Historian John Mack Faragher has spent his career writing about frontiers in general and the American West specifically. In Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles, he considers the structure and culture of violence in a frontier society, how violence reproduces and polices itself in a so-called “honor culture,”* and the slow development of an official justice system in Los Angeles in the mid-nineteenth century. The result is a fascinating look at the competing forces of official justice and vigilantism as southern California moved from Mexican to American control.
Drawing on a combination of official records, contemporary newspaper accounts, personal papers, memoirs and autobiographies, Faragher tells individual stories of murder, retaliation, domestic violence, racism and greed. At the same time, he never loses sight of the larger history of the region. He sets detailed accounts of conflicts between individuals within the contexts of the conquest of southern California by first Mexico and then the United States, the Texas rebellion, the American Civil War** and the gold rush of 1848.
This is not the American West of American fable. Faragher’s Los Angeles is a frontier outpost with no white-hatted heroes and plenty of ethnic conflict. Native Americans newly freed from control of the missions, native angeleños, African-American slaves and freedmen, North American adventurers, and the United States Army and Navy compete for resources, political control, and women with blades, guns and lances.***
Eternity Street is an ugly story, beautifully told.
*We’ve seen this concept before here in the Margins. It’s easy to idealize honor culture in the past:medieval knights, eighteenth century duelists, and samurai warriors all enjoy a certain glamour in popular culture. A quick look at how it plays out in street gangs makes it clear that honor culture centers on male violence. It’s cock fighting, with men instead of roosters.
**And you thought I’d taken a break from the Civil War!
*** At one point in the narrative, the United States Army and Navy came close to armed conflict with each other over who was in charge, suggesting an honor culture of a different variety.
Most of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.