Tuesday, February 28, 2006


I took a couple of hours out of the mini-book tour to take in a movie (Match Point) in Santa Monica with Adrian Maher. Adrian hosted me when I was working on the book in Los Angeles, took a class from Carey McWilliams in the late 1970s, and now makes television documentaries.

The trailer we saw was for Ask the Dust, the Robert Towne movie based on John Fante's 1939 novel. Fante was one of McWilliams's best friends. I taught Ask the Dust this week in my California Culture class at San Francisco State. Coincidence? You be the judge.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Lo-Cal Swing

I leave tomorrow for Los Angeles and the All Things McWilliams book tour. Monday I'll be at Cal State Northridge, courtesy of Rudy Acuna, author of Occupied America . (My first job out of college was selling this book, and others, for Harper & Row, Publishers.) Sounds like there will be a KPFK interview with his colleague, Gabriel Gutierrez, too. That night I'll be at Oxnard Public Library.

The next day it's off to the Huntington Library for a conversation with Bill Deverell, who directs the Huntington-USC Institute for California and the West. Bill is the author of Whitewashed Adobe , which the University of California Press published in 2004. All of this was arranged by the indefatigable Alice McGrath, who worked with Carey on the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee in the early 1940s. (For event details, see Gigs.)


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Sleepy Lagoon Exhibit

Last May I participated in a great conference at UCLA on the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. If these events don't ring any bells, or even if they do, check out the online exhibit, curated by Genie Guerard of the UCLA Library. Here's the address:


Highly recommended.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Politics of Cool

I've been thinking more about the role of passion in American politics. Although it's encouraged now, passion isn't the word that comes to mind when I think of Carey McWilliams. Committed? Absolutely. Unflinching? Yep. But especially as he matured, his style was cool, smart, and pulled together. He could be sharp when he felt like it; he described a young Richard Nixon as "a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice," and Governor Earl Warren as "the personification of Smart Reaction." But in general, he didn't rely on polemics, name-calling, or appeals to passion.

The same can't be said for his adversaries, who called him lots of names over the years: liar, ass, dupe, pinko, Agricultural Pest Number One, and dough-faced Typhoid Mary of the left (my personal favorite). But instead of responding in kind, he returned his readers again and again to the key issues. Dry? Not at all. He could slice and dice with the best of them. But his respect for the facts--and his audience's ability to grasp them--helps explain why his writing holds up so well half a century later.

Is there a place for the politics of cool today? Are its assumptions, especially about audience, realistic?


Sunday, February 19, 2006

On Discovering McWilliams

Gray Brechin has a great sentence about discovering Carey McWilliams:

"For those of us who lean unapologetically to the left as it flows ever farther to the right, encountering the writings of Carey McWilliams is liking running into an old friend in a foreign city."

Among other things, Gray captures the underrated pleasure of discovering an underrated writer.

For those of you taking notes, this quote is from his introduction to Fool's Paradise: A Carey McWilliams Reader (2001).


Friday, February 17, 2006

Who Was Carey McWilliams?

Good question. He's the most important American writer you've probably never heard of, especially if you were born after 1960. (If you were born before then, you might remember that he edited The Nation from 1955-1975.) He was also the most versatile American public intellectual of the twentieth century. And Kevin Starr says he's "the single finest non-fiction writer on California--ever." Movie buffs might know that one of his books inspired Robert Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay for Chinatown.

But there's a lot more to be said about this man and his achievements. If you'd like to help answer the question above, I hope you'll join the conversation. The links to the right provide some background information. Several have to do with my book, American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams, and the UCLA talk will give you the headline version of McWilliams's years in California.



Here's where I'll be talking about Carey McWilliams in the coming weeks and months.

Saturday, June 17--Dawson's Book Shop, Los Angeles, 2:30 p.m.

Thursday, June 15--Bonnie Cashin lecture, 4 p.m., UCLA.

Sunday, April 30, 1:00 a.m.--The John Rothmann Show, KGO radio, 810 AM.

Thursday, March 30--With Ethan Rarick and Peter Schrag, 7:30 p.m., Black Oak Books, 1491 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, www.blackoakbooks.com/soon.html.

Tuesday, February 28--In Conversation with William Deverell, noon to 1:30, Munger Building, Huntington Library, San Marino. Sponsored by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, www.usc.edu/schools/college/huntington/icw_events/

Monday, February 27--Oxnard Public Library, 6:30 p.m., Meeting Room B, 251 South A Street, Oxnard, www.ci.oxnard.ca.us/pressrelease/2006/060126.html.

Monday, February 27--Cal State Northridge, noon to 1:00, Whitsett Room, 451 Sierra Hall. Sponsored by the Chicana/o Studies Department.


Moving Forward

I had to relaunch the blog due to technical trouble. I'd like to take a moment to mourn those penetrating but unsaved insights ...

Okay, let's move on.