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Los Angeles Times 1985 Book Prize Nominees

October 13, 1985

The sixth annual Los Angeles Times Book Prize program takes place this year on Nov. 1. Today we publish excerpts from the five books nominated for the history prize.

ALLAN M. BRANDT, No Magic Bullet, A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880 (Oxford University: $19.95).

"Since the late 19th Century," Allan M. Brandt writes, "venereal disease . . . has typically been cited as a sign of deep-seated sexual disorder, a literalization of what was perceived to be a decaying social order." The "social construction" of the sexually transmitted diseases reached a turning point at the end of World War I: French toleration of prostitution immediately raised doubts for many Americans concerning the moral rectitude of the nation the doughboys were sent to save. For American reformers the system of regulated prostitution symbolized the debasement of French society. As Charles Eliot, the former president of Harvard University, wrote:

"The failure of the French government to protect their soldiers from these evils is the gravest error that government has committed; for those vices have proved more destructive to the French people since August, 1914, than all the German artillery rifles, hand grenades, poisonous gases and fire blasts. The killed transmit no poison to their families and descendants--the victims of alcohol and prostitution do. . . ."

The caption on a poster expressed the same theme more bluntly: "A German Bullet Is Cleaner Than a Whore."

For many Americans, the sorry record of the Allies in combatting venereal disease confirmed the image of continental debauchery. In previous wars, the American military might have regretfully accepted such casualties, but the combination of the moral stridency of Progressivism and the new consciousness of order and efficiency made losses to venereal disease intolerable. These demands explain the significance of the American battle against sexually transmitted diseases that the war unleashed.

KEVIN STARR, Inventing the Dream, California Through the Progressive Era (Oxford University: $19.95).

Kevin Starr's still unfinished history of California began with "Americans and the California Dream." In this second volume of that history he directs the larger part of his attention to Southern California, for reasons that he sets out in his preface: How hauntingly beautiful, how replete with lost possibilities, seems that Southern California of two and three generations ago, now that a dramatically different society has emerged in its place. What possible connections, one can legitimately ask, can there be between that lost world, with its arroyo cabins and Spanish imagery, its daydreams of Malibu sunsets and orange groves, and today's mega-suburbia extending from Mexico to Kern County? This is a good question, and it cannot be answered by mere pieties regarding the usable past, for few American regions have experienced accelerations and quantum leaps comparable to those experienced by Southern California in the years that follow the period of this narrative. That older Southern California, however--that Southern California dream, if you will--is, I believe, primarily of value in and of itself as a past creation of American society as it found itself on the Pacific Coast south of the Tehachapi Mountains in the decades before and after 1900. Here flourished for 50 years or so a unique interaction of Protestant high-mindedness (frequently clothing itself in Latin Catholic imagery), the genteel tradition, the booster spirit, conformity, eccentricity and rebellion, Progressive reform, naturalism, and agrarian myth, all at work, primarily, among the American middle classes as they settled into a unique semi-arid landscape fronting a spectacular seashore and graced by perhaps the finest weather on the planet. From this rich, often eccentric mixture of orthodoxy and innovation emerged a regional society that in its future developments and transformations would set national standards of American identity, as the attitudes and style of Southern California were exported via the film industry to the rest of the nation. In an elusive but compelling manner, Southern California was destined to secure for itself a fixed place in the collective daydream of America.

JAMES FARMER, Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement (Arbor House: $16.95).

Born a "PK" (preacher's kid) in Mississippi, James Farmer headed CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) during the epoch-making "Freedom Rides" of 1961. The success of the rides made him a national figure and led, eventually, to a position in the Nixon Administration. Here, Farmer recalls a meeting with Lyndon B. Johnson:

As vice president, (Johnson) was chairman of the President's Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity. It was that capacity of his that led me to request a meeting.

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