American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams

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American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams

AMERICAN PROPHET AMERICAN PROPHET The Life & Work of Carey McWilliams PETER RICHARDSON The University of Michigan P

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AMERICAN PROPHET The Life & Work of Carey McWilliams



The University of Michigan Press


Copyright © by the University of Michigan 2005 All rights reserved Published in the United States of America by The University of Michigan Press Manufactured in the United States of America c Printed on acid-free paper 2008








No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher. A CIP catalog record for this book is available from the British Library. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Richardson, Peter, 1959– American prophet : the life and work of Carey McWilliams / Peter Richardson. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN-13: 978-0-472-11524-2 (cloth : alk. paper) 1. McWilliams, Carey, 1905– 2. Journalists—United States— Biography. I. Title. PN4874.M475R53


070.92—dc22 ISBN13 978-0-472-02613-5 (electronic)



Preface Acknowledgments

vii xiii

Chapter 1 C O L O R A D O The Collapse Chapter 2 I N F I N I T E R E V O L T



Life at the Times H. L. Mencken Law & Literature George Sterling Provincial Life Mary Austin Making the Scene in Los Angeles Dorothy Hedrick The Bierce Biography

Chapter 3 T H E P O L I T I C A L T U R N


The Seeds of Activism The Great Depression Louis Adamic & ShadowAmerica The “Anti-Fascist Phase” Labor Organizing Factories in the Field

Chapter 4 P U B L I C S E R V I C E


The Writer as Bureaucrat Prelude to an Inquisition The War and Japanese Internment Brothers Under the Skin Sleepy Lagoon The Zoot Suit Riots The Tenney Committee Once More the Japanese Evacuation

Chapter 5 T H E G R E A T E X C E P T I O N


An Island on the Land The Campaign Continues Brothers Under the Skin—The Sequels The California Culmination A Savage and Depressing Year Witch Hunt Surveillance & Its Discontents

Chapter 6 T H E V I L E D E C A D E


The Nation at War Leaving Los Angeles The Cold War Casualties Defending Civil Liberties The Fall of McCarthy Carey McWilliams, Editor Civil Rights Redux Curtain Calls in California

Chapter 7 T H E A G E O F N I X O N


Watching the Republicans The New Generation Back at the Ranch Before the Revolution The New Left Vietnam The New Nixon Living in the Ruins Summing Up

Chapter 8 M O V I N G O N


After the Nation The Reluctant Hero Illness The Education of Carey McWilliams Back in California

Conclusion Notes Bibliography Index Illustrations following page 146



287 301 309 325



the life, work, and in›uence of Carey McWilliams: author, attorney, activist, and editor of the Nation from 1955 to 1975. It de‹nes his work broadly to include his many books and articles; his stint in California state government; his efforts on behalf of social, political, and legal causes; and his stewardship of a national magazine. It also considers his personal and professional development, the ‹erce and sometimes unreckoning resistance to his work, and the remarkable range of friends, associates, and adversaries he accrued over his long career. Finally, it assesses his prodigious literary output, the scope and depth of his in›uence, and the reasons for his growing reputation in the academy. This assessment leads to a surprising conclusion: that McWilliams—who remains unknown to most readers today, not to mention the culture at large—was one of the most versatile, productive, and consequential American public intellectuals of the twentieth century. With a dozen books and hundreds of essays and articles to his credit, McWilliams was an astonishingly productive writer. His biography of Ambrose Bierce appeared when he was twenty-four and a full-time attorney. He composed his ‹rst best-seller, Factories in the Field (1939), between court dates and by writing nights, weekends, and holidays. In the 1940s alone, he produced seven books, two while heading California’s Division of Immigration and Housing (DIH). Half of his books are still in print, and most continue to attract the highest critical praise. Author and California state librarian emeritus Kevin Starr has called McWilliams the state’s most astute political observer and “the single ‹nest non-‹ction writer on California—ever.” Arthur Schlesinger Jr., no friend of McWilliams, considered the Bierce biography excellent and three other books (Factories in the Field, Brothers Under the Skin, and North from HIS



Mexico) ‹rst-rate. Historian Gerald Nash has called California: The Great Exception (1949) a minor classic, and Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (1946) is still regarded as the best interpretive history of the Los Angeles area. McWilliams was as in›uential as he was productive. César Chávez credited much of his understanding of California agribusiness to McWilliams. Southern California Country inspired Robert Towne’s original screenplay for Chinatown (1974), perhaps the most widely admired Hollywood ‹lm of its generation, and Luis Valdez’s play Zoot Suit (1979) was drawn directly from North from Mexico (1948). When Prejudice appeared in 1944, a Supreme Court dissenting opinion cited it four times in the landmark Korematsu v. United States case, which upheld the constitutionality of the Japanese-American internment during the Second World War. McWilliams’s in›uence can also be seen in the work of Kevin Starr, urban critic Mike Davis, writer John Gregory Dunne, Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, and countless journalists who continue to cite him extensively. In the academy, too, McWilliams’s presence registers in such diverse ‹elds as ethnic studies, labor history, and urban planning. In 1993, Patricia Nelson Limerick, a leading historian of the American West, observed that her ‹eld was still catching up to McWilliams’s work of forty years earlier. At least some of McWilliams’s in›uence can be traced to his impressive network. Although he began writing as an alienated outsider, he eventually became one of the best-connected writers and editors in the country. Over his ‹fty-year career, he came to know such diverse ‹gures as H. L. Mencken and Martin Luther King Jr., Mary Austin and Jerry Brown, Robinson Jeffers and Orson Welles, Edmund Wilson and Harry Bridges, Arthur Miller and Alger Hiss, and Upton Sinclair and Eugene McCarthy. At the Nation, he also published talented younger writers who would go on to reach even larger audiences, including Ralph Nader, Hunter S. Thompson, counterculture observer Theodore Roszak, and social historian Howard Zinn. At every stage of his career, McWilliams showed a remarkable knack for identifying and working productively with talented writers, editors, and public ‹gures. Most of McWilliams’s appeal now, however, can be traced to his authorial strengths, especially his lucidity, range, and powers of observation. His ability to see social patterns steadily and whole led him to topics that other viii P R E F A C E

writers would neglect until their signi‹cance was more obvious. As Michael Teitz observed recently about California: The Great Exception, McWilliams was immensely perceptive about agriculture and social relations around immigration; he understood the multicultural nature of California’s population long before the word was invented; and he appreciated California’s remarkable ability to remake itself both as a society and as an engine of economic development. For these reasons, his observations still pertain to a state that has experienced dramatic changes since the 1940s, when he wrote most of his books. Indeed, few have done more than McWilliams to change the way people write, think, and make ‹lms about California. At the national level, too, he probed issues that others could not see or would not explore. As journalist Nicholas von Hoffman observed, McWilliams didn’t cash in on trends; he made them. Another source of McWilliams’s continuing appeal is the sanity of his judgments. He condemned the exploitation of migratory farmworkers in the 1930s and helped reverse the unjust murder convictions of Latino youths following their sensational (and patently biased) Los Angeles trial in the 1940s. He challenged the evacuation and internment of JapaneseAmerican citizens during the Second World War and pointed out Congressman Richard Nixon’s “astonishing capacity for petty malice” in 1950. He called for federal protections against racial discrimination throughout the 1940s, helped defend the Hollywood Ten, stoutly resisted McCarthyism, and was an early critic of the Vietnam War. Most Americans would eventually come around to his positions, which he supported with measured reviews of the key facts. The Supreme Court, too, would eventually accept his arguments about the Japanese-American internment, the Hollywood Ten’s First Amendment rights, and federal protections against discrimination. In this sense, he earned the title of American prophet many times over. When ‹rst offered, however, McWilliams’s judgments earned him powerful enemies. In 1938, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) identi‹ed him as a radical for his role in organizing the Western Writers Congress. Following the publication of Factories in the Field, the Associated Farmers in California labeled him “Agricultural Pest No. 1, worse than pear blight or boll weevil.” In 1942, Earl Warren announced that his ‹rst of‹cial act as governor of California would be to ‹re McWilliams as chief of the DIH. (Ironically, McWilliams would later Preface


receive the Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award from the California American Civil Liberties Union.) A more ominous adversary was J. Edgar Hoover, who in 1941 urged that McWilliams, who was heading the DIH at the time, be considered for detention in case of national emergency. The same year, an Of‹ce of Naval Intelligence memo recommended that McWilliams be prevented from traveling to Hawaii to conduct Guggenheim-funded research on plantation labor. From 1943 to 1949, McWilliams was smeared mercilessly, if artlessly, by the Committee on Un-American Activities in California (CUAC), which also suspected anyone who approved of his books. Later, McWilliams became a target for many East Coast neoconservative and liberal anti-Communists, and in 1962 Congressman John Rousselot rehearsed the claim, this time in the Congressional Record, that McWilliams was a member of the Communist Party. The graver charge, it would seem, was that McWilliams had been a member of the national committee of the ACLU, the immediate object of Rousselot’s outrage. The surveillance, smears, and attacks are perhaps best seen as the price McWilliams paid for his principled stands on the most divisive issues of his lifetime: labor relations in the 1930s, racial prejudice in the 1940s, civil liberties in the 1950s, the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and impeachment in the 1970s. He lost several friends and associates to suicide during the McCarthy period, but even as the wages of dissent rose, he displayed cool resolve and unshakeable moral courage. As Studs Terkel observed, McWilliams was impressive not only for his prescience but for his guts. Although McWilliams wore many hats—critic, attorney, journalist, activist, bureaucrat, author, editor, and teacher—this book focuses on his development as a writer and public intellectual. It bene‹ts greatly from previous accounts of his life and work, including his own “personal political memoir,” The Education of Carey McWilliams (1979). In many ways, however, that book is curiously impersonal, concerned as it is with the external events that informed his political education. Greg Critser, Lee Ann Meyer, and Donald Christopher Gantner have traced McWilliams’s early development as a writer in their excellent journal articles and dissertations, but Critser and Meyer end their studies with the appearance of Factories in the Field, and Gantner’s concludes with the Second World War. A handful of books—including Kevin Starr’s multivolume history of California, Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, and Anne Loftis’s Witnesses to the x PREFACE

Struggle—treat McWilliams brie›y and effectively, as does Stephen Cooper’s biography of John Fante, which relies heavily on McWilliams’s diaries. To date, however, there has been no book-length study of his extraordinary life or achievement. This book addresses that lack by considering McWilliams’s life, work, and legacy together. It reads his enormous literary output in the company of his diaries, letters, reports, speeches, and testimony, as well as the newspaper stories, magazine articles, book reviews, oral histories, and government documents that feature him and his work. The chapters roughly track the ‹ve “worlds” McWilliams came to know: Colorado in the early twentieth century, where McWilliams witnessed his father’s ‹nancial and psychological collapse; Los Angeles in the 1920s, when McWilliams fashioned himself a cultural rebel; the turbulent 1930s, which shifted his sights to political subjects; the 1940s, his most productive period as an author; and his years at the Nation, which began with the onset of McCarthyism and ended shortly after Nixon’s resignation. The discussion then turns to McWilliams’s critical fortunes in the two decades since his death and considers the source of his appeal to today’s intellectuals. I have not attempted an exhaustive account of McWilliams’s busy and productive life. Rather, I have sought to provide enough biographical material to understand his work and its reception. Although many academics, journalists, and activists have referred to, built on, and honored that work over the years, it typically receives re›exive admiration rather than careful scrutiny. As a result, a tendency toward hagiography is now a major obstacle to an accurate assessment of McWilliams’s accomplishments. A life of Saint Carey may be useful to some, but it would be an absurd defeat for criticism. Thus, one of my goals has been to take McWilliams seriously as a writer by becoming a ‹t reader of his work. Given his staggering range and output, this goal is by no means a modest one. Having made the effort, however, I know that much remains to be said about McWilliams’s writing as well as his life and times. My hope, therefore, is that this contribution leads to others. If hagiography and hero worship are risks in the critical enterprise, neglect is lethal. Carey McWilliams is virtually unknown to educated readers today, especially those born after 1960. He deserves better, but so does a nation concerned about civil liberties during wartime, immigration, the environment, inequality, racial and ethnic diversity, and declining civic Preface


participation. Despite its historical remove, McWilliams’s work speaks more directly to those concerns than does much of what passes for expert analysis today. In reviewing his life, work, and legacy, my overriding feeling resembles the one McWilliams had about California farm labor in the 1930s: This is a story that needs to be told. By telling it as clearly as I can, I hope to focus attention on a vastly underrated writer, public intellectual, and patriot who used his prodigious energy and talent to address America’s deepest ›aws and toughest challenges.

xii P R E F A C E



essentially the product of two innocuous conversations. When I joined the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) in 1999, I asked author and journalist Peter Schrag, a member of PPIC’s advisory council, what I should read by way of general background on California history and politics. He recommended everything by Carey McWilliams. I had never heard of McWilliams, but what I learned of his life and work eventually led me to write a magazine article about him. While researching that article, I asked Kevin Starr, who was then the California state librarian, why there were no books on McWilliams. He offhandedly suggested that I write one and later sealed my fate by responding favorably to my prospectus. Together, those two exchanges launched a ‹ve-year reading, research, and writing effort. I am especially grateful for two grants—a Thayer Fellowship through the UCLA Library and an award from the Historical Society of Southern California and the Haynes Foundation. Although PPIC did not support the project, my employment there chimed well with its aims. President David Lyon encouraged my interest in McWilliams, and I bene‹ted from countless conversations with my colleagues, including former director of research Michael Teitz. Through PPIC, too, I gained access to the resources of the University of California library. By coordinating that access, Paul King at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, made an indispensable contribution to this project. Jim Reische, my editor at the University of Michigan Press, reviewed the sample material and promptly signed the book. Later, he arranged for helpful reviews and offered his own thoughtful suggestions for revision. His clarity, purposefulness, and vision enhanced my own. I am grateful to everyone who spoke with me about McWilliams and HIS



this project, but several must be singled out for their support. Wilson Carey McWilliams’s help was especially critical. In addition to ‹elding my questions, he provided names of potential interviewees, read and commented on a complete draft, and made his personal papers and family photographs available to me. After his death in March 2005, Nancy McWilliams graciously helped me locate photos and complete this work. Iris Dornfeld McWilliams also offered her re›ections and encouraged the project. Early on, Henry Weinstein of the Los Angeles Times furnished me with valuable interview leads and contact information. Victoria Cohen Fante arranged my interview with her mother, Joyce Fante, whose recollections were especially helpful. Stephen Cooper, John Fante’s biographer, earned my gratitude with his encouragement, advice, and good company. Alice McGrath’s enthusiasm was contagious, and Lee Ann Meyer, whose dissertation on McWilliams was a constant companion, helped me sort through my impressions of the archival material at UCLA. Lou Cannon answered my questions about McWilliams patiently, proposed a related article for the California Journal, and critiqued the entire manuscript for the University of Michigan Press. Victor Navasky, publisher of the Nation, also reviewed at least one version of the manuscript, sat for an interview at his home in New York, and sprang for a delicious Chinese lunch. Peter Schrag and Susanna Cooper also commented helpfully on early drafts. Genie Guerard and her staff at the UCLA Library helped me navigate the McWilliams papers and locate photographs. All of this support informed and improved the book. Errors of omission and commission are, of course, my own. For other favors large and small, I am grateful to Greg Aplet, Ed Bacon, Peter Coveney, Allison Crilly, Sarah Curtis, Mickey and Christina Honchell, Adrian Maher, John Mullin, Ashley and Mary Richardson, Roderick Richardson, Scott Richardson, and Beth Tudor. I dedicate this book to my parents, Douglas and Gladys Richardson, with love.

xiv A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S



lakes and valleys cut ‹fteen thousand years ago, the Flat Top Mountains in northwestern Colorado form a majestic wilderness populated by mule deer, elk, black bears, mountain lions, and golden eagles. At their highest elevations, the mountains are nearly barren cliffs and rock outcrops; farther down, the forests mix spruce, Douglas ‹r, aspen, and stands of Lodgepole pine. In the spring, the melting snow pack drains into small tributary creeks that ›ow through grasslands teeming with Oregon grape, blueberry, thimbleberry, and a rich assortment of wild›owers. The creeks form the headwaters of the Yampa River, which meanders north through the wetlands and wide valleys of the Upper Yampa River Basin, where the native Ute Indians spent their summers as far back as the fourteenth century. From there, the Yampa River heads due west, traversing dry sagebrush ranges and canyons before joining the Green River in Utah. The prehistory of the Upper Yampa ended in 1865, when French trappers heard a chugging sound resembling that of a steamboat. The noise was produced by natural hot springs, and the name Steamboat Springs was born. A decade later, the ‹rst white settler built a cabin in the area, and a few years after that, Indian agent Nathan Meeker tried to convert the Utes to farming. When that proved unsuccessful, he called in the U.S. Army in September 1879. The same month, the Utes killed Meeker and seven other agency members in what became known as the Meeker Massacre. They also attacked troops heading for the area, killing nine men. When reinforcements arrived, they subdued the Utes and moved them to a reservation in Utah. Following that forced departure, a trickle of whites began to settle the Upper Yampa. Trappers gave way to miners, who plumbed the area’s rich mineral resources. When the veins played out, many of the minOTTED WITH GLACIER

ers turned to ranching, and by the late nineteenth century, the town of Steamboat Springs had several hundred residents. Like many western towns, Steamboat Springs attracted Americans in search of dry air, better health, and economic opportunity. Jeremiah Newby McWilliams, a young man with lung trouble from Plattsburg, Missouri, was one such resident. Born in 1865, he had worked in a men’s clothing store in nearby Kansas City before arriving in Steamboat Springs in 1886, just seven years after the Meeker Massacre. The town then consisted of a livery stable, a stagecoach inn, a blacksmith shop, four saloons, and a dry goods store called the New York Emporium (ECM, 29). With a ‹vethousand-dollar stake borrowed from wealthy relatives, the twenty-oneyear-old Jerry McWilliams and two partners bought the dry goods store. The store also hosted the local post of‹ce, and most of the county’s residents passed through its doors to purchase goods or to collect mail. Tall, energetic, and enterprising, Jerry McWilliams became acquainted with the local landowners as well as the town’s most recent arrivals. Soon he was also dealing in cattle and real estate and canvassing the small town for willing investors. According to local historian John Rolfe Burroughs, whose father was McWilliams’s business partner, Jerry McWilliams was “the only man in the county who could be in two places at the same time: at either end of Lincoln Avenue (Steamboat Springs’ Main Street), intercepting strangers who came to town from either direction, ascertaining how much money they had, and seeing to it that it was invested in such a manner that he earned a commission on the transaction” (Burroughs 1962, 252). In the fall of 1894, Jerry met Harriet Casley, an Iowa native who grew up in Beloit, Kansas. A normal school graduate and the town’s new schoolteacher, the twenty-one-year-old was “an exceedingly attractive brunette” who drew attention in the small frontier town (Burroughs 1962, 253). In February 1895, in her ‹rst year on the job, she married Jerry. Her family had little in common with his, apart from a generally conservative outlook. Catholic and Republican, the Casleys were ‹rst- and second-generation immigrants; Harriet’s mother was from Hamburg, and her father was born in New York State of French-Canadian parents.1 The McWilliams clan, in contrast, consisted of Scotch-Irish Democrats, mostly native-born Protestants of prerevolutionary stock. Toward the end of his life, Carey McWilliams described his paternal grandfather, “Captain Sam” McWilliams, as a “Gothic American type”: a cantankerous, hard-shell Bap2


tist who led Confederate troops and married a woman with a slave. “I can imagine no two couples more dissimilar than my paternal and maternal grandparents,” McWilliams observed in his memoir. “If they had ever met, I don’t know what they would have had to talk about except the weather and the family connection” (ECM, 23). Jerry’s retail business folded, and he turned to cattle and real estate fulltime. With initial support from the Carey family of Wyoming, one of the largest cattle operators in the region, he began buying and selling livestock. Along with two partners, both southerners, he also opened a real estate of‹ce and sold ranches in and around the area. The real estate business picked up following the announcement that a rail line would connect Denver and Steamboat Springs. In 1900, Jerry sold forty-one ranches, including ‹ve in one week, and added oil speculation to his portfolio of investment opportunities. The next year, he opened a butcher shop and, according to the local newspaper, acquired “one of the swellest rubbertired buggies ever to reach Routt County” (Burroughs 1962, 254). In January 1902, Jerry began building a family home on a ranch outside Steamboat Springs. The next month, Harriet gave birth to their ‹rst son, Samuel Walter Casley McWilliams, known as Casley. On December 13, 1905, she had a second son, Edmund Carey McWilliams. The ‹rst name, never used, was that of Jerry’s brother, who ran a small newspaper in Missouri and was active in Democratic politics there. Later, Jerry claimed that his son’s middle name derived not from the Carey family in Wyoming but from the Cary family in Colorado, which owned a large ranch west of Steamboat Springs and eventually sponsored him in state politics. “The logic escapes me, but so it came to be,” Carey McWilliams noted in his memoir (ECM, 30). In 1908, the rail line from Denver to Steamboat Springs was completed. Jerry arranged for a rail stop on his property and busily bought and sold cattle by the carload. He also became more involved in Democratic Party politics. Along with other prominent citizens, he helped select the candidates and delegates for county and state of‹ces. In 1914, local banker J. H. Burroughs, who served for many years as chair of the county’s Republican Central Committee, bought out Jerry’s real estate partners. The McWilliams & Burroughs of‹ce soon became a place for conducting political business as well as land transactions. Burroughs’s son described the of‹ce as follows: Colorado 3

A third of the front room was enclosed by a railing behind which there were desks, a safe, a typewriter, and the paraphernalia customarily found in an active business of‹ce. The larger area, which might be likened to a foyer, contained ten or a dozen captain’s chairs ranged along the wall, with a big brass cuspidor between every second chair, above which elk, deer, and antelope heads and a stuffed duck or two hung on the wall. In the big display windows, various prize-winning specimens of agricultural produce—barley, oats, wheat, and alfalfa tied in neat sheaves— testi‹ed to the richness of Routt County soil. (Burroughs 1962, 255) Carey’s recollection, inscribed in his diary at age twenty-four, was more impressionistic and less ›attering. For him, the of‹ce of McWilliams & Burroughs was a place of “musty old gents, scratching their balls, farting at the stove and doing double-entry bookkeeping” (June 6, 1930). With its game trophies and sheaves of grain, the real estate of‹ce also symbolized the local residents’ intimate if somewhat instrumental relationship with the land. Many local enterprises and activities moved with the seasons. The ranchers drove their cattle from their winter feedlots to the open sagebrush range west of Steamboat Springs, where the calves were born. In early summer, they rounded up the cattle and drove them back to the Yampa Valley and up into the mountains, where they grazed on the lush grasses. In late summer, they rounded up the steers again, drove them down to the valley, and shipped them by rail to Denver. The Rocky Mountain setting for this routine soon gave rise to another seasonal industry: skiing. In 1913, a Norwegian ski instructor named Carl Howelsen visited the area and perceived its potential as a resort. The following year, Steamboat Springs staged its ‹rst Winter Carnival, which combined elements of a county fair with winter sports competitions. Under Howelsen’s in›uence, Carey and other local youngsters were soon practicing jumps and downhill runs. Storm Mountain, whose steep slopes vexed Jerry because they were unsuitable for cattle, was perfect for skiing. The mountain was later renamed Mount Werner after Bud Werner, the ‹rst American skier to gain attention in Europe. The Werner family eventually bought the McWilliams’s ranch just outside Steamboat Springs. The natural splendor made a deep impression on Carey, who developed a lifelong love of geography. As a young man, he recalled the vistas of his boyhood in glowing terms in Westways, a magazine for Southern California automobile club members.



