The Santa Barbara Alternative

Santa Barbara is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is nestled against the backdrop of several 4,000-foot peaks of the Santa Ynez Mountains, and its unique south-facing view of the Pacific Ocean is framed by Santa Cruz, the largest and tallest of California’s Channel Islands chain.

If one factors in the hospitable climate and the pleasing vernacular architecture (Spanish Colonial Revival), it perhaps comes as no surprise that the literary critic Edmund Wilson would refer to its lifestyle as “living and rejoicing in life among the primordial magnificence in the world.”

Wilson, a New Yorker, favored his home town as the center of “active life.” For him, Santa Barbara represented “the alternative.” And one can easily see why.

On his second sojourn there, in 1928, Wilson wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, at Scribner’s:

I have a little house here on the beach and have done nothing but read, write, and swim. The weather is beautiful and all the days are exactly alike. The calm Pacific spaces are excellent for work—I always feel cramped in New York. But if you stayed out here very long, you would probably cease to write anything, because you would cease to think—it isn’t necessary out here and the natives regard it as morbid.

Wilson’s swipe may be unfair, but his concern about the effects of this veritable paradise is not. What would a person really care, he asked, “for politics or learning—so long as he had that happy life to go back to, that life of eternal sun”? Not much, one fears.

Perhaps it is fitting then that today, June 22, Santa Barbara natives celebrate their magnificent environs with their annual Summer Solstice Parade. May they enjoy a festive, cloudless, and carefree day.

Source: Edmund Wilson, The Twenties (1975), as quoted in Kevin Starr’s Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s

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