Friday, July 15, 2011

Theodore Roszak RIP

We lost another important California writer this week: Theodore Roszak, author of The Making of a Counter Culture. He was 77.

As his obituary notes, that book began as a series of articles for The Nation. It doesn't mention his editor, Carey McWilliams, who helped him develop the work. Professor Roszak, who met McWilliams only once in 1964, told me that he considered McWilliams a gentle, friendly, avuncular, and remarkably generous older man who listened carefully and astutely assessed his strengths and weaknesses.

Like many Nation contributors, Professor Roszak was grateful for McWilliams's hands-off editorial style. "He didn't intervene, interfere, or climb all over the work," Roszak recalled. Instead, McWilliams supported him and let him develop his thesis in a four-part series. "It was exactly what I needed at the time," Roszak told me. The series formed the core of his 1969 landmark book, which coined the term counterculture.

I'm sorry to say I never met Professor Roszak in person, even though he lived in Berkeley and taught at Cal State East Bay. But I was grateful for his time when I interviewed him on the telephone for the McWilliams biography. And I'm even more grateful for his important contribution to our understanding of the Bay Area in the 1960s.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Docks

The good folks at UC Press sent me Bill Sharpsteen's The Docks, an in-depth look at the Port of Los Angeles.

I've been fascinated with the California ports for years. I suppose it started with my oldest brother and his work. More than three decades ago, he got on as a clerk in the Southern Pacific railroad yard in Oakland, which serves the third busiest U.S. port on the west coast. He moved up through the ranks swiftly, and over the years, I've heard a lot about the longshoremen, railroaders, and Teamsters who make their living there. At one point, too, I interviewed for a communications position with the ILWU, which, as my brother likes to say, still has it locked up. And I've also been attracted to what Sharpsteen calls "the rough beauty the port exudes in all its gritty, complicated glory."

So I was pleased to learn more about the action in Los Angeles-Long Beach, by far the biggest port complex in these parts. Sharpsteen offers a series of snapshots, interviewing and hanging out with captains, pilots, shippers, longshoremen, chandlers, truckers, clerks, environmental activists, port security--just about every type of person with an interest in what goes on there. And as the book makes clear, a lot goes on there. The volume of container traffic coming through the port is staggering, as are the logistics. The economic and environmental impacts of the ports are, I think, woefully underestimated. And having ingested Sharpsteen's chapter on the Diesel Death Zone, I'm especially glad I didn't buy that loft in Emeryville.

I use the term snapshot advisedly. Sharpsteen is also an award-winning documentary producer, and his approach is to let the reader see and hear what he encounters. Remarkably, most of the book is in the present tense, presumably to lend immediacy to his account. (The most notable exception is an excursus on the ILWU and its history, which lives in the middle of the book.) Perhaps for this reason, The Docks feels like an exceptionally long magazine article.

My first reaction was that this approach somehow diminished the book's authority. Having stuck with the slide show, however, and made it to the history section, I would recommend the book to anyone who shares my interest in this unique subculture.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Larry McMurtry and Literary Life

I came upon the second volume of Larry McMurtry's Literary Life: A Second Memoir yesterday at Mrs. Dalloway's in Berkeley. This morning I inhaled all 175 pages and relished them all.

My interest in McMurtry has two basic sources. First, I met him in Denton, Texas, where he studied as an undergraduate. He returned to give a talk at the University of North Texas while I was a faculty member there. (His brother was in the English department's graduate program at the time.) We ate at Ranchman's Cafe, his favorite steakhouse in nearby Ponder. This was after his heart surgery, which he discussed that evening as well as in this book.

The second link is McMurtry's stint at Stanford University's writing program, where his fellow students included Ken Kesey and many other talented authors. The writing program figures in Philip Fradkin's biography of Wallace Stegner, which I wrote about for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, as well as in my Grateful Dead research. (The Dead were closely connected to Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.) Without dwelling on the program, Stegner, or Kesey, McMurtry conveys a way of understanding all three that I found instructive and appealing. I also learned that McMurtry (like Kesey and the Dead) was and is a big fan of Kerouac's On the Road, especially the scroll version that was released in 2007.

About his own work, McMurtry is modest. "I was a midlist novelist who had gotten lucky with the movies, that's all," he writes at one point, although in this particular passage he may have been trying to capture how his New York colleagues regarded him. At another point, he notes that he aspired to, and finally did, become "a man of letters."

Between his long list of books, essays for The New York Review of Books, screenwriting credits (including an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain), bookselling and collecting, and his stint as American PEN president, McMurtry really has led an admirable and unique literary life. What a great pleasure to spin through this slender volume and learn more about that life. "The commonwealth of literature is complex," he writes toward the end, "but a sense of belonging to it is an important feeling for a writer to have and to keep."

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Catherine Mulholland RIP

Catherine Mullholland passed away this week. Her grandfather, William Mulholland, built the Los Angeles Aqueduct and was the subject of her 2000 biography, published by UC Press. She was 88.

Carey McWilliams figures in her obituary, which requires a quick clarification. McWilliams doesn't say or suggest that William Mulholland was in cahoots with the business syndicate behind the Owens Valley water caper. McWilliams does, however, call Mulholland "the engineer responsible for the Owens Valley fiasco" (Southern California, p. 191).

I can see why Catherine Mulholland was "sobered and perplexed" by McWilliams's account, which one of her teachers recommended to her. And though I can also see why she objected to Chinatown, which was based on McWilliams's work, the obituary is slightly misleading on this point as well. In the film, the character of Hollis Mulwray essentially plays her grandfather. But Mulwray is by no means a villain or unsympathetic character. To the contrary, he's one of the chief victims of his father-in-law's ruthlessness.

Catherine Mulholland spent most of her final years discussing her grandfather's work and legacy. I'm certainly not the only person who welcomed the publication of William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles. It received favorable notices in both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, which also named it the best nonfiction book of the year.

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Saturday, July 02, 2011

Secret Exhibition

I came upon Rebecca Solnit's Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era this week. Turns out this was her first book, published by City Lights.

I'd heard about some of the artists through the Grateful Dead research; one of them, Wally Hedrick (photo), was Jerry Garcia's mentor. But this was my most substantive introduction to the folks who came to the Bay Area to study and teach at the California School of Fine Arts (now known as the San Francisco Art Institute).

Solnit's discussion helped me understand how these artists set the stage for the Beat and hippie scenes in San Francisco. Garcia was 15 years old when he began studying at the art school. That was the same year he got his first guitar and discovered marijuana. It was also the year the San Francisco art scene received national attention via an Evergreen Review cover story. It's easy to see how this scene would shape Garcia's attitudes about art and life.

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