That was a splendid region: sunsets, venison, strawberries, grouse, great ranches of purple sage, valley reverberating in spring with the roar of cascading waters, real mountain streams that never dry up, chokecherries, timberline ›owers, the ineffable charm of the Indian summer, mountainous snows, the best skiing in America. Carey also learned early on to appreciate “the authority of the land”—the power of terrain and climate to shape society. It would become a recurrent theme in his published writings and an almost daily concern in his private ones. Throughout his adult life, even his sparest diary entries took regular note of the weather, air, light, and landscapes that he observed. A deeply restless man, Jerry McWilliams rarely paused to take in the scenery. One of his partners recalled that 90 percent of their business “was transacted while McWilliams stood at the door, his hat on the back of his head and his hand on the door knob, with the toe of one foot twisting impatiently around the heel of the other” (Burroughs 1962, 257). The local barber also remarked that Jerry’s baldness was a blessing, as he could not sit still long enough for a trim. When he purchased a car, Jerry drove it as he had always ridden his prize horses: as fast as it would go. His Hupmobile clocked forty to forty-‹ve miles per hour on the unpaved road between his ranch and his Steamboat Springs of‹ce, making him something of a local menace. Jerry also cut a curious ‹gure on his ranch. The cowhands, who were “enormously style-conscious,” found his appearance ludicrous, and Carey learned to see him through their eyes. He wore ›at-heeled boots, for example. Wouldn’t use spurs. His saddle and his stirrups were those of a farmer, just impossible, you know. If he tried to rope, he’d get himself all tangled up in the rope. He wore a coat and a vest, collar and a black tie, and a ›at-brimmed black hat that, you know, a Mormon bishop would have worn. (HAT, 21) Jerry’s limited taste for alcohol, which he kept locked up along with his ‹rearms, also distinguished him from the ranch hands. Even so, he commanded the respect of his employees, largely because he was an “absolutely, astonishingly phenomenal judge of livestock” (HAT, 21). When the First World War drove up beef prices, he began buying thousands of yearling steers from New Mexico and Arizona. Upon their arrival

Colorado 5

in Steamboat Springs, he fattened them up for a year and sold them for beef in Denver. Appraising his father’s enterprise, Carey later recalled that it was “a great market while it lasted; one season we ran seventeen thousand head of cattle on the open range” (ECM, 31). During that time, Jerry became Steamboat Spring’s richest and most prominent citizen. Toward the end of his life, Carey described his parents as “hard-working, practical, energetic, no-nonsense types.” Harriet “was a warm, friendly, kindly person; my father was no less friendly but often self-absorbed and less responsive.” Their devotion to their sons was real but mostly unexpressed. Indeed, “any audible or visible show of affection was regarded somehow as bad form.” There was little time for leisure, and their daily routines did not include one-on-one time with their children: “Neither had time to ‘play’ with us or to keep a close eye on our activities,” McWilliams noted (ECM, 33). Even so, he described his privileged, unsupervised boyhood in positive terms and idealized his parents’ hands-off approach to child rearing. My parents were ideal parents in an ideal setting in a way because they were both very busy, no-nonsense types . . . And they let us roam pretty wild, do what we wanted to do. After all, what the hell? What could we do to harm ourselves? We might break a leg or something, you know, but there were no social menaces of any kind. (HAT, 11) The boys were assigned chores that included haying, milking the cows, mending fences, and taking part in cattle drives and roundups. Both were given a string of ponies, and Carey shod and groomed the four in his charge: Tram, Navajo, Dick, and Buttons. He later recalled that he and Casley spent “more time in the company of cowhands than we did with our parents” (ECM, 34). By all accounts, the McWilliams household reinforced hard work, autonomy, and emotional self-suf‹ciency at every turn, and young Carey learned his lessons well. In 1916, Jerry McWilliams succeeded John Cary as state senator, and the family began spending winters in Denver, where Jerry also had a seat on the local stock exchange. By that time, the family’s frequent trips to the capital had sparked Carey’s af‹nity for city life, complete with ‹ne hotels and steak dinners. Wintering there added another layer of charm, he recalled later: “The Christmas glitter, the bright lights, the wintertime background, made Denver seem like a fairyland city” (ECM, 35). He was 6


less enthusiastic about the school that he and Casley attended in Denver. Jerry’s friends had recommended Wolfe Hall Military Academy, also known as the Collegiate Military School for Boys, a private school run by Episcopalians. Decades later, Carey described it in un›attering terms. It was grotesque. So far as the boarding pupils were concerned, you might refer to it as a quite expensive, high-class reformatory, [laughter] because these were kids who were from Wyoming and New Mexico and all around whose parents had apparently had quite a bit of dif‹culty with them. (HAT, 17–18) The two brothers did not object, however. “My brother and I couldn’t bring ourselves to tell our parents that they had made quite a misjudgment about this place, so we made the best of it” (18). The lack of communication is telling; by this account, the boys preferred to attend a school they disliked rather than discuss the matter with their parents. Both boys eventually graduated from Steamboat Springs High School, but Carey had positive memories of one Wolfe Hall teacher, a graduate of Bowdoin and Harvard and “quite a literary kind of guy” (18). Carey, too, was becoming quite a literary kind of guy. Ever the schoolteacher, Harriet read Twain, Scott, and Cooper to the boys, and the bookshelf at home included Dickens, George Eliot, and popular Westerns by Owen Wister and others. Carey would later indicate, however, that nothing in his home environment encouraged serious reading or study. It is hardly necessary to say that I did not grow up in an intellectual household. My father glanced at local newspapers and occasionally read the Denver papers. But I have few memories of seeing him with a book in his hand. My mother, a high-school graduate, always subscribed to one or more popular magazines and liked to read but found little time for it. (ECM, 36) Nor did Jerry encourage Carey’s early dreams of becoming a writer. The plan was that Casley would take over the ranching operation and Carey would run the family’s real estate business. Carey was more interested in his uncle’s newspaper back in Missouri, but Jerry considered journalism an unpromising profession composed mostly of riffraff. As a young man, Carey noted in his writing journal that his father “viewed with the greatest disfavor my leanings toward the purple—the journalic [sic], literary life. The Colorado 7

only composition of mine he ever read was a paper of mine on Theo. Roosevelt—(written when about 15)—which he praised rather guardedly—as he never liked Roosevelt.”2 Casley later recalled Carey’s predilection for reading and the indoor life more generally. My younger brother seemed to have his nose in a book most of the time. He had a ‹ne string of cowhorses and made a good hand. However, he did not get the thrill and excitement I did out of being a cowboy. At one time he took piano lessons. They were discontinued for 2 reasons, he thought they were sissi‹ed and Harriet wanted him to get outdoors more. Later he regretted this action . . . Books, music, politics and social life (girls) were far more entertaining and enjoyable.3 Both boys played football at Steamboat Springs High School, but while Casley relished it, Carey participated largely because the entire school enrolled only thirteen boys. According to Casley, “Carey was not too keen for the game, he was really too small, but it did have social advantages.” In one game, Carey made a shoestring tackle on a much larger player and wrenched his knee: “The ladies rushed on the ‹eld, helped him into our car, covered him with blankets and fed him hot chocolate.” Casley’s recollections suggest that Carey’s boyhood, with or without the piano lessons, was not especially rugged, and this may have been a sensitive point for him. As a young man, he worked hard to distinguish himself from other bookish types, who struck him as anemic, and he was especially concerned to construct a literary identity that radiated vigor. He found that sort of vigor in the Smart Set, the monthly magazine of literature, criticism, and opinion coedited at that time by H. L. Mencken (HAT, 19). The Smart Set’s goal, as outlined by Mencken to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly in 1914, was “to be lively without being nasty. On the one hand, no smut, and on the other, nothing uplifting. A magazine for civilized adults in their lighter moods. A sort of frivolous sister to the Atlantic” (Teachout 2002, 109). Despite these modest goals, the magazine made a signi‹cant contribution to American letters. As Edmund Wilson later wrote, Mencken put his foot through the genteel tradition of American literature by scorning high-minded novels and promoting the works of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Frank Norris, Willa Cather, and Upton Sinclair (Wilson 1965, 31). In doing so, 8


Mencken cleared the way for bolder forms of American literature. Few of his literary judgments have withstood the test of time, and many of his social and political views became stale or objectionable even during his lifetime. Yet his in›uence was everywhere in the 1920s, and his energetic style and distinctive diction rede‹ned literary journalism. As a teenager, Carey eagerly awaited each issue of the Smart Set. When Mencken left that magazine to coedit the American Mercury in 1924, Carey took an equally avid interest in that publication. As a high school senior, Carey read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise while riding in the caboose of a cattle train headed for Denver (ECM, 40). The novel made a profound impression on him. Its protagonist, Amory Blaine, grows up in a wealthy Midwestern family and formulates his “‹rst philosophy, a code to live by, which, as near as it can be named, was a sort of aristocratic egotism” (Fitzgerald 1920, 16–17). Blaine enrolls at Princeton, where he displays a keen interest in class, manners, clothes, parties, books, the college literary magazine, and women. His father dies during his ‹rst term, and Blaine becomes aware of his family’s ‹nances for the ‹rst time. After a series of adventures and misadventures, including a stint in the army during the First World War, Blaine ‹nds himself in New York City, where he works for an advertising agency and is repulsed by the indigent: “‘I detest poor people,’ thought Amory suddenly. ‘I hate them for being poor. Poverty may have been beautiful once, but it’s rotten now’” (236). Blaine’s attitude masks his own fear of penury, and in an odd conversation with a successful businessman, he even hazards some praise for the Russian Revolution. At the end of the novel, Blaine’s inner life is still in ›ux. There was no God in his heart; his ideas were still in riot; there was ever the pain of memory; the regret for his lost youth—yet the waters of disillusion left a deposit on his soul, responsibility and a love of life, the faint stirring of old ambitions and unrealized dreams. (260) Experimental in form and daring for its time, This Side of Paradise has been compared to other “generational” works, such as J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Mencken praised it in the Smart Set as “a truly amazing ‹rst novel—original in structure, extremely sophisticated in manner, and adorned with a brilliancy that is as rare in American writing as honesty is in American statecraft” (Fitzgerald 1920, xix). Three years later, the young Colorado 9

McWilliams reread the novel and found that it still spoke to him. He noted in his diary, “This is my favorite, its philosophy is mine, its milieu was mine, I am convinced by it, I believe in its reality, which is the important thing” (May 3, 1923). The claim that the milieu was his is especially striking. When McWilliams ‹rst read the novel, he was a teenager on a cattle train in a remote frontier town, not an undergraduate at an Ivy League college. His everyday experience consisted of riding his horse home from school and defying his mother’s wishes by passing the saloons and brothels where the cowhands spent their pay. But if his youthful claim neglected the differences between his world and Amory Blaine’s, it successfully expressed his aspirations and the power of his identi‹cation with Fitzgerald’s ‹ctional world. As a college student, Carey conceded the ›aws of the novel without distancing himself from it emotionally. Why is it that “This Side of Paradise” more than any other contemporary piece of ‹ction is so dear to my heart. That it is nonsensical I will admit; sentimental; over-romantic—yes, true, but there is in it also something of the picture of youth giving ‘off calories of virtue,’—of the process of disillusion—something of the inevitable reward for Celtic foolishness that I like. Unconsciously perhaps, Fitzgerald has given a picture of youth that is conscious and true,—his idea of showing the clash of Amory vs. the Girls is excellent. Of course the whole thing is affected. (WJ, July 18, 1923) In a September 1927 article for Sports and Vanities, he identi‹ed another source of the novel’s appeal by noting that the book was “about the sadness of youth.” A note from Fitzgerald had prompted the insight: “You liked This Side of Paradise because it was written in depression or despair,” Fitzgerald suggested (ECM, 40). Even toward the end of his life, however, McWilliams resisted that conclusion. After mentioning Fitzgerald’s suggestion, his memoir downplays it. Perhaps; but I was not in a state of depression or despair: I was rebellious. The book was like a breath of fresh air. Just to be able to say, “why, that’s how I feel!” was in itself a liberating experience. The conventional literary culture was stuffy, boring, and empty; it invited rebellion. (ECM, 40) The novel, which Edmund Wilson had characterized as a “gesture of in‹nite revolt,” was surely liberating to the young McWilliams. More 10


interesting, perhaps, is the retrospective denial of depression and despair. In fact, Fitzgerald’s novel entered McWilliams’s life during a period of intense crisis, one for which no fourteen-year-old can be prepared.

THE COLLAPSE In December 1919, Jerry McWilliams collapsed during a special session of the state legislature. A headline in the Steamboat Pilot announced, “Senator McWilliams Ill: Nervous Breakdown Suffered by Routt County Stockman” (Burroughs 1962, 353). Citing a letter from Harriet, the same paper reported a week later that Jerry was “fast recovering from a nervous breakdown . . . Mr. McWilliams was ill of in›uenza and did not take proper care of himself and since that time has not been in the best physical condition.” The paper also reported that “it became necessary for him to go at once to California under orders from the physician” (Meyer 1996, 46). Carey remained in Denver with Casley. Jerry’s collapse was total—physical, mental, and ‹nancial. Like many of his peers, he had borrowed funds to purchase cattle aggressively during the First World War. He then watched prices fall as Argentine beef, blockaded from the United States during wartime, ›ooded the market. “All of these great cattle operators went down like a row of tenpins, one after the other,” his son recalled later. “They all went bankrupt, lost their holdings and so forth, including my father.”4 Suffering from what appears to have been clinical depression, Jerry soon entered the State Hospital for the Insane in Pueblo, Colorado. He died in 1921, on his twenty-sixth wedding anniversary, following an operation for gallstones and appendicitis. In a recent interview, however, his grandson speculated that Jerry’s death might have been a suicide.5 In his recollections of that period, Carey McWilliams noted that the collapse ended the pastoral phase of his life. His world in Steamboat Springs, which had seemed as solid and timeless as the Rocky Mountains, turned out to be fragile and transitory. He was otherwise tightlipped about what was arguably the most consequential event of his life. In his private writings, he raised the topic only twice, and both passages suggest a harrowing experience. A journal entry he recorded at age seventeen described a dif‹cult period that reminded him of his father’s distress. Colorado 11

And this turmoil seems to me to be but a vague foreboding of the agony that is to be. I have seen my Father a raving maniac & helped to care for him so I know, graphically & truly, just what insanity means,—an unleashing of all the powerful, inevitable passions of darkness that combat & tear the soul to pieces & when the fury ceases life has left—has been driven out. (WJ, Mar. 6, 1923) In one form or another, and for the rest of his life, he would devote much of his energy to resisting, controlling, and harnessing those passions of darkness. Jerry’s economic and psychological collapse presented Carey with a stark choice: He could blame his father or the political and economic forces that had destroyed him. He chose the latter option.6 “I got my comeuppance in the ways of laissez-faire capitalism in the wake of World War I,” he recalled more than a half century later. “The experience made me a premature skeptic and a rebel and permanently impaired my con‹dence in ‘the system’ ” (ECM, 27). In his oral history, he speci‹cally linked his distrust of that system to his family’s ‹nancial collapse in Colorado (HAT, 79). His efforts to correct that system were characterized by a devotion to rationality, a commitment to social justice, and a penchant for social planning. All three set him at odds with American capitalism. For him, free markets were not a useful if imperfect way to create wealth and deliver goods and services; rather, they were wild forces that tore souls to pieces. Privately, too, he would build a bulwark against the psychological instability that undid his father. His main defenses would be hard work, intellectualization, a retreat from affect, and steady recourse to alcohol, especially as a young man. Each had implications for his relationships. His graceful manners, intelligence, good judgment, and essential decency would win him many friends over his lifetime, and he maintained those friendships well. Throughout his life, however, his emotional reserve also thwarted the development of more intimate relationships, and his selfsuf‹ciency made him a somewhat detached if consistently benign son, brother, husband, and father. At nineteen, Carey considered drawing on his father’s experience for his ‹ction. I could, and I may, create an immortal character in literature by the por-



trayal of the life of my father. I know my theme—it is a typical one; I know the character & his life. Ah I could do it—and do it well. But it would be malicious—it would show him as a really ‹ne man at heart, meaning well, but reduced to a buffoon by pioneer life. He failed to develop within, that together with the riotous living of his early days—(of which I have only rumors)—brought about his downfall, his complete collapse. What a tragedy he represented in those 14 months before death! Poor mindless man! . . . What a sordid, yet pitiful picture it was— incoherent, babbling, yet poignant,—and (by the end), a play of satanic humor . . . The ‹rst eve of his breakdown: I can remember the anguish of his expression—the deepest, profoundest melancholy; the way he smothered my face in kisses—called me “his precious boy”—everything. It showed he was tottering on the edge of an abyss—and knew it . . . And yet withal he was a “good scout.” (WJ, Aug. 24, 1925) Beginning with raw literary ambition—or, perhaps, an urge to express in ‹ction what was otherwise dif‹cult to broach—this passage touches on a wide range of emotions, including compunction, pity, and terror. Its un›inching objectivity and patronizing benediction also suggest an effort to master the trauma of his father’s collapse by distancing himself from it. Below its surface, too, lurks painful disappointment in the fragility of what had seemed to be a sturdy family system. His father’s emotional demonstrations after the breakdown—symptoms of madness, not expressions of love or humanity—only made it worse. Written before his collapse, Jerry’s will included a painfully ironic coda labeled “A Last Word to My Sons.” It read, “Do not speculate or seek to get rich too quickly. Be patient, be morally right, keep a clear conscience and good company, although you may die a pauper be honorable in all things” (ECM, 37–38). The young McWilliams took the ‹nancial advice to heart; throughout his life, he never owned a share of stock. To pay off its debts, the family sold steers for twenty-eight dollars that Jerry had purchased for sixty dollars (Burroughs 1962, 353). Their net worth dropped from $250,000 to a ‹gure below Jerry’s original stake of $5,000. In the meantime, they soldiered on. Harriet moved to Los Angeles, where she lived in her brother Vern’s apartment building and eventually ran a boarding house. Casley remained in Steamboat Springs to settle the family’s affairs, and Carey ‹nished high school by making the honor roll, delivering a rousing liberal speech at the graduation ceremony, and winning a scholarship to the University of Denver. At sixteen, Carey moved to

Colorado 13

Denver with a small allowance and a Ford sedan to begin his freshman year. Founded in 1864 as the Colorado Seminary, the University of Denver predated Colorado statehood by twelve years and was the oldest independent university in the Rocky Mountains. On his own for the ‹rst time, McWilliams lived out the Jazz Age ethic as he understood it from Fitzgerald and Mencken. Years later, he recalled that “the romantic and rebellious mood of This Side of Paradise had invaded the campus in my freshman year, and the cultural rebellion was in full swing.” The Smart Set was held in high esteem; we read the books that Mencken praised and had only a slight interest in politics. Most of our energies went into extracurricular activities and high jinks. It was a lively time, the setting was beautiful, and we made the most of it. (ECM, 41) His notebooks recount his romantic escapades and drinking adventures, and Casley later recalled that his brother was expelled from his fraternity for dating the head of the fraternity’s girlfriend. McWilliams soon discovered, however, that this private Methodist college did not lend itself to his sort of rebellion. In March of his freshman year, he was expelled after a “disastrous St. Patrick’s Day spree,” the details of which he omitted in his memoir and other accounts of his life (ECM, 41). Now the young McWilliams’s situation diverged even more obviously from Amory Blaine’s salad days at Princeton. His father was dead following a serious mental illness, the family fortune was lost, and he had been expelled from college during his ‹rst year. The next day, the seventeenyear-old boarded a train to join his mother in Southern California. One year later, he wrote in his diary, “Today is the anniversary of my stay in California. Remember as yesterday, leaving Denver . . . the hurried, rather tragic farewell & then the feeling of sadness & sorrow—such as youth alone can feel—as I boarded the train” (Mar. 18, 1923). Of his departure, he wrote dramatically, “I left happiness & my lost youth there in the distance.”



I I . I N F I N I T E R E V O LT


in Denver, McWilliams arrived in sunny Los Angeles “a drop-out, in disgrace, acutely impoverished, an inter-state migrant with dim prospects but high hopes.” He was met at the Southern Paci‹c station by his uncle Vernon Casley, whom McWilliams would later call “the kindest man I have ever known” (SCC 1971, viii). Uncle Vern had already led a storied life that included stints in the Klondike and China. He and his wife, Lottie, had met in a Canadian saloon, where he dealt cards and she sang. According to McWilliams, the two “were not at all middleclass Main Street types: they were ‘outsiders,’ exotics. They slept late, drank beer in the morning, scorned middle-class conventions, and laughed at the prevailing pieties” (ECM, 26). For that reason, Uncle Vern may have been the perfect person to receive his recently besmirched nephew. As he drove McWilliams to the six-unit stucco apartment building that he owned near the corner of Normandie and Sunset Boulevard, he made no mention of Carey’s expulsion. That night, he took McWilliams to a bene‹t performance held in a circus-type tent pitched on the southeast corner of Sunset and Vine, at that time a wide boulevard lined by low-slung restaurants, nightclubs, specialty stores, and other small businesses. Hollywood actors had organized the event, and the glamour of the evening tempered the homesickness McWilliams was already feeling. The evening may have provided some temporary relief, but McWilliams’s new environment would require considerable adjustment on his part. The Los Angeles he encountered was a long way from Denver, not to mention Steamboat Springs. A sleepy outpost in the nineteenth century, it was recreating itself energetically, fantastically, and through sheer force of will. Unlike most cities, it did not consolidate itself slowly around a natural port, river, or crossroad. Rather, boosters promoted Los Angeles EAVING A BLIZZARD


relentlessly, attracting hordes of other Americans and foreigners in search of warm weather and a fresh start. The city’s white oligarchy had planned and built the city’s extensive trade, transportation, and utility infrastructure in the ‹rst decade of the twentieth century—well before anyone was sure it would be necessary. In 1900, Henry Huntington’s Paci‹c Electric Railroad linked the downtown area to the ocean and valley. New businesses sprouted along Broadway—which only a few years before had been a dirt road leading to the cemetery known as Eternity Street. Almost completely lacking in coal reserves, Los Angeles made a virtue of necessity by pumping large quantities of oil and fueling demand for it by manufacturing automobiles and building roads. In the meantime, a group of New York arrivistes was creating the city’s signature industry, ‹lmmaking, while a quite different set of engineers and entrepreneurs, spurred on by the commercial potential of regional air travel, was turning Los Angeles into the aviation capital of the United States. By 1920, the city’s population had surpassed that of San Francisco. Within a decade, it tripled again, making Los Angeles the nation’s ‹fth largest city. To accommodate the ›ood of new residents and businesses, residential and commercial development was maintaining a frenetic pace. In its headlong rush to match its oversized image of itself, Los Angeles was the Great Gatsby of American cities (Starr 1990, 69). Like the narrator of that Fitzgerald novel, McWilliams was initially appalled by what he witnessed. For all its growth and increasing wealth, Los Angeles struck him as an overgrown village devoid of any authentic history, culture, or charm. Every year seemed to bring another grand new theater to the downtown area, but even these entertainment palaces could not conceal the city’s essential shabbiness. McWilliams was far more impressed by the armies of aimless, shiftless people that populated it. “Main Street is a funny street, dirty, smelling, cheap & lousy restaurants,” he noted in his diary. “Bums, drunks, fruiters and the scum of God’s creation swarm its streets” (Jan. 23, 1923). Yet his reduced circumstances dictated that he make the best of it, and on Uncle Vern’s advice, he began checking the bulletin board at the YMCA for jobs. Soon he landed a position at the Los Angeles Times as an assistant to the credit department head. Having secured the job with a letter of recommendation from a Steamboat Springs journalist, McWilliams now had ‹rsthand proof of the power of the imagination. As Casley recalled later, “The letter was a big lie, as [Carey] knew nothing about newspapers.” 16


LIFE AT THE TIMES McWilliams’s stint at the Los Angeles Times would become a central part of his informal education. The famously antilabor, anti-Progressive Times was a pro‹table but journalistically undistinguished daily owned by Harry Chandler, whose life exempli‹ed the California dream that he marketed so effectively. Chandler began his career at the Times in 1884 as a clerk in the circulation department, loading bundles of newspapers onto wagons for twelve dollars a week (McDougal 2001, 21). Rising through the business side of the Times organization, Chandler married publisher Harrison Gray Otis’s daughter, succeeded Otis as publisher in 1914, and expanded the paper’s operations. In the year McWilliams began working at the Times, it led the country in display and advertising lineage (McDougal 2001, 95). A major landowner and shrewd investor, Chandler used his paper to promote Southern California as a place to visit and live, and his efforts were paying off for himself, his partners, and a growing retinue of developers and businessmen. McWilliams would later describe him as “beyond all doubt, the city and the region’s most in›uential resident” (SCC, 44). The credit department at the Los Angeles Times was responsible for tracking down deadbeat advertisers, and there was no shortage of work. To maintain its advantage over the Los Angeles Examiner, the Times often extended credit to dubious characters who used newspaper advertising to turn a quick pro‹t. According to McWilliams’s own account, this practice kept everyone busy. So those of us in the legal and credit departments engaged in a roundthe clock feud with an army of deadbeats, con men, ›y-by-night promoters, “business opportunity” crooks, bad-check artists, noisy tent-style evangelists, proprietors of cheap dance halls, ›ashy oil promoters of the C.C. Julian type,1 and not a few realtors who later became civic leaders and multimillionaires, desperate for advertising but usually unable or unwilling to pay for it. What water was to the region, advertising space in the Times was to them. (ECM, 44) The seventeen-year-old McWilliams enjoyed what he called “the combat phase of the job,” the endless cat-and-mouse between the newspaper and the deadbeats. The experience also shaped his view of the city’s character. In‹nite Revolt


What I saw and came to understand was not the whole story by any means but it was most revealing all the same. After all, is there a better way to understand a community than to be exposed to the chicanery, fraud, desperation and hardship, and the very real tragedies that one encounters in this kind of business “under world”? (SCC 1971, xii) The work did little to increase McWilliams’s respect for the business community, especially when some of the deadbeats became prominent civic ‹gures and members of the city’s most exclusive downtown club. “Men who later became millionaire ‘realtors’ and joined the California Club feuded with us as though we were revenue of‹cers at war with moonshiners” (xii). Despite his low opinion of the Los Angeles business establishment, McWilliams never took it on directly. Indeed, he never developed a sophisticated understanding of the business world more generally.2 In his diary, McWilliams described his of‹ce at the Los Angeles Times as “a queer place, strange that I should ‹nd a niche there. So many queer, freak eccentric personalities all under one roof” (June 22, 1923). The Music and Arts building stood a block away from the Times’s central of‹ce, which replaced the original “Fortress” on First and Broadway after it was dynamited by militant unionists in 1910. A relic of the 1880s, the rundown building was, in McWilliams’s later description, “a museum of two-bit predators out to con the ignorant and ›eece the innocent.” The tenants included “a constantly changing swarm of voice teachers, ‘masseurs,’ swamis, mind readers, graphologists, yogis, ballet dancers, faith healers, spiritualists, fake publishers, dubious literary and theatrical agents, so-called talent scouts, and other exotic types” (ECM, 44). McWilliams would later compare this tableau to the one presented in Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), whose publication coincided with his own Factories in the Field and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Despite their different settings—West’s book probed Hollywood and the motion picture industry, while McWilliams’s and Steinbeck’s focused on rural farmworkers—all three books played on the theme of trouble in paradise. Like West, McWilliams thought that Los Angeles’s mushroom-like development had created a surface that was bright and pleasing and a nether side that was often dark and ugly (ECM, 44). Having witnessed his father’s ‹nancial ruin, he was deeply skeptical about the city’s economic boom. Decades later, he asked rhetorically, “How could a society be truly prosperous that spawned such a vicious economic underworld, 18


that despite appearances caused so much unadvertised hardship and unreported ‹nancial loss?” (ECM, 44). Despite the strangeness of his of‹ce setting at the Times, McWilliams noted in his diary that journalism was “the work I’m most suited for” (June 24, 1923). The ‹rst several months on the job required him to endure regular tirades from his volatile supervisor, M. E. Hillis, but he eventually earned Hillis’s approval, support, and friendship. He even managed to secure a job for Casley upon his arrival from Colorado. Casley would work in the business of‹ce of the Times for his entire career, but the two were never especially close. “Wish I knew my brother better!” McWilliams noted privately at age nineteen. “What a queer chap he is, and how lovable! We have so much silent respect for each other that we have never been intimate, or con‹dential” (WJ, May 1925). In the meantime, McWilliams’s relations with Hillis were tested when he told his boss that he needed a ‹ve-dollar-per-week raise because his mother had died. As Casley recalled, “Later this proved to be embarrassing when Mother baked a cake for Mr. Hillis.” The embarrassment passed, however, and Hillis allowed McWilliams to rearrange his work schedule around his college classes. For the 1922–23 academic year, McWilliams attended the Southern Branch of the University of California on Vermont Avenue. (Three years earlier, Southern Branch had been Los Angeles State Normal School; later, it would move to Westwood and become UCLA.) The following year, McWilliams enrolled at the University of Southern California, another Methodist college founded in the nineteenth century, whose main campus lay near the city center. Like Los Angeles, USC was growing rapidly. It created its business school in 1920, built a new law school building in 1925, began a cinematography program in 1927, and opened a school of medicine and upgraded its engineering school in 1928. It also began playing football in earnest in 1919, when it joined the Paci‹c Coast Conference, and the program quickly developed a national reputation. Five years later, in the middle of McWilliams’s matriculation there, USC was asked to leave the conference because of lax academic standards. Its commitment to football, however, only increased. By 1926, it was playing Notre Dame before crowds of 120,000 spectators (Starr 1990, 152–55). The fair-haired boy at work, McWilliams cut a more rakish ‹gure at USC. By the end of his ‹rst semester, he was back in trouble with univerIn‹nite Revolt


sity administrators following a gin-soaked double date. As he noted in his writing journal: [W]e all got drunk on the way back from Marcels on good old Gordon Gin. When I marched [his date] home—3 bells—daddy was on the doorstep—with mamma. Of course hell was raised and I—and the other fellow—got canned from school. (WJ, Dec. 10–18, 1923) Just after his eighteenth birthday, the USC registrar informed McWilliams that he was suspended for fourteen months. During that time, he was “not expected to frequent the grounds or buildings of the University of Southern California.” In his diary, McWilliams struck the pose of the unrepentant swashbuckler: “We bit the dust. Truly what a man does once he will do again” (Dec. 18, 1923). Behind the scenes, however, the swashbuckler’s mother and aunt helped repair the damage. In February, McWilliams wrote a letter of apology to USC administrators, who eventually reduced the suspension to a single term, which he spent at Southern Branch. Chastened but by no means tamed, he resumed his studies at USC in the summer of 1924.

