Saturday, January 24, 2009

Joe Mathews on Carey McWilliams


It's a double serving of McWilliams today in the Los Angeles Times. I touch on him in my review of the Mary Austin bio, and an article by Joe Mathews--New America Foundation fellow and former Times scribe--puts the state's current fiscal crisis in historical perspective by reading it against McWilliams's California: The Great Exception (1949). Very nicely done.

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Secondhand Sounds


Oh, it's on now. Don't miss the new show on KCSB 91.9 FM, every other Saturday morning from 4 to 6 a.m. Hosted by Ashley Richardson, it runs an eclectic lineup of (mostly) American sounds from Al Green to Jeff Buckley to Pasty Cline. You can stream the webcast it if you don't live in the Santa Barbara area.

I did a little checking around and discovered that some of my friends hadn't heard about the show. Jeez, do I have to do everything around here?

Review of New Mary Austin Bio


The Los Angeles Times ran my review of the latest Mary Austin biography today. Written by Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson, the book traces the unusual arc of Austin's career. After writing a slender masterpiece (The Land of Little Rain) while living in the Owens Valley in 1903, Austin achieved her dream of becoming a professional writer but rarely matched that early effort.

Austin was a big influence on Carey McWilliams, and though Goodman and Dawson mention the connection between the two shortly before Austin's death in 1934, they don't explore it thoroughly. It's worth noting, I think, that McWilliams learned about the Owens Valley water caper from Austin, who witnessed it firsthand. Writing about that episode in Southern California Country (1946), McWilliams eventually inspired Robert Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay for Chinatown.

I also suspect, but haven't confirmed, that Austin called McWilliams's attention to the great land and water empire of Miller and Lux, which figures prominently in Factories in the Field (1939). Again, Austin knew about Miller and Lux from her years living in the San Joaquin Valley in the late nineteenth century.

I enjoyed the Austin book as well as the chance to review it for the Times. (As Goodman and Dawson note, McWilliams wrote Austin's obituary for the paper.) She was a fascinating figure with a big personality, and The Land of Little Rain is an undisputed early classic of environmental literature. I say check it out--along with Goodman and Dawson's bio.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Peter Schrag


Peter Schrag's last regular column ran in the Sacramento Bee today. It won't be the last we hear of Peter, but this a great occasion to honor his achievement. In addition to editing the editorial page of the Bee for nineteen years and writing a column for twelve, Peter has written several influential books about California, including Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future (1998).

I read that book when I started at the Public Policy Institute of California, where Peter served on the advisory board. It made a big impression on me. In it, Peter argues that the state's demise began with the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. Having capped the stablest source of public revenue, the state moved toward less reliable sources of funding (sales tax, income tax, fees, lotteries, etc.). The result has been a fiscal roller coaster and the steady erosion of public services, including education.

But Peter's influence on me went beyond Paradise Lost. Early on at PPIC, I asked Peter what I should read by way of background for my new job. Everything by Carey McWilliams, he said. That was excellent advice, and when I decided to write a book about C-Mac, I asked Peter for more. Those conversations changed the trajectory of my so-called career, since the McWilliams book led to the San Francisco State gig, my involvement with the California Studies Association, and eventually my Ramparts book.

Peter mentions McWilliams in his column today, but someone else should point out the obvious: namely, that Peter has carried on McWilliams's work as the state's shrewdest observer.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Land of Little Rain


I just turned in a review of a new Mary Austin biography, so it's fitting that I've been hanging out in the desert for the last couple of weeks. As Robert Hass has noted, water is to Mary Austin's 1903 classic, The Land of Little Rain, what marriage is to Jane Austen's novels: the element that explains everything.

Palm Springs Dog Show


My daughters and I attended this event on Saturday. Naturally, the press got wind of our presence there and asked us to comment.