Sunday, June 30, 2019

Victor Arnautoff's Murals

I've been brooding over the San Francisco school board's unanimous decision to destroy Victor Arnautoff's murals. What kind of educator would call for the destruction of historically significant art? The Chronicle article lays out some of the facts.

Based on the coverage I've seen in the nation's key newspapers, the school board's decision is widely regarded as backward. That's not how San Francisco sees itself, and the school board's public comments trade vigorously in the rhetoric of progress. But it's hard to claim the high ground when you willfully destroy radical art that belongs to everybody. For me, this disgraceful decision reveals the Bay Area's ignorance of (or indifference to) its own radical history.

The silver lining, perhaps, is that my colleague Bob Cherny has added his voice to the debate. Bob wrote a book about Arnautoff that appeared in 2017. He has tried to reason with the board and is widely quoted in the coverage.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Jane Ciabattari on LitHub

Once again, Jane Ciabattari brings her three-dot expertise to her coverage of the Bay Area Book Festival coverage for LitHub. I'm especially grateful for the shout-out:

Down Allston Street, Miriam Pawel, author of The Browns of California, a joint biography of governors Pat Brown and his son Jerry, shared stories with the eldest Pat Brown granddaughter, Kathleen Kelly, a Superior Court judge, and her father Joe Kelly, who was married to Jerry’s sister Cynthia. Moderator Peter Richardson coaxed out memories of the deep divide between the austere, Jesuit-trained Jerry and his gregarious father Pat. Jerry once took his father on a silent religious retreat, the story goes, but Pat couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

Many thanks, Jane, for your continuing support.


Sunday, May 05, 2019

Bay Area Book Festival 2019

Another beautiful day in Berkeley for the Bay Area Book Festival. The session I moderated on the Brown family (Jerry, Pat, etc.) went swimmingly, thanks to Miriam Pawel, Joe Kelly, and Kathleen Kelly. Joe was married to Jerry's sister Cynthia; Kathleen is their oldest child and a Superior Court judge. Their insights and stories went over very well, and Miriam was on point and delightful as usual. The estimated attendance was 300, including some of my students from San Francisco State University.

Afterwards, I strolled the exhibits and was interviewed by a camera crew--not sure what that was about. I also chatted in the green room, met some cool authors, heard about some interesting new books, and bought one called Foucault in California by Simeon Wade, published by Heyday. It's about Foucault's 1975 acid trip in Death Valley. I read the foreword and will return to that as soon as I finish Eve Babitz's Slow Days, Fast Company.

In short, my favorite kind of day.


Wednesday, May 01, 2019

More C-Mac Love

Today I learned that The Nation podcast, "Start Making Sense," will post their interview with me about Carey McWilliams. I really like the way it came out. You can find it here. Many thanks to host Jon Wiener and his team for the good work.

I also had a chance to speak about Carey McWilliams at the California Historical Society last night. It was a quick spin through his many accomplishments, but more and more, I'm also addressing why his work doesn't command more attention--especially given the tributes he has received from Kevin Starr, Mike Davis, Patricia Limerick, and many other experts. Truly, he's the most important American author that most people have never heard of.

Afterwards I went to Slim's to watch the rough cut of a documentary film about KSAN, the San Francisco counterculture's signature radio station. Many familiar faces there, including Bonnie Simmons, Ben Fong-Torres, Terry McGovern, and Scoop Nisker.


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Kevin Starr: The Examiner Years

Boom California just published a piece I wrote about Kevin Starr's work as a columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. This wasn't an easy one to write, but I think it's important. Especially if you've ever wondered why Harvey Milk's most famous speech portrayed Kevin as a bigot. Or why his eight-volume series, "Americans and the California Dream," skipped the late 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

Some of these columns may surprise Kevin's fans. The tone is quite different from what we see in his books. This by itself isn't so surprising; writing a column for a Hearst newspaper isn't the same as writing books for Oxford University Press. Nevertheless, some of Kevin's opinions from those days haven't aged well. I also chart some of his moves after leaving the Examiner: his unsuccessful bid for San Francisco supervisor, his stint at the California State Library, and his academic appointment at USC.

The whole idea here is to better understand Kevin's evolution as a writer. The Examiner material isn't Kevin at his best, but it doesn't diminish his other contributions. I also think the best way to honor writers is to take what they write seriously.

On a more personal note, I think Kevin's role at the library helped make him the ultimate cheerleader for research on California. He didn't know me from Adam, but when I had a proposal for the Carey McWilliams bio, I sent it to him blind. One day I found a telephone message from him; he had forwarded the proposal to Jim Clark, director of the University of California Press, with his recommendation. That got me a meeting with Jim, which never would have happened otherwise. He was great on that kind of thing, which endeared him to many authors and would-be authors. That was above and beyond everything he did with his own writing.