H. L. MENCKEN McWilliams’s classes at USC did not ‹re his imagination, but he seized every opportunity to edit and write, sometimes under pseudonyms. He joined the staff of the student newspaper and was soon on its editorial board. He also edited the literary magazine, served as a staff member on the humor magazine, and contributed book reviews and other articles to the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union. All these efforts bore the unmistakable in›uence of McWilliams’s hero, H. L. Mencken, whose national reputation was still on the rise. An autodidact whose education was conducted largely in the city room of the Baltimore Sun, Mencken used his newspaper columns, magazines, and books to expose various forms of sham and hypocrisy. Indeed, his long and productive career might be summarized as an exuberant campaign against “quacks and swindlers, fools and knaves.” His favorite targets included evangelical Christians, large sectors of the middle class (“the booboisie,” in Mencken’s distinctive



parlance), and democratic politics. One passage from the Smart Set encapsulated these views. There is only one honest impulse at the bottom of Puritanism, and that is the impulse to punish the man with a superior capacity for happiness—to bring him down to the miserable level of “good” men, i.e., of stupid, cowardly and chronically unhappy men. And there is only one sound argument for democracy, and that is the argument that it is a crime for any man to hold himself out as better than other men, and, above all, a most heinous offense for him to prove it. (April 1920)3 Mencken’s disdain for the common man was rooted in his family history. As a young boy, he learned that his maternal grandfather, a German immigrant, had been stoned repeatedly when anti-immigrant violence swept Baltimore in the 1850s (Teachout 2002, 23). Through the 1880s, Mencken’s hometown and lifelong residence was called Mobtown for its frequent rioting, especially on election days. Later, his sense of superiority found its philosophical counterpart in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, the subject of his second book. From his early and somewhat pedestrian reading of the German philosopher, Mencken concluded that the weak used Christianity and democracy to counter the strong, a group that naturally included him. “So many young men get their likes and dislikes from Mencken,” muses Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s narrator in The Sun Also Rises. McWilliams was one of those young men. He inherited Mencken’s irreverence, iconoclasm, and low regard for American politics, and his own experience at the Los Angeles Times chimed well with his idol’s campaign against sham. McWilliams’s college journalism, which he later described as “sassy,” also echoed Mencken’s elitism and disdain for the average American. (The title of one USC piece, for example, was “In the Land of Moronia.”)4 Another article maintained that, if society could not afford to offer a university education to everyone, intelligence tests could be used to weed out the “class of mentally ineligibles.” The malady of democracy, McWilliams argued in another piece, lies in its reluctance to distinguish between the masses and the elites: “How can we have leadership,” he asked rhetorically, “when the very cornerstone of our government is equality of opinion; when the vote of the yokel counts for as much as the vote of the savant”? In addition to absorbing Mencken’s style and habits of mind, McWilliams paid explicit tribute to the Sage of Baltimore.

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Mencken’s great services to American letters to date have been that he has done away with belief and mere opinion; he has engendered a love of ideas—the very basis of civilizations—in many minds; he has written the best body of criticism written by an American; he has lifted American literature, and incidentally the American language, to a place in the sun. That love of ideas is especially important in America, McWilliams added, where the average resident has only three: “(1) God loves America, (2) I am an American, (3) God loves me.” McWilliams also inherited from Mencken the view that the critic had no special duty to propose reforms, to become politically active, or to work out a consistent set of ideas. It was enough, Mencken believed, to expose the absurdity of the Bible-thumpers, pseudo-intellectuals, and rogues in elected of‹ce. “I do not aspire to set up a doctrine of my own,” Mencken wrote to a colleague in 1920. “My notion is that all the larger human problems are insoluble, and that life is quite meaningless—a spectacle without moral or purpose.” For this reason, he added, “Few doctrines seem to me to be worth ‹ghting for” (Forgue 1981, 188). McWilliams assumed a similar posture through the 1920s, though he was less nihilistic than Mencken. The social critic, McWilliams argued in one USC piece, aided society by posing “ceaseless, annoying questions, as to why we do certain things, towards what ends are we working, are we in any manner succeeding.” Although not constructive in the narrow sense, the critic’s work was nevertheless therapeutic. Mencken also in›uenced McWilliams and his closest friends by representing the quintessential man of letters. John Fante, whom McWilliams would meet at Mencken’s suggestion in the early 1930s, saw no need to camou›age this in›uence. In a letter to Mencken, Fante wrote: What I have done, to be very honest, is imitate you in as much as I possibly could . . . My imitation went beyond mental and conversational gymnastics. It extended to smoking cigars, wearing high shoes, parting my hair in the middle, and staring intently out of one eye at the speaker . . . I used to be vexed because I didn’t know what sort of toothpaste you used; and I used to spend hours and hours aping certain Menckenian expressions I came upon in newspaper and magazines. All this was, I realize, more pathetic than stupid, but it represented a period of transition through which I am still passing. (Moreau 1989, 57)



In another letter to Mencken, Fante declared his intention to edit the American Mercury by the time he was forty (Moreau 1989, 25–26). Although McWilliams was incapable of Fante’s naked idolatry and fantasy, he also imitated Mencken outwardly by drinking bourbon Manhattans and parting his hair down the middle. At a deeper level, too, he modeled his career on Mencken’s example. Two decades later, when Fante was writing screenplays and ‹ction, McWilliams approximated his friend’s youthful ambition by becoming editor of the Nation. It was not an aspiration that Mencken endorsed, however. When another of Fante’s friends, William Saroyan, wrote to Mencken about the prospect of editorial work, he received the following reply: I note what you say about your aspiration to edit a magazine. I am sending you by this mail a six-chambered revolver. Load it and ‹re every one into your head. You will thank me after you get to hell and learn from other editors how dreadful their job was on earth. (Teachout 2002, 110) Mencken had yet another signi‹cant effect on McWilliams and his cohort by encouraging them to focus on America. As McWilliams’s memoir notes: Again and again he reminded contributors that the name of the new magazine was The American Mercury and that it was “very strictly con‹ned to the American scene.” There was always a sharp tension between his preferences—those aspects of American life and culture he liked and hugely enjoyed—and his “prejudices,” i.e., his distaste for mindless conformity, bigotry, and hypocrisy. Actually, he was endlessly fascinated, to the point of obsession, with these United States. Despite his cosmopolitan interests and the air of being a man of the world, he was as American as apple pie. (ECM, 54) As is often the case with McWilliams, his description of Mencken works equally well as self-portrait. America fascinated McWilliams and remained his nearly exclusive interest throughout his lengthy career. He did not travel abroad until middle age, and although he followed international affairs, he had no special feeling for them. His sharpest critic, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., would eventually fault him for failing to oppose totalitarianism abroad while conceding that he had produced several excellent books on the domestic scene.

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Thus equipped with Mencken’s outlook and lexicon, the young McWilliams surveyed Los Angeles and saw vast expanses of banality, hypocrisy, and folly. “To say that my ‹rst reaction to Los Angeles was negative would be a gross understatement,” he recalled. “I loathed the place.” An oversized, shapeless village with no soul or character, his new home was “a city of strangers, of milling marauders staring at one another without a glint of recognition” (ECM, 45). He also adopted Mencken’s strategy for living in that landscape. For him, Los Angeles became a circus that the intelligent man could enjoy but which made few serious claims on his attention. The circus trope, another Mencken legacy, eventually became part of McWilliams’s signature. An inscription in Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles now quotes McWilliams’s account of his Los Angeles experience as “a ringside seat at the circus” (SCC, 376). The easy pleasures of the circus could be cloying, however, and McWilliams frequently found its more exotic characters irritating or even threatening. While returning home late from a date in Pasadena, the seventeen-year-old McWilliams took a wrong turn up “chink alley” and spotted a “Chinaman tottering home from his ‘pipe’.” The expression on the man’s face led McWilliams to conclude that Chinatown was “a queer place . . . a whole world apart from the Broadway & Spring. You could be lost forever and your friends might only be a dozen or so blocks away” (WJ, May 19–20, 1923). Two months later, he left a local performance after ‹fteen minutes because it was hot and there were “so damned many Mexicans” (July 28, 1923). After an argument over a bill with a Jewish druggist the same month, the young McWilliams seethed: “Say what you will, there is something ‹lthy, rotten, & wholly despicable in the Jewish character” (July 7, 1923). Two years later, he penned a longer and even more hateful anti-Jewish screed in his writing journal. Taken together, these comments suggest an intolerant young man adjusting to a new and ethnically diverse setting. As Lee Ann Meyer has noted, McWilliams “never acknowledged publicly his early intolerance, nor did he ever suggest its source” (1996, 69). When read against McWilliams’s subsequent work on prejudice and discrimination, this intolerance raises important questions about the evolution of his views on race, ethnicity, and prejudice. One set of answers might cast the young McWilliams as a lucid re›ector of the era’s racist attitudes. He knew few if any Asians, Mexicans, blacks, or Jews, and the status panic he 24


experienced following his family’s ‹nancial collapse may have accounted for much of his venom. As that panic abated and McWilliams met, worked with, and befriended activists of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, he eventually adopted and famously espoused more enlightened views. Another set of answers might stress the fact that McWilliams was carefully crafting and projecting two literary personae, one of which was consciously elitist. In April 1926, for example, he noted in his diary: Last year my alias was ‘Charles Cabot Casley,’—the snob, the foe of puritanism, the debonair artist and aristocrat. I have called this volume “The Book of Jack O’Brien” as that name I have adopted as a shield to disguise the activities of a rogue,—a boozer, goodfellow, and woman lover. Both personae—snob and reveler—had deep roots in McWilliams’s literary models and family history, and the snobbish one left ample room for a sense of white, male, Protestant privilege. By the mid-1930s, however, his friendships, experiences, convictions, and ideas were knocking the racist and antidemocratic edges off the elitist self-image he created and inhabited during the 1920s. Ideas were especially important in this self-transformation. As he told journalist Kay Mills toward the end of his life, “It’s been ideas that have moved me in many ways more than people, to be frank about it.” By way of example, he noted that he had little or no contact with Latinos before moving to Los Angeles, but that his views evolved as he realized how dif‹cult it was for them to receive fair treatment. When I ‹rst came to Los Angeles, I was curious about these red-jacketed people that you saw out on the Paci‹c Electric lines, that you saw working on the tracks, because you didn’t see them in downtown Los Angeles. (Mills 1980) When he later became a lawyer and the ACLU asked him to represent four Mexican-American citrus workers in Whittier, McWilliams was more attracted to a perceived social paradox than to the workers themselves. “I was immediately interested not in them as individuals, particularly, but I was interested in the situation,” he told Mills. In particular, he was intrigued by the existence of hard-nosed labor practices in “a nice religious In‹nite Revolt


community like Whittier—Quaker overtones and background, ivy-covered churches, all that sort of thing.” Over time, however, his intellectual interests blended with his personal ones: “As I got drawn into issues by my head—because I was very interested from an intellectual point of view—I did get very much interested in the people.” In the same interview, he recalled that he had always been deeply moved by the section of Henry James’s novel The Wings of the Dove in which the heroine realizes that ideas are real.5 McWilliams’s self-assessment is remarkable for at least two reasons. First, it leaves no doubt about his propensity to intellectualize; rather than empathize with the workers he represented, he saw them as part of a more abstract social situation. Second, he made no effort to conceal that habit of mind. Instead of playing up his own humanity, he frankly noted his emotional distance from his clients. Although chilly, McWilliams’s tendency to intellectualize was also an important professional asset. It was the means by which he perceived, parsed, and explained complex social and political subjects with such remarkable objectivity and clarity. Moreover, his tendency to downplay feelings was one of the keys to his astonishing productivity. He spent very little energy attending to his emotional well-being and almost no time procrastinating, feuding, defending himself from his critics, or otherwise avoiding his work. Instead, he poured that time and energy into the project at hand. If McWilliams’s sentimental education was limited, his appetite for ideas was both insatiable and transformative. As a young man, however, the ideas that inspired him most were not political. Indeed, he regarded politics as an empty sham. At the tender age of seventeen, he noted privately how “duped” he had been by the First World War. How I cheered the ›ag, miserable piece of bunting, how I adored Woodrow and dreamed of utopias. How gorgeously I hated the Hun and shiver when I allow my imagination to play upon the atrocities they were accused of committing. From his limited experience, he drew broad conclusions. A reformer is an absurdist. The time is not ripe, so close your eyes to pictures and posters, turn a deaf ear to excited fools and wait and watch men going the round again, the treadmill of life. Study fundamentals,



the instincts racial and individual, and you’ve a key to the matter. (WJ, May 19–20, 1923) Ironically, social and political reform would become McWilliams’s consuming interest as he matured, while loose talk about racial instincts became a favorite target. At the time, however, the young rebel continued to nurture his disenchantment. McWilliams’s youthful cynicism vanished when he received a note from his hero. “Got a short letter from my idol H. L. Mencken yesterday and needless to say I was just too darned tickled to speak—could only yell and shout persistently,” he noted in his diary (Mar. 21, 1924). A Mencken column in the American Mercury had suggested the need for a biography of Ambrose Bierce, one of Mencken’s favorite satirists. McWilliams discovered Bierce’s collected works in the Los Angeles Public Library, composed a pro‹le of Bierce for the USC literary magazine, and sent it to the Argonaut, which Bierce had once edited. When it appeared, he sent the piece to Mencken along with a letter describing his plans to research Bierce’s life. He carefully wrapped his ambition in self-deprecation. I realized early in my efforts that writing a life of Bierce was quite a task; almost an unholy ambition, in fact, for so young a man as I am. So you see your life of Bierce is in danger of being written, although not, I need hardly confess, in “the grand manner” or even “competently.” (Apr. 28, 1925)6 Mencken responded favorably to the clipping and wished the nineteenyear-old McWilliams good luck with his project.7 LAW AND LITERATURE In September 1924, McWilliams transferred his undergraduate units to the law school at USC, which was located across the street from his of‹ce at the Los Angeles Times. He later claimed, perhaps jocularly, that the decision to become a lawyer allowed him to shorten his daily commute (HAT, 28). A letter he wrote to USC during his suspension, however, claimed that he was planning to study law from the outset. Although his grades throughout law school were ‹ne, he was never enthusiastic about his classes or chosen profession. After one year of study, he noted privately:

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[H]ere am I, Carey McWilliams, self-styled writer, free thinker, and critic, amateur man of letters, studying to become a lawyer for God only knows what reason . . . I’m as un‹tted for the law as I am for the ministry. (Oct. 25, 1924) Less than a month later, he declared that he was ready to “risk the stakes on journalism” (Nov. 19, 1924). The next day, however, he wrote he was “sick and hysterical with worry” over whether or not to “abandon my dreams of writing.” Two weeks later, he wrote, “I’m really quite a mis‹t in law, I struggle along principally because I’m afraid to strike out into the socalled ‘writing game’ and sink or swim” (Dec. 4, 1924). Over the next several months, his studies still had not ‹red his imagination. In May 1925, he noted in his writing journal: So far I have garnered just these things from my four college years: a complete vulgarization of taste & opinion & manners; an empty purse; a chronic love of wine, pretty women, and jazz; a contempt for all morality; a few friends; a bad digestive and excretory system; altho remaining free from the vicious attacks of the venereals. Not all was rebellion and dissolution, however. He also noted that his “emotional life centers around one pillar—my mother—not that her in›uence is potent, or her power supreme, but that she has a ‹ne pure stream of emotional wholesomeness within her that I love and revere” (WJ, May 1925). Nestled among a young man’s un›attering generalizations about women, the entry was a rare expression of tender feeling. Although transplanted to Los Angeles, Harriet had retained her frontier virtues of hard work and selfreliance as well as her conservative views on such issues as divorce and homosexuality. His claim that his emotional life centered around her is equally rare. As he aged, he would occasionally credit her energy and pluck, but there is little evidence that Harriet was an important part of his emotional life—perhaps because he had already inherited her self-suf‹ciency. As he plodded through his course work, McWilliams continued to fashion his literary identity. After his friend sketched his portrait during a water rights class, McWilliams included it in his writing journal and offered a self-description to accompany it. The above is not an altogether rotten likeness of a young man of letters who lived in Colorado, California and the realm of the imagination, 28


circa the year 1924. He was actuated in all things by two great motives,— or one might say itches—psychic itches—the proddings of a gigantic ego, and the whimsical urges of a “strain of uncontrollable levity.” He was of a naturally impious and scof‹ng disposition, and tone of laughter early laid their tender hands upon him. But in time he even learned to jest of these—now he jests about himself—surely the last straw. The previous year, he had wondered whether that disposition would work against his plans to become a member of the literati. “The reason I will never be a great literary artist is that I have to laugh at myself at times, I’m too sane,” he noted. “The luxuries of life, comely dames, six cylinder horses, synthetic gin and books make too big a hit with me to be exchanged for poems or $20 suits” (Jan. 19, 1923). Despite his doubts, McWilliams continued to hatch new projects that would make his literary aspirations a reality. After reading a George Sterling poem in the American Mercury, he decided to make one of its phrases the title of his unwritten novel, Flags in the Sunset. Whatever the novel’s content turned out to be, the act of writing it would help establish him as the man of letters he wanted to become. In June 1926, he noted in his writing journal: But I’m going to write the damned [thing], non obstante; and forsooth, why not? The world is full of bad novels, as Ambrose Bierce was always saying, and I might as well have the distinction of being a novelist as not. Besides, it will be exciting and just as easy as writing about Bierce. In the meantime, he continued to judge more accomplished writers according to his exacting standards. After reading Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! he noted privately that it was “very good: a ‹ne panoramic picture of southern California, and woefully true.” But he also pointed out “one defect: a chatty, overly explicit, awfully obvious, prose style. Perhaps this comes from his long years as a hack writer, and of his years as a pamphleteer. Yet it is a serious blemish: he writes as poorly as Dreiser” (WJ, June 1926). In June 1927, McWilliams graduated with distinction from law school. As he later recalled, he was “full of the crammed learning, brashness and specious wisdom of all law school graduates” (SCC 1971, xiii). He passed the bar exam the next month but received no job offers. By August, he was worried: “I’m quite beside myself as to what I shall do in the future” (Aug. In‹nite Revolt


18, 1927). Two months later, he landed a position with Black, Hammack & Black in downtown Los Angeles. He later described the ‹rm’s of‹ces—at that time in the American Bank Building at the corner of Spring and Second Streets—in un›attering terms: “[T]he high-ceiling rooms were laid out in a crazy-quilt pattern, the library was vast but obsolete, the atmosphere sedate, musty, and slightly Dickensian” (ECM, 65). His immediate impressions of the ‹rm were also somewhat negative. “I’m not at all sure I will like the place,” he con‹ded in his diary, “but it is very largely a question of any port in a storm” (Oct. 10, 1927). Dan Hammack’s clients were mostly prosperous Presbyterian families in the Pasadena area. Alfred Black Jr. handled the corporate accounts, including Jameson Oil Co. and several lending and investment companies (SCC 1971, xiv). McWilliams later described both partners as delightful men, but he was likely closer to Hammack, a classmate of poet Robinson Jeffers at Occidental College, who knew the history of Southern California well. Black “could not have cared less about Southern California history, but he and his father represented some clients who helped shape the economy of the region.” McWilliams later claimed that his experience with the ‹rm “was very much part of my initiation into the history of the region” (SCC 1971, xiv). The opportunity to litigate was another important part of McWilliams’s continuing education. Neither senior partner spent much time in court, “one because he was naturally shy, the other because he was naturally lazy.” As a result, McWilliams noted, “[I] was given a free hand and actually urged to try cases far beyond my experience and competence.” He began clearing the ‹rm’s backlog of cases and found the litigation edifying. “One can learn a lot about a community in the courts, trying cases, examining jurors, and cross-examining witnesses,” he later observed (SCC 1971, xiv). In addition to teaching him about Los Angeles, the experience sharpened his forensic skills. He learned the importance of research and how to frame questions to advantage. He also learned how to ‹eld questions coolly. Never one to struggle with his temper, he became un›appable in public. That virtue would serve him well in the 1940s, when he faced hostile and occasionally outrageous questioning from red-baiting state legislators. The tension between McWilliams’s vocation and avocation would preoccupy him throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. That tension arose from two powerful urges: one for bourgeois respectability and the other for cre30


ative expression and independence. The ‹rst desire compelled him to play by the rules and mind his manners. His parents’ example, and especially his father’s instructions from the grave, pointed directly to this way of life. The second desire prompted him to question or even to ›out those rules for the sake of liberty, art, and principle. This sort of life was embodied variously by Bierce, Mencken, and even Uncle Vern and Aunt Lottie. Although this tension was uncomfortable, his pursuit of two vocations broadened his experience and sharpened his perspective. It also increased his versatility, permitting him to move effortlessly between the worlds of law, literature, government, and journalism. Finally, that tension animated McWilliams’s best writing, powering him during his most productive period as an author and disappearing when he moved to New York to become a full-time editor.

