The Consummate Writer of Place: Christopher Rand in Los Angeles, China, and Beyond, 1943-1968

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The Consummate Writer of Place: Christopher Rand in Los Angeles, China, and Beyond, 1943-1968 by Colin Marshall

May 20th, 2014 reset - +

“LOS ANGELES may be the ultimate city of our age.” So begins the 20th century’s most unjustly forgotten book on Los Angeles, written by one of its most unjustly forgotten writers of place. Christopher Rand’s Los Angeles: The Ultimate City appeared in 1967, published by Oxford University Press and built upon a trilogy of articles The New Yorker ran in October 1966. Rand began writing for that magazine in 1947, with a piece on the Americans, including himself, who spent World War II nearly unsupervised in Japanese-surrounded southeast China. His last piece for them appeared in 1968, the year he died — observations on the run-up to Mexico City’s Olympics. For those 20 years, in his capacity as The New Yorker’s “far-flung correspondent,” he strove to understand what seems, given such a truncated life and career, an unprecedented variety of places, including Hong Kong, Greece, Puerto Rico, Bethlehem, Cambridge, and again and again over the years his own hometown of Salisbury, Connecticut.

“He was a great walker and a far wanderer,” writes Wallace White in Rand’s October 1968 New Yorker obituary.

Over more than 30 years, he traveled to almost every part of the world, doing most of his traveling on foot, in an attempt to learn and know that transcended any effort at mere reporting, and when he died, he was still involved in the search that had occupied most of his life.

In Grecian Calendar, his 1962 book on a year’s exploration of Greece (often conducted on its dusty roads and rocky trails), Rand himself illuminates this method:

I have walked a good deal for years now. I have theories about why one should do it — that it is good for the health, is conducive to thought, makes one able to observe things close at hand, etc. — and I think all these arguments are sound, but the main point is simply that I enjoy walking; I feel calm and happy while doing it.

A few pages later, Rand extends his theory further: “I claim that if one walks with any gusto one is respected by other walkers, and I even boast that it is a good thing, nationalistically, to have a few Americans walking about in far countries. It explodes the generalization that we have forgotten how.” Still, he seems never to have fully identified with his homeland, not least because he spent so much of his career outside it: he left a reporting job at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1943, in his early 30s, for a post in China as a US Office of War Information correspondent. After the war, he continued reporting on China for the New York Herald Tribune until 1951, by which point he had already begun his stretch at The New Yorker, where he contributed 64 detailed, long-form essays — detailed and long-form even by The New Yorker’s midcentury standard — each of them revealing, to him and to us, a new place, or a new aspect of a familiar one.

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Rand proved an uncommonly clear-eyed observer of the Los Angeles of the mid-1960s, in part by virtue of having experienced so much of the wider world beforehand. When he came to town in 1964, he had already published four full-length volumes on America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, and many shorter pieces collected and uncollected. He describes the Southern Californian metropolis in terms of that which his constant travels had shown him and that which his intensive research had led him to understand. The Ultimate City’sfirst chapter, on Los Angeles’s physical form, describes a “main body connected with its seaport, San Pedro, by a long corridor, half a mile wide, recalling that between ancient Athens and the Piraeus.” Toward the book’s end, in a section on such then-new, freshly (and some said vulgarly) patron-name-emblazoned cultural institutions as the Music Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Rand pronounces it “nothing new to have the names of donors on monuments, and the old Buddhist and Flemish triptychs often had their faces as well.”

Such geographically fluent references and comparisons, even just as asides, place Los Angeles firmly in the world at a time when many Americans, let alone foreigners, regarded the city from a distance as a half-formed, historically dislocated, essentially ignorable outlier of the American, and possibly the human, experience. Rand himself touches now and again on Los Angeles’s tolerance for or perhaps cultivation of the “bizarre” — choices in aesthetics and lifestyle that seemed peculiar or even uncanny to anyone accustomed to older, stabler, more traditional manifestations of civilization. And though every inch a collector of hard fact — White’s obituary frames his life’s work as “a quest for understanding through the amassing of relevant detail” — he every now and then lets his own moments of astonishment, incredulity, disappointment, and simple world-weary doubt flavor his otherwise closely reportorial projects.

