I just read critic Edmund Wilson's famous 1941 essay "Boys in the Back Room," a piece that defined a whole generation of California novelists as hard boiled. Wilson set up the canon for California novelists of the 1930s including James M. Cain, John O'Hara, William Saroyan, Hans Otto Storm, John Steinbeck, Nathanael West, and Fitzgerald's Hollywood fiction. In passing Wilson also mentions Richard Hellas and Horace McCoy.
By 2007 hardly anyone every reads Hans Otto Storm, and O'Hara is usually classified an Eastern writer despite his one Hollywood novel, but Wilson did set up of canon of 1930s California writers--Cain, McCoy, West, Steinbeck, Saroyan, and Fitzgerald who wrote Hollywood fiction--that persists to this day. Kennent Starr, California's leading historian, in his cultural history volume of California in the 1930s The Dream Endures (1997) has a chapter on California fiction titled "The Boys and Girls in the Back Room" discussing most of the same writers as Wilson did. Starr is quite right to revise Wilson's title to "The Boys and the Girls" given the many Califronia women writers: either new post-world War II writers or rediscovered 1930s and 1940s women writers.
David Fine's Los Angeles in Fiction, a 1984 anthology of essays Fine edited, bases his Section 1 "Startling Places' on Wilson including three essays on Cain, McCoy, West, and Fitzgerald. Fine's 2nd section focues on the detective novelists Chandler and McDoanld while only a few of the essay writers in the book look at such post-World War II novelists as Thomas Pyncheon's Crying of Lot 49, John Gregroy Dunn's True Confessions (1977), and Thomas Sanez's 1978 novel Zoot Suit Murders. In 2000 David Fine published his own book-lenght criticism Imagining Los Angeles: the City in Fiction where chapter 4 titled 'View From the Back Room" discuss all the old favorites Cain, McCoy, and Richard Hellas while Fine's chapter 4 is titled "Down these Mean Street: The Tough-Guy Detective Novel" and chapter 6 is called "The Hollywood Novel." So the heart of Fine's 2000 book is still those writers that Wilson discussed in 1941.
What struck me the most in reading Wilson's essay is his discussion of Hemingway's influence on all these writers as well as the New Yorker's silly comments on the California climate making dense fiction diffcult. The most interesting critical comment was Wilson's idea that the 1930s Califronia novelist were continuing the turn-of-the-century California radical tradition found in Henry George, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Upton Sinclair. Further, Wilson argues that both turn-of-the-century writers and 1930s writers were reacting to the "naked savage American labor wars" in California.
If one folllows Wilson and looks at the savage labor wars impact on novelists, then the 1930s novelist are much more connected to late 19th and early 20th century novelists Norris and London and also connected to Upton Sinclair's 1920's great novel Oil showing oil industry corrupting Southern California politics and culture. Many post-war novelists and playwrights clearly belong to this California radical tradition such as John Gregory Dunn's True Confessions or James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia, both of which expose corruption. In the 1960s the Chicano farm workers movement was the labor war that inspsired California Chicano writers as Oscar Acosta, who wrote the novel The Revolt of the Cockroach People about Chicano activism in late 1960s Los Angeles; Thomas Saenz, who wrote Zoot Suit Murders; Luis Valdez, who wrote the breakthrough play Zoot Suit that founded Chicano theater. The 1960s Watts riots gave rise to a black power movement, Watts Writers workshop, and rediscovery of Chester Himes' novels attacking racism in 1940s Los Angeles.
Fine does discuss some of these writers in Imagining Los Angeles in his chapter 7 "Down and Out in Los Angeles: From Bunker Hill to the Barrio" which deals with writers from John Dante in the 1930s, Chester Himes in the 1940s, Oscar Acosta in the 1960s, Charles Bukowski in the 1970s and 1980s, and Walter Mosley from the 1990s to the present . The idea of novelists emerging from the Los Angeles flatlands to do critiques of society also applies to such contemporary writers as Luis Rodriguez's gang memoir Always Running, Nina Revoyr's novel Southland about the Japanese-American and black communities in Crenshaw district in Southcentral Los Angeles decades-long struggle against police brutality; Jervey Trevalon's novel about struggling youth in 1990s Southcentral Understand This, and Janet Fitch's elegant novel White Oleander about a teenager surviving the horrors of the Los Angeles foster care system.
Also, following Wilson's ideas of a California radical tradition one can connect the late 19th century early 20th century writers London and Norris with the critics of Silicon Valley culture of the 1990s such as Paulina Borsook's briliant book-length essay critiqing computer culture Cyberselfish; Chris Carlsson's Nowtopia on early 21st century California countercultures, Ellen Ullman's novel about computer programmers The Bug; and Pat Dillon's great satire of the dot com boom The Last Best Thing. Both Northern Californian and Southern California fiction and non-fiction writers have been using their writing to critique dominant late 20th and early 21st narratives about California.
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