Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Stewart Brand

File this under serendipity.

My recent post on Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture mentioned the Stewart Brand story--also the fact that Brand occasionally frequents my favorite Sausalito diner. Today I was there with two colleagues, and guess who should sit down at the table two feet from me? The man himself, perfectly positioned to receive my introductory handshake.

Are you still here? Alert the media, for God's sake!


I was a little exasperated this morning by a missed opportunity. American Prophet opens with a short history of the Colorado region where Carey McWilliams was born. A small party of settlers, led by Nathan Meeker, arrived there in the nineteenth century and was subsequently killed by Indians in what became known as the Meeker Massacre.

What I didn't include, because I only learned it this morning, is that Nathan Meeker was the agricultural editor for the New York Herald Tribune. When his boss, Horace Greeley, said "Go west, young man," Meeker hit the bricks. His purpose was to start a utopian farming colony--with irrigation!--now known as Greeley, Colorado. Get it? Horace Greeley?

So I missed the chance to close that narrative loop. The Colorado native would eventually become the New York City editor--but not before he popularized the Great Irrigation Caper immortalized (fictitiously) in Chinatown. It all comes together!

By the way, The Nation's cover story last week was "Lockdown in Greeley: How Immigration Raids Terrorized a Colorado Town."


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Gustavus Myers Award

American Prophet received an honorable mention from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights. Here's the link:


Monday, February 26, 2007

The Anxiety of Influence

I borrowed this term from Harold Bloom to describe the effect Carey McWilliams has had on some California writers, academics, and pundits. I just saw a clear expression of that anxiety in this week's issue of The Nation. After reading Gogol, Isaac B. Singer asked, "How is it possible that this man who lived a hundred years before me has stolen so many of my ideas?"

Friday, February 23, 2007

Gene Marine

Last night I heard Gene Marine speak about his years at KPFA and KPFK. Very interesting. Gene started at KPFA, the first listener-sponsored radio station, only two years after its inception in 1949. At that time, he said, they had no intention of advancing a lefty agenda. Yes, most of the founders were pacifists, but the goal was to present thoughtful, balanced, professional programming without the advertising. But a series of events, starting with the witch hunts of the McCarthy era, led the station to its current niche in the media ecology.

Someday I'd like to hear more about Gene's career in print journalism. He was the West Coast contributing editor for The Nation after Carey McWilliams decamped for New York, and he was a senior editor at Ramparts until its first collapse in 1969. It turns out Ed Cray, who now teaches journalism at USC and attended my Bonnie Cashin lecture at UCLA, worked for Gene at KPFK. I interviewed both fellows for American Prophet.

All of which leads me to today's recommendations:

Jeff Land, Active Radio: Pacifica's Brash Experiment (University of Minnesota, 1999).

Ed Cray, Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren (Simon & Schuster, 1997)

Ed Cray, Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie (W.W. Norton, 2004)

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Big Sleep

We're reading Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939) now--one of the great hardboiled novels set in Los Angeles. It shares that "trouble in paradise" quality with other major California books of that year, including John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, John Fante's Ask the Dust, and Carey McWilliams's (nonfiction) Factories in the Field.

The Big Sleep is long on LA corruption. Just months before the book appeared, cops were bombing the homes and cars of local reformers, and voters recalled Mayor Shaw. Also, some juicy labor racketeering in Hollywood was coming to light during this time--partly due to McWilliams's efforts.

"This is a big city now," a cop tells Chandler's hero, Philip Marlowe. Yes, indeed. And its problems no longer reduced to a single social conflict--for example, big business versus small landowners (The Octopus) or workers (The Grapes of Wrath), complete with good guys and bad guys. Chandler's Los Angeles is more about a constellation of vices--gambling, drugs, pornography, homosexuality, etc.--but the intricate plot mirrors the increased moral complexity Marlowe struggles with.

Chandler associates these vices with the Orient--lots of Asian art, clothes, etc. ornamenting the decadence Marlowe comes upon. This lays the groundwork for the Vietnam-era Chinatown, which turns those stereotypes inside out. But unless I miss my guess, students will be more alive to the similarities between The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski.

Thanks to Steve Rubio, who turned me on to The Big Sleep when we were graduate students at Berkeley.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


I'm reading Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Must figure out a way to include this story in the California Culture class--perfect fit with the utopian theme and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which is already on the syllabus.