Kevin also had a good sense of humor. I gave the Bonnie Cashin lecture at UCLA one year, and I began with a dream I had while working on the McWilliams bio. I won't try to summarize the dream here, but it was pretty funny, and Kevin appeared in it. He was shouting at me from a rooftop. When the lecture appeared as a pamphlet, I learned that UCLA's librarian, Gary Strong, had persuaded Kevin to write the foreword. Kevin began several paragraphs by referring to the dream and what he was probably shouting at me. It was only later I realized how weird that was--the author of the dream series appearing in my dream and commenting on it later.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Pet Peeve Department

It's hard to footnote books accurately, but I have no patience for authors who swipe my carefully sourced quotations without attribution and then screw them up. Today I found a beauty in Will Swift's 2014 book about the Nixons and their marriage. Swift quotes Carey McWilliams, who described Nixon in 1950 as "a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice." But Swift doesn't mention McWilliams, and he attributes the quote to The New Republic, not The Nation, where it actually appeared.

It's possible but unlikely that Swift found the quote somewhere besides my writing. If you search on the quote, you find only my stuff and his.

Not the end of the world by any means. But it's made worse somehow by the fact that the book was published by a right-wing imprint (Threshold Editions). That's the outfit that signed Milo Yiannopoulos for a $250k advance and then canceled the deal. It also published The Embassy House, which had to be withdrawn in 2013 when U.S. officials refuted the author's eyewitness account of the Benghazi incident. Most of the major trade publishers have right-wing imprints now, and I've seen some really dreadful stuff from that quarter.

Swift's book, however, received a positive review in the New York Times, where conservative author Thomas Mallon called it fair-minded and thorough. That may well be true, but I wonder.


Friday, January 25, 2019

The Return of C-Mac

The University of California Press has published a paperback edition of my Carey McWilliams biography--this time with a fabulous foreword by Mike Davis. An advance copy of American Prophet appeared in my mailbox last week. The official publication date is March 5, but you can buy it here now.

My respect for McWilliams hasn't diminished a bit since I began the research more than 15 years ago. His brains, range, versatility, and classic prose style still floor me. And as I research Hunter Thompson's literary formation, McWilliams once again looms large. It was McWilliams, of course, who gave Thompson the idea for his story on the Hells Angels. After McWilliams ran it in The Nation, Thompson parlayed it into his first bestseller.

The good folks at Truthdig ran a Q&A on McWilliams and my longstanding interest in his achievement--often in the face of fierce resistance from formidable adversaries.

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Zodiac Killer Podcast

Some far-flung friends and former students have contacted me after listening to "Monster: The Zodiac Killer." It's a 15-part podcast from iHeart Radio. The production team taped the interview here at the house toward the end of last semester; next thing I knew they had it wrapped up. Their last podcast, on the so-called Atlanta Monster, was downloaded 36 million times.

They asked me to set the stage a bit in Episode 1--what was happening in the San Francisco Bay Area when the Zodiac killer first struck. In Episode 6, I get a few more words in edgewise (starting at the 17:30 mark) on the role of the media.

They also interviewed Duffy Jennings, who was working at the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. As noted earlier, Duffy actually took one of my classes at San Francisco State University. After a long career in journalism and public relations, he came back to finish his degree. Duffy's memoir, which I read in manuscript, is due out soon. Here's the go-to spot for All Things Jennings.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Media Roundup

Deutschlandfunk Kultur interviewed me about Bay Area student protests in the 1960s. Here's the radio piece and website summary; Scott Saul and I get a few words in during the last nine minutes or so. Naturally, my remarks sound smarter in German.

I was also interviewed for a 15-part podcast on the Zodiac killer. The first two episodes are available now. Here's a Hollywood Reporter article on the series and its creators. The last time out, this team produced a series that was downloaded 36 million times. For the new one, they interviewed former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Duffy Jennings. Duffy, it turns out, took my course at San Francisco State University when he returned to complete his degree about ten years ago. It's not very often that students bring that kind of experience to the classroom.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Review of Timothy Denevi's "Freak Kingdom"

Truthdig posted my review of Timothy Denevi's new book on Hunter Thompson. Essentially, Denevi follows Thompson's personal and professional life from the Kennedy assassination to Nixon's resignation. That's a canny way to frame Thompson's peak period. As you can see from the review, I enjoyed the book on several levels. Very worthwhile.