Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Peter J. Holliday's "American Arcadia"

Peter J. Holliday is Professor of the History of Art and Classical Archaeology, California State University, Long Beach. Trained as an historian of classical art and archaeology, Holliday has received awards for his research and writing from the American Academy in Rome, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and National Endowment for the Humanities.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, American Arcadia: California and the Classical Tradition, and reported the following:
Ford Madox Ford’s contention that the ninety-ninth page is representative of an entire book is indeed valid for American Arcadia, in that it features how Southern Californians considered adapting a classical form – a grand boulevard to link an expansive city – and using classical building types (triumphal arches, statuary groups, fountains) to define it. The key is in the book’s subtitle: California and the Classical Tradition. Classical antiquity could be considered second only to Christianity as a force in modeling America's national identity; this book uses material culture, literature, and architecture to demonstrate how, from the beginning, Californians in particular chose to craft their state visually and culturally using the rhetoric of classical antiquity. In its earliest days, California was touted as the last opportunity for alienated Yankees to establish the refined gentleman-farmer culture envisioned by Jefferson and build new cities free of the filth and corruption of those they left back East. Through architecture and landscape design Californians fashioned an Arcadian setting evocative of ancient Greece and Rome. Later, as that Arcadia gave way to urban sprawl, entire city plans were drafted to conjure classical antiquity, self-styled villas dotted the hills, and utopian communities began to shape the state's social atmosphere.

The specific boulevard discussed on page ninety-nine is Wilshire, which runs 15.83 miles from downtown Los Angeles west to the sea in Santa Monica. In the 1920s a group of powerful oligarchs sought to widen it on principles derived from the City Beautiful Movement, and give the region a classicizing identity by marking its progress with great civic monuments. Opposition from other business interests and property owners thwarted their plans. As indicated by the citations, my discussion rests on the work done by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell for their provocative exhibition and catalogue, Never Built Los Angeles (2013). My goal is to place the Wilshire project within the context of Californians emulating classical models, and make comparisons with existing instances, whereas Goldin and Lubell discuss it as exemplary among an array of other unbuilt projects. As elsewhere in the book, my discussion builds on the important work of others, but whose different perspectives and alternative narratives I encourage readers to explore, too.
Learn more about American Arcadia at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue