More than most regions, California generates epithets: lotus land, the cultural desert, or the big nowhere. Perhaps most frequently, California is characterized as a strange, insular place where, in Joan Didion’s words, “no one remembers the past.” Yet, this notion of an ahistorical California has, ironically, a long tradition extending back at least to the sixteenth century. In fact, the inhabitants of Didion’s late twentieth-century landscape share elements in common with the women of Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s California, the early sixteenth-century “island” that he claimed was so culturally isolated it “buried alive” those who chose to remain there.; In this dissertation, I explore the perception of California as a place without a past, but, instead of refuting ahistoricism itself, I consider why the idea is ubiquitous and trace its genealogy through pre-statehood texts. Scholarship on the literature of California typically begins with the Gold Rush or westward migration and focuses on developments after 1850. According to convention, narratives prior to this period are designated as history, not literature. Yet, many texts written about California prior to the Gold Rush profoundly influenced the canonical literature of the nineteenth century as well as the twentieth.; To demonstrate the long textual legacy of California and the importance of its alleged ahistoricism, I organize the project chronologically around a poly-lingual and multi-cultural group of texts, focusing on an evolving core of imagery. Ranging from Early Modern romances and Enlightenment travel narratives to Native American histories and trappers’ diaries, these texts reveal a self-conscious literary tradition that remains central to visions of California. Reading these texts within a cultural history of Pacific exploration and colonialism, I argue that writers shaped an image of California suited to their imperial goals. Furthermore, these imperial visions were incorporated into later texts, which further calcified ahistorical narratives. Despite these compounding tropes, California was imagined by an array of contesting voices, from a Native woman engaged in a mission revolt to a governor’s wife embroiled in a marital dispute, from a prominent poet of German Romanticism to a virtually unknown mission Indian. This literature contradicts conventional ideas about California and illuminates cultural relations between the Pacific, the nascent United States, and Europe in the years before 1850.; Chapters One and Two connect the Early Modern exploration narratives to Enlightenment reassessments of the same locations, highlighting the influence of money and fantasy in figurations of California as well as political entanglements. Beginning with the first known use of “California” in Garcí Rodríguez de Montalvo’s Las Sergas de Esplandián (c1510), these chapters look back to cultural narratives about paradise, gender, and race that influence the Early Modern invention of California and connect Montalvo’s imaginary island to the writings of Columbus and Cortés as well as Don Quixote and Medieval travel discourse. Polarizing descriptions of California—as a vulnerable paradise or an empty wasteland—created an exotic region, a place beyond the bounds of quotidian life. Following this emergent imagery through a series of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts, including Drake, Coronado, and Vizcaíno, I link these early visions of California as a remote paradise to diaries produced by the Spanish during colonization in 1769.; Chapter Two opens with the arrival of La Pérouse at Monterey in 1786 and situates his description of California in a tradition of Enlightenment publications that began with Cook and dominated dialogue about the Pacific for years to come. Many of these scientific expeditions became floating literary laboratories, producing multiple texts from a single voyage, publications that fed an audience hungry for news of the exotic. Despite claims about rational, detached observation, writers like Vancouver fixated on Spanish or Native indolence and squandered profit, inadvertently revealing the racial, economic, and political forces shaping their observations and furthering images of California as a mythical lotus land.; The second half of the dissertation, covering the years between Mexican independence and the Mexican-American War, shows how the influence of Romanticism and the rhetoric of liberty changed very little about reactions to California. Opening in the early nineteenth century with the narrative of Chamisso, the German romantic poet, this chapter proceeds through the beginning of the land-based fur trade and the increasing number of narratives from the United States. Fur trappers, much like their ocean-based counterparts, continued to envision California as a contradictory place, both debased and alluring, in need of containment and rescue. Whether they saw it as beautiful or awful, visiting writers agreed that California needed to start over and perpetually imagined it as a place of future potential with a trivial past. However, as Pablo Tac demonstrates in the only known account written by a California mission Indian, other long-time residents contested these visions and complicated the conversation.; Finally, in Chapters Four and Five, I consider the period leading up to the Mexican-American War, a cultural moment marked by increasingly vociferous imperial claims. Because of its strategic importance to Russian, English, US, and French imperial goals, writers continued to imagine California in polarizing terms, creating narratives which, not surprisingly, advocated imperial intervention by their own governments. I argue that this rhetoric, under the guise of liberation, neutralized and romanticized California’s past in order to promote a future under foreign rule. Well-known literary figures, from Washington Irving to Richard Henry Dana, contributed to this convention, ossifying long-standing tropes and foreshadowing the war with Mexico.; The project surveys texts written in a number of languages, including French, German, Russian, and Spanish, reflecting the enormous variety of people who shaped the image of California long before the Gold Rush. Whether travel narratives, histories, diaries, or letters, the early literature of California contradicts assumptions about its abbreviated past. In fact, these texts demonstrate a literary tradition that later writers borrowed for their invocations of an ahistorical place. Ironically, current images of California as future-directed, culturally shallow, or artificial not only depend on prior representations, but also on the obfuscation of this literary genealogy, a legacy that is essential to understanding California’s literature as well as the literature of the Americas, in which it plays a crucial part.