Brand was a Merry Prankster before launching the Whole Earth Catalog; he later played a key role in developing the WELL, the first online social network he developed in 1985 with Larry Brilliant, now the executive director at By coincidence (?), I attended a World Affairs Council event last week honoring Brilliant (and two others), and I occasionally see Brand at my favorite diner in Sausalito. Also, my friend Mark Ettlin told me years ago about the Global Business Network, which Brand helped found and which plays a big role in Turner's story. But I didn't know how these pieces came together until I found this book. Highly recommended.

Fanatical readers of this blog will wonder: Is there a Carey McWilliams connection here? Yes, an indirect one. McWilliams commissioned the Theodore Roszak essays that eventually became The Making of a Counter Culture (1969). That influential book coined the popular neologism in Turner's title and became Roszak's signature work.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Ansel Adams

So last week in class we watched an American Experience documentary on Ansel Adams. It seemed like a good follow-up to the Muir reading and very relevant to the course's main theme--the tension between utopian and dystopian representations of California. There are similar tensions in other parts of Adams's life: between his urban San Francisco scene and his more rustic one in Yosemite, between his family life and his intense feelings for his assistant, and between the natural landscapes he photographed so famously and the decidedly artificial technique he perfected for doing so.

Let me pull the curtain of charity before the mass-marketing of Adams's photographs. But I have to note that they were on display at the Bellagio in Las Vegas when I was there last month. Is any single venue more antithetical to the spirit of those photos?

This is a pretty good documentary, but I thought it would have been stronger at two-thirds the length, and I noticed an unresolved tension in the presentation itself. The talking heads, especially Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, speak at length about wilderness, its unpredictability, and how important it is to the American spirit. But the documentary itself, including the score, is solemn, predictable, pious ... in a word, tame. It seems to accept the idea that whatever is sacred or sublime (in this case, wilderness) must be sublimated. But maybe that's closer to Adams's overall effect on American culture, if not his intention.

Carey's L.A. House--A Historical Site?

Yesterday I received an email from Jesus Sanchez of the Echo Park Historical Society. They want to designate Carey McWilliams's house at 2041 North Alvarado "a city cultural historic monument." Carey really liked that house, which he and Iris bought after World War II and rented out while they lived in New York. After he retired as editor of The Nation, he fantasized about living in it again, but by that time they had a nice rent-controlled apartment across from Columbia University, and Iris wasn't driving.

At this point, the inscription at Pershing Square (a long quotation from Southern California Country) is the city's main tribute to McWilliams. This would be another very fitting one.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Sound Familiar?

I came across this quote in Josiah Royce's California: A Study of American Character (1886). Royce, a native Californian who taught moral philosophy at Harvard, was reflecting on the events leading up to statehood. After concluding that General John C. Fremont hadn't covered himself in glory during that time, Royce offered the following thought.
The American as conqueror is unwilling to appear in public as a pure aggressor ... The American wants to persuade not only the world but himself that he is doing God service in a peaceable spirit, even when he violently takes what he is determined to get (p. 119).


Saturday, February 03, 2007

My First Summer in the Sierra

My California Culture class started last week, and tomorrow we'll start talking about John Muir's My First Summer in the Sierra. This is the work of an ecstatic poet--many raptures on plants, trees, squirrels, bears, ants, etc. The only creatures Muir seems to disdain are people and sheep. (He was accompanying a flock headed for high pastures.)

When Muir observes people, the results are remarkable. Consider the passage describing Billy, the shepherd.
Following the sheep he carries a heavy six-shooter swung from his belt on one side and his luncheon on the other. The ancient cloth in which the meat, fresh from the frying-pan, is tied serves as a filter through which the clear fat and gravy juices drip down on his right hip and leg in clustering stalactites. This oleaginous formation is soon broken up, however, and diffused and rubbed evenly into his scanty apparel, by sitting down, rolling over, crossing his legs while resting on logs, etc., making shirts and trousers water-tight and shiny. His trousers, in particular, have become so adhesive with the mixed fat and resin that pine needles, thin flakes and fibres of bark, hair, mica scales and minute grains of quartz, hornblende, etc., feathers, seed wings, moth and butterfly wings, legs and antennae of innumerable insects, or even whole insects such as the small beetles, moths, and mosquitoes, with flower petals, pollen dust and indeed of all plants, animals, and minerals of the region adhere to them and are safely imbedded, so that though far from being a naturalist he collects fragmentary specimens of everything and becomes richer than he knows ... Man is a microcosm, at least our shepherd is, or rather his trousers.

Come on, people, give it up for John Muir. That's restaurant-quality stuff.