GEORGE STERLING As McWilliams advanced through the early stages of his legal career, he continued to publish short pieces on local literary ‹gures and to research the life of Bierce. He also began building his literary network. On Mencken’s recommendation, he met San Francisco poet George Sterling, who had known Bierce well. A native of Sag Harbor, Long Island, Sterling arrived in Oakland in 1890 to work for his uncle’s real estate ‹rm. In 1905, he moved to the seaside town of Carmel, where he lived the literary life with Jack London, Mary Austin, and Robinson Jeffers. He wrote poetry and magazine pieces and had a regular column in Overland Monthly. Shortly before McWilliams met him, Sterling was bequeathed a room for life at the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. Now a prestigious men’s club for the corporate and political elite, the club at that time consisted largely of harddrinking journalists and writers. Upton Sinclair later described it as “a place of satyrs, and the worst environment that could have been imagined under the circumstances” for Sterling (Sinclair 1927, 32). McWilliams described his ‹rst meeting with Sterling, which took place by chance in a San Francisco bookshop. I was a tri›e surprised by his appearance, —worn, shabby, with a funny little Arthur Machen sort of black hat. He is pale, with a remarkable pro‹le, In‹nite Revolt


and a ‹ne head of black hair . . . Sterling was very ‹ne & gracious, even called me Carey! . . . He shortly left us—hurrying, or rather scurrying down the stairs, saying “a man’s promised me a bottle of scotch.—never mind who—a man’s promised me a bottle of scotch.” He seemed to me a beautiful, but broken personality; distinctly pathetic; a man who has been hard used by the Bierceian attitude. (WJ, Sept. 11, 1925) Over the next year, McWilliams and Sterling corresponded frequently and visited occasionally. In his writing journal, McWilliams noted, “A great fellow, this Sterling; carries around a pinch of poison to swallow in case of auto accident, as he is mortally afraid of ‹re.” Sterling helped McWilliams locate Bierce’s eccentric daughter in Los Angeles and pointed out errors in Bierce’s other biographies. He also encouraged McWilliams to contact his literary friends and to mention his name when doing so. Suddenly, the nineteen-year-old McWilliams was receiving regular updates on the nation’s top writers and their misadventures. In one letter, Sterling wrote: Sinclair Lewis is here, and we’re motoring to Carmel on Tuesday. He then drives on to Kansas City, via L.A. and Santa Fe. Wants me to accompany him, but is drinking far more than is good for him. I had to nurse him in my room all yesterday afternoon.8 Sterling’s correspondence showed that he, too, was drinking heavily and suffering the consequences. “Do pardon me for not seeing you that morning!” he wrote in 1925. “I was in bed with a katzen-jammer that de‹ed description.” In another letter, he apologized for his shaky handwriting— “too much champagne last night.” Before a trip to Bohemian Grove, he wrote, “Have sworn to stay sober; but was I sober when I swore?” McWilliams returned Sterling’s favors and con‹dences by praising Lilith, his book of poems, in the San Francisco Review. “Thanks, no end, for your most kindly critique!” Sterling wrote McWilliams in June 1926. I found no fault in it, aside from its over-generosity; and I should be the last one to complain of that! You can surely wave a wicked pen, for one so young, and I only hope you’ll be able to care as much for my poetry as time boils you harder and harder. By July 1926, Sterling was addressing McWilliams by his ‹rst name and lining up dates for him. 32


I want you to meet an old sweetheart of mine, now in L.A. She is much older than you, but a superb and passionate creature. She’s a steno. Writes me she’s lonely (she lately left S.F. and knows no one in L.A.) and ‘wants a drink.’ The next month, Sterling reminded McWilliams, “I hope you’ll soon call on Grace. She is damned lonesome!” Sterling also arranged one of McWilliams’s most important intellectual friendships. In a letter dated September 11, 1926, he encouraged McWilliams to read “The Crusader” in the American Parade. It’s by a young chap (met him yesterday) who’s in the pilot-commission of‹ce at San Pedro—name Adamic. He was in the war. If you don’t get a move on and meet Grace, I’m going to call him to her rescue. The girl is bored and thirsty. Have a heart! It was the ‹rst McWilliams had heard of the Slovenian immigrant and aspiring writer Louis Adamic, who had appeared unannounced at the Bohemian Club to meet Sterling. Six years older than McWilliams, Adamic had arrived in the United States at age fourteen and served in the army during the First World War. After his discharge, he settled in San Pedro and worked as a watchman in the pilots station of‹ce in the harbor, a job that left him ample time to read and write. Despite their differing backgrounds, both men were interested in Mencken, Nietzsche, and the peculiarities of their adopted city, which Adamic was already documenting. After their ‹rst dinner together, McWilliams described Adamic in his diary as a “‹ne fellow. I intend to see him often” (Dec. 30, 1926). Their subsequent visits often began with Adamic tapping at the window of McWilliams’s study-bedroom in the rear of his apartment at 4420 Sunset Avenue. Then the door enters and Louis enters: brown eyes shining with mirth, breath reeking of onions after a bowl of Musso-Frank’s onion soup, and laughing in his unmaniacal, boyish way. Then talk, and the strange, queer jaw-gritting and hesitations over words. But sharp talk, out of a lively interest and concern with ideas. (WJ, Feb. 17, 1929) Adamic’s ideas were less literary, less historical, and more immediate than McWilliams’s. They were also very in›uential. Adamic encouraged McWilliams to spend less time thinking about Yeats and more time thinking about Los Angeles, America, and politics. Over time, he switched In‹nite Revolt


McWilliams’s sights to his own favorite topics: labor relations, race and ethnicity, and the status of immigrants. The friendship blossomed, and in October 1927, McWilliams pro‹led Adamic in a local magazine, Los Angeles Saturday Night, where he wrote that Adamic’s “eyes roamed belligerently over the entire scene of Southern California, seeking out exponents of bombast, whether ecclesiastical, political or social.” The following year, the two men traveled together to Carmel to visit Robinson and Una Jeffers. Even by that time, Jeffers was something of a cult ‹gure. Well traveled and steeped in classical and modern languages when his family moved to the Pasadena area in 1903, Jeffers graduated from Occidental College at age eighteen, studied medicine at USC (where he also ran, swam, and wrestled competitively), and enrolled brie›y in the forestry school at the University of Washington. He married Una Call Kuster in 1913 and moved to scenic Carmel, where the couple raised their two sons and lived simply off his small inheritance. There he wrote a body of poetry that, along with his impressive physical presence, conversational reserve, and outdoor lifestyle, helped produce the Jeffers mystique (Starr 1990, 372–73). In many ways a product of the arty Arroyo Seco scene in and around Pasadena, Jeffers drew many visitors from Southern California. The year before McWilliams and Adamic made their trek, Los Angeles poet Jake Zeitlin, Los Angeles Times literary editor Paul Jordan-Smith, Times art critic Arthur Millier, and the impresario Merle Armitage had stopped in Carmel to pay their respects. Sterling had encouraged McWilliams’s visit as early as March 1926, even offering advice on the best time to travel: “The best time to see Carmel is when it’s not raining or foggy, and summer is its foggy season . . . Anyhow, you can always ‹nd Jeffers in, as he is Carmel’s main exhibit.” A little over a month later, he was even more helpful. Of course you may call on Jeffers, though it may be of help if you ‘mention my name.’ Don’t think him vexed at a possible intrusion if he appear very quiet. He is naturally taciturn (not exactly shy, though he gives that impression) and I have yet to get him to spout freely and “do his stuff.” Mrs. J. usually does the talking. You will ‹nd her very likable and intelligent. The trip was productive for both young writers. Adamic immediately published a pro‹le of Jeffers for the University of Washington Chapbook 34


Series, and McWilliams ran a piece on Jeffers in Los Angeles Saturday Night in 1929. The same month that McWilliams learned about Adamic, Sterling noted that Mencken was planning a trip to San Francisco with a stop in Los Angeles. Mencken’s chief purpose in visiting Los Angeles was to spend time with screen star Aileen Pringle, with whom he was having an affair. (Pringle would later marry Los Angeles noir writer James M. Cain, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and frequent contributor to the American Mercury.) As Mencken’s arrival date approached, Sterling laid the groundwork for McWilliams. “I’ve written to him about you and of course he’ll see you. Better have him meet Adamic too. I’m writing to him at once and will mention you, so you’ll need no more introduction.” Mencken’s appearance in Los Angeles was a major press event. He was photographed with Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, and Louis B. Mayer, and he watched evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson perform at her Angelus Temple of the Foursquare Gospel (Teachout 2002, 233). Amid the hoopla, Mencken received McWilliams at the Ambassador Hotel, but the visit was disappointingly brief. “I’m glad you saw Mencken,” Sterling wrote McWilliams later, “but it’s too bad he couldn’t give you more time. Well, he’s sorely beset, and then, a friend’s friend seldom gets all he deserves, however deserving.” From Los Angeles, Mencken headed north to San Francisco, where Sterling was preparing a reception for him. Prohibition made the planning dif‹cult, but Sterling managed to procure some alcohol for the occasion. As for himself, Sterling reported that he had not had a drink for ninety-four days. When he left Mencken stranded at the train station in San Francisco, however, it was clear that he had fallen off “the joyless wagon.” The next day, Mencken chatted brie›y with him on the telephone. When he stopped by the Bohemian Club the following day, he was told that Sterling was sleeping. The next day, Sterling was found dead in his room. He had poisoned himself at age ‹fty-seven. Once again, McWilliams suffered the loss of a psychologically fragile older male. “I felt stunned, as though I had lost a wonderful friend which in fact I had,” he wrote in his diary the next day (Nov. 18, 1926). He then wrote a stream of articles that ›owed from his contact with Sterling. One piece contemplated the reasons for his suicide; another was an interview with Sterling’s friend, Roosevelt Johnson, about their youth together; yet In‹nite Revolt


another found merit in Sterling’s habit of requiring his visitors, many of them prominent in the arts, to sign a guest book; and one used information provided by Sterling to reappraise myths about Bierce. He also sought the rights to some of Sterling’s sonnets, which he vainly hoped to publish with a bibliography and introduction. Eventually, McWilliams commemorated Sterling by composing his entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. McWilliams also parlayed the new or forti‹ed literary connections he had made through Sterling into short pieces. A 1927 article in Los Angeles Saturday Night mentioned Sterling and offered impressions of Upton Sinclair on two different occasions. McWilliams had ‹rst met Sinclair in 1924, but Sterling had passed Sinclair’s telephone number to McWilliams and encouraged him to call in 1926. The following summer, McWilliams interviewed the noted muckraker about his novel Oil! but Sinclair was far more interested in the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti that day, a fact that impressed the apolitical McWilliams. A pro‹le of Louis Adamic also mentioned Sterling, and another piece on Ocean Park poet Challis Silvay began by noting that one of Sterling’s last letters to McWilliams suggested that he look up Silvay. In fact, very little of the literary journalism McWilliams produced during this time failed to mention Sterling, Mencken, or both.

PROVINCIAL LIFE Despite his warm feelings for Sterling, McWilliams had no desire to imitate his dissolution. To the contrary, he began taking on the trappings of bourgeois respectability. In the same month Sterling committed suicide, McWilliams and Casley were awarded memberships in the Masonic Westlake Lodge. The brothers had petitioned in August of that year, and Uncle Vern paid the two-hundred-dollar initiation fee for each of them. A combination of social factors made Uncle Vern’s sponsorship impossible to decline. “I couldn’t refuse the gift without offending both Vern and Mother, but also my of‹ce associates who are all Masons,” McWilliams noted in his diary. “Were it not for those facts I would not have petitioned” (Aug. 26, 1926). If the Masons made McWilliams uncomfortable, his contact with the



general public repulsed him. After attending a movie, the twenty-one-yearold wrote in his diary: What a hideous sight that crowd. So unalterably cheap, tawdry and despicable! You actually long for a good, clean-cut, alert, intelligent looking face. Nothing but thousands of silly clerks, the result of cheapened democracy. Democracy means opportunity, not necessarily excellence. (Aug. 1, 1926) The same elitism was on parade in a May 1927 pro‹le of Los Angeles in the Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine: “Los Angeles is mob-mad, unimaginably democratic—hopelessly vulgar.” The city’s new movie houses were ideal for the “delectation of the yokelry of America.” Only the gentle sensuality of the climate and natural setting tempered the city’s grotesqueness. One may despise the teeming vulgarity of the place, its lack of intelligent and aristocratic opinion, its hostility to ideas, and yet be warmed and lulled to sleep by the indolent languor of its noondays, its dawn by the sea, and the lush, warm radiance of its nights. The passage gave full expression to McWilliams’s elitism, but it also pre‹gured an idea that he would later develop in Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (1946). Despite the vulgarity of Los Angeles society, the region’s climate, terrain, and setting would endure and determine its future. The Overland Monthly piece also traded vigorously in gender stereotypes (Meyer 1996). In McWilliams’s portrait, Los Angeles is “the harlot city.” His new hometown was “gaudy, ›amboyant, richly scented, sensuous, noisy, jazzy.” In the magazine’s August 1927 issue, a letter to the editor objected to the characterization: “Mr. McWilliams, in his frenzied dissertation, told us in‹nitely more derogatory things about himself than he did about Los Angeles.” The letter also claimed that “one who sees Los Angeles only as a city of harlots, must have been looking for harlots” and that “a mind so signally obsessed might well be watched by the police.” In fact, it would be more than a decade before the authorities began watching McWilliams in earnest. In the meantime, he continued to record his impressions of Los

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Angeles. Many were the product of long drives along the city’s major arteries. Sunset Boulevard, for example, gave him “the sensation that I am in toyland—a great monstrous Babyland: neon signs, hurdy gurdies; popcorn stands; Good-Humor ice cream wagons; barbecued beef cafes; motion picture neighborhood houses and so forth” (WJ, Dec. 1929). He planned to use these verbal snapshots in his ‹ction to show that “life here is half-baked, muddled, confused, and disorderly” (WJ, Jan. 1930). As he noted, however, “the best way to record this condition is to mirror it in the consciousness of a variety of characters.” He therefore turned his gaze to the citizens of Los Angeles. After attending a lecture at a new library decorated with a collection of exquisite Japanese prints, he recorded his un›attering impressions of his fellow citizens. Odorous old men; mangy-haired kids; bums seeking shelter from the drenching rain; old maids grasping ‹rmly their umbrella handles and cherishing the futile belief they were really following the argument; snotty-nosed brats; old men picking their noses and scratching their butts—the lousiest audience out of doors. This, ladies and gents, is Los Angeles. Turning these impressions into compelling ‹ction would be a challenge, but McWilliams had a literary model in mind—James Joyce’s detached, keenly observed, downbeat stories of provincials and their everyday epiphanies. In his writing journal, McWilliams noted that his goal was “to do a group of stories about Los Angelesians in the manner of Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’” (WJ, approx. Feb. 1931). The goal is signi‹cant for what it embraces. Joyce claimed that he wrote Dubliners “for the most part in a style of scrupulous meanness” and called attention to “the special odour of corruption which, I hope, ›oats over my stories” (Ellmann 1982, 210). As a cultural rebel and aspiring author in a hopelessly vulgar city, McWilliams found that style and odor to his liking.

MARY AUSTIN Following Sterling’s death, McWilliams sought other literary mentors. In April 1927, he wrote to Mary Austin, the novelist and author of The Land of Little Rain (1903). Austin, who was then living in Santa Fe, had known 38


Sterling from their days together in Carmel. Like Sterling, Austin linked McWilliams to an earlier generation of California writers, including Jack London, John Muir, and Charles Fletcher Lummis, whose magazine, Land of Sunshine, helped launch Southern California’s Spanish-tinted image (Starr 1985, 116–17). McWilliams’s unpublished novel, which he began during this time, included a character based on Lummis, while its title, Flags in the Sunset, was lifted from one of Sterling’s poems, “The Path‹nders.” The occasion for McWilliams’s ‹rst letter to Austin was her piece on Sterling, which had run in the American Mercury. “A great temptation,” McWilliams wrote, “this writing and talking about Sterling. I miss him immensely and ‹nd even poor consolation in writing or speaking of him” (Apr. 25, 1927). McWilliams enclosed his review of Sterling’s Lilith and awaited her reply. It came soon after, addressed to “Miss McWilliams,” and indicated Austin’s willingness to meet him on her next trip to Los Angeles. In his next letter, McWilliams gently corrected the gender confusion. I am af›icted with one of those dreadfully ambiguous names, and I am always put to the necessity, as I am at present, of correcting very logical, but erroneous, impressions about it. I would have preferred a name such as “George” or “John” or “Henry”—something unspeakably common but undeniably masculine. (May 3, 1927) As if to underscore his masculinity, he also enclosed his pro‹le of Los Angeles, though he warned Austin that she might ‹nd it both “tedious” and “raucous.” Later, when she inquired why her book The Lands of the Sun (1927) had not been reviewed in Los Angeles, he wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times praising it.9 McWilliams also solicited Austin’s views on Bierce, whom she had known slightly and had not read in years. Even so, she recalled “thinking that his critical and satiric work was brilliant, but not very profound and that he kept forcing the note of savage irony, because what he really wanted would not come. In fact the whole ›avor of the man to me was one of alternate high con‹dence in himself and puzzled bewilderment over the failure of his genius” (Mar. 24, 1928). McWilliams did not concur but eventually included Austin’s view in his biography of Bierce. The following year, Austin asked McWilliams to help her gather information for her own memoirs, Earth Horizon (1932). “As you know,” she wrote, “these things are In‹nite Revolt


never paid well, but you might see ways in which much of the information could be utilized by you.” This turned out to be the case. One of McWilliams’s assignments was to research the Miller & Lux land company, which had owned vast tracts of land near the Austin family homestead in the San Joaquin Valley (July 30, 1929). The company would ‹gure prominently in McWilliams’s ‹rst bestseller, Factories in the Field, published a decade later. Austin also educated McWilliams on the signi‹cance of water in Southern California. She had lived in the Owens Valley, a remote community on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada range whose ample water supply had been coveted by Los Angeles. Austin’s husband, a federal agent, unsuccessfully resisted the city’s surreptitious plan to obtain the area’s water rights. Austin used those events, which literally dried up the valley’s farming economy, as the backdrop for her novel The Ford (1917). In her letters to McWilliams, she described her role as prophetic. In fact, I discovered the trouble before anyone else, and Mr. Austin did everything in his power to arouse the Valley, but the thing seemed so monstrous to them that they thought I must be mistaken. Singularly, my gift of prevision has never been of the slightest use to me or anyone else. (Dec. 22, 1929) McWilliams took note of the Owens Valley story but found Austin’s interpretation of it odd. “Mrs. Austin has strange ideas: prophesies that Los Angeles will suffer cruelly for the wrong in›icted on the Valley” (WJ, June 6, 1929). Although he did not credit that prediction, McWilliams eventually included an account of the Owens Valley water controversy in Southern California Country. That account, in turn, inspired Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Chinatown (1974), an important part of McWilliams’s legacy. In addition to soaking up Austin’s ‹rsthand knowledge of the region’s literary and natural resource history, McWilliams recorded his impressions of Austin herself. She is differential [sic] about some views; modest and yet assertive enough . . . She will suddenly quit talking and reach out for a stalk, break off a geranium or what-not, to take home for her garden. Has an amazingly sharp eye for things: will note and remember an Indian art



shop; a hand-made, un‹nished, furniture store; a place to shop; design of a house and so forth. (WJ, June 2, 1929) As their correspondence continued, it became more personal and familiar. For the holidays, she sent him “a hunting fetish warranted to give you good hunting and good luck in whatever you do . . . I sent Herbert Hoover one of these at the beginning of his campaign and look what happened to him! To you also!” (Dec. 16, 1929). When McWilliams wrote that the hunting charm worked, she wrote that it always worked for her, perhaps because she was part Irish: “And quite surely because I am an out and out pagan” (Dec. 25, 1929). The developing friendship between Austin and McWilliams did not preclude his criticism of her work or her sharp reactions to his judgments. When McWilliams reviewed Earth Horizon for Los Angeles Saturday Night in November 1932, he praised its discussion of the family’s homesteading experience in California, the land baron Henry Miller, and the Owens Valley affair, but he maintained that Austin’s description of a childhood mystical experience detracted from the book. When reading such passages, McWilliams noted in his review, “I can merely stand aside and wait until the moody spell has passed.” His own deep faith in rationality dictated the criticism, but a subsequent letter from Austin blended a sense of injustice, disappointment, and reproof. Nor do I think you have been quite fair to me in your comment on my mystical experience . . . The attitude of standing aloof and superior merely because you have had no such experience yourself, does not seem to me quite justi‹ed nor in key with what I expect of you . . . I haven’t at least any serious regrets about the book, but I do mean to take up seriously this question of the mystical experience, because I feel that the inability of your generation to accept the reality of such experiences is a very great bar to your cultural progress. McWilliams’s comment seems vaguely sexist and condescending, but Austin’s response lends some support to his later observation that Eastern critics “had never quite understood the combination of tribal prophetess, motherly titaness, and original thinker that was Mary Austin. For she had bludgeoned them into according her the reputation she enjoyed.” Austin herself encouraged that view of her relationship to the New York literary

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establishment, once writing to McWilliams that she had earned her right to live and work in the West “by going to New York and delivering a righthook under the jaw to a number of obstreperous New Yorkers; and I have constantly, and in a most unlady like manner, mentioned that nobody can high hat me, for the simple reason that he lives East of the Alleghenys” (May 19, 1930). The correspondence between Austin and McWilliams continued until her death of a heart attack in 1934. Asked to compose a short essay on her life and work for the Los Angeles Times, McWilliams wrote that her works were “amazing compilations of sharp insight and awkward bombast” and that her particular combination of traits—“the emotional background and experience of an American housewife, the stout mental courage of a Huxley, and a streak of ineradicable mysticism”—did not always make for consistency or even orderly expression. Even on these points, however, Austin had anticipated him. In one of her almost seventy letters to him, she wrote: “I may not know how to write, nor how to delineate character, nor even how to tell a story. The one thing I am sure of about myself is that I know the relation of letters and landscape, of life and its environment.” It was a clear-eyed assessment of her gift. Published more than a century ago, The Land of Little Rain remains a classic work of environmental writing.

MAKING THE SCENE IN LOS ANGELES As McWilliams served his informal apprenticeship with Austin, he began writing literary pro‹les at ten dollars apiece for Los Angeles Saturday Night, a sixteen-page weekly magazine edited by Samuel T. Clover, whom McWilliams later described as “a real gentleman” (HAT, 37). Born in London, Clover had covered the Cheyenne and Sioux Indian uprisings in the late nineteenth century and served as managing editor of the Chicago Evening Post. Supported by private power interests in Los Angeles, he had also covered the Owens Valley water story for the Los Angeles Evening News before starting Saturday Night in 1922. His magazine ranged over the local book, music, art, theater, club, and business news and bespoke what historian Kevin Starr has called “town and country Los Angeles: suburban, af›uent, upper-middle-class, Republican, rather assured in its taste” (Starr 1990, 129). 42


From 1927 to 1933, McWilliams assisted Clover in covering the literary scene. Several pieces considered authors with national or international reputations, but at least twenty others featured local talent in a series called “Southern California Begins to Write.” That series allowed McWilliams to meet most of Los Angeles’s prominent journalists, authors, and intellectuals and positioned him as a regional literary tastemaker. Most of the pieces grew out of McWilliams’s connection to Sterling, but one essay featured Jake Zeitlin, whom McWilliams had met shortly after the poet’s arrival in Los Angeles from Fort Worth. At the time, Zeitlin was barely making ends meet by trading in rare books. Later, McWilliams helped Zeitlin organize the ‹rst of several bookstores, including a downtown shop on West Sixth Street designed by Lloyd Wright, the son of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Much of Zeitlin’s trade came from Hollywood studios, such as Metro Goldwyn Mayer, which spent close to one million dollars over two decades to build up its reference library (Starr 1990, 346). Zeitlin’s bookstore, which also featured local painting and photography, quickly became the center of the small but active Los Angeles art scene. During this time, McWilliams met Paul Jordan-Smith, literary editor of the Times and the subject of a Los Angeles Saturday Night piece; Phil Townsend Hanna, a Times alumnus and editor of the Automobile Club’s Touring Topics (later renamed Westways); modernist architects Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, and Rudolph Schindler; photographers Edward Weston and Will Connell; journalists Herb Klein and Duncan Aikman, then the West Coast correspondent for the Baltimore Sun; and author and future UCLA librarian Lawrence Clark Powell. He also met impresario Merle Armitage, who, along with Zeitlin, was a force in the local arts community. After founding and managing the Los Angeles Grand Opera Association, Armitage published one of the ‹rst books in America on an American photographer (Edward Weston), became regional director of the Work Progress Administration’s Public Works of Art program, served as an air force lieutenant colonel during the Second World War, and later moved to New York to redesign Look magazine (Dailey, Shiver, and Dawson 2003, 53–55). Some members of the Zeitlin circle would later raise McWilliams’s pro‹le by running his articles, featuring him in their pieces, or reviewing his books. In October 1929, a subset of this group, including McWilliams, published the ‹rst issue of Opinion, a magazine of criticism and opinion. It In‹nite Revolt


folded the following August but not before McWilliams published seven essays in it, three of which appeared under his aristocratic pseudonym, Charles Casley. Another product of this milieu was Primavera Press, which Jake Zeitlin founded in 1929 and named after the original Spanish name of downtown’s Spring Street, Calle de Primavera, where McWilliams’s law ‹rm had its of‹ces (Dailey, Shiver, and Dawson 2003, 47). Specializing in California classics, Primavera’s books were elegantly designed by Ward Ritchie, among others, and printed beautifully. When Primavera incorporated in 1933, Zeitlin, Phil Townsend Hanna, and Ward Ritchie became directors, and McWilliams and Lawrence Clark Powell also held shares (Starr 1990, 350). The press published books until 1936, when it printed ‹ve thousand copies of the play Everyman for the California Festival Association, which intended to sell them at its Hollywood Bowl performances. The play ›opped, however, and the books did not sell. When the association could not pay Primavera for the printing, the press dissolved (Dailey, Shiver, and Dawson 2003, 48). Zeitlin, however, continued with his bookselling and other arts activities. Long excluded from the prestigious Zamorano Club—perhaps for his Jewishness, liberal views, or both—he was ‹nally admitted to the book collectors club in 1971, after he had become what McWilliams called “California’s dean of rare-book dealers” (ECM, 48). During this time, McWilliams befriended another bookman from Texas, Stanley Rose, who began his Los Angeles enterprises by selling risqué material to studios (ECM, 48). After he became co-owner of the Satyr Book Store on Vine Street, which served as the model for Bennett’s Bookshop in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), Rose pled guilty to a charge related to the distribution of pornography and was sentenced to sixty days in jail. With McWilliams’s legal assistance, he was released early, and his partners bought out his share of the operation. McWilliams then helped Rose organize his next two stores, the second of which was located on Hollywood Boulevard and was co-owned by McWilliams (Cooper 2000, 154). Rose’s shop attracted writers such as William Faulkner, James M. Cain, Nathanael West, William Saroyan, Erskine Caldwell, Budd Schulberg, John Fante, and Louis Adamic. It also drew customers from the burgeoning ‹lm community, including John Barrymore, Red Skelton, Edward G. Robinson, and Marion Davies, the longtime mistress of William Randolph Hearst (Starr 1990, 348). The colorful Rose often played 44


host to his customers, serving afternoon drinks in the back room of the bookstore. That practice inspired the title of Edmund Wilson’s 1941 study, The Boys in the Back Room: Notes on California Novelists, which mentions in passing “a highly intelligent Los Angeles lawyer who had come to California from Colorado” (Wilson 1941, 57).10 After hours, the party frequently shifted next door to Musso & Frank grill, where the festivities continued late into the night. The restaurant was itself something of a literary institution. Its regular patrons included Rose’s customers as well as Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Together, the bookstore and restaurant helped turn the 6600 block of Hollywood Boulevard into Los Angeles’s ‹rst bohemian scene, a point McWilliams frequently made in recounting his life.