“Once in L.A. I lunched with a professor who was a booster of the city,” Rand writes. “As we set off for the restaurant (in his car) he asked me how I was finding the place. I said I thought it was terribly interesting, but that I had not yet conceived much affection for it.” The parenthetical mention of the professor’s car echoes one of Rand’s previously expressed frustrations, now widely considered Los Angeles’s greatest drawback but then considered one of its greatest attractions: the dominance — which, 50 years ago, meant the utter necessity — of the automobile. “It is the only city I have lived in, in the United States or abroad, where I have needed a car of my own,” he complains.

Elsewhere I have used the public transportation — buses, subways, taxis, and so on — and felt as free as a bird while walking, without any parking problem, between them. Visitors conditioned to other cities can only marvel that such a system is not in existence already, but people who are more thoroughly steeped in the L.A. culture express doubt about the plans.

That culture — with not just its cars but its helicopters, its water-diversion systems, its enormous production and consumption of film and television, and its then-thriving Cold War aerospace industry — strikes him as at once advanced to the point of mass technological fetishism and, in some broader societal way, near-hopelessly backward. The situation reminds him of “rural England of the last century,” when a host “would have seen to the stabling of my horse” just as a man he meets at a Wilshire Boulevard office for lunch “has seen to it that my car was parked without expense.” Yet he also sees an altogether modern city, “a machine. All modern cities are machines, but L.A. is even more of a machine than the others. It is a humming, smoking, ever-changing contraption, which mechanics are incessantly trying to improve and get the bugs out of.” This latter thought brings to mind the more enthusiastic sentiments of architectural critic Reyner Banham, whose long-celebrated Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies appeared just three years after The Ultimate City, and eclipsed it entirely.

While I yield to none in appreciation for Banham on Los Angeles, Rand’s book gets at elements of the city Banham lacked either the time or inclination to credibly analyze. Banham, who learned to drive so as to “read Los Angeles in the original,” acknowledged certain problems of car-dependence, admitting that “it is inconceivable to Angelenos that [the freeways] should not be replaced by an even better system closer to the perfection they are always seeking,” but then — like, fatefully, so many of those Angelenos — he simply put the issue out of his mind in favor of, say, all the striking residential architecture one drives by in those cars. Rand spends more time diagnosing “the city’s obsession with automobiles, a trait that shows signs of morbidity.” He recognizes, presciently, not just the inevitable breakdown of car culture, and not just the fact that even at best “time on the freeways can be counted as time lost,” but the region’s larger “conflict between centripetal and centrifugal forces,” with the probable result that “the new L.A. will probably have much high-rise living in it,” as, “whatever its origin, the preference for one-family houses seems to be on the way out.”

Both men had long since passed away by the end of the 20th century, at which time Los Angeles had turned decisively toward building in a more dense and transit-rich manner — in other words, a more urban one. Yet classically “urban” strife had beset Los Angeles long before, and both books, written in the long shadow of 1965’s Watts riots, do deal, in different ways, with the city’s famously strained race relations. Neither author would live to see the grim, fearful early 1990s, an era with its own, even more destructive riots and ensuing current of unease (to say nothing of its natural disasters), but none of that discomfort, no matter how serious, would have surprised Rand, who came to the conclusion at the end of his time here that Los Angeles “seems fully equipped to lead us either into something very good or very bad.” Nor, I imagine, would it have surprised him that Los Angeles has since produced a ceaseless societal, cultural, and technological stream of both the very good and the very bad, often with a surprisingly unclear distinction between the two.

