Thursday, October 30, 2008

Gustavo, Carey, and Orange County


A couple of weeks ago, I heard Gustavo Arellano on KPFA talking about his new book, Orange County: A Personal History. I'm a fan, so I put that on my list of books to read after I finished my Ramparts research.

But today I received a McWilliams alert from Frank Barajas, my friend in the history department at Cal State Channel Islands. He told me that Gustavo's new book had some material on Carey McWilliams and even a quote from me. Extraordinary.

I already knew that Gustavo wrote a piece about McWilliams and Orange County's citrus strikes in the 1930s. That story, which appeared in the OC Weekly in 2006, was about how thoroughly the county's labor strife had been scrubbed out of its official history. Back in the day, McWilliams defended some of the striking workers and quickly realized how screwed they were. Their plight was all the more striking to him because it clashed with the county's idyllic image.

After hearing from Frank, I decided to swing into action--without leaving my desk, of course. I was able to pinpoint the relevant passage, courtesy of our friends at Google. It runs a full six paragraphs and mentions American Prophet as well as an interview Gustavo conducted with me two years ago.

On behalf of McWilliams aficionados everywhere, I say muchas gracias, Gustavo. And thanks to Frank for pointing it out.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Towers of Gold


I heard Frances Dinkelspiel talk about her new book, Towers of Gold, in Berkeley last night. It's the story of I.W. Hellman, the West Coast banker and longtime UC regent who seemed to have a hand in virtually every major business development in California from the late nineteenth century to 1920.

The title refers to an incident during the financial collapse of 1893, when bank failures threatened to paralyze the credit markets. (Sound familiar?) Hellman transported his own money--bags of gold coins--by train from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The bags were stacked up in his bank, and the throng saw that Hellman's towers of gold could cover his bank's deposits. Another testament to the power of ocular proof.

I first heard about Frances's book a year or so ago. I knew Hellman was her great-great-grandfather, but until recently I didn't know she had two decades of newspaper experience, a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia, and a terrific story on her hands.

Her presentation last night was an adroit combination of personal narrative and complete control over the historical material. And who knew that the book would drop while the media spotlight is shining brightly on the world of high finance? (In one of many tantalizing asides, Frances noted Hellman's connection to the Lehman brothers, his in-laws.)

Can't wait to read it.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Pegler and McWilliams


Writing from Tokyo, Mark Ettlin asks, "So how does Carey McWilliams intersect with Westbrook Pegler? They must have mixed it up a few times... With the Palin-Pegler appropriation hot off the presses, it would be timely for you to blog some Mac remark on the man."

I missed the fact that Sarah Palin cribbed a quote from Pegler, a Hearst columnist, in her RNC speech. Here it is: "A writer observed: 'We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.' I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman."

So what's the big deal? Well, consider Pegler's other notable quotes, some of which are gathered by David Neiwert on his blog.

It was "regrettable that Giuseppe Zangara hit the wrong man when he shot at Roosevelt in Miami."

It is "clearly the bounden duty of all intelligent Americans to proclaim and practice bigotry." (November 1963)

About his proposal for a state takeover of the major labor unions: "Yes, that would be fascism. But I, who detest fascism, see advantages in such fascism."

In a column defending a lynching in California: "I am a member of the rabble in good standing."

Here's a 1965 quote that Dave missed. Writing about Robert F. Kennedy, Pegler wished that "some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies."

Turns out McWilliams and Pegler did have a couple of encounters. One of the first involved Chicago gangster Willie Bioff, who headed out to Hollywood in the 1930s for some labor racketeering. At the time, McWilliams was representing some rank-and-file union members who had been muscled out of IATSE. After Pegler identified Bioff and his criminal past in Chicago, McWilliams took behind-the-scenes action to expose Bioff in Los Angeles.

But more often than not, Pegler and McWilliams were on opposite sides of any given issue. Very soon after Pearl Harbor, Pegler called for the evacuation of all Japanese from the West Coast. McWilliams thought that was crazy, but a Democratic president and governor also called for a massive internment, and McWilliams went along with it--while he was serving in state office, anyway. As soon as he was out, he wrote Prejudice (1944), which destroyed every argument for that action. It was also cited that year by a Supreme Court dissenting opinion in the case that upheld the constitutionality of the evacuation and internment.

In 1951, when McWilliams was wondering whether or not to move east to become editor of The Nation, he wrote to publisher Frieda Kirchwey about his politics--and his critics.