DOROTHY HEDRICK Although the local literary scene kept McWilliams busy, it did not exhaust his social energies. Throughout the 1920s, he alluded in his diary and writing journals to his many romances, raptures, and sexual adventures. His main romantic interest, however, was Dorothy Hedrick, a pretty, self-possessed biology student at UCLA. Her father, Earle Hedrick, was chair of the UCLA Mathematics department and would later become provost. Earle Hedrick met Dorothy’s mother, Helen Seidensticker, at the University of Göttingen, where she was earning a graduate degree in philology. From the beginning of McWilliams’s relationship with Dorothy—they met when he was nineteen—she occupied a special place in his imagination. “A very peculiar change is being wrought in me these days, especially since this ‘affair’ with D.H.,” he noted in his writing journal in November 1925. All the obscure, half hearted promptings of my emotional nature that I thought were centered around my artistic work, for the past few months have dryed [sic] up by this enervating grind of work & study. Then I met her, and all that self-same emotional prompting centered around her. Drive it out, and it comes back twofold in another way. What is certain is that this central, emotional, imaginatively [sic] part of me is not interested in law, and always is seeking a way out—books, booze, or women. When I say women, I don’t necessarily mean her, as there’s some difference. Just what, it would be hard to say; perhaps the difference is in my attitude. In‹nite Revolt


Like McWilliams, Dorothy was liberal, bookish, and enjoyed a drink, but their differences were equally apparent. Her large family—Dorothy was the third of ten children—was less reserved and less focused on self-reliance than his. McWilliams was taciturn about their relationship, even in his private writings, but a rare diary reference to Dorothy mentions her Phi Beta Kappa membership, and another describes her as “moderately intelligent, tho uncultured” (Sept. 23, 1925). She did not share McWilliams’s interest in ‹ction or poetry, but she did read his favorite novel. “I loaned ‘This Side of Paradise’ to Dorothy Hedrick to read,” he noted in his writing journal. “She told me tonight, on the phone, that it sounded, and was, just like me” (WJ, Nov. 11, 1925). Although the Times Literary Supplement had called Fitzgerald’s dialogue “arti‹cial beyond belief,” Dorothy’s comment evidently pleased McWilliams. The novel’s attention to manners and social rank also helps explain why Dorothy’s common touch could irk him. As a young attorney, it bothered him that she frequented the lunch counter at Woolworth’s near his downtown of‹ce while he was favoring tailored suits and otherwise cultivating a loftier image.11 Despite their differences, McWilliams appreciated Dorothy’s comforting manner. In his diary, he noted that she was “soft and kind, relaxing. When I’m with her, even just talking, I feel as though my weary head was softly pillowed” (Jan. 6, 1926). A year later, he described her as “Very unassuming, dependable, willing and anxious to please, eager to be fair—and devoid of pif›e; unlike so many women she eschews trash” (Jan. 24, 1927). Elsewhere he compliments her for her cooking and her handiwork in ‹lling his scrapbooks with newspaper and magazine clippings: “The old girl is 100%, as Babbitt would say” (Oct. 20, 1927). Using only her initials, he also mentions her in the preface to his Bierce biography, noting that she helped prepare the manuscript. Although McWilliams’s taciturnity regarding Dorothy discourages precise, in-depth analysis of their relationship, the slender evidence suggests that he found in it a feeling of calm, comfort, and security that no amount of achievement could produce. Indeed, his time with her may have been a refuge from his incessant drive to achieve.

THE BIERCE BIOGRAPHY Through the mid-1920s, McWilliams worked intermittently on the Bierce biography. Along with introducing McWilliams to several accomplished 46


writers, the project had produced several articles, including one in Los Angeles Saturday Night on Bierce’s relationship to Adolphe Danziger, also known as Adolphe de Castro. In March 1928, Paul Jordan-Smith informed McWilliams that publisher Charles Boni had asked him to collaborate on de Castro’s biography of Bierce, which was well under way. Jordan-Smith declined the offer but thought that McWilliams might be interested. Later that year, McWilliams wrote to Mencken that he had sent a long manuscript on Bierce to the University of Washington Chapbook Series. That manuscript, he noted, was “all of the material that I care to see printed at this time. As I have previously written to you, a real biography is out of the question just yet, as there are so many things that would have to be left unsaid” (Sept. 29, 1928). However, when Boni learned that de Castro enjoyed little respect among Bierce a‹cionados, he offered McWilliams a contract for the Bierce biography. McWilliams accepted and resumed his work on the project (Critser 1986, 244–45). In February 1929, McWilliams previewed the book with a chronicle of Bierce’s life in the American Mercury. The piece begins with a long list of previous work on Bierce, but the survey ends pointedly. To the list should be added the name of Rabbi Danzinger, sometimes known as Adolphe de Castro,—dentist, lawyer, author, diplomat and theologian. Rabbi Danzinger has written much about Bierce, and has talked to newspaper reporters with a glittering profusion of anecdote, but he has omitted to mention the most important of all his memories of Bierce: the time his friend broke a cane over his head. The comment substantiates Sterling’s comment that McWilliams could wave a wicked pen for one so young. Its casual anti-Semitism, however, con›icts with author Vincent O’Sullivan’s claim, made in a letter to McWilliams in October 1929, that “the ‘American Mercury’ is essentially a German Jew affair. They insult all other forms of Americans but there is never a word against Germans or Jews.”12 McWilliams’s piece goes on to address several myths about Bierce but touches only lightly on the biggest question of all—his ultimate fate in Mexico after traveling from Washington, D.C., to report on the revolution. In June of that year, McWilliams reviewed four other books on Bierce in his ‹rst article for the Nation, an in›uential weekly of news, criticism, and opinion established in the Civil War era. In his review, entitled “The In‹nite Revolt


Bierce Myth,” McWilliams scored the three biographies of Bierce, including de Castro’s, and credited the fourth book, a bibliography, while noting that it did not “adequately index the sources of the Bierce legend.” Its concluding paragraph was especially noteworthy. This Bierce myth is a fantastic story. The only really “mysterious” thing about Bierce is his reputation in letters today. His contribution to American literature could be summarized in a footnote of no considerable length, and yet three biographies witness the growth of and immense concern with his work. Perhaps the explanation is that he was much more interesting as a man than he was signi‹cant as a writer. In any event, these volumes throw little light on his character. The “mystery” of his life remains: the farce continues. This conclusion left ample room for another biography, not by in›ating Bierce’s literary reputation—indeed, McWilliams argued that Bierce’s writings were secondary—but by focusing on Bierce’s still misunderstood character. Less noticeably, McWilliams managed to shift attention away from Bierce’s authentically mysterious death, about which he had little to add, to the mystery of Bierce’s character. Later that month, McWilliams sent the introduction to his biography to his publisher and promised the rest of the manuscript by August 1.13 After visiting Los Gatos, where he interviewed more residents who had known Bierce and his family, McWilliams received a letter from Albert Boni suggesting that he travel east to review the book’s galley proofs. McWilliams mailed off the rest of the manuscript on August 26 and boarded a train for New York City. There he was met by Adamic and introduced to Stella Sanders, Adamic’s future wife. During his stay, he also met Morrow Mayo, whose book on Los Angeles he would later have occasion to cite. The Bierce biography was published that fall. McWilliams dedicated it to Vincent O’Sullivan, whom McWilliams had learned about through Mencken. Although O’Sullivan, who was by then living in Paris, shared Bierce’s (or, perhaps more accurately, Poe’s) dark outlook, he had already admitted to McWilliams that Bierce’s work had “never got across” to him: “I see his merit, of course, but only in three or four stories. Gertrude Atherton’s opinion that he is the best writer of English which the U.S.A. has produced seems to me grotesque” (May 11, 1928). He expressed a similar view 48


in the pages of the Dubliner Magazine, where he mentioned McWilliams’s American Mercury article. “McWilliams thinks that Bierce should be esteemed less for his tales than for his powers as a writer of satire and invective,” O’Sullivan wrote. But after citing one example of Bierce’s wit, O’Sullivan concluded that the passage was “sheer abuse and too ponderous to get home.” If Bierce’s letter were published to-morrow in The Congressional Record as the outpouring of the Senator from Mississippi or of the representative of the ‹fth Congressional district of New Jersey, nobody would think it unusual or out of place. It is that kind of thing. (O’Sullivan 1929, 48–49) Of Bierce’s ‹ction, O’Sullivan was even more critical: “Bierce’s style creaks . . . It belongs to the beaver-hat and stock period. It is antiquated without being old” (49). It is curious that McWilliams’s ‹rst book was dedicated to a relatively obscure expatriate author who had questioned both Bierce’s worthiness as a subject and McWilliams’s claims about him. One motive behind the dedication was that McWilliams saw O’Sullivan as a future subject and a potential editorial asset. In April 1925, McWilliams had written to Mencken that he was hoping to publish a study of O’Sullivan, and he eventually produced two articles on him and his work. Three years later, McWilliams wrote O’Sullivan that he had a “chance to take over a weekly literary page on a local newspaper. In case I do, I would try and induce you to write a Paris letter occasionally. There would be some money in it for you” (Sept. 1, 1928). That scenario never came to pass, but the two continued to correspond until the outbreak of the Second World War, which O’Sullivan did not survive.14 If McWilliams’s dedication creates a minor mystery, the rest of the biography helped to rectify the facts of Bierce’s life. Born in Ohio and raised on an Indiana farm, Bierce served in the Union army before arriving in San Francisco in 1866. There his ‹rst column began to appear in the San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser. His reputation spread in San Francisco, where he met Mark Twain and Bret Harte, and back East, where his works were frequently reprinted. In 1872, Bierce moved to England, where he published three books. Returning to the Bay Area in 1875, Bierce edited the Argonaut and wrote his column, ultimately titled In‹nite Revolt


“Prattle.” He also tried his hand at gold mining in the Dakotas; unsuccessful in that venture, he once again returned to San Francisco and edited the Wasp until 1887. In that year, Bierce met twenty-four-year-old William Randolph Hearst, who persuaded Bierce to continue writing “Prattle” for the San Francisco Examiner (Nasaw 2000, 63). Bierce’s work for the Examiner consolidated his reputation as a journalist and provided him with a comfortable salary. In 1896, Hearst asked Bierce to travel to Washington, D.C., to cover the fate of the Funding Bill, which would have allowed the nation’s major railroads to defer repayment of government loans. The assignment offered Bierce the opportunity to attack California’s preeminent commercial and political power, the Southern Paci‹c Railroad. Bierce personalized the battle by targeting the bill’s chief lobbyist, Collis P. Huntington, the last of the original railroad magnates. In his ‹rst article, Bierce wrote, “Mr. Huntington is not altogether bad. Though severe, he is merciful. He tempers invective with falsehood. He says ugly things of the enemy, but he has the tenderness to be careful that they are mostly lies” (239).15 When Huntington testi‹ed about the bill, Bierce wrote, “Mr. Huntington appeared before the committee and took his hands out of all pockets long enough to be sworn” (240). McWilliams relates the anecdote in which the two men met on the steps of the Capitol and Huntington asked Bierce to name his price. His price, Bierce replied, was the amount Huntington owed the government; if paid, Bierce would turn it over to the secretary of the treasury. In January 1897, the bill was defeated, and McWilliams credits Bierce for contributing to that outcome, “which marked the doom of the Southern Paci‹c dominance in California” (245). After the defeat of the Funding Bill, Hearst switched Bierce to magazine work, but his light was dimming as the new politics of the Progressive Era unfolded in California. Bierce had become, in Jack London’s words, “a magni‹cent crystallization.” Furthermore, he no longer relished the attack. When Hearst proposed Joseph Pulitzer as a new target of invective, Bierce declined. “I don’t like the job of chained bulldog to be let loose only to tear the panties off the boys who throw rocks at you,” he wrote Hearst in July 1907 (295). After Willard Huntington Wright, editor of the Smart Set, asked for a contribution, Bierce told a friend, “One hates to be caught with a magazine having so hateful a title” (296). Instead, Bierce



gathered his collected works, which appeared in twelve volumes. He wrote to one correspondent that he was “sleepy for death” and that he “was going away” (313). Soon after, he asked his daughter rhetorically why he should stay in a country on the eve of women’s suffrage and Prohibition. He then announced his interest in the Mexican Revolution and his plan to travel to El Paso, where he would “buy a donkey and hire a peon” and “perhaps write a few articles about the situation.” “This ‹ghting in Mexico interests me. I want to go down and see if these Mexicans shoot straight” (316). He made the trip with two thousand dollars in gold on his person and reported shooting a man to remove any suspicions among the army troops with whom he was traveling. “Poor devil!” Bierce wrote of his victim. “I wonder who he was!” (324). He also wrote several notes and letters, the last from Chihuahua in December 1913. Then nothing. McWilliams documents the various theories regarding Bierce’s disappearance but does not add to or evaluate them, noting only that Bierce was old and in ill health when he entered Mexico. To the facts of Bierce’s life McWilliams adds a kind of Smart Set overlay, linking Bierce’s cynicism to Mencken’s: “His was a personality strangely prophetic of what one might expect from the America of another generation, in its rebellion under the leadership of Mr. Mencken” (12). McWilliams is especially eloquent on the sources of Bierce’s bitterness and nihilism, which he traces to Bierce’s Civil War experience. That experience demonstrated to Bierce that life “was a battle of imponderables in which nothingness triumphed” (42). After describing an absurd, lethal, and largely forgotten battle at Pickett’s Mill, McWilliams considers its effects on Bierce’s worldview. Later Ambrose Bierce came to feel that life was a rather futile enterprise, full of mocking events and absurd ideals. He has been charged with being super‹cial for entertaining such heretical notions. Perhaps an afternoon at Pickett’s Mill might have convinced his specious critics that there was more to his cynicism than the attacks of asthma, or the loss of a sweetheart or two, would explain. Men fought bravely, and honorably, for an ideal. They were snuffed out in a wood to abate the jealousy of an ambitious commander and history forgot their dying. There was really something rather fatuous in the working out of an omnipotent will in this eccentric fashion. “Nothing matters,” Bierce dogmatized, and people actually had the audacity to question him! (53)

In‹nite Revolt


The war shocked Bierce “into an attitude which became a habit.” Referring to an ugly wound Bierce received in battle, McWilliams maintains that his subject “could no more relax the tension of his mind, after that experience, than he could remove the scar from his scalp” (43). In defending Bierce’s outlook, McWilliams again refuses to in›ate his literary reputation. To the contrary, he maintains that many of Bierce’s views “are trite, lack learning, were conceived in excitement and are hastily phrased.” Yet all this, he argues, was secondary to Bierce’s personal signi‹cance. What is important is that such a man lived and wrote in early San Francisco: a man so forceful and impressive that he stamped his personality in an indelible manner on every one he came in contact with. He stirred his generation in the West as no one had before, or has done since, for that matter. His in›uence was essentially a personal in›uence. What gave his satire, for example, such tremendous force at the time it was written, was the knowledge uppermost in the mind of every reader that Ambrose Bierce had written it. (117–18) The appeal of Bierce’s satire was not universal, however. As Charlotte Perkins Gilman, best known now as the feminist author of The Yellow Wallpaper, wrote to McWilliams about Bierce: He was the Public Executioner and Tormentor, daily exhibiting his skill in grilling helpless victims for the entertainment of the public,—for wages. He was an early master in the art of blackening long-established reputations of the great dead, of such living persons as were unable to hit back effectively, and at his best in scurrilous abuse of hard-working women writers. He never lost an opportunity to refer to the cottonstuffed bosoms of the women writers. (156) McWilliams does not comment on Gilman’s claim regarding women, but he corrects her on the issue of Bierce’s courage: “As a matter of fact, there was no reputation, living or dead, that he was afraid to attack” (157). Indeed, “There were no exceptions to Bierce’s scorn; his abuse was universal and lovely” (156). Ambrose Bierce: A Biography received solid reviews from prominent critics. Herbert Gorman of the New York Times Book Review praised McWilliams for his balance, industry, and “essential sanity,” concluding that his biography “may be regarded as quite de‹nitive.” Writing for the 52


Nation, Granville Hicks lauded McWilliams for his care, intelligence, ingenuity, and insight. “Though the style is uneven and his pages are not wholly free of solecisms,” Hicks concluded, “the diligence of his research and the sanity of his critical judgments make the book an admirable performance.” F. O. Matthiessen, whom McWilliams would later meet and befriend, was more critical of McWilliams’s style, which he called “extraordinarily careless, ranging from trenchant paragraphs to wholly unorganized pages and to heavy-handed sentences.” However, he endorsed “the cogency of his balanced estimate” and praised him for “clearing away the mass of rubbish that obscured the relevant facts.” Even C. Hartley Grattan, whose biography of Bierce McWilliams had criticized in the Nation, conceded that McWilliams had produced “the most comprehensive and useful chronology of Bierce’s life.” Mencken, too, weighed in with a positive review. In his view, McWilliams had avoided the follies of his precursors and told the story straight: “He has gone to immense pains to unearth his facts, he sets them forth in a clear manner, and when he pauses to philosophize upon them he speaks very sensibly. Altogether, he has done an admirable piece of work.” By the end of the 1920s, McWilliams had redeemed the high hopes he had brought to Los Angeles—along with a letter of expulsion from the University of Denver—less than seven years before. He had earned a law degree, landed a position in an established downtown ‹rm, published over ‹fty essays, built a robust literary and intellectual network, and written the de‹nitive biography of the man described by the New York Times Book Review as “perhaps the best journalist who ever existed in the United States.”16 He had just turned twenty-four.

In‹nite Revolt




O L L O W I N G T H E P U B L I C A T I O N of Ambrose Bierce, McWilliams continued to build his credentials as an attorney and writer. Only a few years out of law school, he was already a junior partner in his ‹rm and its chief litigator. He was also writing prodigiously, mostly on California and Western writers; in 1930 alone, he published twelve more pieces, including another essay for the American Mercury. He was laying the groundwork for two promising careers, but privately he was restless. In a 1931 letter to Mary Austin, he con‹ded that splitting his energies between law and writing was unsatisfactory.

You are quite right in thinking that my law work will interfere with what writing I do. The clash between the two is becoming very dif‹cult to manage. I fear that I shall soon write like a lawyer and argue like a writer. I’m thinking about giving up my practice, but you know how dif‹cult these things are, particularly when one needs an income. (Oct. 3, 1931) There were other sources of dissatisfaction, too. Earlier he had noted privately that he felt “horribly marooned in Los Angeles” (Mar. 9, 1928). Moreover, he considered the city’s politics “God-awful . . . Not a single colorful or dynamic ‹gure. Not an intelligent liberal on the scene . . . politics are so abject that they can’t be discussed without blasphemy” (May 11, 1929). His friendships were also a concern. At the age of twenty-one, he had observed, “Boozing becomes a more and more ingratiating pastime as the years fall away. There is a world of solace in its charms. When I’ve had a drink, I feel better, I talk better, and I actually am better. Things take on a bewitching glamour” (WJ, March 1927). Later, however, he felt that he had “to shun old friends, as they are all potential drunkards, and I don’t drink 55

anymore.” But abstinence did not suit him either, even during Prohibition. In February 1930, the same month the Nation praised the Bierce biography, he was arrested for drunk driving and given a thirty-day suspended sentence. Despite his restlessness, or perhaps because of it, he married Dorothy Hedrick in July of that year. After a civil ceremony in Santa Ana, the couple honeymooned in the Paci‹c Northwest, where they could drink legally in British Columbia. During this time, the University of Washington Bookstore was preparing McWilliams’s chapbook, The New Regionalism in American Literature (1930). Dedicated to Mary Austin, the essay was an extension of McWilliams’s earlier work on Bierce and other Western writers, but it also re›ects larger movements in American intellectual life. The stock market crash and Depression reduced the temptation to lampoon Main Street, and as the nation’s social, political, and economic problems worsened, many writers and intellectuals turned their attention to the common man’s experience. When it came to literary expression, however, McWilliams was not inclined to glorify that experience automatically. Surveying American regional literature and its quality, he quotes without comment an excerpt from An Anthology of South Dakota Poetry: Bad Lands? Glad Lands! Clay Lands? Gay Lands! Sand Lands? Grand Lands! Drear Lands? Dear Lands! If this was the common man’s experience, McWilliams suggests, it was too common for his taste (13). He was also reluctant to equate regionalism with provincialism. He scorned one Midwestern literary magazine, which, “during the period of its existence, bawled for ‘an Iowa Literature’ with humorless insistence” (10). After comparing the so-called new regionalism to the efforts of Yeats and others to create a new Irish literature, McWilliams mentions the movement’s “attempt to escape from the tumultuous present into a glamorous past.” He does not celebrate that attempt. In times so strenuous as ours, it is rather annoying to discover intelligent men devoting their talents to such tasks as listing the animals and plants in Oklahoma folk-cures and noting, with infantile delight, the eroticisms in the folk-speech of taxi-drivers. (23) 56


He also links the movement’s sentimentality to its aversion to social, theological, political, and economic problems, which the new regionalists shunned “with even greater dexterity” than did the local colorists. At the same time, he credits regional literature for its urge to break with irreconcilable and con›icting cultural traditions, its attempt to produce a literary vocabulary adequate to an utterly new and sometimes hostile environment, and its desire for a sense of community. The following year, McWilliams began to demythologize the West as he had Bierce’s life. His “Myths of the West,” which appeared in North American Review, noted the existence and variety of Western cultures but also a persistent interest in de‹ning the entire region’s character. This project led to an imaginary West “of mood and manner,” which was promptly consumed by the region’s inhabitants. He underscored the point by referring to his own experience in Steamboat Springs. In cold fact it would be quite possible to demonstrate that a great deal of Western spirit, so-called, has been made up of mimicry and imitation. Legend reacts on its subject. My father had no end of dif‹culty, as a pioneer cattleman in north-western Colorado, in keeping his cowboys from playing the role of Cowboy. They spent long hours in the bunkhouse on dull days devouring cheap romances of the West and insisted on dressing and acting and talking like the characters in their favorite romances. Many of their “pranks” were, I am sure, of purely literary origin. In real life, such mimicry may have been harmless enough, but the Western myths obscured a far more important historical process by which residents of these new cities reproduced the distinctions of race, class, gender, and religion that they had learned elsewhere. Moreover, these distinctions were “actually intensi‹ed in being transplanted to the west, at least during the initial period after their arrival.” By focusing on the myths and insisting on the West’s distinctiveness, historians had overlooked the continuities between Western cities and their antecedents. In 1932, McWilliams met a writer who was exploring these distinctions from a less intellectual angle. Like McWilliams, John Fante left Colorado for Los Angeles, enrolled in college, began to write, and struck up a correspondence with Mencken, who suggested that his two West Coast disciples meet. Unlike McWilliams, Fante came from a working-class and ›oridly dysfunctional Catholic family, which he featured, sometimes comically, in his ‹ction. In December 1932, the two men met for lunch and began a lifeThe Political Turn 57

long friendship. McWilliams later described Fante as “a young ItalianAmerican, quite short, with wicked rolling black Italian eyes and a glorious sense of humor.” Fante regarded McWilliams as a man who could get things done, and Fante wanted to do a lot. “He seems to be a very ‹ne man,” Fante wrote to his mother the next day. “I have a feeling something good may come of this” (Fante 1991, 36). The fact that McWilliams picked up the check also suited Fante, who was scraping along on odd jobs and occasional checks for short stories—a way of life Fante would later depict in his novel Ask the Dust. McWilliams soon introduced Fante to Ross Wills, the sports editor at the USC Daily Trojan during McWilliams’s tenure as associate editor. Wills, who had lost his hearing following a bout of spinal meningitis in the service, headed the story department at MGM and helped Fante launch his career as a screenwriter. McWilliams and Fante had another common interest—drinking. In one month, for example, they spent a long afternoon drinking at the Hotel Savoy bar in Hollywood; tippling in McWilliams’s car on the way to Santa Barbara, where they met Adamic for more drinking; and polishing off rounds of Bacardi cocktails on Olvera Street after Fante and Wills appeared at McWilliams’s of‹ce and declared the end of his workday. Fante would eventually dedicate a book to McWilliams, describing him as “good friend, evil companion.” McWilliams countered jocularly that Fante was “a more deplorable in›uence on me than I ever was on him.” He struck a similarly playful note in a 1972 letter to a graduate student seeking information on Fante. I left California in 1951 and was thus no longer able to work at the task of keeping my friend reasonably sober, away from race tracks, draw poker sessions, opium dens and other low dives, properly con‹ned to home and hearth and study and in fairly regular attendance at mass. During the years that we were constant associates I managed to set for him—he will deny it vehemently of course—a splendid example of clean living, high thinking, and safe driving. (Fante 1991, 293) In between his legal chores and misadventures with Fante and Wills, McWilliams was ‹nding new outlets for his writing. In 1933, Phil Townsend Hanna offered him a monthly column in Touring Topics, the magazine of the Automobile Club of Southern California. McWilliams



accepted the assignment, which was vacated by a friend leaving Los Angeles, and began a six-year stint with the magazine. Writing the feature— which was “about anything and everything related to California—writers, folklore, climate, history, cults, politics”—usually occupied McWilliams for one to two days per month. For a time, the column ran under the title “California Curiosa.” When the magazine was renamed Westways in January 1934, his column became “Tides West” and ran on the back page under the heading “Current foibles and frailties of Californians—great, near-great, and far from it—revealed by its alert press.” In 1935, his column moved to the front of the magazine and was given more space. The Westways articles were lively and surprisingly substantial. Their primary signi‹cance for McWilliams’s career, however, lay in their mode of production. He pored over piles of newspapers and magazines looking for choice stories and anecdotes, which he clipped and used to develop story ideas for himself and others. The reading he did for his column also helped to inform his 1946 book, Southern California Country, which is still widely regarded as the best interpretive history of the region (ECM, 119). His arrangement with Westways ended in 1939, when Ruth Comfort Mitchell, the sister of an Automobile Club of‹cer and wife of a prominent California grower and state senator, pressed for his termination following the publication of Factories in the Field, an exposé of labor conditions on California’s farms (HAT, 94). McWilliams returned the favor in 1940 by panning Mitchell’s novel, Of Human Kindness, which depicted a California family coping with a farm strike and was meant to counteract the effects of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and McWilliams’s book. McWilliams lambasted the novel again in Ill Fares the Land (1942), calling it “a performance so feeble that it will probably stand as the perfect vindication of Mr. Steinbeck’s point of view” (44).

