Thursday, March 16, 2006

More Fante--and Steve Cooper

The L.A. Times review drew an email from Stephen Cooper, who wrote Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante (North Point Press, 2000)--highly recommended. I met Steve while working on the McWilliams book; we had dinner at Musso-Frank's on Hollywood and Vine just to complete the retro L.A. effect. He teaches English at Cal State Long Beach--great guy. Robert Towne's film version of Ask the Dust is getting some press now--big write-up in the San Francisco Chronicle's Datebook section, for example--so I'm hoping the movie will drive readers to the novel and Steve's superb bio.


At 11:45 AM , Blogger Misako said...

Dear Mr. Richardson:

Owing to a series of wholly serendipitous events, I stumbled upon your blog while looking up a book title by Carey McWilliams.

My journalist/labor union activist father had often mentioned McWilliams when I was a child, having come through that same era.

By coincidence, I had heard a KPFK radio interview of you, in Los Angeles, regarding your then-just-published McWilliams biography.

It was a wonderful interview. Throughout, I could see so much of my beloved father's street-savvy accounts of that time -- an era the best of whose figures will not this way come again. The interview evoked many emotions and memories of my father, so much of what he will always mean to me.

I had immediately jotted down your book title, and had hoped to read it as soon as time permitted. Alas, life's demands kept that prospect elusive, but I never forgot about your book.

Swing forward to 2008. As a Cal State University Long Beach journalism/English literature major, I took a short January course in the theory of fiction and film, as taught by Professor Stephen Cooper.

I knew nothing about Professor Cooper, except word that he was an excellent teacher.

In class, the name of John Fante came up (as was raised by a student, not Professor Cooper). Like millions of other Americans, it was a name not known to me. If my father had mentioned Fante -- as he did of so many writers of that generation and prior (I used to sing limericks of Mencken) -- I did not remember.

I later picked up a copy of Professor Cooper's biography on Fante, but gently put it aside for later, owing to the demands of the Spring semester. Glimpses at a few random passages, however, signaled all instinct that something was afoot.

Wishing to read Fante's own words first, I took up two pages of an early Fante short story. Could not even finish it before being made speechless by it. I was floored, astonished, incapacitated for its singular, unprecedented brilliance.

This was quickly followed, just two days ago, with my reading of "Ask the Dust" - a work impossibly, insanely beautiful for its blistering, brutal courage of heart. Never has a work pinned me to the mat nor floated me to the skies as swiftly and magically as it.

So, it was McWilliams' mention in Fante's novel that suddenly looped me back to my recollection of your McWilliams biography. Without a moment's hesitation, I promptly ordered a copy this morning.

I then called my mother to ask her what she remembered hearing about McWilliams during those decades. I was astounded to hear her say that she knew McWilliams, that she met him when she was 19, two years before she would meet the man who would later become my father.

Briefly, and with great fondness and respect, she explained that she met McWilliams while he was conducting research, through the War Relocation authority, on the internment of Japanese Americans (that monstrosity of injustice to which both my parents were subject).

My mother explained that McWilliams had spoken at or held a meeting of some kind in Cleveland, Ohio, which she had attended. Afterward, she accompanied McWilliams and his wife to the Cleveland train station for their departure.

McWilliams had given my mother an inscribed copy of his book "Prejudice," which she cherished but later lost years later.

Coincidentally, my mother is just now reading "Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made," which (as you likely know) touches on McWilliams.

My father and mother were both very politically active on the progressive left, both before and after WWII. Among other things, my father helped organize Pilipino cannery workers in Alaska, had some association with Harry Bridges, and later campaigned heavily for Adlai Stevenson's presidency among fellow political progressives and artists in post-war New York.

So, reading about Fante and (soon) McWilliams reminds me of how very lucky I am to have been born (however late) of two wonderful parents from that time -- experiences they never withheld from their children, and what ahs given us such a rich appreciation for civil- and labor-rights battles and American immigrant history.

Please know, then, how very much I look forward to reading your book, Mr. Richardson. All kudos to you for reviving the memory of a truly remarkable beacon to future generations -- everything McWilliams stood for and what is best and most courageous about our country and its highest principles.

And the literary equivalent to Professor Cooper. He is among the finest of teachers a student could ever hope to have. Because of him -- his gravitas, his humility, his unassuming, gracious regard for others, for the beauty and power of art -- my own passage has taken a thoroughly unwitting turn.

This a coming full-circle, one which links me to the essence of my beloved parents and all that they instilled of America in their children -- that our country not forever lose the greatness of its heart and, we, the passion to fight for it. Always.

With sincere gratitude,

Misako C. Miyagawa


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