Thursday, August 24, 2006

More California Dream

So I learned a little more about the SF State class on the California election--I think I might have to sign up for this one! Starts on Wednesday. Check it out:

This Just In

We're now receiving reports that a review of American Prophet has appeared in California History. We will update you on this story as it unfolds.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Against the Current

I mentioned Frances Kroll Ring in a previous post; she knew Carey McWilliams, was F. Scott Fitzgerald's secretary in Los Angeles, and wrote Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald (Figueroa Press, 2005). Highly recommended. Where else can you read about a major American writer bringing a briefcase full of Cokes to a Hollywood studio to get him through the day?

Or this exchange: When Fitzgerald worked on the screenplay for Gone With the Wind, his daughter Scottie, then at Vassar, said she thought the novel was one of the great masterpieces of all time. Her father replied that it was "interesting, surprisingly honest, consistent and workman-like throughout and I felt no contempt for it but only a certain pity for those who considered it the supreme achievement of the human mind." Can you imagine getting that letter from your father? Me neither.

Next up: Last Call, with Jeremy Irons, Sissy Spacek, and Neve Campbell as Frances.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Q&A the Media Didn't Want You to See!

Some time ago, my publisher asked me to respond to some questions about Carey McWilliams. I labored over my answers, thinking that the Q&A would appear on the publisher's website. Then I found out the marketing people were only going to use it as a teaser for media outlets. So I decided to break the story myself!

1. Who was Carey McWilliams? Can you give us a brief outline of the highlights of his life and work? He was certainly an intense and prolific writer.

Carey McWilliams is probably the most important American intellectual you've never heard of, especially if you were born after 1960. He was a Los Angeles attorney and activist who wrote a dozen important books and hundreds of articles before moving to New York to edit The Nation in the 1950s.

During the 1930s, McWilliams was best known for Factories in the Field, essentially the nonfiction version of The Grapes of Wrath. In the 1940s, he served in state government, wrote a book that inspired the screenplay for Chinatown, argued against the Japanese-American internment, and participated in several high-profile legal cases, including the Hollywood 10 spectacle and the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial. At The Nation, he muckraked relentlessly, opposed McCarthyism, Jim Crow, and Vietnam, and identified a truckload of new talent, including Ralph Nader, Howard Zinn, and Hunter S. Thompson.

In New York, McWilliams is now seen as a gutsy editor who was right on the big issues. In California, he’s regarded as the state’s preeminent public intellectual. Both characterizations are accurate, but I also argue that he’s one of the most versatile American public intellectuals of the 20th century.

2. Why Carey McWilliams? What was your inspiration for writing about him?

In 1999, I started working at a California think tank, and I asked author and journalist Peter Schrag what I should read by way of background. He said everything by Carey McWilliams, whom I'd barely heard of. McWilliams's achievement amazed me—he seemed to be everywhere, know everyone, and churn out an enormous amount of high-quality work. When I wanted to learn more about him, I realized there was no book about his life and work. At about that time, Kevin Starr, a true California aficionado, encouraged me to write that book.

3. What is it about McWilliams that makes him not only relevant today, but worth reintroducing to a new audience, whether progressive or conservative?

McWilliams was way ahead of his time on labor issues, civil rights, immigration, the environment—you name it. A McWilliams article from 1975 on the U.S.-Mexico border could run in any magazine today, practically without change. In 1950, he described a young Richard Nixon as “a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice,” which became painfully clear to most Americans much later. His arguments about the Japanese-American internment and the Hollywood 10 were eventually adopted by the Supreme Court. So in my view, McWilliams earned the title of American prophet many times over. His work should humble most of today’s pundits, whose opinions and predictions have an expiration date of about ten days.

His prose was also built to last—lucid, supple, and attentive to facts. He took apart opposing arguments the way most people untie their shoelaces. There are some exceptions, but his mature style is refreshingly free of self-righteous zeal.

His writing and advocacy earned him some powerful enemies, including J. Edgar Hoover, who considered him for detention in the event of a national emergency—even though McWilliams was heading a state agency at the time. In the book, I also discuss McWilliams’s appearance before the Committee on Un-American Activities in California. The transcript has never been published or even released, but it's a little like watching apes cross-examining a zoologist.