Politically, I consider myself a radical democrat who might better be called a socialist, with both "democrat" and "socialist" being written without caps. I mention this only because I want to remind you that Pegler, Tenney, Lewis, and the others, can be relied on to charge that I am a red, a fellow-traveller (real news to my Communist friends!) and one who has given aid-and-comfort to "public enemies" like Harry Bridges.

That pretty much sums up Pegler's reputation at the time, I think. He went on to write for the John Birch Society, which, according to his Wikipedia entry, "invited him to leave for his extreme views." Yikes.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hitchens's Review of Outlaw Journalist


I just read Christopher Hitchens's review of Outlaw Journalist in the Sunday Times today. I like the way he highlights Hunter Thompson's San Francisco heyday. Most of HST's best work was rooted in the Bay Area, though he's usually associated with the fortified compound in Colorado.

The first Bay Area benchmark was the Hell's Angels piece, commissioned by Carey McWilliams for The Nation when HST was living in the Haight. (Kudos to Hitch for mentioning McWilliams; I just noticed that Jonathan Yardley's review in the Washington Post skipped that critical connection.) Then there was the Kentucky Derby piece for Warren Hinckle's Scanlan's Monthly, also mentioned in this review. And of course Rolling Stone, which published his most famous work, was a San Francisco magazine with close connections to Ramparts. Those three magazines (Ramparts, Scanlan's, and Rolling Stone) produced some impressive fireworks in those years.

Fanatical readers of this blog already know that Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner worked for Ramparts' spinoff newspaper, that HST wrote for Scanlan's after editor Warren Hinckle left Ramparts, and that HST was a big Ramparts fan and appeared on the masthead for a while. But did you know that one of the first Americans Christopher Hitchens met upon his arrival in the USA was Carey McWilliams? And that Hitchens wrote for Ramparts under the name Matthew Blaire?

I learned that by visiting with Hitchens in Marin last year, and you can read all about that (and everything else) in my forthcoming book on Ramparts. Soon, I hope.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Jann Wenner


I spoke with Jann Wenner about Ramparts magazine last week. Jann wrote for the spinoff newspaper, The Sunday Ramparts, before starting Rolling Stone with his mentor, Ralph Gleason, in 1967. Gleason was the Chronicle's jazz critic and a contributing editor at Ramparts before quitting in a fury. The problem was Warren Hinckle's depiction of San Francisco's hippies in the magazine's first major article on the subject.

In our conversation, I learned a lot more about the relationship between Ramparts and Rolling Stone, which Jann described as one of "overlapping trajectories." I already knew that Jann borrowed his design from Ramparts and pasted up the first issue of Rolling Stone (see photo) in a spare room at the magazine's office at 301 Broadway. But I also learned that he met his wife, Jane Schindelheim, at Ramparts. And that Bob Scheer tried to get him to fetch coffee. And lots of other stuff that will be in the book.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Richard Rodriquez


I met Richard Rodriguez Monday afternoon at a party for Kerry Tremain, who's stepping down as editor California magazine. Kerry has done a fantastic job there. Among his many accomplishments was recruiting writers like Richard Rodriguez.

We read Hunger of Memory in my California Culture class at San Francisco State, so meeting Richard was a special pleasure. That course is organized around utopian and dystopian images of California, so Richard emerges as a key skeptic (along with Joan Didion) of 1960s-style social optimism. In Hunger of Memory, that skepticism seems to be rooted in Richard's Catholicism. Although he doesn't say so, the political projects of the 1960s and 1970s come off as modern forms of the Pelagian heresy.

But skepticism is only part of Richard's project. Language is even more important. As a boy, his two languages apply to radically different worlds--the public (English) and private (Spanish). That split is at the center of the book.

Hunger of Memory is also very concerned with education. As Richard embraces his identity as a model student, he becomes separated from his family, or at least his parents. But then he also renounces an academic career and becomes a solitary writer. Each round of renunciation and alienation is another step on his writerly journey.

That journey leads him to oppose both bilingual education and affirmative action. But the grounds of his opposition are deeply personal--as we would expect from a writer, who must find his individuality and voice not through big, blunt, unchosen categories of identity (race, class, gender), but in his relationship to language.

Hunger of Memory isn't a treatise on public policy. To read it that way is to misunderstand its value. I think it belongs to another literary tradition that stretches back to Augustine's Confessions. You heard it here first.

During our brief chat, Richard brought up Carey McWilliams, more or less out of the blue. You can believe that I walked through that door.