California State University, Long Beach
Inside CSULB Logo

Author Of The Month: Peter J. Holliday

Published: September 6, 2016

American Arcadia: California and the Classical Tradition

Peter J. Holliday, professor, School of Art

American Arcadia: California and the Classical Tradition, which arrived in May from the Oxford University Press, studies for 480 pages the similarities between how the long-ago cultures of ancient Greece and Rome influenced the development of California. “California’s booster industries produced fantasy images of both the state’s physical environment and cultural landscape through a variety of mythologizing lenses, most famously the romance of the early missions,” said Holliday, a member of the university since 1998. “But Americans actually perceived California as a realm rich with classical significance. I show how their history conditioned Americans to think in terms of ancient types, how their education and culture reinforced such thinking. American Arcadia explores how Californians–as boosters and promoters, architects and artists, patrons and clients–engaged with classical antiquity. It investigates how classical antiquity–understood to encompass the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome–provided another important metaphor for fashioning the Golden State.” Holliday clarifies the role of “boosters” as regional promoters. “Southern California was heavily promoted to Americans,” he explained. “Boosters sold the possibility of an Arcadian place to successive groups of settlers, beginning with farmers, then health-seekers, and finally tourists, who might well decide to purchase land and settle. Promotion helped the nascent film industry locate to Southern California, and in turn the movies promoted the region and its promise. I examine how the deployment of classical antiquity in framing these promotions to successive target audiences was crucial to their success.” He believes classical antiquity played a big role in the California look. “The final chapter considers how the Southland’s sunny climate, first promoted by the region’s boosters, actually encouraged Californians to lead their lives differently,” he said. “Self-consciously emulating ancient Greeks and Romans, Southern Californians initiated trends that would change the way Americans eat, dress, and spend their leisure time. Californians even fashioned their bodies according to classical ideals. Visual artists were sensitive to this new conception of beauty, and represented it in various media throughout the 20th century.” American Arcadia is more than a Southern California snapshot.

Author of the Month-Robert Schug

“Although my primary focus is on Los Angeles, early promoters and real estate speculators made no distinction between ‘Southern California’ and ‘Los Angeles,’ so I feel quite comfortable looking as far north as San Simeon and southwards to San Diego,” he said. “On occasion I consider what was happening in San Francisco to cast light on Southland projects, for at one time that city was the dominant political and economic power in the state, and thus set the pace in the arts; at one point I even cross the state border into Nevada, since Las Vegas was largely developed as an entertainment suburb of Los Angeles. American Arcadia considers Southern California in the context of American culture as a whole at any particular moment. It provides a new way of seeing ourselves and our past, through a language that was familiar – for a time even central – to our predecessors, that will not only help explain some of the monuments they left behind, but also how we got to where we are today.” Holliday earned his bachelor’s degree at Columbia University and his Master’s and Ph.D. in 1983 at Yale.