With sweep both noble and tacky, Chris Epting's book, James Dean Died Here: The Locations of America's Pop Culture Landmarks (Santa Monica, $16.95), is the complete package for those who like their American history unadulterated by the usual cultural distinctions.
As far as Epting, a Huntington Beach, Calif., ad man, is concerned, the tiny New Hampshire town that inspired Peyton Place is as key to our national identity as Plymouth Rock. In his mind, the site of Dean's fatal automobile crash in California rates up there with the Senate caucus room where the McCarthy hearings took place. And the Los Angeles park where rap artist Snoop Doggy Dogg was involved in a fatal shooting gets equal time with the Washington Hilton Hotel, where Ronald Reagan was shot. Such disparate landmarks and hundreds more share the limelight in Epting's book.
Whether you are sticking to that armchair or planning a road trip this summer, James Dean Died Here is a spirited companion, one that will steer you off the interstate to some of the country's most exalted, tragically charged and hopelessly hokey landmarks.
In a recent phone interview, Epting, 41, explained his penchant for pop culture coordinates.
Why is it so important to you to visit the sites where momentous events took place?
Since I was a kid, I always had a thing about standing where something happened. I grew up in Westchester, N.Y., in the '60s and '70s. There would always be a trip to a Colonial site, and you could stand right where something happened, such as towns and places where Washington Irving's stories were based. I was indoctrinated early in life.
While standing on these historic sites, are you able to feel the energy of past events?
Depending on the gravity of the event, absolutely. It's impossible to go where Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy were assassinated and not feel some palpable sense of history and drama.
Your book treats equally the sacred and profane in American life. Why?
American pop culture has become so broadly defined, whether we like it or not. The reason all of these events can live side by side in one book is that the structure of American popular culture allows all of these things to coexist. From Zsa Zsa Gabor's slapping a cop [in Beverly Hills] to Lincoln's assassination, these things represent how we experience things as a nation. It might seem weird to have some horrific crime next to something frivolous. In many cases, we're all familiar with both events. My measure was: Did an event reach some general level of consciousness? If it did, it went in the book.
Is this a new take on a more traditional notion of sightseeing?
It kind of puts you back in touch with what helps define America as a special place. If you are on the freeway, traveling from Point A to Point B, there are a lot of things in between. A couple of exits will get you to some really interesting places.
Maybe a book like this is a more realistic way to turn kids on to history?
You do see a different perspective with stodgy, historical figures. Everyone learns about the Alexander Hamilton / Aaron Burr duel. But when you stand exactly where it happened and see the rock where Hamilton's head came to rest, with the New York City skyline across the river, it adds interest.
You can't always expect kids to appreciate important historic sites or breathtaking landscapes.
I like the idea of taking history and making it more fun and more palatable to kids and adults. It's not the whole story, obviously. But it's the idea of packaging history in fun little capsules. I don't expect my kids to be awe-struck by certain sites. They're kids. The more colorful and the flashier they are, the bigger the impression. We expect from them an adult's appreciation that has to do with subtlety, nuance and grandeur. Kids want to rock. If you can fold in stuff like the Grand Canyon, it's going to ferment over time.
There seems to be no limit to this kind of historic / pop tourism.
You can really take off on this idea of making history fun and engaging. This to me was the first phase. Next, maybe I'll explore more obscure places -- Lewis and Clark kinds of stuff, or the Dalton Gang.
Some of the locations you list are visually very ordinary.
The road where James Dean died: Its blandness to me makes it remarkable that the event became so pivotal in pop culture. You are in the middle of nowhere.
What sites in the book hold particular significance for you?
On a lighter side, the lake in Beverly Hills where Andy Griffith walked with Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. I love that show. As coarse and uncivilized as society has become, it's a really great example of when TV supplied decency and good storytelling.
Another site that left me speechless was the Lindbergh house, in Hopewell, N.J., where the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped. You can see the window where the ladder went up. As profound as that is, it was also important to incorporate the spot where the Lindbergh plane left from Westbury, N.Y., for the first nonstop flight to Europe. They are bookends of the good and the bad; two events tied to this guy who altered the course of American history.
Are you working on a follow-up?
I'm planning on it. Not next year, but probably the year after.
As events happen, how do you keep track of what will go in the sequel?
It has to hold up over time. The day Elizabeth Smart was recovered, I made a note on it. Time will tell if that case is still interesting or evocative.
In a way, your book is a reminder of how much this country has been through in a relatively brief span of time.
I totally agree. Revisiting things like this, it's amazing how much we forget as we have kids and start families. We don't realize all of the information that we picked up.
Your book forces Americans to acknowledge their country's multifaceted personality.
It all defines our culture. All the crazy, serious, funny, terrible things that we're allowed to think about in a free society. It's a total celebration. It's good and it's bad and it's everything in between. A real snapshot of what we've been through for the last couple hundred years. It's such a shared experience.
Have you ever been a part of an iconic moment in American history?
Outside of being stuck in traffic outside of Woodstock when I was a kid en route to my grandparents' house in Pennsylvania, no.