Some time ago, my publisher asked me to respond to some questions about Carey McWilliams. I labored over my answers, thinking that the Q&A would appear on the publisher's website. Then I found out the marketing people were only going to use it as a teaser for media outlets. So I decided to break the story myself! 1. Who was Carey McWilliams? Can you give us a brief outline of the highlights of his life and work? He was certainly an intense and prolific writer.
Carey McWilliams is probably the most important American intellectual you've never heard of, especially if you were born after 1960. He was a Los Angeles attorney and activist who wrote a dozen important books and hundreds of articles before moving to New York to edit The Nation
in the 1950s.
During the 1930s, McWilliams was best known for Factories in the Field
, essentially the nonfiction version of The Grapes of Wrath
. In the 1940s, he served in state government, wrote a book that inspired the screenplay for Chinatown
, argued against the Japanese-American internment, and participated in several high-profile legal cases, including the Hollywood 10 spectacle and the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial. At The Nation
, he muckraked relentlessly, opposed McCarthyism, Jim Crow, and Vietnam, and identified a truckload of new talent, including Ralph Nader, Howard Zinn, and Hunter S. Thompson.
In New York, McWilliams is now seen as a gutsy editor who was right on the big issues. In California, he’s regarded as the state’s preeminent public intellectual. Both characterizations are accurate, but I also argue that he’s one of the most versatile American public intellectuals of the 20th century. 2. Why Carey McWilliams? What was your inspiration for writing about him?
In 1999, I started working at a California think tank, and I asked author and journalist Peter Schrag what I should read by way of background. He said everything by Carey McWilliams, whom I'd barely heard of. McWilliams's achievement amazed me—he seemed to be everywhere, know everyone, and churn out an enormous amount of high-quality work. When I wanted to learn more about him, I realized there was no book about his life and work. At about that time, Kevin Starr, a true California aficionado, encouraged me to write that book. 3. What is it about McWilliams that makes him not only relevant today, but worth reintroducing to a new audience, whether progressive or conservative?
McWilliams was way ahead of his time on labor issues, civil rights, immigration, the environment—you name it. A McWilliams article from 1975 on the U.S.-Mexico border could run in any magazine today, practically without change. In 1950, he described a young Richard Nixon as “a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice,” which became painfully clear to most Americans much later. His arguments about the Japanese-American internment and the Hollywood 10 were eventually adopted by the Supreme Court. So in my view, McWilliams earned the title of American prophet many times over. His work should humble most of today’s pundits, whose opinions and predictions have an expiration date of about ten days.
His prose was also built to last—lucid, supple, and attentive to facts. He took apart opposing arguments the way most people untie their shoelaces. There are some exceptions, but his mature style is refreshingly free of self-righteous zeal.
His writing and advocacy earned him some powerful enemies, including J. Edgar Hoover, who considered him for detention in the event of a national emergency—even though McWilliams was heading a state agency at the time. In the book, I also discuss McWilliams’s appearance before the Committee on Un-American Activities in California. The transcript has never been published or even released, but it's a little like watching apes cross-examining a zoologist. 4. Is it true H.L. Mencken was McWilliams’ mentor? What was it about Mencken that appealed to McWilliams?
Yes, Mencken was a huge influence on McWilliams, who was originally attracted to Mencken’s irreverence, prose style, and willingness to challenge bourgeois orthodoxies. He also followed Mencken by focusing almost exclusively on the American scene. In the 1930s, he shed his idol’s anti-democratic views and began to find his own voice, but later on, he adopted Mencken’s editorial practices—quick responses, light editing, and a real openness to new voices and talents. 5. Are there parallels to some of the issues McWilliams devoted himself to and what is going on right now in our own government?
Yes, very strong parallels. McWilliams would have a lot to say today about race and ethnicity, Latino politics, the labor movement, immigration and border security, growing income inequality, and living conditions among the poor. I think he would also have plenty to say about the USA PATRIOT act, the Supreme Court, the religious right, crony capitalism, militarism, and the blind faith many people seem to have in market forces. Most of McWilliams’s best stuff was on domestic politics, but I think he would have a field day on Iraq war, too.6. What are some of McWilliams’ greatest legacies in terms of ideas or theories? Is the McWilliams influence still being felt?
McWilliams aficionados in New York would say, correctly, that his legacy at The Nation
is very significant, but I think his reputation now is mostly based on his books, almost all of which he wrote while living in Los Angeles. Their influence still registers in Chicano studies, urban planning, and labor history, for example, but his general approach to California and its history, especially his exceptionalist account of the state and its development, has probably left the deepest impression.
He influenced a long list of writers and scholars. Patricia Nelson Limerick, a leading historian of the American West, has acknowledged his influence on her work. He’s also an indispensable source for California writers like Kevin Starr, Mike Davis, Peter Schrag, and Lou Cannon. During the 1990s, McWilliams’s critical fortunes began to improve after Starr, Limerick, and Davis pointed out his achievements. He also influenced a generation of activists, including Cesar Chavez. But I’ve found that the fastest way to get McWilliams onto someone’s cultural radar is to mention that his work inspired Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown
. 7. McWilliams was editor of The Nation for over twenty years. What was his greatest influence there? How did he change or affect what the magazine had to say?
Probably his chief contribution was to make The Nation
a forum for investigative journalism as well as a journal of opinion. In the 1950s, he was keeping the muckraking tradition alive almost single-handedly. McWilliams also shepherded the magazine though the McCarthy period, when it came under attack from neoconservatives and anti-Communist liberals like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Several of his friends committed suicide during that time, but McWilliams showed a lot of cool resolve. As Studs Terkel said later, you had to credit McWilliams not only for his prescience, but also for his guts. 8. McWilliams loved California. What was it about that state that he found particularly inspiring or worth writing about?
As a young man, McWilliams hated Los Angeles, which he regarded as a shapeless blob, “hopelessly vulgar,” promoted relentlessly by a class of swindling boosters. All true, of course, but in the end, Southern California worked its charms on him. He admired its energy, its freewheeling quality, its diversity, and its ability to reinvent itself. He later attributed those qualities to the state as a whole and traced most of them to a Gold Rush mentality.
Another thing he appreciated about California was its position on the Pacific Rim. He recognized the enormous importance of that single physical fact and its implications for world trade. He was a big believer in “the authority of the land,” and he understood the full value of natural resources, especially water. He was a kind of proto-environmentalist in that way. 9. What are some of the ways California has changed that McWilliams would find either provoking or worth writing about today?
I think he would see the Schwarzenegger phenomenon as fresh evidence of good old California exceptionalism. The electricity crisis a few years back would have confirmed his suspicions about market forces run amok. And he would find ample evidence for his prediction that Latinos would reclaim California without firing a shot.
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