Saturday, June 30, 2007

Colonial America--Echo Park Version

I just finished reading Charles Rappleye's Sons of Providence. It's about the Brown brothers, Moses and John, who founded Brown University and butted heads over the issue of slavery in colonial Rhode Island. Moses was a Quaker abolitionist, John a hardheaded businessman and slaver. In addition to tracing their lives in full and fascinating detail, Charles presents them as two American archetypes--social reformer and robber baron.

With the vast searching power at your fingertips, you can look up this book's favorable reviews at your leisure. You might start with the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. Allow me to scale the magnitude of this critical success for you. According to David Ulin, the L.A. Times receives 200 books per day for review; they actually review about 12 per week in the Sunday supplement. So the odds of receiving a review are long; to run the table at the nation's top papers is huge. If you've mastered the Google search, you will also learn that Sons of Providence received the George Washington book prize and the $50k cash award that goes with it. That's folding money, people.

To which the fanatical reader of this blog might respond: All very well, but what does any of this have to do with Carey McWilliams and California culture? Well, let's start with the basics. First, Charles was for many years a fixture at the LA Weekly. Who among you expected an award-winning book on colonial America to emerge from the offices of an alternative weekly in Los Angeles? Full disclosure: Charles is originally from Rhode Island. But still.

Second, Charles's first book, a portrait of racketeer Johnny Rosselli, overlapped with the McWilliams story. Specifically, Rosselli was involved with the Chicago mob's takeover of Hollywood unions in the 1930s, a takeover McWilliams tried to resist. By coincidence, Rosselli was back in the news this week when the CIA released its so-called Family Jewels. Those documents show that Rosselli was involved with the agency's attempt to assassinate Castro. Charles gave me that book at a party he hosted at his Echo Park home some years ago, and I put it to good use on the McWilliams bio.

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