The conscience of California

Kate Julian is an editor at the New Yorker.

THE attentive reader of this newspaper finds Carey McWilliams quoted regularly on such diverse topics as California’s politics, culture, architecture and religious practices. Not bad for someone who has been dead for a quarter of a century and who made these observations, which contemporary journalists can’t resist borrowing, back in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. In those decades, McWilliams produced a spate of books and magazine pieces that in scope, depth and insight remain crucial portraits of the state. California historians and journalists have come to revere these writings, so much so that McWilliams often seems on the verge of being posthumously appointed state prophet.

Outside California, he is better remembered -- if he is remembered at all -- as the editor of the Nation from 1955 to 1975. But as his biographer Peter Richardson acknowledges in “American Prophet,” the first full-length study of McWilliams’ life and work, “Any attempt to assess Carey McWilliams’ legacy must confront at least one hard fact: almost no one born after 1960 has heard of him.” Richardson makes an excellent contribution to the case for McWilliams’ importance, successfully combining an informed appreciation of his work with an evocative, thoroughly engaging journey through his career and times.

When McWilliams first came to Los Angeles in 1923 from his native Colorado, he was not impressed: “I hated, as so many other people have hated, the big, sprawling, deformed character of the place. I loathed the crowds of dull and stupid people that milled around the downtown sections dawdling and staring, poking and pointing, like villagers visiting a city for the first time. I found nothing about Los Angeles to like and a great many things to detest.” But he stayed, as so many have, and came to develop an intense curiosity about the place. “Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano,” he exulted. “Here, indeed, was the place for me -- a ringside seat at the circus.”


And so McWilliams, by this time advanced from jaded USC student to restless downtown lawyer, began writing about the view from this corner of the world. His first works -- profiles of such California writers as Ambrose Bierce, Louis Adamic and Mary Austin -- provided him with an entree to the community of intellectuals who congregated around the Los Angeles bookstores of Jake Zeitlin and Stanley Rose. But as the Depression worsened, McWilliams’ attention shifted to the plight of California’s minorities. His first major work in this vein, the 1939 book “Factories in the Field,” was promoted as a nonfiction “Grapes of Wrath,” but it did not concern the Dust Bowl migrants so much as the foreign-born laborers who preceded them in the fields and who would cultivate those fields long after the Joads had left.

With that book, McWilliams entered a decadelong period of intense productivity. While continuing to write, he took on numerous public activities, heading the state’s Division of Immigration and Housing and, among other things, helping to diffuse the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots. His books from this period include “Prejudice,” the first account of Japanese internment, referenced repeatedly in the dissent to the Supreme Court’s decision in Korematsu vs. United States upholding the internment’s constitutionality; “Brothers Under the Skin,” a bestselling analysis of American race relations; “North From Mexico,” a history of Mexican Americans (years later, Richardson tells us, McWilliams started encountering young men with names like “Carey McWilliams Garcia” and “Carey McWilliams Lopez”); and “Southern California Country: An Island on the Land” and “California: The Great Exception,” two much-quoted books that come closest to summarizing McWilliams’ work on the state.

Patricia Nelson Limerick, a prominent historian of the American West, remarked in 1993 that Western historiography had “finally caught up to where McWilliams had been forty years before.” It’s not an exaggeration. McWilliams recognized so much in California that has since passed into the realm of conventional wisdom that it is hard to know where to start the recounting. He saw the strong undercurrents of racism and ethnic strife, the centrality of the struggle over water (his account of the Owens Valley water deal inspired Robert Towne’s screenplay for “Chinatown”), the state’s predilection for ballot propositions and boosterism, and much more.

If McWilliams’ insights about California have proved durable, it is doubtless because he took what went on here seriously. The New York-based media have historically tended either to ignore this most populous state or condescend to it, with coverage heavy on car chases and kookiness. Considering the dearth of good writing about the state, McWilliams argued in a 1930 essay titled “Young Man, Stay West” that the habit of Western writers to gravitate eastward was at least partly responsible for California’s anemic literary scene.

And so, as Richardson notes, there is no shortage of irony in the fact that McWilliams’ own success eventually took him to New York, first as a contributing editor to the Nation and then as its editor in chief. McWilliams did not make the move without trepidation -- he at first pleaded with the Nation to open an L.A. office -- but his finances were shaky and the promise of a steady salary was persuasive. Still, if he had initially been hard on California, the move to New York rankled even more: “A vile place to live,” he complained. “Costly, vulgar, crowded ... and essentially provincial.”

Nor was the transition to the Nation easy. McWilliams’ writing had focused on the domestic front, yet he came to the Nation as Cold War tensions prompted one of the more serious crises in the magazine’s history. Not long after McWilliams’ arrival, the editor, Freda Kirchwey, fired the magazine’s anti-Stalinist literary editor, causing a schism among its contributors and provoking charges that the Nation was soft on communism. After McWilliams took over the editorship in 1955, the magazine continued to face criticism on this count. McWilliams had written an amicus brief on behalf of the Hollywood 10 and a book on anticommunism called “Witch Hunt,” and he was courageous in his efforts to battle McCarthyism; moreover, as Richardson points out, he never firmly condemned the Soviet Union. This reticence, combined with his support for accused communists, including Alger Hiss, earned the lasting suspicion of certain Cold War liberals. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. dubbed him a “Typhoid Mary of the left.” Although allowing that McWilliams was not a card-carrying communist, Schlesinger felt sure he was contributing to communism’s spread.


The chaos and friction of Cold War-era life at the Nation more or less brought McWilliams’ literary output to a halt, but his legacy as an editor proved substantial in its own right. Well before the New Journalism and the Watergate-era renaissance in investigative reporting, McWilliams’ Nation provided a forum for the sort of muckraking journalism that had few outlets, publishing a piece on automobile safety by Ralph Nader, who was then a Harvard Law student, and a report on California’s motorcycle gangs by the unknown San Francisco writer Hunter S. Thompson.

Richardson has covered a lot of ground here, with impressive economy. Having promised to avoid “a life of Saint Carey,” he maintains a critical, deliberately unsentimental stance. But although it manages to steer clear of hagiography, the book ultimately feels like a plain-spoken elegy for an endangered class of morally engaged, old-fashioned public intellectuals who were comfortable inhabiting multiple spheres. “[I]magine H.L. Mencken writing a Supreme Court brief, Cornel West heading a state agency, Noam Chomsky editing a national magazine, Edmund Wilson writing campaign speeches, or Alan Dershowitz assessing the work of a major poet,” Richardson writes. “By devoting himself exclusively to the magazine and its affairs for twenty-five years, McWilliams helped others find their voices but gradually lost his own. In this sense, the Nation’s gain was the country’s loss.” *