Sunday, December 28, 2008

Kevin Starr and Westways

We have a new entry in the McWilliams sweepstakes: Kevin Starr, who contributed a piece on C-Mac to the current issue of Westways, the AAA magazine of Southern California, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Kevin describes McWilliams's monthly column, "Tides West," which ran in Westways during the 1930s.

All nicely done, of course, though Kevin tactfully omits the fact that Westways fired McWilliams after Ruth Comfort Mitchell, the wife of a Republican state senator, objected to his politics. McWilliams applauded John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath in the pages of Westways, while Mitchell responded to it by writing Of Human Kindness, a novel that depicted virtuous family farmers and depraved labor union organizers.

I drew heavily from Kevin's books to produce my McWilliams bio. He, in turn, wrote a short (and humorous) foreword for my pamphlet, based on my Bonnie Cashin lecture at UCLA, on Carey McWilliams and the politics of cool.


Monday, December 22, 2008

The Waldie Factor

Just as I was gearing up to deal with the Arellano Challenge, I discovered that D.J. Waldie is touting Carey McWilliams and Southern California Country.

Waldie is the author of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, winner of the California Book Award and one of my favorites.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Gustavo Otra Vez

Evidently, Gustavo Arellano has his eye on my position as head cheerleader for Carey McWilliams. His syndicated column, "Ask a Mexican" (insert appropriate exclamation points here), is touting North from Mexico as a Christmas gift for the Mexican who has everything.

Time to pick up my game.


Friday, December 12, 2008

Gonzo: The Book

Between the research for the McWilliams and Ramparts books, I've spent a lot of time learning about Hunter Thompson. Toward the end of his life, I also spent some time trying to get him on the telephone to comment on Carey McWilliams, who helped put Thompson on the literary map. I even received instructions from Juan Thompson about how to entice his father to pick up the phone. (The method involved calling the fortified compound every hour starting at midnight.)

But it wasn't until I read Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson that I realized what those final months were like. Fanatical readers of this blog will recall that I admired William McKeen's bio as well as Alex Gibney's recent documentary film. But this oral history, pulled together by Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour, manages to be even more revealing, especially about the details of HST's life in Woody Creek. Lots of humor, high jinks, and high audacity here, but also a good deal of nuance and pathos. Highly recommended, even for Thompson aficionados.

I see that many reviewers regard this book as a hatchet job engineered by Jann Wenner. In that sense, it resembles one of my favorite books of the last decade, Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow, a memoir of Theroux's multi-decade friendship with V.S. Naipaul. Some of that book's reviewers saw only treachery and betrayal there, but I saw an extraordinary portrait which, evidently, has been elaborated in Patrick French's new Naipaul biography, The World Is What It Is. In that case, Naipaul cooperated with French in what appears to be an effort to tell the truth--an intellectual's first obligation.

None of the Gonzo reviews I read faulted the book's accuracy. If some HST intimates see disloyalty here, I get that. I also understand why fans wouldn't want their HST fantasies challenged. But loyalty and fantasy, as important as they are, aren't terribly helpful when it comes to telling the truth--something HST valued.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Not So Fast, Harry

Seems that the King family wasn't crazy about Harry Belafonte's idea to auction, among other things, the notes for Dr. King's first antiwar speech. Check out the story in the New York Times.

The story includes a comment from David Garrow, whose book I cited for King's reaction to "The Children of Vietnam" piece in Ramparts magazine.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

King Vietnam Speech

Harry Belafonte will auction off the handwritten draft of Martin Luther King's first anti-Vietnam speech. The CBC story notes that the speech was King's response to reading "The Children of Vietnam" in Ramparts magazine. That article included pictures of Vietnam kids injured by U.S. bombs, including napalm.

The story also says that King left the notes in Belafonte's apartment before leaving for Los Angeles to deliver the speech. What it doesn't mention is that Carey McWilliams and The Nation put together the Los Angeles event and had been urging Dr. King to come out against the war.

King was widely criticized for doing so, but he was buoyant after delivering the speech. He said he had finally relieved his conscience, which had been afflicted ever since he saw the Ramparts story. Ramparts ran the speech the following month.

There will be details in the Ramparts book, of course.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Power Book

I attended a book event last night with Nancy Pelosi at the California Historical Society on Mission Street in San Francisco. Turns out the same building served as her campaign headquarters in 1987, when she first ran for Congress.

The book is called Know Your Power: A Message to America's Daughters. Publishers Weekly calls it a "graceful personal and political history ... A gentle account from a tough politician."

It was a very worthwhile event. Her stories were great, and the whole thing was well paced and organized. (I don't think it's related, but this was the first book event I've attended that featured Secret Service personnel.) It was also well attended--maybe 200 people, not counting the protestors hollering at the top of their lungs outside. When I tried to talk with them afterward, they shouted at me. So it goes.