4. Is it true H.L. Mencken was McWilliams’ mentor? What was it about Mencken that appealed to McWilliams?

Yes, Mencken was a huge influence on McWilliams, who was originally attracted to Mencken’s irreverence, prose style, and willingness to challenge bourgeois orthodoxies. He also followed Mencken by focusing almost exclusively on the American scene. In the 1930s, he shed his idol’s anti-democratic views and began to find his own voice, but later on, he adopted Mencken’s editorial practices—quick responses, light editing, and a real openness to new voices and talents.

5. Are there parallels to some of the issues McWilliams devoted himself to and what is going on right now in our own government?

Yes, very strong parallels. McWilliams would have a lot to say today about race and ethnicity, Latino politics, the labor movement, immigration and border security, growing income inequality, and living conditions among the poor. I think he would also have plenty to say about the USA PATRIOT act, the Supreme Court, the religious right, crony capitalism, militarism, and the blind faith many people seem to have in market forces. Most of McWilliams’s best stuff was on domestic politics, but I think he would have a field day on Iraq war, too.

6. What are some of McWilliams’ greatest legacies in terms of ideas or theories? Is the McWilliams influence still being felt?

McWilliams aficionados in New York would say, correctly, that his legacy at The Nation is very significant, but I think his reputation now is mostly based on his books, almost all of which he wrote while living in Los Angeles. Their influence still registers in Chicano studies, urban planning, and labor history, for example, but his general approach to California and its history, especially his exceptionalist account of the state and its development, has probably left the deepest impression.

He influenced a long list of writers and scholars. Patricia Nelson Limerick, a leading historian of the American West, has acknowledged his influence on her work. He’s also an indispensable source for California writers like Kevin Starr, Mike Davis, Peter Schrag, and Lou Cannon. During the 1990s, McWilliams’s critical fortunes began to improve after Starr, Limerick, and Davis pointed out his achievements. He also influenced a generation of activists, including Cesar Chavez. But I’ve found that the fastest way to get McWilliams onto someone’s cultural radar is to mention that his work inspired Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown.

7. McWilliams was editor of The Nation for over twenty years. What was his greatest influence there? How did he change or affect what the magazine had to say?

Probably his chief contribution was to make The Nation a forum for investigative journalism as well as a journal of opinion. In the 1950s, he was keeping the muckraking tradition alive almost single-handedly. McWilliams also shepherded the magazine though the McCarthy period, when it came under attack from neoconservatives and anti-Communist liberals like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Several of his friends committed suicide during that time, but McWilliams showed a lot of cool resolve. As Studs Terkel said later, you had to credit McWilliams not only for his prescience, but also for his guts.

8. McWilliams loved California. What was it about that state that he found particularly inspiring or worth writing about?

As a young man, McWilliams hated Los Angeles, which he regarded as a shapeless blob, “hopelessly vulgar,” promoted relentlessly by a class of swindling boosters. All true, of course, but in the end, Southern California worked its charms on him. He admired its energy, its freewheeling quality, its diversity, and its ability to reinvent itself. He later attributed those qualities to the state as a whole and traced most of them to a Gold Rush mentality.

Another thing he appreciated about California was its position on the Pacific Rim. He recognized the enormous importance of that single physical fact and its implications for world trade. He was a big believer in “the authority of the land,” and he understood the full value of natural resources, especially water. He was a kind of proto-environmentalist in that way.

9. What are some of the ways California has changed that McWilliams would find either provoking or worth writing about today?

I think he would see the Schwarzenegger phenomenon as fresh evidence of good old California exceptionalism. The electricity crisis a few years back would have confirmed his suspicions about market forces run amok. And he would find ample evidence for his prediction that Latinos would reclaim California without firing a shot.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The California Dream

Got a call yesterday from Kathy Johnson at San Francisco State University. She asked if I would participate in a Fall course called "California: The Promise vs. the Reality in the 2006 Election." My mission, should I decide to accept it, is to offer a 20-25 minute presentation on The California Dream. I said count me in. My SF State class last semester (California Culture) filled my head with thoughts and images on that topic. I'm not sure how many Gidget movies I can cover in 20 minutes, but I accept the challenge.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

F. Scott Fitzgerald--and Frances Ring

Carey McWilliams was a huge F. Scott Fitzgerald fan. Only Mencken had more influence over the young McWilliams's imagination.

