los Angeles?
2014 has seen a host of celebrations and reflections upon 1939 — from special screenings and blu-ray releases of films to a special exhibit on Union Station at Los Angeles Public Library to the publication of numerous books on these topics. Yet, comparatively, these three novels and their role in the crystallization of LA’s identity and literary culture have been left out of the conversation. It seems odd that something crucial to the city’s make-up, culturally and in terms of how it sees itself, would not dominate the conversation.
David Ulin sees it as indicative of broader notions about Los Angeles and literature’s place in the city, “Well, I think literature has always been a kind of poor cousin in terms of LA’s vision of itself, of its own culture, its own importance — we don’t think of literature as a principal means of expression in terms of the city. Even in terms of creativity, I think literature comes in at least fourth. We have the movie industry, we have visual arts, which are sort of we’re always thinking about that, we have I would say mass entertainment, popular entertainment, music industry, television, etc. And even perhaps architecture…if we can say the city as an identity or thinking as an entity, right, the city thinks of itself I think relatively more through those filters than it does through literary filters. It’s not just outsiders who don’t think of Los Angeles as a literary landscape, it’s I think Los Angeles itself.”
Regardless of Los Angeles’ inability to recognize itself through literary filters, we should examine and celebrate 1939 as a crucial year for Los Angeles establishing how it writes itself. So, take a listen and let us carry you back to Los Angeles in the late thirties…
[Featured image courtesy of USC Libraries Special Collections, “Dick” Whittington Photography Collection, 1924-1987. This piece also features excerpts of music from “The Big Sleep” composed by Max Steiner, “Double Indemnity” composed by Miklos Rozka and “Chinatown” composed by Jerry Goldsmith.”]