When Alexander Saxton dropped out of Harvard in 1939, his faculty adviser urged him to consult a psychiatrist. His parents were distraught. But Saxton's desire to set the terms of his life would take him far from the ivy-covered halls he found stifling.
To appease his parents, he finished his undergraduate education at the University of Chicago. Then, the son of two professionals became a laborer and union organizer, working in railroad roundhouses, steel mills, shipyards and construction. He joined the Communist Party and wrote well-regarded works of 1940s proletarian literature.
In the 1950s, his literary aspirations were quashed by McCarthyism, and Saxton changed course again: He earned a doctorate in history from UC Berkeley and became a tenured professor at UCLA, where he agitated for ethnic studies and gained prominence as the author of "The Indispensable Enemy," considered a classic in the study of race in America.
FOR THE RECORD:
Alexander Saxton: In the Sept. 9 LATExtra section, a photo caption with the obituary of UCLA historian Alexander Saxton said that he had pushed for the creation of the university's Asian studies program. As the article noted, he helped create an Asian American studies program, the nation's first.
He continued to write well into retirement, publishing two major books in his 70s and 80s, including "The Rise and Fall of the White Republic" (1990), a historical study of white racism.
When deteriorating health made it impossible for Saxton to write, go on walks and live independently, the scholar-activist made a final, life-altering decision: On Aug. 20 he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Lone Pine, Calif., said his daughter, Catherine Steele. He was 93.
Steele said she regretted her father's decision but understood his reasons. "He carried out his life in a manner that supported his belief that as human beings we have choices to make; we are responsible for the choices and for the consequences," she said.
At UCLA, where Saxton taught from 1968 to 1990, those choices included waging heated battles to bring racial and ethnic diversity to the faculty and helping to create the nation's first Asian American studies program. He also made provocative contributions to scholarship, among the most cited of which is his 1975 paper, "Blackface Minstrelsy and Jacksonian Ideology," which linked the minstrel shows of the latter 1800s with racist ideology.
"Very few historians of this generation have combined such a deep embrace of American literature, history, popular culture and politics," Gary B. Nash, a friend and emeritus professor of history, said of Saxton's unusual career.
Born July 16, 1919, in Great Barrington, Mass., Saxton grew up in New York the second of two sons of Eugene Saxton, chief editor at Harper & Brothers, and his wife, Martha, a private school literature teacher. They raised him in what historian Robert W. Rydell described in a biographical essay as a "middle-class, slightly bohemian" home, where noted authors such as Aldous Huxley and Thornton Wilder were frequent guests.
As a child during the Depression, Saxton never went hungry but saw many who did. Seeing such suffering awoke a desire to "learn how people lived in the other America — the real America, as I thought, industrial America — and write about their lives," he recounted in an essay published in Amerasia Journal in 2000.
When he arrived in Chicago in 1940 he went to work six days a week at 25 cents an hour repairing train engines. During World War II he served in the merchant marine, ferrying ammunition across the Pacific and North Atlantic.
He married Gertrude Wright, a University of Chicago classmate, in 1941. After the war, he moved with her and their two daughters to Northern California, where he worked as a construction carpenter while participating in left-wing causes and writing novels, including the semi-autobiographical "Grand Crossing" (1943) and "The Great Midland" (1948).
His wife died about 10 years ago, and his daughter Christine died in 1990. In addition to Steele, he is survived by a grandson and a great-grandson.
In 1951 Saxton was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which cost him offers to teach and write screenplays. His third novel, "Bright Web in the Darkness," was published in 1958 but made no money. In 1959 he left the Communist Party but remained unapologetic about it.
After earning his doctorate in 1967 he turned his dissertation into "The Indispensable Enemy," a landmark examination of the anti-Chinese movement in 19th century California that showed how racism was crucial to the industrialization of the U.S.
In his last years Saxton participated regularly in the Manzanar Pilgrimage, an annual ritual at the Manzanar National Historic Site near Lone Pine to remember the World War II internment of Japanese Americans.
"He wasn't simply an academic," said Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey. "There was a tension for him between the politics of the real world and writing about it. He was engaged throughout his entire life."