Rand finds in Los Angeles, even the Los Angeles of his day, “an exceptionally rich mixture of those human types that seem to be unmeltable, or meltable only with difficulty, in our culture.” The city’s diversity has only increased, and dramatically so, in the ensuing half-century, and some say its fragmentation has worsened, too, but I see everywhere in today’s Los Angeles evidence of an at-times dazzlingly fruitful hybridity, with the promise of more to come. Rand, based primarily in Sawtelle, a mixed west-side neighborhood then host to a particularly high concentration of Japanese and Mexicans, and now known as “Little Osaka,” was well-placed to view this process in its embryonic stages. “I found the Japanese dominating some streets and the Mexicans others, but essentially the two were close together and often interlarded,” he writes of his temporary home. “Their ways of life now blended, now contrasted.”

Here, too, Rand’s decades as a world traveler enable him to recognize, even in this heretofore-unseen context, the components of the lives around him. “Mexicans seemed to draw the Japanese toward their own style of outdoor living,” he observes. “Sometimes I saw Japanese cooking also out of doors, on their traditional hibachi — braziers — which in Japan itself I had seen used only for heating, and that inside the houses.” Later, attending a summer festival put on by the Japanese Buddhist Church of Sawtelle, he pays particular attention to the food stalls: “Mexican tacos were sold there along with Japanese delicacies like sushi and chicken teriyaki.” I like to think he would have enjoyed the highly successful intercultural culinary experiments now sold out of trucks the city over, such as chef Roy Choi’s tacos filled with the ingredients introduced to him by his Korean immigrant family — a nationality that, at the time Rand lived here, hadn’t even begun appearing in force, let alone playing the integral role it does in modern Los Angeles.

As relevant as most of The Ultimate City remains, those touchingly italicized, now-mundane culinary terms above — tacos, sushi, teriyaki, even hibachi — offer a reminder that Rand, born in the rural Connecticut of 1912, hardly counts as a man of our time. (In 1968’s The Changing Landscape, his book of reflections on his hometown of Salisbury, he comments also on the food at a nearby county fair: “I had never heard of pizza when I attended the fairs of old, but now it was part of the American diet.”) Some of his terms strike sensitive modern ears as at least outmoded and at worst shocking; we expect a writer of his vintage to use, for example, “Negro,” but nor does he hesitate to go as far as “Negress,” a word nearly extinct even at the time. More broadly speaking, the very idea of the white American male who goes around the world taking stock of its societies and peoples has perhaps fallen into a period of unfashionability (I report, as a white American male who goes around the world writing about place, with some chagrin).

Though Rand’s books and essays offer scant insight into his nonprofessional life, something like a biography appears in 1995’s China Hands: The Adventures and Ordeals of the American Journalists Who Joined Forces with the Great Chinese Revolution by his son, the novelist Peter Rand. Though only one of the four titular “China Hands” whose stories the book tells, the elder Rand appears in vivid, often unflattering detail. Sub-entries under his section of the index include “drinking by,” “guilt felt by,” “manliness important to,” “misogynist views of” — behold, in other words, the midcentury American male. Yet he lived, as his son’s history of his time in 1940s mainland China reveals, not at all in the midcentury American male’s standard necktied-and-buttoned-down manner. Christopher Rand “made a name for himself in China,” writes Peter Rand, “where he was known to other correspondents as a man of unusual insights and habits. Dad belonged to a tradition of distinguished American eccentrics among the China Hands.”

My father was withdrawn and somewhat forbiddingly cerebral. In his teenage years, he used to test his physical endurance by walking shirtless across the countryside in the wintertime in subzero weather. His hilarity more than made up for all that, however. He was a furious Puritan inhabited by a Dionysian soul.

After a resentful, alcohol-soaked college career at Yale, Rand pulled up his East Coast roots in the mid-1930s with a move to San Francisco, where he wrote for a newly launched literary magazine called The Coast, which in its short run also published the likes of William Saroyan and John Steinbeck. The years 1939 to 1943 saw him at the Chronicle, attempting the way of the workaday commuter (a daily ride across the Golden Gate Bridge gloriously evoked, much later, in his essays about the Chinese in that city), but, as Peter Rand writes, “domestic and suburban life in any form was finally more than Dad could stand.” By the time he’d decided to throw in with the Office of War Information, Christopher Rand “was ready to swim to Chunking if he had to.”

