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NONFICTION : THE FALL TO EDEN: LANDSCAPES AND IMAGINATION IN CALIFORNIA by David Wyatt (Cambridge University: $29.95, illustrated; 268 pp.).

August 24, 1986|Bonnie Loyd

David Wyatt, who grew up in Los Angeles, is one of many writers fascinated by the challenge of defining the California experience. His tools are drawn from literary analysis, and his material lies in the lives and work of 11 California authors. Wyatt begins with Richard Henry Dana, whose autobiographical "Two Years Before the Mast" was published in 1840, and concludes with the poets Robinson Jeffers and Gary Snyder. Each author shows Wyatt another nuance in relationships between people and the land.

Wyatt's prose can be daunting because it is often abstract. For instance, in summing up both Raymond Chandler's detective novels and the troubled Chandler marriage, Wyatt suggests: "In a literal act of displacement, Chandler substitutes relationship for location as the proper sphere of human dwelling. At the end, he falls back on the old Romantic logic; gain in an inner world compensates for loss in an outer one." This book is not for a lazy Sunday, but the scholars for whom it is intended will find a thorough and thoughtful investigation of how authors respond to their environment.

Although Wyatt set out to write "an imaginative biography of a region," somewhere along the line California got away from him, and literature took over. The chapter on Mary Austin's work primarily explores her psychology, and the inspiration John Steinbeck drew from California proves elusive under Wyatt's scrutiny. Only John Muir remains unshakably rooted in his beloved California landscape. In the epilogue, Wyatt confesses that his book was overtaken by a paradox: Life is not about places but about people. Thus Wyatt emerges an interpreter wise enough to listen to the writers, even if they threaten to undermine his romance with California.

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