Since March, when I examined Louis Adamic’s “The Truth About Los Angeles,” I have been hunting the other pamphlets he wrote for E. Haldeman-Julius. A box of a dozen musty tracts arrived Friday, courtesy of EBay, and I immediately dug into No. 752, “Facts You Should Know About California,” written about 1927-28.
|The title is a bit misleading because the essays by Adamic, Walter Watrous and Victor E. Walkers deal almost entirely with Los Angeles. Its rivalry with San Francisco appears to be main reason for including “California.”
For the most part, “Facts” is a supplement to Adamic’s other, more caustic writing about Los Angeles. To be sure, he is rather venomous about the city and its inhabitants, but he grudgingly concedes that, yes, not everyone is a narrow-minded expatriate from the nation’s corn belt. There are well-informed, progressive people even in Southern Moronia; they’re just not worth writing about.
Like his contemporary Morrow Mayo, Adamic is staunchly in the H.L. Mencken school of scorn toward the “booboisie.” Civic boosters, puritanical reformers and religious leaders of every faith take a thorough pounding. He makes this style of writing look easy, until he’s compared with lesser authors (Watrous and Walkers) who are equally strident, but lack his sharply edged wit.
At his best, Adamic is a keen observer and in his essay “The Bright Side of Los Angeles,” he describes riding on horseback through the Hollywood Hills as a fire lookout.
“Every so often I rode on the night watch, which I preferred to the day shift. I used to like to ride or lead my horse to the crest of Mount Hollywood and from there watch the myriad lights below and listen to the remote rumble of traffic. There was, at that distance, something vaguely fascinating, beautiful almost, in that confusion of lights, in those flashing signs and advertisements, in those streams and rivulets of motor headlights on the boulevards; a rhythm in the distant roar of the city as it reached my ears; and down at San Pedro harbor the battleships had frequent searchlight drills, making the sky to the south gay and fantastic with long, slender shafts of white light. Toward midnight, the noise gradually subsided until there came to me but a faint murmur that remained unchanged for several hours, that at times I could not hear it at all. There was a charm to the city in the distance at night.”
Truly a gem.
It’s a pity these little books are so obscure. They are almost impossible to find, but the copyrights were renewed in 1950s, and thus they haven’t been added to the vast but quirky online libraries at Google or Archive.Org. A university press looking for a project would do well to reissue Adamic’s essays.
Here are some selections, courtesy of the optical character recognition software on my scanner:
FACTS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT
THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LOS ANGELES
Since the Haldeman-Julius Monthly began carrying pieces in which I expressed myself rather unfavorably about the principal village in Southern California, several fine but somewhat sensitive Californiacs have seen fit to admonish me for my disparaging words. Was I not a bit unfair, severe, prejudiced? Could I really not find anything satisfying in the whole of Los Angeles? Why did I not stretch my neck a little and glance at the Bright Side of Things? Have I ever heard that nice little song about a silver lining in the dark cloud shining? One lady informed me in painfully soft words that she was "deeply wounded" by my effusions in the Monthly; her mellow complaint, indeed, was so touching that my conscience, though a quite stretchy affair, was slightly strained, and I really began to feel a bit blameworthy. And then, the other day, I happened to see on the wall of a public building the following moral maxim attributed to George Washington: "Labor hard to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called Conscience," and as a good and somewhat sentimental citizen of the country which he so nobly and immaculately fathered, I took his counsel to heart and then and there resolved to sit down and, for my conscience's sake, labor at an article upon the worthwhile and encouraging things in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles . . . Oh, I could quote amazing statistics and prognostications from the reports of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the Realty Board, or from articles, written by high-powered publicity engineers in the hire of great go-getters' organizations, that have appeared in such periodicals as Nation's Business and Current History. I could tell you how the population of Los Angeles increased from 6,000 to, 1,150,000 in fifty years and thus became a Miracle City, the Playground of the World, the City of Magnificent Distances, the Metropolis of the West, the Gateway to the Far East, the Capital of the Future. I could, perhaps, cause a thrill to run through the world by stating that, by actual count, Los Angeles has so-and-so, many factories whose tall chimneys smoke day and night, which means–and no maybe about it–that the industrial center of the United States is shifting from the East to the West, and that Los Angeles, with her new harbor at San Pedro, is destined to become the pivot of the new industrial activity in America.
BEHIND THE SCENES IN LOS ANGELES
[A description of the central jail.]
As a prisoner we go down an inclined passageway beneath as hideous and unutilitarian a building as one is likely to see in the land, down into a semi-darkness then abruptly through a door to face our bucolic booking sergeant. Without detailing the various preliminaries of search and seizure, questioning and booking we are escorted, directed, shoved or cursed, according to the estimated degree of our influence and financial status, along a hallway and through an iron-barred door into the finger-print room. Opening off this room is a "drunk tank," ill smelling and unsanitary, where one may be thrown to sober up. (It is nearly always full.) Having been printed, measured, etc., we are taken up a flight of wooden stairs worn deep from the tread of hundreds of thousands of feet, met at the top by a jailer, or "turnkey," who gives us and our booking slip a shrewdly appraising onceover and directs us through another door, shouting into the gloom "Upper" or "Lower" which indicates the temporary abiding place until we are more permanently disposed of, the low tank being for accommodation of misdemeanors and the upper for felonies.
Directly opposite these tanks is a bullpen for sentenced prisoners, a dark and dingy space of perhaps 40×50 feet floor dimensions and used for the exercising and sleeping accommodations of from 50 to 75 men. Further back on the same floor are kitchen and dining tables. Above the first floor are two others, the second floor being equipped with cells where the more desperate and wayward of the city's guests are locked up. The top floor, fitted out like the second with cells and rough two-storied iron bunks, was until recently used for the accommodation of female prisoners. Now this floor is used by night for sleeping quarters by the overflow from the tanks and bull pen and during the day as a "working over" place for uncommunicative prisoners whose screams and groans are not likely to be heard in the offices or streets. Such, briefly, is the building where erring humanity is expected to be instilled with a respect for law, erected decades ago, dark, foul, vermin infested, unsanitary, vile.
The tanks where prisoners are detained awaiting trial are invariably filthy and so overcrowded that at times there is not room to lie at full length on the floors. By no possibility does the sunlight or any constituent element of the city's perfect climate permeate into these depths where men are kept for periods frequently of a week to ten days. Neither tank has any bathing facilities. It must be remembered that these quarters are for men who have been merely charged with offenses and who, according to the theory of Anglo-Saxon law, are presumed to be innocent. Many are found to be innocent, actually.
It is a strange anomaly in this jail-house of the City of the Angels where the civilization of the western world, any Angeleno will admit, has reached its highest flowering, that prisoners are exposed to disease of every sort and subjected to every form of mental and physical filth just in the degree that they are innocent or are presumed to be so and are given more decent care in the degree that they move along the path of conviction or in the degree of the severity of their alleged offenses.