Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, And The Shaping Of California

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9780201144796: Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, And The Shaping Of California

Fire is a phenomenon both destructive and transforming, its story found in the ruins it leaves behind as well as the survivors that rise from its ashes. In this wholly original study, cultural historian and critic David Wyatt uses the story of fire to tell the story of California. Wyatt focuses this “catastrophic history” of his native state on five events that swept through California, altering its physical and political landscape and the way both were represented in art and literature.Wyatt begins with the accidental importation and spread of the wild oat in the 1770s, a process that had its human counterpart in the Spanish invaders. He then explores the impact of four other significant events: the Gold Rush, the 1906 earthquake and fire, the post–World War II defense-industry boom, and the “fire of race” that erupted in Watts in 1965. This fifth fire, Wyatt claims, has burned all throughout California’s history, and he artfully examines its effects on both the Chinese immmigration experience and the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. With an energetic style, Wyatt shows how all of these events were recorded and responded to in the works of the imagination that have shaped our collective understanding of the Golden State, from the writings of Raymond Chandler and Amy Tan, to the photography of Ansel Adams and the films of Roman Polanski. Five Fires is a provocative and highly entertaining retelling of California history that will prove an important contribution to the history of American culture.

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Review:

David Wyatt offers a far-seeing account of California history, shaped by a complex of catastrophes--ethnic clashes, ecological conquests, fires, and earthquakes--that are replayed even today. He writes of politicians who founded their careers on ideas of purity and exclusion, of immigrants who arrived seeking to remake themselves in a strange new world just as they do today, often returning to themes of cultural collision. (Witness the Rodney King riots and the O. J. Simpson trial.) Wyatt draws on dozens of overlooked sources--most notably the memoir of the Native American 18th-century chronicler Pablo Tac and the diaries of Chinese, Japanese, African American, and Hispanic immigrants--to craft a remarkable, sobering story.

About the Author:

David Wyatt is a professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park. He is the author of The Fall into Eden: Landscape and Imagination in California and Out of the Sixties: Storytelling and the Vietnam Generation.

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