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A lost voice worth rediscovering
- Reviewed by Steve Weinberg
Sunday, December 18, 2005
The Life and Work
of Carey McWilliams
By Peter Richardson
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS; 334 Pages; $35
Perhaps no author wrote as perceptively about California during the 20th century as Carey McWilliams (1905-1980). His editorials, magazine articles and books shed light on race/ethnic relations, including the unconscionable Caucasian prejudices against Hispanic Americans and Japanese Americans; the exploitation undergirding labor-management strife; the insanity of anti-Communist political purges; environmental degradation; housing shortages; and counterproductive immigration policies.
Occasionally, McWilliams' insights are mentioned today. The classic movie "Chinatown" derived its inspiration from McWilliams' 1946 book "Southern California: An Island on the Land." California State Librarian Kevin Starr has called McWilliams "the state's most astute political observer" and "the single finest nonfiction writer on California, ever." McWilliams' editorship of the Nation magazine, across the continent in New York City, from 1952 to 1975 yielded memorable exposes on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and other violators of democratic liberties reprinted in investigative reporting anthologies.
Yet, if McWilliams' biographer Peter Richardson is correct, McWilliams is in need of a revival. "Any attempt to assess Carey McWilliams' legacy must confront at least one hard fact: Almost no one born after 1960 has heard of him," says Richardson, who has a doctorate in English from UC Berkeley and a job as communications director of the California Budget Project.
Richardson is an admirable choice to reinvigorate McWilliams' legacy, even though six years ago Richardson had never heard of McWilliams. Having accepted a position at the Public Policy Institute of California in 1999, Richardson asked advisory council member Peter Schrag what to read about California history and politics. Schrag said everything by McWilliams. After Richardson began his reading of the McWilliams opus, he asked state librarian Starr why nobody had published a biography. Starr suggested that Richardson be the first.
The biography is more about McWilliams' ideas than about McWilliams' personal life. That is a wise decision, because McWilliams' personal life, despite multiple marriages and children, is oddly impersonal for somebody so passionate about equality across ethnic and class borders. He liked ideas better than he liked people, so tended to come across as reserved, distant.
After a restless upbringing in Steamboat Springs, Colo., McWilliams lost his father, a state legislator, as a teenager. The youngster, obviously precocious intellectually, scraped together tuition to the University of Denver, but found concentrating on studies difficult. At age 17, he dropped out, then joined his widowed mother in Los Angeles. McWilliams found an entry-level job in the Los Angeles Times newsroom, studied at the University of Southern California, obtained a law degree, and settled into practice with a downtown law firm.
Feeling the need to write about ideas, McWilliams became fascinated by the life of American satirist/iconoclast Ambrose Bierce. Driven to put words on paper, McWilliams published an acclaimed Bierce biography at age 24. He had come a long way since leaving Colorado as a college dropout less than seven years earlier.
McWilliams practiced law competently, but publishing for broad audiences trumped composing narrow legal briefs. Unafraid of attracting hatred, McWilliams spoke out for equality of humankind no matter how unpopular the causes. His string of remarkably prescient books included "Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California" (1939); "Brothers Under the Skin" (1943); "Prejudice: Japanese-Americans, Symbol of Racial Intolerance" (1944); "A Mask for Privilege: Anti-Semitism in America" (1948); "North From Mexico: The Spanish Speaking People of the United States" (1949); and "Witch Hunt: The Revival of Heresy" (1950).
Although vulnerable to anti-Communist witch-hunts by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his ilk, McWilliams did nothing to protect himself. Rather than swear to pseudo-patriotic loyalty oaths, McWilliams commented on their uselessness: "No rational person really believes that one loves one's country or one's wife the better for swearing to love." McWilliams did not rant in his anger, though. As Richardson comments about the book "Witch Hunt," McWilliams produced "an expose of fear-based political persecution and a meditation on the production and punishment of heresy, a term McWilliams meant literally. For him, the parallels to medieval witch trials were strict, and the book patiently maps the points of contact."
After his painstaking review of McWilliams' opus, Richardson reached a conclusion that surprised himself: McWilliams "was one of the most versatile, productive and consequential American public intellectuals of the twentieth century."
Many biographers overestimate the importance of their subjects. Richardson, however, makes a persuasive case that overestimating McWilliams' importance would be difficult. A book about a nearly forgotten crusader published by a relatively obscure university press is unlikely to receive widespread attention. But it ought to.
Steve Weinberg is an investigative journalist in Columbia, Mo.
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©2005 San Francisco Chronicle