So it was with some pleasure that I visited with Frances Kroll Ring this morning over the telephone. As editor of Westways, Frances persuaded McWilliams to contribute some pieces in the late 1970s--McWilliams had written a regular column in the 1930s--but Frances was also F. Scott Fitzgerald's secretary in the last year of his life. I'm looking forward to reading her book, Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald, which tells that story. The book was reissued last year by Figueroa Press and inspired the film Last Call with Jeremy Irons, Sissy Spacek, and Neve Campbell (as Frances).

By the way, I got Frances's name from Doug Dutton, of Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore, whom I met at the Bonnie Cashin lecture at UCLA. Thanks, Doug!

The NLG Connection

I had lunch with Marjorie Cohn last week in Escondido. Marjorie is a law professor, online columnist, and regular guest on Pacifica radio. She's also the President Elect of the National Lawyers Guild, which was founded in 1937 as a progressive alternative to the American Bar Association. Carey McWilliams was an active member of the Guild from its inception. In fact, he was president of the Los Angeles chapter in 1943, when the Zoot Suit Riots and Sleepy Lagoon trial were making headlines.

The Guild had a tough time during the McCarthy era. Morris Ernst, who had been counsel for the ACLU during the 1940s, led a controversial (and unsuccessful) attempt to purge the Guild of its Communist members. It later came out that Ernst was an FBI informant. The Guild was also a factor when McCarthy began to investigate the army. Army counsel Joseph Welch represented a young colleague at his law firm who was also a member of the Guild, which McCarthy regarded as the legal bulwark of the Communist Party. Welch had made a deal with Roy Cohn, McCarthy's counsel, to remain silent on Cohn's draft status if Cohn didn't mention the Guild. When McCarthy unknowingly broke the deal, Welch issued his famous riposte: "Have you no decency, sir, at long last?" See American Prophet, pp. 205-09, for more.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Lamont Family and Carey McWillams

It's amazing how American political genealogies work. Today Ned Lamont will press Joe Lieberman for his Senate seat in Connecticut. But yesterday I learned that Lamont is related to an FOC (Friend of Carey)--namely, Corliss Lamont, who co-founded the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee with McWilliams during the McCarthy era. Ned's great uncle was a longstanding board member of the ACLU but resigned when it didn't support him during an encounter with McCarthy's Senate committee. Another ECLC co-founder was Yale law professor Thomas Emerson, Hillary Clinton's mentor. For more, see American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams, pp. 198-200.


Sunday, August 06, 2006

Manzanar--and Johnny Rosselli

I just returned from a long California loop--east to Yosemite and Tioga Pass, then south to Lone Pine, Big Bear, and San Diego, then north to Los Angeles and up the Central Valley to the Bay Area. My daughters and I stopped in Manzanar and took in the historical site dedicated to the evacuation and internment of the Japanese during the Second World War. Carey McWilliams demolished all the arguments for the internment in Prejudice (1944), but he was serving in state government (as chief of the Division of Immigration and Housing) when the order was carried out.

In Los Angeles, I had dinner with Charles Rappleye, author of All American Mafioso: The Johnny Rosselli Story (Doubleday, 1991). In the late 1930s, McWilliams helped bring down Willie Bioff, the labor racketeer who, like Rosselli, represented the Chicago mob. Charles's new book is Sons of Providence (Simon & Schuster, 2006), which tells the story of the two brothers who founded Brown University. Charles and I dined at Union Station, where McWilliams was feted by KPFK toward the end of his career.

Friday, August 04, 2006

SCQ Review

I just received a thoughtful review of American Prophet by Volker Janssen, a historian at Cal State Fullerton. Writing for Southern California Quarterly, Dr. Janssen calls the book "a comprehensive, highly readable profile of literary skill and political courage." (I read this to mean McWilliams's skill and courage, not the book's!) Very gratifying. Dr. Janssen specializes in the social, economic, and institutional history of California. For more on him and his work, see