THE SEEDS OF ACTIVISM In 1933, McWilliams’s authorial range expanded to include social and political issues. As national and international problems worsened, McWilliams found the posture of the amused, cynical observer increasingly dif‹cult to maintain. Unlike Mencken, who largely ignored the

The Political Turn 59

effects of the Depression and railed instead against Roosevelt and the spread of big government, McWilliams registered the economic devastation he witnessed every day at work. As he later recalled: I had, in fact, a prime view of the ravages of the Depression and its human consequences. I seemed to be endlessly involved with foreclosures and evictions (either bringing them or staving them off), bankruptcies, receiverships, savings-and-loan failures, collapsed business ventures, investigating real estate swindles, tracing lost equities, salvaging something for widows from shrunken estates—the whole range of legal tangles that resulted when the bottom fell out of the CoolidgeHoover “boom.” (ECM, 66) Over time, these hardships made his literary interests seem irrelevant or even frivolous. Instead of abandoning these interests, however, he began to focus more on literature that featured the hardships. His friendships with Fante and especially Adamic also altered his sense of literary and intellectual possibility. He became increasingly interested in what Adamic called “Shadow America,” which consisted of America’s large—and largely excluded—immigrant, minority, and working-class populations. As an attorney, McWilliams also began to seek out and challenge the inequities he witnessed. He joined the Southern California chapter of the ACLU, which was working to prevent extralegal strikebreaking measures against agricultural workers. With every report of rising European fascism—including those in Adamic’s 1932 letters to him from Italy— McWilliams immersed himself in labor and civil rights issues. Never a stronghold of organized labor, and with a large population of dispossessed and disenfranchised immigrants, Los Angeles produced more than its share of political, economic, and legal injustices. In a 1940 interview, McWilliams recounted one formative experience from his ‹rst labor case. At the request of the ACLU, he represented several Mexican-American workers in a 1934 citrus strike and learned a lasting lesson. “I hadn’t believed stories of such wholesale violation of civil rights until I went down to Orange County to defend a number of farm workers held in jail for ‘conspiracy,’” he recalled. “When I announced my purpose, the judge said, ‘It’s no use; I’ll ‹nd them guilty anyway.’” These violations touched a deep chord in McWilliams. His father’s experience had imbued him with a thorough distrust of “the system,” and 60


the corruption of the 1920s and the Depression of the 1930s only deepened that skepticism and fueled his rebellion. His journalism gradually shifted away from literary topics and toward legal and political ones. His ‹rst political piece, published in 1933, targeted one of the California economy’s most persistent features—its demand for low-wage, immigrant labor. “Getting Rid of the Mexican,” which appeared in the American Mercury in 1933, criticized policymakers, social workers, sociologists, “and other subsidized sympathizers” in Los Angeles for assisting a program that identi‹ed Mexican citizens on relief and offered to pay for their return to Mexico. For McWilliams, the repatriation program exempli‹ed society’s contempt for the immigrants it relied upon for its prosperity, and he made no effort to conceal his disdain. Social workers reported that many of the Mexicans who were receiving charity had signi‹ed their “willingness” to return to Mexico. Negotiations were at once opened with the social-minded of‹cials of the Southern Paci‹c Railroad. It was discovered that, in wholesale lots, the Mexicans could be shipped to Mexico City for $14.70 per capita. McWilliams implied but nowhere demonstrated that the repatriation program was, in fact, compulsory. Elsewhere in the piece, he cast doubt on the local industrialists’ prediction that Mexican workers could be lured back when the economy picked up. He also chastised the sociologists—“the dogooders” who “subjected the Mexican population to a relentless barrage of surveys, investigations, and clinical conferences”—for not anticipating such an “abrupt severance of the Americanization programme.” The shift to political topics had done nothing to blunt McWilliams’s edge; rather, it ushered in a sharper, more polemical tone in his journalism. In 1934, an election year, McWilliams waded deeper into politics. The New Republic published his article on the Utopian Society, a Southern California organization that supported full employment, a safety net for the sick and aged, and Upton Sinclair’s gubernatorial bid. Sinclair, who had run as a Socialist in the 1930 race, received the Democratic nomination in 1934 and began a campaign based on his End Poverty in California (EPIC) manifesto. The race was an excellent subject for McWilliams, for it allowed him to develop his political journalism while trading on his acquaintance with Sinclair. After interviewing the author in the 1920s, McWilliams frequently escorted out-of-town writers to Sinclair’s home in The Political Turn 61

Monrovia. One such visitor was Edmund Wilson, who spent an afternoon with Sinclair and McWilliams discussing socialism. Sinclair, a teetotaler, did not offer his guests a drink, and when the three men went out to dinner that evening, Wilson asked Sinclair how he “had endured capitalism for so many years without bene‹t of alcohol” (ECM, 69). Sinclair’s campaign became the subject of another McWilliams article for the New Republic. Appearing in August, just before Sinclair secured the Democratic nomination, the piece described the Democratic Party as a “stalking horse for a few greedy politicians,” the most important of whom were feuding with one another. Sinclair had positioned himself for the nomination while “the Democratic tribesmen continued merrily whetting their knives and oiling guns.” Sinclair’s EPIC plan, McWilliams wrote, was essentially “the ‘colony’ idea with which he has been obsessed these many years: the little island of socialistic rectitude and plenty within a sea of capitalistic iniquity and scarcity.” These communities were to be “exemplary social units with churches, playgrounds and theatres—with, perhaps, something to drink, a generous concession from Sinclair.” By McWilliams’s lights, Sinclair’s candidacy had “ef‹ciently scotched his reputation as a radical.” He lacked the support of the Communists, who described him as a “social fascist,” and McWilliams was openly dissatis‹ed with Sinclair’s position on the San Francisco general strike of 1934. The piece concluded with one observer’s assessment of the long-term effect of Sinclair’s campaign. If elected, Sinclair’s plan would “so disgust everybody with pseudo-radical remedies that probably for a long time to come it will be dif‹cult for a real radical to get a hearing.” Fante was unimpressed with McWilliams’s effort—“Ross and I both feel you went hog-wild in your Upton Sinclair stuff for the New Republic” (Fante 1991, 87)—but Mencken disagreed. Just a line to congratulate you on your magni‹cent article about Upton Sinclair in the New Republic for August 22nd. It is one of the best things you have ever done, and I have been reading it with the greatest pleasure. In particular, I am delighted with your list of the wizards who are supporting Sinclair. (Aug. 23, 1934) Mencken persuaded the Baltimore Sun to run a three-part series by McWilliams on the campaign, for which McWilliams received twenty dollars per story. In it, McWilliams described Republican candidate Frank 62


Merriam as “in some indescribable sense . . . a caricature of Republicanism at its worst,” while Sinclair had “become increasingly pious and conservative and self-righteous.” The entire campaign was a “laughable pageant of absurdities.” McWilliams was pleased with his analysis. In a letter to twenty-two-year old Esther Blaisdell, whom he had met while covering the campaign, he reported that he had “hit that Sinclair-Merriam affair almost dead-center; and I hit it squarely, not obliquely, and I hit it hard” (Meyer 1996, 239). Mencken also appreciated McWilliams’s handiwork and its effects. Every moron in the State will be for [Sinclair] before he ‹nishes his whooping. It doesn’t surprise me that your article offended him. He is an extraordinarily vain fellow, and quarrelsome. It is practically impossible to write anything about him without setting him to bellowing. (Sept. 11, 1934) When the election began to turn toward Merriam, Mencken claimed to be disappointed by the foregone entertainment value of a Sinclair victory: “It would be a circus to see him in of‹ce,” he wrote. McWilliams’s coverage courted that response; the headline for the October 14 Baltimore Sun piece, for example, was “California Campaign Is Held Comical.” Encouraged by Mencken’s praise, McWilliams wrote a third piece for the New Republic that appeared the day after the November election. The gubernatorial race was less a campaign than a Sinclair manhunt, McWilliams reported. For his part, Sinclair was “the type of candidate who would make himself the sole issue in any campaign: consequently, he dramatizes, Messiah-like, the opposition.” Aided by the regular Democratic machine, the personal attacks diverted attention from Sinclair’s shaky economic plan. Merriam’s campaign, meanwhile, was “poorly coordinated, stupidly directed, dangerously con‹ned to a narrow negative issue.” Both candidates had “generously tried to elect the other,” but the Republicans enjoyed the support of Hollywood’s studio heads, who had produced newsreels depicting “the draggled hitchhikers hurrying to Sinclair’s promised utopia.” These newsreels, McWilliams noted, were proving effective, and later observers would identify their use in the Sinclair-Merriam race as the birth of media politics (Mitchell 1992). The critic had turned his gaze to electoral politics and found it absurd. Pleased with that ‹nding, Mencken continued to praise McWilliams’s The Political Turn 63

work well after the election. “The stuff you sent the Sun about Sinclair was the best printed in the East, and by far,” wrote Mencken in 1935, about the same time that he hosted McWilliams and Adamic for lunch at his Baltimore home. Later that year, Mencken supported McWilliams’s application for a Guggenheim Foundation award. The two men’s political views later diverged dramatically, and their correspondence waned. Yet McWilliams maintained a lifelong respect for Mencken’s editorial practices and his independence of mind.

THE GREAT DEPRESSION As McWilliams’s political journalism ›ourished, his emotional life was foundering. As early as 1932, he noted in his personal journal, I’m quite discouraged about everything. I so need six months of rest— just to get the knots out of my nervous system and to re›ect. We can actually suffer from lack of re›ection. Then, too, I’m not pleased with my life, prospects, or achievements. (WJ, Aug. 31, 1932) McWilliams later admitted that his prospects and achievements at that time were respectable, but that he did not like the life he had created for himself. Still in his twenties, he found himself “programmed as a reasonably successful young lawyer with a conventional practice, a promising future, and sobering responsibilities” (ECM, 65). When Dorothy gave birth to a son in September 1933, those responsibilities included fatherhood. Recording the birth in his diary, McWilliams noted wryly that Wilson Carey McWilliams, nicknamed Bill Carey, had “few visible traits resembling his father, with the exception of his general charm and austerity of manner” (Sept. 2, 1933). The reasons for McWilliams’s professional dissatisfaction are clear. His relations with his law partners were reasonably amicable, but the work itself, which focused on corporate clients and wealthy families in the Pasadena area, bored him. In the mid-1930s, McWilliams began to accept more labor work and served as a trial examiner for the National Labor Relations Board. Already active in the ACLU, he later joined the National Lawyers Guild, which was founded in 1937 as an alternative to the more conservative American Bar Association (ABA). Over time, tension devel64


oped not only between his writing and his legal work but also between his ‹rm’s traditional practice and the more interesting but less remunerative cases he took on behalf of migrant laborers and rank-and-‹le workers in and around Los Angeles. The sources of McWilliams’s personal dissatisfaction are less obvious, but his aversion to the more conventional aspects of family life was probably a factor. As Lee Ann Meyer has noted, some of this aversion crops up in his unpublished novel-in-progress, Flags in the Sunset. The protagonist, Blair Ryan, is surrounded by family members who, according to the thirdperson narrator, “do not move or change or grow. They live amiably preserved in the amber of middleclass stability. What makes them unreal is the circumstance that they cannot see their world.” As Blair watches his mother, brother, sister-in-law, and wife playing bridge, the narrator observes: Blair could never remember having discovered in any of them, after these years of searching and interrogation, a troubling uncertainty, an unallayed doubt, a loose-end of speculation. Without thought and wholly instinctively, they believed in loving the people you love; in ful‹lling obligations; in thrift and social obedience; in accumulation for the future . . . To that group, . . . Blair did not belong. Viewing his wife and family from the outside, McWilliams’s protagonist sees a group of static, stunted, blinkered, and unreal lives. He stands apart from them, literally and ‹guratively. Although it is risky to read such passages as straight autobiography, even in a ‹rst novel, family life clearly occupied a central and problematic place in McWilliams’s imagination during this period. McWilliams’s diary entries also described a descending weather system of depression during this time. In December 1933, he noted, “For weeks past, or months, even longer, I have been cursed with a spell of mental befuddlement. It is a cross between paralysis and confusion, with a considerable measure of just plain stagnation.” Given his father’s breakdown, McWilliams likely found this mental state especially dif‹cult to endure. Moreover, his cure of ‹rst resort, intensive literary production, was failing him. I looked at old & un‹nished manuscripts and they all seem ludicrously dull and uninteresting. I tried to think of some ideas I’ve been wanting to develop, —but I had lost them or, when recaptured, they seemed stuThe Political Turn 65

pid. Then I tried thinking just for the pleasure of thinking, but could not come to grip with the simplest thought. And I’ve seldom been in this condition, so seldom, in fact, that I’m startled and just a bit dismayed. (Dec. 17, 1933) By the next month, McWilliams’s surprise and dismay had given way to a stoical propriety. “To the person of reasonably acute sensibilities,” he noted in his diary, “misery must be his or her constant state, even if they deny this, by an indoctrinated sense of good breeding and mannerliness.” After the 1934 election, McWilliams’s diary entries indicate a more speci‹c con›ict, but he remained oblique about its nature. November 24: Here it is November 24th, and this troubled experience persists, persists with all variety of complication and aggravation. I’m between the most unpleasant alternatives and, at the moment, so damned weary that really it doesn’t seem to matter much, one way or the other. Does anything matter? I know, of course, that this does matter. I am capable of feeling intensely about it, if that’s a token. December 10: And still it lasts . . . Everything began to go to pieces for me during the now-forgotten Merriam-Sinclair campaign. The excitement, late hours, conferences,—the craziness of it all,—seemed to be such a crystallization of nearly every misgiving and doubt that I had ever entertained about the reality of what I was doing,—of the kind of life I was leading. Now it seems impossible: I just don’t think it possible to go on this way much longer. December 18: And last night, I closed not an eye and was tortured for hours with misgivings and regrets— December 25: Last night at brother’s was bad, really bad. I tried to read Rabelais while the others played bridge—but this did not work. I felt restless and slightly morose and determined to get away. I think that, right at the moment, my dominant desire is to live alone. I think the fact that I have not lived alone, these last years, accounts for many things. Tomorrow I shall look about. Lee Ann Meyer has argued that McWilliams’s “troubled experience” was activated by his encounter with Esther Blaisdell, whom McWilliams had met in late September while covering the Sinclair campaign. Tall, slim, and beautiful, Blaisdell had grown up in the Imperial Valley border town of Calexico, where her mother taught piano and her father had a law practice. Known locally as “El Tigre,” Blaisdell’s father was an early pro66


ponent of the insanity defense and an unreliable husband and parent. Equipped with a .22-caliber ‹rearm and a badge, he frequently disappeared across the border for months at a time, leading some family members to speculate that he had a mistress or perhaps even another family in Mexico. Although Esther was a bright student and a talented writer, her family did not encourage her education. Instead, she helped out in her father’s law of‹ce while her brother received ‹nancial support for his college education.1 McWilliams’s letters to Blaisdell indicate that the two became close very quickly.2 In October 1934, for example, McWilliams wrote: Study things you don’t care about, work at occupations that are hateful, tolerate as friends people you do not like, accept as ideas the straw words of others,—do all this, and the mutilation is so nearly complete that you have unconsciously accepted it as ‹nal. (Meyer 1996, 188) That McWilliams would share this con‹dence is especially notable given that he had known Blaisdell less than a month. Only his use of the second person, which allows this passage to be read as a form of cautionary advice, distinguishes it from straight confession. Their subsequent correspondence suggests an even more intimate relationship. According to Blaisdell’s niece, who discovered McWilliams’s letters after her aunt’s death, McWilliams proposed a trip to Las Vegas, where he would obtain a divorce and marry Blaisdell. Meyer claims that the relationship between McWilliams and Blaisdell found its ‹ctional counterpart in Flags in the Sunset, in which Blair Ryan’s encounter with Miss Sampson leads Blair to reject the comforts of his inauthentic life. Given McWilliams’s literary sensibility and aspirations, the precise form of Ryan’s epiphany may owe as much to James Joyce as to Esther Blaisdell. Yet McWilliams’s diary leaves no doubt that he was shaken by the events of the fall and winter of 1934–35—presumably an affair with Blaisdell—and what he called “the wild beauty of the experience.” He also felt powerless to change or correct the situation: “And yet every incident tightened the hold of that person upon me . . . I felt that I could do or say nothing, but continue,—hold on steadfastly as long as I could” (Mar. 12, 1935). The experience electri‹ed him but also left him feeling out of control emotionally and therefore intensely uncomfortable. On the strength of the correspondence, diary entries, and novel-inThe Political Turn 67

progress, Meyer concludes that McWilliams’s relationship with Blaisdell prompted him to question—and eventually to shed—much of the personal and professional identity he had constructed for himself. Whatever his precise motive, McWilliams chose to remove himself from the perceived constraints of home and family. Although he and Dorothy did not divorce until just before he married Iris Dornfeld in 1941, they separated amicably. McWilliams took an apartment in Hollywood, and Dorothy and Bill Carey remained in the Los Angeles area until 1943, when she accepted a teaching position in Merced, a small town in the San Joaquin Valley. McWilliams’s family took a dim view of the divorce, and Harriet stayed in close touch with Dorothy; indeed, she lived with Dorothy and Bill Carey for several years in Merced. McWilliams and Blaisdell remained intimate for several years. A 1936 letter from Fante to McWilliams referred to an article “by your red protegee Esther” (Fante 1991, 133). In a letter to Adamic the following year, McWilliams reported that Blaisdell was with her mother in Calexico recovering from an operation, and that he was planning to visit there the following week. Two years later, Adamic closed a letter to McWilliams by sending his best regards to Esther. By the 1940s, however, McWilliams and Blaisdell had lost touch. Originally thrilled by McWilliams’s attention, Blaisdell was hurt and later embarrassed by their relationship, in part because her politics became more conservative over the years. She never married, and her interlude with McWilliams became a family secret.3

LOUIS ADAMIC & SHADOW-AMERICA As McWilliams’s private crisis ran its course, his public pro‹le was on the rise. Several pieces about him appeared in Los Angeles newspapers and magazines, most of them stressing his versatility, intelligence, and seriousness. According to one newspaper article, “He is dark, studious looking. He gives the impression of stored-up energy and lots of brains working smoothly.” That description meshes with another from a 1935 magazine article by Lawrence Clark Powell, a fellow member of the Jake Zeitlin circle.4 [McWilliams] is a man of considerable reserve, and he is a good listener; which last quality makes him something of a rarity. He appears to



be taking life rather seriously and is apparently thinking about things all the time you are with him. And his books show him to be a clear thinker—that makes him almost unique. Powell’s piece noted that McWilliams was planning a book on Colorado, another on William Butler Yeats, and a series of articles for the Nation on prominent California Communists. That series did not develop as planned, but its subjects were to include Harry Bridges, leader of the International Longshoremen’s Association, whom McWilliams admired for his “shrewd, practical approach”; Caroline Decker, the young organizer of the ›edgling Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, who was convicted that year of criminal syndicalism; and author and activist Ella Winter, who was living and working in Carmel with her husband, the legendary muckraker Lincoln Steffens. One piece that did appear in the Nation featured Leo Gallagher, the radical attorney who had served as counsel in several criminal syndicalism trials. McWilliams’s immediate project, however, was Louis Adamic & Shadow-America, a pro‹le of his good friend. Designed by another member of the Zeitlin circle, Ward Ritchie, the book appeared in 1935. Despite McWilliams’s familiarity with his subject, his introduction seems uncharacteristically strained. He ‹rst reports that he is asked with increasing frequency what sort of person Adamic is. He then cites with approval a long passage from Otto Rank’s Art and Artist, which explains that “the average man has great dif‹culty in dealing with ideologies” and that these dif‹culties account for the curiosity about the artist’s life among the “hero-worshipping public.” McWilliams proposes a better reason for writing about Adamic. It happens not infrequently that an individual cuts across the current of his time at such a tangent that he necessarily sees the movement of events with exceptional clarity. Because of his relation to events he himself becomes a phenomenon of contemporary interest. In this manner Louis Adamic is a person who will interest a constantly increasing number of Americans . . . [Adamic] sees events with a clarity which, apparently, is denied to most native Americans. Hence the curiosity that infects other people about him is not only legitimate in itself, but indicative of the fact that his signi‹cance as a person is widely sensed. I have discussed Louis Adamic and his work with many persons and on a wide variety of occasions, but I have yet to be told that he is uninteresting. (10–11)

The Political Turn 69

This introduction is notable for its condescension to “the average man’s” curiosity about Adamic. By this account, Adamic’s extraordinary vision redeems the pedestrian interest in him. Once redeemed, that interest is used to support the claim that Adamic’s “signi‹cance as a person is widely sensed.” The best reason for writing about Adamic, it seems, is that none of McWilliams’s interlocutors had found him uninteresting—a view that the book’s readers might already share. Also noteworthy is the extent to which this passage can be read as self-portrait. It would later be said of McWilliams that he saw the movement of events with exceptional, almost prescient clarity. Indeed, he claims a minor version of this prescience when he writes that Adamic’s “subsequent development has aroused no emotions of surprise in me; in fact, I can immodestly claim some prevision of the event” (11). The clairvoyance falters, however, when McWilliams predicts that Adamic’s next book “will probably do for contemporary America what Alexis de Toqueville’s tome did for the America of a century ago” (13). McWilliams then sketches his friend’s personality. He is especially concerned to defend Adamic from the charge of holding a “middle-class point of view.” “Since I have known Adamic,” McWilliams writes, “he has been instinctively hostile to typically middle-class concepts” (23). Moreover, he “has never taken American middle-class existence seriously. By a sort of defense mechanism, in fact, he has steeled himself against it.” McWilliams continues: I know with what aversion he has always stood back instinctively from conduct that might seem to imply even complicity in the vagaries of middle-class existence. Two qualities about his nature quickly impressed me: his keenly sensed antipathy to the point of view of the middle class, which he viewed with curiosity and interest, it is true, but towards which he was never anything but hostile; and the extent to which he had escaped the ravages of post-war romanticism. (24) By McWilliams’s later standards, the tone is defensive, the claims disjointed and unmeasured. Adamic was curious about, but instinctively hostile to, the middle-class existence that he declined to take seriously but felt the need to defend himself against. The reader might reasonably conclude that Adamic’s attitude toward middle-class life was extraordinarily complex. At least part of this complexity may arise from McWilliams’s own 70


unsettled feelings about that life. The urge to acquit Adamic of “conduct that might seem to imply even complicity in the vagaries of middle-class existence” has about it the air of self-defense. McWilliams goes on to discuss his friend’s conception of America—and of Los Angeles, which Adamic equated with America—by stressing his “instinctive awareness of the gross discrepancy between the advertised virtues of American life and its swindling realities” (25). Adamic’s initial response to that discrepancy was detached amusement, which his own autobiography traced to the in›uence of Mencken. McWilliams quotes Adamic on that point. For several years I agreed with Mencken that the sensible thing to do for a sensitive and intelligent person who could not help being interested in the American scene was to look upon it—upon the whole, “gross, glittering, excessively dynamic, in‹nitely grotesque drama of American life”—with detachment, as a “circus show.” (28–29) But McWilliams, who shared Adamic’s standof‹sh attitude toward many aspects of American culture, maintains that his friend “never did think that America was quite that funny” (30). Rather, he was “intensely indignant at any manifestation of injustice” (30–31). McWilliams then surveys Adamic’s speci‹c strengths and weaknesses as a thinker and artist. Adamic is “astute in observation and rather feeble in power of abstract thought” (49).5 Claiming that Adamic was essentially a propagandist, McWilliams offers a lengthy excursus on the relationship between art and propaganda. If the contemporary novel “no longer satis‹es our minds,” it was because it had come to express “the decadence of a particular type of individualism” (73). McWilliams then credits Marxist critics for explaining why “the artist of today is being driven into closer contact with life,” noting that their explanation is “not dissimilar” to Otto Rank’s. He concludes that Adamic was “exactly the type of person who, in his experience and in his work, illustrates the tendencies noted in this section” (74). By matching Adamic to a set of Marxist and psychoanalytical ideas, however, McWilliams risks the perception that these ideas, and not his subject, shape his portrait. McWilliams takes other rhetorical risks as well. Linking Adamic’s insight about America to his immigrant status, McWilliams cannot resist another swipe at the typical American. The Political Turn 71

[The immigrant] is conscious of America: he actually looks at us and our institutions. He tries to formulate a concept—America. The typical native American would doubtless read Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life with a lazy and stupid inattention; seriously, I doubt if he would ‹nish the book—and this apart from the fact that it really is a dull affair. (77) If the reader accepts McWilliams’s implicit claim—that Croly’s 1909 book might remedy the typical native’s inability to see America for what it is— then the laziness and stupidity McWilliams casually attributes to natives are lamentable. By describing Croly’s book as “a dull affair,” however, he undermines his own argument for that book’s signi‹cance and purported bene‹ts. One leaves Louis Adamic & Shadow-America with questions about its achievement. Its claim that Adamic is “a great social propagandist” is neither persuasive nor inspiring, and nothing in the book warrants the conclusion that Adamic might be the next Toqueville. When measured against McWilliams’s other works, it seems minor in its choice of topic and execution. It is perhaps best seen as a transitional work undertaken while McWilliams was shifting his sights from literature to politics. In this sense, McWilliams’s claim that Adamic is “the type, par excellence, of the artist in a period in transition” is another remarkable projection. Yet the book also re›ects the evolution of McWilliams’s style. Intelligent, mannered, dismissive, and indignant, the voice of Louis Adamic & Shadow-America would undergo more changes before McWilliams’s signature style would emerge in the 1940s. Adamic moved to New York in 1935, and the two friends continued to correspond. However, their letters indicate that their relationship was never quite as intimate or easygoing as some of McWilliams’s recollections suggest. After McWilliams called on Adamic in New York in 1935, a letter from Adamic alluded to some friction during the visit. As I say, possibly it was nothing at all, except my own weariness and nervousness, coupled with the realization which came to me soon after you arrived, that you and I have maitained [sic] our friendship on a curious impersonal plane, ’way above our personal, emotional problems. I would like you to know, though, that if there is ever anything I can do for you, you must let me know. It has occured [sic] to me that you’ve never made any demand on me, that I’ve never done anything for you, 72


while I have made demands on you and you have done many things for me. I wanted to say this because in some ways you’re a funny guy, very restrained, and you might not let me know if you need something. You might not, anyhow, even after I’ve gotten this off my chest. (April 11, 1935) The letter reveals a good deal about both men. It mentions Adamic’s own characteristic weariness and nervousness, but it also identi‹es two features of McWilliams’s character—his reserve and self-suf‹ciency—that thwarted the formation of intimate relationships throughout his life. Even his closest friends acknowledged that he rarely asked for even the smallest favors. “He wouldn’t even ask for a glass of water,” one longtime friend recounted. “He would go get it.”6 Adamic’s urge to reciprocate was authentic, however. Later that year, he checked up on McWilliams’s application for a Guggenheim Foundation award while lunching with a foundation of‹cer in New York. In 1937, their correspondence became testier. Responding to Adamic’s The House in Antigue, McWilliams wrote that Adamic had been “rather romantic about the whole episode.” Adamic returned a four-page letter in which he asked, “Are you afraid of romance generally?” He also added, “Your letter manifests a great confusion in you, which is complicated by a great desperation to get out of it; but I’m very grateful for it—I mean for your letter.” More than two months later, McWilliams sent a ‹ve-page, point-by-point response to Adamic’s letter. “I’ve no objection to romance; who has?” he asked rhetorically. “Your resentment is uncalled for. Read my letter again.”7 The sharpness of the exchange did not prompt a break, however, and the two maintained their friendship into the 1950s.

