Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Doors

We watched Oliver Stone's The Doors in class this week--an excessive movie about excess. The first part of the movie corresponds to Carey McWilliams's famous (and much earlier) description of Los Angeles: "Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano."

The best scene might be The Doors' performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Morrison flagrantly defies the producer's instruction to sanitize the lyrics of "Light My Fire." Whereupon the producer flips out and swears that The Doors will never do the Ed Sullivan Show again. In real life, Morrison reportedly responded, "Hey, we just did the Ed Sullivan Show."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fante's Full of Life

My class at San Francisco State finished reading John Fante's Full of Life last week. The students seemed to like it a lot--a better response, really, than the reaction to Ask the Dust, usually regarded as his masterpiece, which I taught a couple of years ago. Full of Life is funny, it's about family (so most people can relate to it), and it's short. I realized, too, that it broke the tension that carried over from Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go. Could be a keeper.

This week we watched The Endless Summer and took the midterm. While the students worked on the exam, I read ahead in Charles Bukowski's Post Office. I tried not to laugh out loud, but it was tough. The juxtaposition of The Endless Summer and the casually dystopian Post Office could create some interesting effects.

Friday, October 12, 2007


I attended a Heyday Books event last night for David Mas Masumoto's Heirlooms: Letters from a Peach Farmer. My first visit to Heyday's Berkeley office. It was a cool event, well attended (and catered!)--a pleasant and effective way to roll out a new book. Mas and his daughter Nikiko, a recent Cal grad, read selections from the book that were intermittently wry and heartfelt. She has decided to return to the family farm in Del Rey, 20 miles south of Fresno. See the link above for book details.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The History Teacher Review of American Prophet

Just saw this review of American Prophet by Terry A. Cooney, dean of the college of liberal arts at Towson University.

My sense is that Dean Cooney is very attuned to fairness and evenhandedness; I even get some praise in that department. But I wonder about his conclusion that McWilliams displayed "an inability to apply common principles of judgment to left and to right," and that this led to "inconsistency and evasion." I don't think those qualities characterized McWilliams's work as a whole, but I interviewed several people who shared Cooney's concerns, particularly when it came to The Nation's posture toward the Soviet Union.

By the way, Dean Cooney is the author of two related titles: The Rise of the New York Intellectuals: Partisan Review and Its Circle, 1934-1945 and Balancing Acts: American Thought and Culture in the 1930s. His online review of American Prophet is presented in association with the History Cooperative.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

WAL Review of American Prophet

Yesterday I received a new review of American Prophet, this one by Forrest G. Robinson for Western American Literature. Very gratifying. He calls it an important new biography, says it's a fitting capstone to numerous recent tributes, and offers a practical suggestion: "Do yourself a favor, Dear Reader: buy this book."

I like Professor Robinson's quick sketch of McWilliams: "To my eye, he was a model citizen: informed, independent, lucid, tirelessly active, a political realistic (sic), supportive of others, disarmingly modest, and ever hopeful for the future." Then he offers a nice compliment for our humble scribe: "Richardson has earned our gratitude for restoring McWilliams to his proper eminence."

I'm grateful for the appreciative review, but I hope the book isn't a capstone so much as the beginning of something bigger and better when it comes to McWilliams criticism. There's a lot more to be done. The collection at UCLA still has many buried treasures, I suspect, and I've learned a few details since the book appeared--that McWilliams's father did in fact commit suicide, that Luis Valdez picked up his idea for Zoot Suit after reading North from Mexico in 1959, that McWilliams saw a psychoanalyst in Los Angeles, etc. (The analyst's daughter came to my talk at the Huntington Library; apparently her father was one of the few analysts in Los Angeles that the left-wing community trusted not to reveal damaging information to the FBI.) And then of course there's McWilliams's enormous body of work, which so far has received relatively light critical attention.

