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

“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 TheNew 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 TheNew 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 TheNew 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.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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