Monday, February 20, 2006

urban fervor: the quacks & charlatans school

I am currently as deep in the dissertation as I'll probably ever be, so I thought, "Hey, why not drag the lovely people who visit here into my misery?" So starting today and every Monday following until I defend, I will post a short (I promise) excerpt from Urban Fervor: Los Angeles Literature & Alternative Religion. The inaugural selection comes from the introduction and gives a sense as to why I ended up here in the first place.

This project was conceived with three separate (though sometimes overlapping) audiences in mind. I am sad to say the first group includes some literary critics and scholars as well as your average reader. It is the group who, when presented with the idea of Los Angeles literature, asks, “There’s literature in Los Angeles?” In spite of and in service to the untutored, this project was begun.

The second audience was revealed a little further into my research. After reading the work of writers and critics I much admire, such as Mike Davis and David Fine, I was left with the impression that all we need to know about Los Angeles literature can be found within the pages of
noir classics and the occasional Hollywood novel. This project seeks to reach the audience of these imminent writers, those readers who acknowledge the merit of L.A. literature scholarship. However, we need to take this scholarship further.

The third audience is comprised of people like me: readers who know that a city of over three million people can and has produced literature of varying styles and strengths that goes beyond what has been studied thus far. In fact, opening the canon this way brings in so many texts that there was a need to focus the project in some way.

If you ask a random selection of readers what text comes to mind when they hear the phrase “Los Angeles literature,” they will almost invariably mention Nathanael West’s 1939 novel The Day of the Locust. The tragic tale of Hollywood dreams dashed seems to be the entry point into the city’s literature, and as we’ll see in Chapter Five, it is a bleak and violent entrance. In his characteristically cynical style, West provides various portraits of alternative religion in Los Angeles – miracle solvents, Dr. Know-All Pierce-All, the Church of Christ Physical, the Church Invisible, the Tabernacle of the Third Coming, the crusade against salt, Temple Moderne, brain-breathing, and “a crazy jumble of dietary rules, economics, and Biblical threats” (141). During my initiation to Los Angeles literature through The Day of the Locust, I was under the impression that this frantic bounty of religion was part of West’s feverish nightmare rather than an essential element of Los Angeles culture. As I expanded my reading, I discovered that time and time again, writing in Los Angeles about Los Angeles would echo West’s portrayals of this religious fecundity.

Surprisingly, there appeared to be a glaring lack of discussion about this constant theme running throughout most of the Los Angeles literature of the twentieth century: an obsession with alternative religion and its role in this particular urban culture. What discussion did exist was dismissive and derisive: the “quacks and charlatans” school of criticism, if you will. The proliferation of religious alternatives was not explored with any depth at all by the earliest critics of the urban scene. In a 1926 article for the Baltimore Evening Sun, it seemed as if H.L. Mencken were going to tackle the reason why so many Americans were drawn to the spirituality of Southern California in his study of popular evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Alas, we are not so lucky as to receive any critical thinking on the subject:

What brought this commonplace and transparent mountebank to her present high estate, with thousands crowding her tabernacle daily and money flowing in upon her from whole regiments of eager dupes? The answer, it seems to me, is as plain as mud. For years she has been wandering about the West, first as a side-show wriggler, then as a faith healer, and finally as a cow-town evangelist. One day, inspired by God, she decided to try her fortune in Los Angeles. Instantly she was a roaring success. And why? For the plain reason that there were more morons collected in Los Angeles than in any other place on earth – because it was a pasture foreordained for evangelists, and she was the first comer to give it anything low enough for its taste and comprehension (65).

Mencken was not alone in his condescension and superficial analysis. Bruce Bliven also uses a cattle metaphor to describe Los Angeles in an article for The New Republic in 1927: “Here is the world’s prize collection of cranks, semi-cranks, placid creatures whose bovine expression shows that each of them is studying, without much hope of success, to be a high-grade moron, angry or ecstatic exponents of food fads, sun-bathing, ancient Greek costumes, diaphragm breathing and the imminent second coming of Christ” (cited in Ulin xv). In his 1932 autobiography Laughing in the Jungle, Slovenian anarchist and immigrant Louis Adamic provides a tally of his L.A. periodical reading:

On Saturdays, I saw church advertisements in the
Times and the Examiner announcing sermons apparently by the leading preachers in the city on such topics as “What Would Jesus Do if He Were a Great Movie Director Like Cecil de Mille?” or “– If He Were President of the Advertising Club?” One minister was self-described as an “ex-gambler, now a mighty hunter before the Lord,” and his subject one Sunday was “Who Killed the Dead Sea?” An evangelist advertised himself as “a drunkard, gambler, pimp, and outcast for twenty years; five times around the world as a hobo; now a miracle of grace.” Still another contended that “millions now living will never die” and that the Second Coming would soon occur in southern California “because here the climate is just like that in the Holy Land” (208).

Why did these writers not ask themselves, if there were thousands of people desperately seeking something in Los Angeles every day, what might this say about America? What might this say about the twentieth century? What might this say about Los Angeles?


MaJoHa said...

Ah, I see you have made good your promise and started posting your dissertation.
Interesting... I know little about LA literature - and even less about Alternative Religion - but I look forward to having some light thrown on both. It throws me back to my own home - London - and the myriad of authors who have written about it. And that them makes me think of London now, and how best it would be rendered in prose... amazingly difficult task because London is, on the one hand anchored in the deepest of pasts, and on the other is adrift on a sea of people from every corner in of the globe - who bring every possible variant of religion (have never been to keen on the word "Alternative"...
Sorry, I have gone off on a complete tangent. Look forward to reading more next Monday.

escapegrace said...

Thanks for getting the comments started, M. The zero has been banished. I, too, do not necessarily love the term "alternative." My other options were "marginal religions" - which seemed a little limiting politically - and "new religious movements" - which was also constraining by the nature of what defines "new" and when. So alternative it is...

Don Napoli said...

Interesting post. I have been wondering what your dissertation was about. I applaud your decision to study some of the lesser-known works on L.A. There’s a lot of good reading there. (My favorites so far are Pity of God and Puttering about in a Small Land.) If the Google book search I did last week for my blog is any indication (and it may not be), a few books may be emerging from obscurity: If He Hollers, Let Him Go; Lonely Crusade; Young Man with a Horn; and, even more likely if the movie succeeds, Ask the Dust. But I’m not holding my breath for Praise the Lord!

Bert said...

Actually, you gave the title of your dissertation as 'Alterative religion'.
I first thought it was a typo, but there actually is such a word:
alterative--a drug used empirically to alter favorably the course of an ailment.
Given that religion is the opium of the people (Marx) there may be an interesting detour...
(Ellie's Dad)

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you're sharing some of your work here. As Sally said, when I mentioned some of the books you were analyzing: "Ah, non-canonical texts."

Meanwhile, I wonder if B. is thinking of _palliative_ religion?