Full disclosure: Professor Robinson thinks I give inordinate attention, especially in the early going, to McWilliams's small sins. Fair enough. But I'm glad he connects that flaw to what he calls my scrupulous refusal to go hagiographical. I should also note that the book cites Professor Robinson's article, "Remembering Carey McWilliams," which ran in WAL in 2000.

As far as I can tell, there's no online version of the review. The journal is published by the Western Literature Association at Utah State University.


Saturday, October 06, 2007

Zoot Suit in San Jose

Alice McGrath asked me to join her last night in San Jose for a production of Zoot Suit, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Wow.

First we met playwright Luis Valdez and his wife Lupe for a drink at the hotel. I had never met Luis before and relished the conversation with him and Lupe. Despite several efforts, I wasn't able to interview Luis for American Prophet, so I was grateful for the chance to hear more about his life, work, and relationship with Carey McWilliams. Alice was the model for the character Alice Bloomfield. Luis met Alice after he interviewed Carey in his New York apartment; the rest is theatrical history.

After our drink, a long train of period cars pulled in to escort us and the cast to the dinner and performance. Alice and I rode in a cherry red 1953 Chevy Bel Air convertible. We drove low and slow over to the Center for Employment Training and got a lot of approving looks from pedestrians and motorists. The car's owner, Tony, and his wife told us that they're often asked to provide this kind of service. They were part of the halftime show at the 49ers game last week, and their car club sponsors a toy drive every year in addition to helping out with other events. This isn't our ride, but you get the idea.

When we arrived, a big crowd was on hand, including media. Lots of photographs (Alice was asked to pose dozens of times over the course of the evening), including a crew from Telemundo. Mariachis were playing, and neighborhood kids gathered to watch zoot-suited players step out of their rides.

After we settled in, the CET folks explained their mission and handed out awards during dinner, which was prepared by the CET culinary arts students. Many local politicians were on hand, including San Jose's mayor, Chuck Reed. Luis gave the keynote address, a brief but rousing talk about the continuing struggle for social justice on the immigration question. Alice said a few words and got a standing ovation from the 500 or so people on hand.

We moved over to the auditorium for the performance, directed by Luis and Lupe's son, Kinan, the resident associate artistic director at El Teatro Campesino, the theater company founded by his father in San Juan Batista. Cesar Chavez's nephew, Rudy, introduced himself to Alice and said he was looking forward to the show, which he had never seen.

It was a splendid performance. I had seen the film version, but it was nice to be front and center at a live performance. Lots of energy, cool costumes (of course), and the action and sets matched the script's creativity. As we left, the cast gave Alice a round of applause. Sweet.

By the way, the photo above is from another production. I'll get one from the San Jose performance asap.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Reese Erlich Day

After the CSA committee meeting at Cal on Sunday, I wandered over to Barrows Hall for a book event with Reese Erlich, who wrote The Iran Agenda for PoliPointPress. Reese has been everywhere lately. He was on Peter Laufer's KPFA show earlier that day, I heard his NPR piece on Joni Mitchell last week, and he visited Google headquarters last Tuesday to talk about the book. That's a fraction of what he has already done and has planned over the next month. Go Reese.

Believe it or not, I'm about to head out to Oakland to celebrate Reese Erlich Day. The City Council will honor him with a resolution, and a reception and dinner will follow. Reese was a member of the so-called Oakland 7 back in the day, and the irony isn't lost on him. He was a staffer at Ramparts magazine, too.

CSA Annual Conference and Wilson Carey McWilliams

On Sunday, the steering committee of the California Studies Association (CSA) met on the Cal campus. In addition to knocking off some other business, we had a good discussion about the kind of conference CSA wants to host in the Spring.

I've always liked these conferences. I attended one in Oakland where I heard Wilson Carey McWilliams speak about the Progressive Era. I didn't know then that I would write about his father's life and work, but that's how it turned out, and his cooperation was crucial.

That conference took place during the electricity crisis, if I recall correctly. One panelist that year, Lenny Goldberg, had a great quote about the critical role of electricity in the California economy: "Electricity is just another commodity like oxygen is just another gas."