Gathering military intelligence put him in the habit of intellectual rigor, a rigor he would later apply to the same extent whether in a Hong Kong opium den, a small-town livestock show, the company of Le Corbusier, or in a traffic helicopter hovering over the 405. This and, as the younger Rand puts it, “his ability to accept people and situations of any kind — as long as they didn’t directly interfere with his independence” helped make him a great reporter, and one who, his son admits, “was often ahead of his times.” His writing, in book form always preceded by an acknowledgments page tribute to “innumerable friends” who “know what they did for me,” evidences a colorful worldwide array of connections. He tends to quote them directly, anonymously, and at length to explain some specificity of the place under examination: the “American whose time is spent in grass-roots fraternization with southeast Asians”; the self-styled Chinese man of letters, his Virgil in the opium den, who “spends his time in an old high-ceilinged octagonal room, its plaster walls discolored to reds and grays, which houses an untamed sea of reading matter flowing about on tables, bed, and floor”; the mystical, exiled “scholar from deep Central Asia” whose yearning for his old country gives Rand’s A Nostalgia for Camels its title.

“Christopher Rand knows Asia as few men do,” reads that book’s proud jacket copy. “By nature he belongs with that restless company of Westerners who since Marco Polo’s time have responded to its true magnetism and mystery. He is a true traveler, not a tourist, and he is concerned above all with living people” who “are participants in the rare moment of history when a whole civilization is swept by the forces of change.” Having forged the skill of capturing transition in a China undergoing revolution, he wrote in his first book, Hongkong: The Island Between, of a land caught in a long, dreamlike interlude between the stoic imperial certainty of one rule and the stern communist certainty of another; in his fourth, Grecian Calendar, of the large-scale shift between “travel” and “tourism” themselves in the mid-20th century; in his sixth, Cambridge, U.S.A., of the American exodus from the cities to the suburbs as well as the startlingly high-tech age that migration ushered in; and in his last, The Changing Landscape, about not only the physical transformation of country townships but their slow concession of identity to the larger political entities surrounding them.

In The Ultimate City, Rand’s second-to-last book, he records a Los Angeles teetering between the identity of its past — an isolated Spanish settlement turned only somewhat less isolated colony of the Midwest — and the identity of its future as a vast, technologically, and politically experimental microcosm of the entire world. It belongs, to my mind, on the short shelf of essential Los Angeles reading, alongside The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (a book possessed of as much stridency as The Ultimate City has levelheadedness), and Carey McWilliams’s much earlier Southern California: An Island on the Land. Alas, putting a copy on everyone’s Los Angeles shelf could prove difficult indeed, as it and all his other work hasn’t seen print since that day in Mexico City over 45 years ago when, as Peter Rand puts it, “he jumped, or fell, to his death from his sixth-floor room at the Hotel Geneve to the sidewalk below, much to the grief of a great many people.” Though never quite explained even by those close to him (“Nobody who knew Chris Rand would pretend that he was not a troubled man,” writes Wallace White, cryptically, in The New Yorker obituary), Rand’s apparent suicide at the age of 56 does fit with his reputation for decisiveness, independence, and Spartan masculinity.

These very qualities, as well as their less admired undersides — the drinking, the stubbornness, the complicatedly distant attitude toward women — make his work a clear, bracing, sometimes troubling, thoroughly fact-rich tonic, especially in these recent decades when the writing of place (and even more so its marketer-created subdivision of “travel writing”), shot through with mealy-mouthed relativism, pleading opinion, and vague impression, has come increasingly to read as an apology for itself. His sudden death may count as a mystery, but his equally sudden fade into decades and decades of total obscurity strikes me as more inexplicable still. Even other New Yorker writers to whom I bring him up can’t place his name — nor, as of this writing, can Wikipedia. Christopher Rand knew Asia as few did, and Los Angeles as few still do. Now that both this city and his grand crucible of China find themselves once again swept by the forces of change, young writers of place ignore his example — a positive one in craft and a less positive one in life, to the slight extent we can extricate the two — at their peril.

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Colin J. Marshall is currently at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer.

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