T.S. McMillin

Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH


T. S. McMillin is a Professor of English and the author of The Meaning of Rivers: Flow & Reflection in American Literature (American Land & Life Series, University of Iowa Press, 2011) and Our Preposterous Use of Literature: Emerson & the Nature of Reading (University of Illinois Press, 2000). He has written numerous articles on the American Transcendentalists, including “Beauty Meets Beast: Emerson’s English Traits,” an essay on nature and culture, in the collection Emerson for the Twenty-First Century: Global Perspectives on an American Icon (University of Delaware Press, 2010), and his latest project is centered on the Los Angeles River. He teaches courses in American literature and environmental studies at Oberlin College.


When Is A River Not A River? Strange Waters in the Los Angeles Basin

Running 51 miles from concrete headwaters through the heart of the most populous county in the United States and emptying into the Pacific at its engineered mouth in Long Beach, the L.A. River has undergone diversion of its flow, widespread clearing of the flood plain, proliferation of surface-paving in the surrounding area, and depletion of underground sources. These changes led L.A. to import water from more distant locales, which contributed to a sense that the existing river was no longer much of a river. As its age-old practice of periodic flooding began to have an increasingly catastrophic effect on the burgeoning population of the city, the massive flood-control projects of the twentieth century made it seem even less like a river, furthering its neglect by residents of and visitors to the region. 

Recently, however, diverse groups of people, including artists, activists, and local officials, have set about “re-rivering” Los Angeles. Perhaps better than any other stream in the United States, the L.A. River makes plain that such an obtusely Heraclitean question—When is a river not a river?—is more than a philosophical conundrum. A river that both is and is not, the L.A. raises a host of questions about the cultural meaning of natural phenomena: questions about what we call “the environment”; political and societal questions; and questions about the ecological and economic future of cities. In this paper, I explore literary treatments of the strange waters of the L.A. River, focusing on fiction and the potential role of paradox in rethinking the nature of place.

This exploration belongs to a larger project, in which I am using a study of literature about Los Angeles as a means of “daylighting” the river. “Daylighting” most commonly refers to the process of redirecting the channel of a stream that has been covered or obstructed by human structures, a physical return to open air. I have adopted the term for an investigation of the cultural history of the river in an effort to imagine new ways of understanding its nature. Literature presents the possibility of bringing to light not only the river but our thought processes, our social practices and cultural biases regarding urban waterways.

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