THE “ANTI-FASCIST PHASE” McWilliams surrounded his book on Adamic with a stream of magazine pieces that blended concerns about the law, local politics, and the rise of authoritarian ideologies abroad. In 1934, he began to publish pieces on fascism, California style. Appearing in the American Mercury, “Fascism in American Law” argued that the “powerful, concerted, nation-wide drive for a summary criminal procedure points to the appearance of an unmistakably Fascist sentiment in this country.” The occasion for the piece was a The Political Turn 73

lynching in San Jose, which McWilliams analyzed along with its coverage in the state’s newspapers. “The cry for summary criminal justice,” he concluded, “generally uttered by those still hoarse from shouting at a lynching, is unquestionably the voice of Fascism.” Relying heavily on the adverbial touch (unmistakably, unquestionably) to link American vigilantism to European totalitarianism, McWilliams also called Governor James Rolph “the cheapest groveller for mob approval that ever disgraced high executive of‹ce in the United States.” In a related piece, “Law and the Future,” McWilliams extended his criticism to the state’s newspaper publishers and journalists. By demonizing lawyers, he maintained, “irresponsible journalists, Mr. Hearst foremost among them, are paving the road to fascism.” McWilliams applied the fascist label again in “Hollywood Plays with Fascism,” a 1935 piece in the Nation based on a series of columns by Stephen O’Donnell in the Los Angeles Post-Record. McWilliams’s usage indicates that, for him, fascism did not necessarily denote a nationalist, totalitarian system led by a dictator but rather any form of “›amboyant militarism.”8 That de‹nition was satis‹ed by the activities of three organizations—founded by actors Victor McLaglen, Gary Cooper, and George Brent—whose members drilled in uniform one night a week with veteran of‹cers or received ›ying lessons. According to McWilliams, these “successful fascist units” were “designed to advertise the charms of fascist organizations to the American public.” He noted that two Superior Court judges were listed in the ranks of one group: “Both of these men, of course, have occasion to pass upon the rights of workers and organizers charged with violating California’s numerous laws for the maintenance of the status quo.” Taken together, the three groups constituted “a threat and a warning.” Although ludicrous, McWilliams concluded, they were organized and armed. In a reply cited in O’Donnell’s column, the leader of one such group defended his organization. The Hollywood Hussars are in no way opposed to organized labor. In fact, many of our members carry union cards. It is in our bylaws that we turn out to serve the community in all emergencies, other than labor disputes . . . Making ours a Fascist movement is farthest from our intent, or desire. Even if the Hussars were harmless, however, McWilliams was not alone in detecting a fascist threat in Los Angeles. In 1933, an increasingly conserva74


tive William Randolph Hearst noted privately, “In Los Angeles lately there have been fascist organizations created apparently with no opposition or objection on the part of local government. But communistic demonstrations have been rigidly suppressed” (Nasaw 2000, 483). The Hollywood Hussars piece, together with the columns it was based on, had an immediate effect. In a letter to the Nation dated May 29—the of‹cial date of the essay’s publication—McWilliams wrote: Mr. Cooper told me that the character of the Hollywood Hussars was grossly misrepresented to him at the time that he consented to be a “founder.” Upon investigation into the real purposes and function of the organization he immediately withdrew his membership and support. McWilliams’s letter appeared in the June 26 issue, which included a large subscription advertisement with the headline, “The Nation Exposes Fascism—Mr. Gary Cooper Resigns from Hollywood Hussars.” McWilliams’s concerns about fascism also framed his interest in religious and ethnic prejudice. As he explained in the introduction to his 1935 pamphlet, It Can Happen Here: Active Anti-Semitism in Los Angeles, his motives were more political than they were social or cultural. I undertook the investigation for two reasons: ‹rst, I am convinced that fascism impends in America today; and second, because I have come to believe that California is the state of the union which has advanced farthest toward an integrated fascist set-up. (3) Anticipating skepticism from his readers, McWilliams maintained that the proclamations of a local Nazi sympathizer were “further evidence that fascism is approaching in America. Absurd, you will say. But that attitude,— amused incredulity,—is the attitude which Sinclair Lewis has so ably exposed” (25). That McWilliams’s pamphlet responded to fascism rather than to antiSemitism as such was corroborated by another piece he wrote that year for the Carmel-based Paci‹c Weekly, a magazine coedited by William K. Bassett, Lincoln Steffens, and Ella Winter. First published in January 1935, the magazine was intended, as Bassett announced in its premier issue, to “offset the ›ood of capitalist and fascist propaganda.” McWilliams’s article, “Jewish Fascism,” condemned Jews who failed to appreciate the horrors of capitalism. The Political Turn 75

The Jews in California, following a carefully de‹ned national policy, have worked out a clever technique for the salvation of their souls and the promotion of fascism . . . the elder statesmen of the race have adopted a policy whereby anti-nazi sentiment may be used to fortify the status quo . . . How is it possible to attack communism today without supporting fascism? The middle ground upon which the American Jews have so cowardly elected to stand is not neutral ground—it is safe capitalistic territory. And they may yet come to regret that they entrusted their precious Semitism to the protection and sponsorship of William Randolph Hearst and his powerful new capitalist allies, Messrs. Harry and Jack Warner. Lumping together all Jewish Americans and mocking their “precious Semitism,” McWilliams scorned their cowardice and sought to make any middle ground between capitalism and communism uninhabitable. Ironically, a similar tactic would be used against him in the 1950s, when antiCommunists argued that criticizing Senator Joseph McCarthy was tantamount to supporting Stalin. A similar stridency also characterized McWilliams’s other contributions to Paci‹c Weekly, which McWilliams joined as a contributing editor after Bassett left in June 1936. (When Steffens died shortly thereafter, McWilliams joined the board of directors, and Steffens’s widow, Ella Winter, ran the magazine until it folded later that year.) Even Upton Sinclair, who ran for governor on the Socialist ticket in 1930, did not escape the sting of McWilliams’s ideological lash. In 1936, McWilliams denounced Sinclair’s latest play on ideological grounds. For, to put it mildly, Love in Arms is viciously reactionary . . . a gross, impardonable slander on the working-class in this country . . . likely to do serious injury to the militant radical movement now coming into existence in this country. Sinclair defended himself in a subsequent issue, noting the review’s inaccuracies and correctly predicting that the play would be far less damaging—or even consequential—than McWilliams indicated. Radical journalist Anna Louise Strong joined the exchange, accusing Sinclair of betraying the ideals of his EPIC program by running for governor as a Democrat. Sinclair responded, “My advice to the American people will be to stick to democracy and make it work.” Sinclair also maintained that



McWilliams’s review followed the Communist Party line, but nothing in McWilliams’s corpus from the 1930s on is inconsistent with Sinclair’s advice about democracy. The exchange marked a low point in their nineyear relationship, which had already suffered as a result of McWilliams’s 1934 campaign reportage, but it did not prevent McWilliams from recruiting Sinclair as a sponsor and keynote speaker at the Western Writers Congress later that year. McWilliams leveled the charge of fascism most emphatically, however, in a ›urry of articles on California agribusiness. In “The Farmers Get Tough,” a 1934 piece for the American Mercury, McWilliams maintained, “The most striking illustration of farmer-Fascism in California has been the revolt in Imperial Valley. For the Imperial Valley farmers have not protested: they have ‘revolted,’ in the Fascist sense.” The article summarized the region’s labor con›icts and the Associated Farmers’ political agenda, which McWilliams described as the deportation of radical aliens, the dismissal of “Communistically inclined school teachers,” and the establishment of a local anti-Communist organization. It also detailed the use of strong-arm tactics to crush union organizing efforts. Several of McWilliams’s acquaintances had been intimidated, including a labor attorney and fellow ACLU member who, McWilliams reported, had been removed from his hotel room, beaten, and escorted to San Diego, where his car was dumped over a cliff. McWilliams closed the piece with a description of the typical Imperial Valley grower. [T]he old-fashioned farmer has been supplanted by a type to which the term can no longer be applied with accuracy. The new farmer is a grower. He is only semi-rural. Often he regards his farm as a business and has it incorporated. He belongs to a number of wealthy produce exchanges; he is the director of several “protective associations.” Moreover, he has a hand in state politics. He employs a bookkeeper, and, in sober truth, he looks rather like a banker. He dabbles in publicity and has learned the trick of mob-baiting. He will never be an ally of labor. Every part of this description targeted the myth of the happy yeoman. The grower was corporate, political, demagogical, neither rural nor urban. He was not particularly serious—he dabbled and performed tricks—but he was powerful, connected, and dangerous. Although the description applied to

The Political Turn 77

a type, McWilliams lent it physical speci‹city. His claim that the grower resembled a banker—a loaded comparison in the middle of the Depression—was perhaps the most subjective part of the description, but McWilliams reinforced it with the assurance that it was the “sober truth.” “The Farmers Get Tough” marked the high point of McWilliams’s political journalism to that time. It highlighted an important issue and treated it seriously. There was no talk of comedy or circuses, no Olympian perspective on the absurdity of American life. It included some passing hyperbole—for example, the claim that the Imperial Valley had “virtually seceded from the union”—but it was concise and cogent, and its brief description of the valley’s landscape and history was a minor tour de force. This strenuous country has no settled way of life. Social antagonisms stand forth, in sculptural simplicity, against a barren, harshly illuminated, background. Life is a hard business in the valley. Dif‹culties that might be appeased by the celebrated amenities of rural life elsewhere, break out as the clamor of class-warfare—ugly and tense—in Imperial Valley. Wealth has been wrung from the land at the price of unending, bitter con›ict. Violence is what one somehow expects from the place. Fante applauded the piece in the same letter that criticized the election coverage in the New Republic: “A ‹ne thing, your Mercury piece on Imperial Valley—I marvel at your ability to make facts interesting; to say nothing of your great talent at selection” (Fante 1991, 87). By 1935, McWilliams was eager to investigate the farm strikes and labor clashes that had led to several convictions on charges of criminal syndicalism in Sacramento. Along with Herbert Klein, McWilliams decided to tour the state by interviewing growers, contractors, labor leaders, detectives, and state of‹cials. He and Klein, a freelance journalist, had met through Jake Zeitlin in the late 1920s, when Klein was contemplating a graduate thesis at Occidental College on Robinson Jeffers. Abandoning his studies, Klein traveled to Berlin in the early 1930s and returned to Los Angeles with an eye pealed for all forms of domestic fascism. In Sacramento, McWilliams and Klein reviewed trial transcripts and spoke with defense counsel Leo Gallagher. They also visited the San Quentin penitentiary to interview two of the convicted defendants, Pat Chambers and Norman Mini. In Fresno, they met with members of the American Workers Party and S. Parker 78


Friselle of the Associated Farmers. They also stopped in Carmel, where Bassett agreed to run their coauthored articles on farm labor and ownership in Paci‹c Weekly. Klein decided to use a pen name, Clive Belmont, to better preserve his chances of becoming a teacher. Ten months later, the ‹rst of the six articles appeared in Paci‹c Weekly. It described the large growers’ demand for “›uid, casual” labor and the social effects of that labor market. The second piece, “Farm Fascism,” argued that “the development has been from unorganized farmer violence—vigilantism proper—to highly organized and skillfully manipulated terror.” The third essay claimed that farming in California “is more completely capitalistic in its method . . . than the farming of any other comparable section.” It also maintained that “the analytic methods of Marx and Lenin reveal more to us of the real social consequences of capitalistic agriculture than all the hush-hushery of the Giannini-dominated College of Agriculture at Berkeley, or its counterparts elsewhere.”9 The fourth piece claimed that agricultural labor must be organized “to hold ground against the wage cuts and fascist aims of organized ‹nancial reaction,” while the ‹fth credited the International Workers of the World (IWW) for what gains had been achieved for agricultural workers in California. The sixth and ‹nal piece assessed the prospects for farm labor, concluding that only consistent unionism and political militancy could “enable the farm workers of California to terminate slavery, starvation, and bloodshed in the factories in the ‹elds of California.” The following year, Paci‹c Weekly also published McWilliams’s “Gunkist Oranges,” which described a labor con›ict between growers and citrus pickers in Orange County. Throughout this period, McWilliams’s advocacy led to memberships in several Popular Front organizations and brought him into contact with a number of Communists. In a diary entry from January 1938, he mentioned repeated invitations to join the Communist Party: “I’ve been asked several times lately to join the Communist Party,—the lawyers section (they have one now), but I’ve objections: the state of affairs in Russia; I’m sick unto death of committees and discussions, and so forth” (Jan. 28, 1938). These objections seem valid enough, though the latter complaint certainly did not prevent McWilliams from joining many other organizations and spending countless hours in meetings. The state of affairs in Russia was another matter, and many who did join the Communist Party would later leave after the Soviet-Nazi pact and reports of Stalinist repression. A letter The Political Turn 79

to Adamic, too, makes it clear that McWilliams was averse to the prospect of Party discipline. Don’t think that I am a “convert” or “revolutionist.” I am not a CP member. I have worked fairly closely with them locally because they seemed to be the only people who were doing any work . . . I have never joined the Party because I have known that I could not work satisfactorily within its requirements, and because I have been in disagreement on many points. (Dec. 26, 1937) This was a more substantial objection, but there was probably another more personal source of resistance to Party membership and Marxism more generally. In a recent interview, longtime friend and political science professor Francis Carney maintained, “Carey couldn’t become a full-›edged Marxist because he could never accept the idea of his father as a kulak.”10 McWilliams never connected his views about Marxist orthodoxy to his feelings about his father, but he frequently stressed the native roots of his politics, and his lack of enthusiasm for the foundational texts of Marxism was one reason he considered himself a homegrown American radical. Despite his reservations about joining the Communist Party, McWilliams subscribed and submitted his work to its publications. In 1938, he considered sending his manuscript on migratory farm labor, Factories in the Field, to a San Francisco Communist newspaper. He noted in his diary: Back here and have worked all day on a chapter in that farm labor mss. which, I fear, is dull as hell. But I’m going to ‹nish it by May 1st,—if it bores me to death! I can always print it, I suppose in the People’s World—the revised Western Worker. (Jan. 16, 1938) In the end, Little, Brown and Company published the book, but People’s World also ran it in eleven installments between December 1938 and February 1939. As far as the House Committee on Un-American Activities was concerned, however, McWilliams was as good as Red. Well aware of his Popular Front af‹liations, the committee identi‹ed him in 1938 as a radical for his role in organizing the Western Writers Congress in San Francisco in November 1936. For that event, McWilliams was the Southern California point man for soliciting sponsors, compiling addresses, and planning the 80


conference, which was meant to raise funds for Paci‹c Weekly. Its sessions included “Censorship, Suppression, and Fascist Trends” and “Writing and Propaganda,” along with seminars on the novel, poetry, and drama. Nathanael West, Kenneth Rexroth, and Clifford Odets participated, and the organization’s auxiliary ‹nance committee included Irving Stone, McWilliams’s former economics professor at USC. Upton Sinclair gave the keynote address, and Harry Bridges, whose longshoremen’s union had prompted the 1934 General Strike in San Francisco, delivered the ‹nal speech. In “The Writer and Civil Liberties,” McWilliams argued that the work of writers and artists was to “make real, to make palpable, the social actualities of the day.” The speech was printed in the Southern California ACLU magazine, The Open Forum, in two successive issues. Not all of McWilliams’s colleagues endorsed the conference. Robinson Jeffers declined to attend, telling a San Francisco Chronicle reporter that he doubted that “culture can be maintained by conventions and committees.” Not coincidentally, perhaps, a panelist at the conference placed Jeffers’s name on the list of “sentimental writers” who “committed the sin of failing to write about things as they are.” The article also quoted McWilliams, who said it was the “right of writers to take an interest in the preservation of civil liberties” (Nov. 16, 1936). Fante also attended the conference, but it did little to alter his priorities. “If America went Soviet tomorrow,” he wrote to McWilliams, “I’d still read Nietzsche, long for beauty, seek the turmoil of women, and dream of the greatest novel ever written” (Fante 1991, 133). Fante hated poverty, at least for himself, for a simple reason—“I can’t fuck enough.” This insight served as the basis for his political philosophy: “I am not in favor of Capitalism or Communism, but Clitorism” (134). Although he enjoyed talking with Harry Bridges and congratulated McWilliams on his organizing efforts, Fante also remarked on the preponderance of “frauds and soap-boxers” at the conference. He was more scathing in a letter to Mencken, listing and describing the phonies, hacks, hypocrites, and sermonizers he had come across. After arriving in a fur coat, Fante wrote, Dorothy Parker “managed a sobby delivery and asked the comrades to sympathize with the poor scenarists; she admitted they made big money, but there was nothing that could be done about it” (Moreau 1989, 106). By Fante’s reckoning, McWilliams turned out to be the conference’s chief victim. His letter to Mencken described his friend’s plight. The Political Turn 81

Poor Carey McWilliams was the sucker. I stayed with him in San Francisco and got a pretty good idea of what the Reds will do to an agreeable and curious man. Carey is more pink than Red and after three days of slavery for those longhairs they made him editor of a dozen different pamphlets, programs, brochures, magazines and papers. Not only that, but chairman of ‹fty different committees. He has enough work—without pay—to keep him busier for a full year than Lenin during the Ten Days. When he left to catch the Los Angeles train he was sweating beneath the weight of a portfolio that might have been a bale of hay. I think they made a Fascist out of him. (Moreau 1989, 107) Fante also reported an exchange between McWilliams and Bridges, whom he described as “hawk-faced, sharp, intelligent and terri‹cally conceited.” McWilliams “threw a lot of questions at him which he answered with insolent ‹nality.” The result was that “McWilliams tripped him up a couple of times and [Bridges] promptly put on a Hitler scowl and turned on the sneer” (107). Despite Fante’s negative impressions of the conference, McWilliams had found his métier. The Western Writers Congress folded a few months later, but he continued his leftist work in several related organizations. In 1937, he attended the conference of the League of American Writers and eventually became an associate editor of its magazine, Black and White. He also worked closely with the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League for the Defense of American Democracy (HANL) and wrote a weekly column for their newsletter (Geary 2003). Later, he chaired the Steinbeck Committee to Aid Agricultural Workers and was succeeded by the former actress Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was also active in HANL. In addition, he chaired the last mass meeting in Los Angeles on behalf of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. Held at the Trinity Auditorium in December 1938, the meeting featured Theodore Dreiser, whose stalking, growling, and muttering on the platform struck McWilliams as odd but also “strangely eloquent and impressive” (ECM, 93). McWilliams’s “anti-fascist phase,” as he put it in his memoir, ended with the Soviet-Nazi Pact of August 1939. He described the period between that historic event and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 as “a nightmarish season” characterized by savage feuding and in‹ghting within the antifascist coalition (ECM, 93–94). During that time, McWilliams did not favor direct American intervention in the war, a position he later justi‹ed summarily and unconvincingly. In his view, Adolf 82


Hitler “signed his death warrant” when he invaded the Soviet Union: “For me, this was the turning point in the war. Later I was convinced that the Japanese would never have struck at Pearl Harbor in December had it not been for Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June” (ECM, 95). In a September 1941 symposium in the New Republic, he claimed that President Roosevelt’s tactics “are well calculated to drive the Nazis crazy. The uncertainty of our policy is more exasperating to them than a forthright declaration of war . . . May I add, however, with respect to Japan, that I strongly favor a hard-boiled aggressive policy—an absolute embargo, enforced if necessary by blockade” (ECM, 95). McWilliams’s critics would later maintain that driving Hitler crazy was unnecessary; what was truly needed was active, direct, and resolute opposition to Nazi aggression, but McWilliams did not call for it. On the whole, McWilliams’s output during this phase was more bombastic than at any other time during his career. Reviewing the farm labor pieces, for example, Greg Critser claimed, “Farmers themselves, in McWilliams’s descriptions, become caricatured as pistol-brandishing, Bible-thumping, witch-hunting Neanderthals” (Critser 1983, 47). McWilliams’s hyperbole might be construed as an attempt to raise the subject of fascism excessively so that a clear, balanced picture could eventually emerge. Yet McWilliams neither advanced nor endorsed this interpretation of his aims. Rather, he later attributed his tone to a sense of urgency, obsession, and apocalypse (ECM, 76).

LABOR ORGANIZING McWilliams’s most strident journalism coincided with a growing emphasis in his law practice on labor organizing and union representation. Most of this work focused on newspaper unions, the ›edgling Hollywood guilds, and agricultural workers. This last group made an especially deep impression on him. In the mid-1930s, the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) began a campaign to organize walnut pickers, most of them women, in Los Angeles. UCAPAWA charged that walnut growers had ‹red union organizers and set up a company union in violation of the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, of 1935 (Healey and Isserman 1990, 71). Representing the The Political Turn 83

ACLU, McWilliams addressed the walnut workers in East Los Angeles to explain their rights under the new law. He described the meeting in an October 1937 letter to Louis Adamic. A few nights ago I spoke to 1,500 women—women who were picking walnuts out of shells. It was one of the most amazing meetings I’ve ever attended. The remarks of the speakers were translated into ‹ve languages. There were Russians, Armenians, Slavs, Mexicans, etc. All ages of women, from young girls to old women . . . This was the ‹rst meeting these people had ever attended—that is, their ‹rst union meeting. You should have been there to feel the thing: the excitement, the tension. And you should have watched some of these women as they got up to their feet and tried to tell about their experiences . . . But the profound meaning they conveyed! This profound meaning had less to do with federal law than with the immediate problems of the workers. The working conditions were poor; many had to crack shells with their hands and had the bruises and swelling to show for it. Others complained that they slipped on the discarded shells on the unswept ›oors. By way of demonstration, McWilliams later recalled, “A pretty young blonde suddenly jumped up laughing, raced down the center aisle, bent over, and lifted her skirt high to show me the large black-and-blue mark which was right where you would expect it to be. The audience howled with laughter” (ECM, 84). As McWilliams reported in his memoir, “The spirit that animated that meeting was the spirit of the New Deal” (ECM, 84). Yet his immediate reaction to the meeting was a feeling of inadequacy. He con‹ded to Adamic that he felt “very weak, meaningless, and ineffectual” (Oct. 3, 1937). In a letter to Esther Blaisdell, he went further. “They are . . . the real people of America . . . I felt like a white-faced anaemic ›unkey of the upper classes, or something of the sort” (Meyer 1996, 265). Nothing in his earlier writings, public or private, indicated that addressing a group of female immigrant workers would make him feel less vital, potent, or American. Indeed, his private writings occasionally fell back on stereotypes that favored white, American men. Now the tables were turned; it was he who felt diminished by the high spirits of the women. If the experience temporarily deprived him of his self-respect, his work on their behalf offered him a chance to regain it. He felt energized by the prospect, but it required a series of personal and 84


professional adjustments. The labor law he wished to practice was timeconsuming, poorly paid, and off-putting to better-paying clients. His law partners, too, “took a rather bleak view of labor unions” (ECM, 85). Yet these cases struck him as in‹nitely more interesting and socially signi‹cant than his other legal work, and they squared better with his political interests and literary aspirations. One diary entry from 1938 captures the breakneck pace of his schedule. All day before the Labor Board with a case for the Textile Workers’ Organizing Committee against Mission Hosiery Co.—was excused for a time in the afternoon to rush to court about an injunction against the Newspaper Guild. Then this evening I had to attend a dinner of the Screen Publicists Guild . . . and then later I spoke at a meeting of Of‹ce and Professional Workers downtown. (June 6, 1938) Finding time to write was another problem. Between 1937 and 1939, McWilliams published little aside from his Westways and HANL columns, partly because he was spending whole days in court, but also because he was working on the book-length manuscript that grew out of his Paci‹c Weekly series on farm labor. Perhaps the most notable labor case McWilliams took during this time involved Willie Bioff, a Chicago hoodlum who, with the help of Frank Nitti and the Capone crime organization, had taken over the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) and extorted several major Hollywood studios. McWilliams represented several rank-and-‹le studio workers (the self-named “White Rats of ’37”) who opposed IATSE’s closed-shop agreement and assessment. When McWilliams discovered that Bioff had underworld ties in Chicago and that he had never served a sentence for pandering, he passed that information on to his former law school classmate, William Mosley Jones, who was speaker of the assembly. Jones was also associated with the law ‹rm of William Gibbs McAdoo, a U.S. senator from California until 1938, when he was defeated in the Democratic primary by the more liberal Sheridan Downey. Acting on McWilliams’s lead, the Assembly Labor Committee investigated the Bioff matter brie›y but took no action. McWilliams left the IATSE case in 1939, when he was appointed to state of‹ce. It later became known, however, that McAdoo’s ‹rm, which had never before represented IATSE, received a ‹ve-thousand-dollar The Political Turn 85

retainer from the union while simultaneously acting as counsel for the assembly committee. Later testimony also showed that Bioff had threatened to kill studio head Louis Mayer, whom Bioff had mistakenly suspected of tipping off the authorities to his activities. In fact, it was McWilliams who noti‹ed the authorities. In 1941, Bioff was convicted of extortion, and McWilliams wrote about his case in the New Republic. Bioff was paroled after agreeing to cooperate with the federal prosecution of Nitti and others. Upon his release, Bioff changed his name, moved to Arizona, and became a supporter of Barry Goldwater. When he accepted a job in Las Vegas, however, his former colleagues recognized him, and in 1955, Bioff was blown up while starting his car in the driveway of his Phoenix home.11 “Thus did Willie Bioff depart this world,” McWilliams recalled in his memoir, “not with a whimper but with a bang” (ECM, 91).

