Friday, February 22, 2008

Granted, It Ain't California ...

...but I can still link it to Carey McWilliams.

Last summer, Matt Bokovoy of the University of Oklahoma Press asked me to write a report on McWilliams's Prejudice (1944) with the idea that the press might reissue it. In return, I received a credit for some of their books.

I chose four:

George Armstrong Custer, My Life on the Plains
Elizabeth Custer, Boots and Saddles
Richard White, It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own
J.S. Holliday, The World Rushed In

I started reading My Life on the Plains and am still making my way through it. Yesterday I came home to find my issue of The New York Review of Books. It included a piece on Custer by Larry McMurtry. Slightly uncanny. McMurtry recommended Evan Connell's Son of the Morning Star, one of my favorites. Also a coincidence since McMurtry and Connell appeared in my review of Philip Fradkin's Stegner bio. (Not sure if Connell made it through the final trim.) Also, McMurtry will make a cameo appearance in the Ramparts book.

This clustering reignited a desire from the mid-1980s to visit Little Bighorn. And maybe that will happen. But in the meantime, I'm tripping on the simple fact that Libbie Custer and my parents were walking the planet at the same time. Actually, my mother might have been crawling the planet when Libbie Custer died in New York City.


At 11:55 AM , Blogger Misako said...

Dear Mr. Richardson:

Owing to a series of wholly serendipitous events, I stumbled upon your blog while looking up the Carey McWilliams' book "Prejudice."

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 (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 hop about singing 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 much gratitude,

Misako C. Miyagawa

At 7:03 PM , Blogger Peter Richardson said...

Misako, your comment is fascinating to me and also moving. For starters, what an extraordinary set of coincidences that you heard the KPFK interview, took a class from Steve, etc. That your family also crossed paths with Carey McWilliams is also remarkable. ( I haven't yet read the new Warren bio, but I did have a chance to visit briefly with its author when he came through San Francisco.) Please give my best to Steve Cooper from me; I learned a lot from his book and have enjoyed both his company and support.

At 11:26 AM , Blogger Misako said...

Mr. Richardson:

Yes, such a string of coincidences are ones one learns to respect.
Life is indeed a mysterious wonder!

And I will gladly pass on your comments to Professor Cooper.

(I'm originally from Giants territory. Miss it very much, and nearly transferred to SFSU last term. A lesson in resistance to have spent my teen years behind "blue" enemy lines - ha.)

At 12:08 PM , Blogger Misako said...

Mr. Richardson:

I was remiss to offer you this amusing tidbit on McWilliams. In a follow-up phone conversation with my mother yesterday, she fondly recalled this:

When McWilliams, his wife, and my mother were at the Cleveland train station, McWilliams asked Mrs. McWilliams if she would confirm their departure time. In those days, that information appeared hand-written on a black chalkboard, my mother said.

Mrs. McWilliams and my mother went to check the time noted, walked back to McWilliams with the time -- only for him to nod and quietly walk to the chalkboard and check the time himself.

At that, Mrs. McWilliams immediately smiled and, with a soft chuckle to my mother, said, "Now there's a lawyer for you!" (I.e., not trusting information without confirming it yourself.)

In her recollection of that scene, my mother's own chuckles carried back through time. As a professional woman far ahead of her generation as well, my mother was quick to point out how much she admired Mrs. McWilliams her independence as an attorney in her own right, and her evident good humor, grace, and intelligence.

Although McWilliams interviewed my mother's large family, none of that information was used in his book. My mother couldn't give a toss about that. What she did respect was McWilliams' hard-bitten sincerity as to how Japanese American families were faring in the mid-West, following their "relocation" from the internment camps.

She then strongly emphasized how McWilliams' own Irish heritage is what made him intimately critical of the role Irish Americans played in the internment of Japanese Americans in California. (I had no knowledge of this, and all the more reason I much anticipate reading your McWilliams bio.) If true, a sad and ironic comment on the cycle of divide-and-conquer dynamics among immigrants in the U.S.

At 12:21 PM , Blogger Peter Richardson said...

The train departure anecdote reminded me of another one in the book. Evidently, McWilliams was incredibly self sufficient. Wouldn't even ask for a glass of water; instead, he would get his own. Some of this I attributed to his frontier upbringing and habits of mind he took from his family dynamic. The train bit is a great addition to a more complete portrait.

At 12:53 PM , Blogger Misako said...

A fascinating character, to be sure. Your description intimates speculation of what bedrock traits linked his alignment with so many admirable endeavors. Can't wait to read the book.

Take care.


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