FACTORIES IN THE FIELD McWilliams’s hectic schedule forced him to complete his farm labor manuscript by working nights, weekends, and holidays and by playing hooky from his law practice. Despite these exertions, McWilliams’s New York agent, Maxim Lieber, had dif‹culty placing the book immediately. It was not for lack of experience. Mencken considered Lieber—whose clients included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Erskine Caldwell, John Steinbeck, and Langston Hughes—the best agent in New York. Lieber also represented John Fante for a time but later incurred his wrath, which Fante expressed in a 1934 letter to Mencken attacking Lieber and his radical politics. Mencken’s response stressed Lieber’s ability as an agent, but Fante’s overheated anti-Marxist rhetoric was not completely amiss.12 According to historian Allen Weinstein, Lieber and Whittaker Chambers worked together in the Communist underground during the 1930s (Weinstein 1978, 127–30).13 In September 1938, Harcourt Brace wrote a letter to Lieber rejecting McWilliams’s farm labor manuscript. The narrative seriously lacks organization, and even though the powerful ‹rst chapter completely captures your attention, it is with the greatest dif‹culty that you can go on with the book . . . As it stands, the man86


uscript might conceivably be of interest to some publisher, but I’d be unhappy to see it appear, for it would take the edge off the real book on the subject that may be coming along some day. Two months later, Houghton Mif›in passed on the project for different reasons. The manuscript was “lacking in the sort of individual human interest material which would catch the public eye.” Furthermore, “it is pretty well restricted to California.” The book’s prospects would improve quickly, however. In early 1939, incoming Democratic governor Culbert L. Olson appointed McWilliams chief of the Division of Immigration and Housing. Shortly thereafter, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath appeared and quickly found a huge audience. By May, McWilliams had a book contract with Little, Brown and Company. Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California appeared in July 1939. Its introduction notes that the book was based on new research, but it carries over the intensity and rhetoric of the Paci‹c Weekly series. It begins by asserting that labor unrest in the state’s agricultural sector must be set against the backdrop of California’s social history, which is “in many respects, a melodramatic history, a story of theft, fraud, violence and exploitation” (7). As the book’s subtitle signals, narration is its dominant mode. McWilliams later recalled, “There was a need to tell a story of migratory labor, and that’s what I set out to do” (HAT, 113). But Factories in the Field is not a uni‹ed story told sequentially. Rather, it is a constellation of narratives preceded by an introductory overview, which lays out the case against industrial agriculture and argues for a revolutionary response to it. Today some 200,000 migratory workers, trapped in the State, eke out a miserable existence, intimidated by their employers, homeless, starving, destitute. Today they are restless but quiet; tomorrow they may be rebellious. Before these workers can achieve a solution of the problems facing them, they will have to work a revolution in California land ownership and in the methods of agricultural operations which now prevail. (9–10) McWilliams’s narratives begin with a chapter on land monopolization after the gold rush and case studies of the Miller & Lux land empire and the illfated Kaweah Co-operative Colony. The focus then shifts to the farm laborers, beginning with the Chinese. McWilliams reviews the consequences of The Political Turn 87

the Alien Exclusion Act of 1882, the Geary Act of 1893, and the racist agitation that ‹nally drove the Chinese from the ‹elds in the mid-1890s. He also shows how the pattern of labor exploitation was repeated with the Japanese, Hindus, Armenians, Filipinos, and Mexicans. He then moves to the social consequences of the shift to industrial agriculture, beginning with vigilantism, race riots, and “social maladjustment”—a term that includes “race neurosis” and crime, much of which McWilliams describes as misdirected social protest. The next chapters narrate farm labor history from the Wheatland Riot of 1913 to the organizing activities and strikes of the 1930s. After documenting the disgraceful treatment of farmworkers in various rural towns, the ‹nal chapter argues that the “real solution involves the substitution of collective agriculture for the present monopolistically owned and controlled system” (324). Many measures could ameliorate the dreadful conditions, McWilliams maintains. But the ‹nal solution will come only when the present wasteful, vicious, undemocratic, and thoroughly antisocial system of agricultural ownership in California is abolished. The abolition of this system involves at most merely a change in ownership. (325) As I. F. Stone commented in his review for the Nation, “There is dynamite in the adverb.” If one works back from McWilliams’s call for collective agriculture, the book’s rhetorical strategies become clear. In his early chapter on “land monopolization,” for example, McWilliams employs an antique de‹nition of that term, popular among nineteenth-century radicals such as Henry George, which denoted a political arrangement in which businesses enjoyed special political privileges, concessions, and access (Lustig 1982). However, the concentration of land ownership in California never ‹t today’s de‹nition of monopoly. It was high because of the state’s vast livestock and wheat ranches, but census statistics indicate that the average California farm was declining in size during the early part of the twentieth century. In 1910, about 25 percent of the state’s farms were 175 acres or larger; the other 75 percent were more or less evenly distributed among farms ranging from less than 20 acres up to 175 acres (Vaught 1997, 165–66). McWilliams’s other rhetorical choices suggest that ideological ardor was a factor in his presentation. He occasionally stretches limited evidence to ‹t desired conclusions, as when he describes the in›uence of nine88


teenth-century Chinese laborers. Forced out of the California mines by racist laws and attitudes, the Chinese began working in the ‹elds, from which they were eventually driven as well. This much is undisputed historical fact, but McWilliams also wants to claim that the Chinese taught the landowners how to grow fruit. At this date it is dif‹cult to get the full facts, for not only were these facts imperfectly reported at the time, but a mist of prejudice intervenes and obscures the truth. But, by and large, it is correct to state that, in many particulars, the Chinese actually taught their overlords how to plan, cultivate, and harvest orchard and garden crops. Their skill in this work is acknowledged and it is dif‹cult to believe that they became experts overnight. Most of their employers, moreover, were novices. With the Japanese at a later date it is possible to point out the speci‹c contributions which they made to California agriculture. Unfortunately, with the Chinese, one can only guess at the facts. (71–72) Twice noting the absence of reliable facts, McWilliams nevertheless advances his claim, qualifying it heavily even as he forti‹es it with the modi‹er actually. The two case studies re›ect McWilliams’s lifelong distrust of the system. He prefaces the story of the Miller & Lux land empire with a dramatic characterization of land ownership in California. In the course of a few years, it became apparent that ownership of this vast domain had become concentrated in the hands of a few large speculators. In the whole sickening history of land fraud in the United States there is no more sordid chapter than the methods by which, in less than a decade, California and its settlers were robbed of millions of acres of valuable land, land intended for individual settlement, for homes and farms. (19) The story is deftly staged and animated by McWilliams’s outrage. The main character, Henry Miller, “belongs in the saga of the Robber Barons” and the “great brotherhood of buccaneers” (28). An immigrant butcher living in San Francisco, Miller began buying Central Valley ranching land at advantageous prices. He then used political connections and shrewd legal maneuvering to claim the all-important water rights attached to the land. By the turn of the century, McWilliams notes, Miller & Lux owned one million acres and one million head of cattle. The Political Turn 89

In the course of his narration, McWilliams adroitly distinguishes the doctrine of riparian water rights—“the idea of water being attached to the land through which it runs”—from the doctrine of appropriation, which entails that “the ownership of water should be in›uenced by considerations of its use” (33). He then describes how Miller, having successfully claimed his riparian rights in California, asserted his appropriation rights to water from California streams that ran through his holdings in Nevada. “If one looks at the substance, rather than the form, of these transactions,” McWilliams concludes, “it is apparent that if Miller had used a shotgun instead of the courts, his methods could not have been more ruthless, more essentially illegal, than they were” (34–35). Part of McWilliams’s indignation, it seems, arises from the fact that Miller’s maneuver was entirely legal. McWilliams acknowledges this fact by adding essentially to the charge of illegality, thereby shifting the discussion from legal to moral grounds. The rhetorical strategy behind the Miller & Lux section is a familiar one. By focusing on a single extreme case, McWilliams can argue that land ownership in California was grossly distorted and ripe for reform. The second case study, however, presents a more dif‹cult rhetorical challenge. Kaweah Co-operative Colony was a short-lived utopian community with roots in the labor movement set in the northwest corner of Tulare County. By 1890, the colony owned six hundred acres and included anywhere from ‹fty to three hundred people. In that year, a federal bill created Sequoia National Park, which included lands from the colony, and the colonists were eventually evicted without receiving compensation for their improvements to the land. After tracing the outlines of the land dispute, McWilliams concludes his story with a coda about the colony’s principals; one “died in absolute poverty in San Francisco,” while another went to Tasmania, where another utopian experiment collapsed. Now eighty-four years of age, Mr. Martin lives at San Luis Obispo, California, and is still vocal in his belief in socialism and in his effort to keep the injustice done the Kaweah colonists alive. On August 11, 1935, Mr. Burns Mantle, the dramatic critic, visited Sequoia, “and found many of the traditions of the original Kaweah Colony, which was both socialistic and co-operative, still obtaining.” (47) The chapter ends on this uncharacteristically weak note. This is the ‹rst and last mention of Mr. Burns Mantle, and the occasion for his visit to 90


Sequoia remains as mysterious as McWilliams’s decision to include its exact date. Yet the moral of these case studies, articulated earlier in the chapter, is clear enough: “The creation of the Miller and Lux empire was furthered at every step in its development by the State and the agencies of the State; the Kaweah experiment was consistently opposed and, ‹nally, stabbed in the back by the State” (39). Despite its rhetorical shortcuts and occasional false notes, Factories in the Field was a powerful indictment of California’s farm labor practices. It showcased McWilliams’s ›uency, range, persuasive powers, legal acumen, and knowledge of the region. It also bene‹ted enormously from the appearance of The Grapes of Wrath, which focused national attention on the Dust Bowl migrants. McWilliams traced this national interest not to changing farm conditions but to the fact that most of the new farm laborers were, for the ‹rst time, white citizens with Anglo-Saxon Protestant backgrounds. Unlike previous farmworkers, they remained in California’s farming communities, often in makeshift housing, after the crops were harvested. Moreover, they were eligible for public relief. The national controversy over these migrants propelled the sales of Factories in the Field. When California’s growers denounced the book in various public forums, its sales climbed even higher; in one three-month period, it was reprinted four times. Two Associated Farmers vice presidents maintained that McWilliams had “proposed a Communistic solution to agricultural problems” and that “The farmers are faced with administrators who do not even believe in our form of government.” M. W. Jorz, the ‹nancial editor of the Los Angeles Daily News, also denounced the book: “Hon. Carey McWilliams, ensconced safely in economic security as Gov. Culbert Olson’s commissioner of immigration and housing, has written a highly in›ammatory book attacking California farmers and providing a bible for radical labor agitators.”14 Henry Miller’s grandson informed McWilliams that he was “an unmitigated liar.” A Modesto attorney wrote to Governor Olson claiming that “the book is Communistic from cover to cover . . . Holding the position [McWilliams] holds, he has no business to circulate among the people of the State a publication that can and will result in creating class hatred.”15 The controversy surrounding The Grapes of Wrath and its non‹ction companion quickly brought the attention of Senator Robert La Follette’s Civil Liberties Committee, which McWilliams both briefed and testi‹ed before in December 1939. When The Political Turn 91

John Ford’s screen version of The Grapes of Wrath appeared shortly thereafter, the plight of California’s migratory farmworkers became common knowledge. The of‹cial notices for Factories in the Field ran the gamut from solid endorsement to accusations of sedition. Ella Winter’s review in the New Republic noted, “McWilliams shows how the great growers . . . have utilized California vigilantism to foment race riots, to play one race against the other, to lower wages; and ‹nally to lay the basis for farm fascism.” The Paci‹c Rural Press took up a slightly different line: “Perhaps this is the ‹rst time an of‹cial of our government, sworn to defend that government, has advocated the destruction of democracy and the substitution of communism.” Karl Brandt of Stanford University panned the book in the Journal of Farm Economics, calling it “a most amazingly lopsided, highly emotional story . . . The author’s scanty appeals to numbers, moreover, display a remarkable contempt for accuracy.”16 Although Brandt conceded that farm labor conditions were “admittedly most unsatisfactory,” he maintained, “There is no reason why the migratory farm labor problem should not be solved by administrative measures based on coolheaded legislation. It certainly does not require a utopian revolution.” Ralph Thompson’s review in the New York Times anticipated Brandt’s reaction but nevertheless credited the book. Unfortunately, [the book] is belligerent as well as excellent—“unfortunately” if for no other reason than that the author’s opponents are sure to point out certain militant overstatements in an effort to discredit the book as a whole—but granted that it is easier to advocate than to maintain an Olympian calm under the circumstances. Factories in the Field and its reception marked a turning point in McWilliams’s life. For most practical purposes, his career as an attorney was over. His work as a writer and activist, however, was moving to a new and intensely productive level.



I V. P U B L I C S E R V I C E


N O V E M B E R 1 9 3 8 , nine months before Factories in the Field appeared, McWilliams, Fante, and Ross Wills had a fresh reason to celebrate at Stevens Nik-a-Bob at Ninth and Western in Los Angeles. Culbert L. Olson, a state senator from Los Angeles, had been elected governor of California, the ‹rst Democrat to hold that of‹ce in the twentieth century. The day after the inaugural ball in Sacramento, McWilliams noted in his diary that Olson had already ful‹lled one campaign pledge: “Tom Mooney was granted full pardon by Governor Olson, as per schedule, at 10:30 this morning. A great day, this, in California” (Jan. 7, 1939). Mooney, a radical labor leader, was imprisoned following a deadly bomb blast at the 1916 Preparedness Day parade in San Francisco. Evidence of perjury and false testimony mounted over the years, and Mooney’s case had become a leftist cause célèbre. After reviewing the case in a packed assembly chamber, Olson issued Mooney a full pardon and offered him a chance to “say something to the general public.” In his ten-minute speech, which was broadcast over the radio, Mooney pledged his support to the labor movement and denounced fascism. Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes applauded the pardon, but the Sacramento Bee, which favored Olson’s record as a legislator, protested it bitterly (Burke 1953, 52–57). After a busy and controversial ‹rst week in of‹ce, Olson landed in the hospital, suffering from “nervous exhaustion as a result of overwork,” and his administration got off to a slow start (Burke 1953, 60). Even so, he appointed McWilliams chief of the state’s Division of Immigration and Housing the same month. Created during the Progressive Era as a commission to Americanize newly arrived immigrants, the DIH was by that time part of the California Department of Industrial Relations, and its duties had been expanded to include oversight of migrant worker housing. N


A series of Republican governors had neglected the division, leaving it almost completely without resources, but the incoming administration saw its broad powers to inspect labor camps, hold hearings, and subpoena witnesses as an excellent way to highlight the farm labor issues Olson had stressed during the campaign. When the Olson team offered the position to McWilliams, he accepted the opportunity to “do something about farm labor” (ECM, 77), and on January 19, he traveled to Sacramento to be sworn in. His appointment furnished yet another occasion to celebrate. Fante and Wills collected him in Sacramento and proceeded to San Francisco for some revelry. There they met writer William Saroyan at the Empire Hotel, which later became a location for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The group worked its way through a series of nightspots until 4:00 a.m. and reassembled the next day for a vertiginous lunch. McWilliams then went to work. Operating out of the State Building in downtown Los Angeles, he opened a new ‹eld of‹ce in Fresno, added staff, tripled the number of farm inspections, and revived the division’s work on immigrant aid. He also maintained his law practice and busy schedule in Los Angeles. A typical day found him working at his law of‹ce in the morning; conducting state business in the afternoon; and attending meetings, forums, parties, and informal gatherings in the evening. Some of these gatherings brought him into contact with writers and Hollywood ‹gures, including Lillian Hellman, Anita Loos, and Charlie Chaplin. Others were devoted to speci‹c causes, such as an effort to raise funds for children orphaned by the Spanish Civil War. For that cause, McWilliams joined with Janet Gaynor, George Balanchine, Ernst Lubitsch, and Bette Davis to organize a showing of Picasso’s “Guernica” at the Stendahl Gallery in Los Angeles, an event that was covered by the Daily Worker (Aug. 19, 1939). During this time, McWilliams also took on leadership roles in the local ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, and the Washington-based American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born. The last group included a wide array of progressive thinkers and activists, including anthropologist Franz Boas, novelist John Dos Passos, labor leader Sidney Hillman, philosopher John Dewey, and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. McWilliams’s extensive network helped him generate publicity and focus public attention on farm labor issues, but anti-Communists would later use these af‹liations against him. By one count, only Langston Hughes and



screenwriter Dalton Trumbo belonged to more Popular Front organizations (Gantner 2001, 191). In May 1939, McWilliams persuaded Olson to send him to the Central Valley town of Madera to hold public hearings on cotton-chopping wages. McWilliams chaired the meeting, the ‹rst of its type, before “a packed house—at least 500 or 600 people” (May 9, 1939). As McWilliams and Klein had claimed in their Paci‹c Weekly series, workers in these towns were at a substantial disadvantage. When agribusiness needed casual labor, local relief rolls were cut and workers were offered substandard wages. This collaboration between the state government and agribusiness was widely recognized; indeed, the previous head of the State Relief Administration, Harold Pomeroy, resigned in 1938 to become the executive secretary of the Associated Farmers (Burke 1953, 79). Although the state could not impose a market wage, it could allow adults to stay on relief if they declined to work for less. After the hearings, McWilliams recommended a wage of 27.5¢ per hour, a substantial raise over the prevailing wage of 20¢ an hour. “The growers screamed like banshees,” McWilliams recalled later, but such actions, along with the appearance of Factories in the Field, consolidated his reputation as a friend to farmworkers (ECM, 78). Elizabeth Eudley, a UCAPAWA organizer from 1938 to 1940, later summarized McWilliams’s impact during that time. He had a very left-wing staff. In the cotton strike Carey would hold hearings for us to establish a “prevailing wage” . . . His ‹ndings weren’t binding, but we found we could use them to carry on the strike, and we’d settle with individual growers if they’d put this wage into effect. It was a very different atmosphere from before. It was a Culbert Olson atmosphere. It was a Carey McWilliams atmosphere. (Healey and Isserman 1990, 69) McWilliams also testi‹ed before various legislative committees and subcommittees and used those occasions to push for reforms on behalf of immigrants and migrant workers. He worked especially closely with Senator Robert La Follette Jr.’s Committee on Civil Liberties and Oakland congressman John Tolan’s House Committee on Inter-State Migration, which was formed in May 1940. McWilliams pushed his own division’s work away from Americanizing immigrants and focused instead on helping them cope with the bureau-

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cratic mazes and hurdles erected by the federal government. His public comments took special aim at the Alien Registration Act of 1940, also known as the Smith Act. In addition to making it illegal for anyone to advocate, abet, or teach the desirability of overthrowing the U.S. government, that law required adult alien residents to ‹le a statement of their occupational status and political beliefs. Within four months, almost ‹ve million aliens had been registered. Broadly interpreted, the Smith Act provided for the deportation of noncitizens who distributed a range of political materials; more speci‹cally, it included a provision targeting Harry Bridges for deportation. McWilliams had come to know and admire Bridges, whose dif‹culties with the U.S. government would drag on for years. As division chief, McWilliams toured the state, inspecting labor camps and delivering speeches. Fante accompanied him occasionally and recorded his impressions. Visiting Fresno in January 1940, he noted in his diary: Amazing degradation among migratories to be seen along the highway. Bitter, barren country, uninspired and Faulkneresque. Drab lowland San Joaquin Valley. Cotton ‹elds, orchards, winter brown and hostile. The migrant workers live in tents and shacks. My own callousness toward them surprises me. I am satis‹ed to say their condition is miserable. Beyond that I feel nothing and frankly can do little. To hell with the whole question of migratory workers. It has had enuf publicity since Grapes of Wrath. There is even greater misery in the cities but it has not been publicized. (Fante 1991, 321) Sizing up McWilliams as an orator and potential candidate, Fante wrote, “Yes sir, Carey has INTEGRITY. But he is also a bad speaker, a not too forceful personality, though an in‹nitely wise and shrewd man. He lacks leadership quali‹cations” (323). As division chief, however, McWilliams became a more practiced speaker and participated in several spirited debates with Philip Bancroft, who was vice president of the Associated Farmers, the son of California’s most prominent historian, and the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in 1938 and 1944. One debate took place on the Town Meeting of the Air program broadcast from New York City and focused on the question “What Should America Do for the Joads?”1 Later, McWilliams noted privately, “Bancroft and I had it hot and heavy, but the crowd was anti-Bancroft and hissed him” (Mar. 8, 1940). Afterward, McWilliams met Rex Tugwell, the



Columbia University economics professor who had led FDR’s Resettlement Administration, and the two spent the evening drinking and “laughing at poor old provincial Bancroft.” He debated Bancroft two more times at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco and at the Friday Morning Club in Los Angeles. In San Francisco, the debate was again framed in Steinbeckian terms; the speakers were asked “Is Grapes of Wrath Justi‹ed by California Farm Conditions?” McWilliams compared Steinbeck’s novel to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was not intended to be “a faithful account of slave conditions on every southern plantation,” but served an important historical purpose by condemning the evil of slavery (Commonwealth, Apr. 9, 1940, 70). After citing census statistics about the increasing number of small farms, Bancroft presented his argument in personal terms. My pear orchard was planted by my father over 50 years ago. I was brought up on it and my children have been brought up on it. Messrs. Steinbeck and McWilliams object to this kind of farm. They want to establish great collective farms . . . The ‹rst step, [McWilliams] says, is for agricultural workers to organize so they can regulate employment through hiring halls similar to those used on the waterfront with such great success. Success for whom? Certainly not for the people of San Francisco and their vacant docks. We farmers are not ready to have [Harry] Bridges run our farms. (71) Five days later, a newspaper near Bancroft’s home in Contra Costa County ran a story quoting a Madera County health of‹cer who called McWilliams “the most dangerous man in the state for his support of the migrant worker camps.” Such camps were “hotbeds of radicalism,” the health of‹cer continued, and though “most of the workers were ‹ne people, there is a group that has become amoral. It is in this group that the cases of incest are found” (Brentwood News, Apr. 14, 1940). McWilliams’s public appearances did not always advance his political goals. The month before the San Francisco debate, for example, McWilliams caused a ruckus when he addressed a group of federal relief of‹cials in Washington, D.C. With Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins in attendance, he described the California legislature’s crackdown on relief and predicted a backlash among California workers. “Hell is going to start popping in California,” he said, adding that “workers are not going to take

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it lying down.” What was ostensibly offered as a prediction in Washington was quickly interpreted back in California as rabble-rousing. The Los Angeles Times was especially indignant. Under the headline “Incitement to Riot,” the Times described McWilliams as “the pink head of the California State Division of Immigration and Housing” who had come “extremely close to incitement to riot and rebellion.” His language “would be understandable coming from the mouth of a Communist or fellow traveler trying to bring on a Red revolution here. If McWilliams is neither, he is a dangerous ass” (Mar. 10, 1940). Similarly negative coverage appeared in newspapers throughout the state. A headline in the Hearst-owned San Francisco Call-Bulletin blared “Dangerous! Unrestrained Talk by Public Of‹cial Stirs Up Ill Will, Unrest.” The rural Santa Maria Times struck a similar note: “State Of‹cer Rages and Threatens.” The Oakland Tribune reported that McWilliams was “on record as favoring the Russian system of collectivist farming in California” (Gantner 2001, 187). Calls for his ouster began to swell, and McWilliams offered his resignation to Governor Olson, not for the ‹rst time. In March 1940, while Olson was struggling with Williams Gibbs McAdoo for control of the California effort to reelect Roosevelt, McWilliams had written to Olson that he and others had “serious doubts” that Roosevelt was “the most logical leader” to carry out the New Deal reforms. McWilliams then pledged his support to a left-wing slate with thirty-nine-year-old California lieutenant governor Ellis Patterson at the top of the ticket. He submitted his resignation to Olson, but George Kidwell, McWilliams’s superior in the Department of Industrial Relations, persuaded Olson to leave McWilliams in his post until after the election. In the California primary, Roosevelt crushed his Democratic opponents, including Patterson, who ‹nished fourth with forty-eight thousand votes (Burke 1953, 140–43). When McWilliams later drew political ‹re from growers and anti-Communists, Olson again refused McWilliams’s resignation. In the end, McWilliams served a full term and omitted any mention of Patterson’s candidacy in his memoir.

THE WRITER AS BUREAUCRAT McWilliams later called the achievements of the Olson administration “disappointing” (ECM, 80). Olson looked every inch the governor, but he 98


“didn’t know very much about California” (HAT, 95). Furthermore, the New Deal was waning by 1939, and the prospect of war soon dominated the state government’s efforts. Halfway through his term, McWilliams’s division was called upon to cooperate with federal efforts to mobilize for war, register aliens, and investigate defense employment and production bottlenecks. In 1942, Olson became what would soon be a rarity in California politics: a one-term governor. If the Olson administration did not change California as much as McWilliams had hoped, his own stint in government appeared to change him subtly. Although he remained outspoken and attracted more than his share of criticism, McWilliams no longer called for a revolution in landownership or elegized utopian experiments undone by the state. Replacing these appeals, especially in his of‹cial reports and testimony, was the rhetoric of sober practicality and caution, even when his proposals and actions were unprecedented. In a conference address in October 1939 on migratory labor, for example, McWilliams claimed, “I think that basically it is safe to say that the fundamental approach of the state government of California to this problem is to stabilize farm labor.” Factories in the Field had included a similar formulation, but this time the rhetoric of caution played out at two levels: After identifying what could be said safely, McWilliams advocated reforms that “favor the organization of farm workers in their own democratic groups” for the sake of stability rather than revolution. Gone, too, were the constant references to domestic fascism, though notable exceptions cropped up early in his term. In an April 1939 speech to the First National Congress of the Mexican and Spanish American Peoples in the United States, McWilliams was in rare form as he lambasted federal efforts to target aliens. I think I am well justi‹ed in saying that the present anti-alien campaign is a conscious effort on the part of certain forces in American life to lay the governmental framework for the introduction of fascist methods of political control. Throughout his term, he also continued to criticize the Associated Farmers, which he accused of intimidating social workers and inspiring a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. He also berated the legislature for its complicity with agribusiness. A March 1940 piece in the New Republic argued, “Today vigPublic Service


ilantism, which used to be practiced in the ‹elds, is being practiced in the legislative hall at Sacramento . . . [A] majority in both houses of the legislature belong to the Associated Farmers.” Compared to his work in the 1930s, however, McWilliams’s tone was less in›ammatory. Both in his speeches and in print, for example, he came to prefer the term reactionaries to fascists when describing his ideological adversaries. In his diary, he was more likely to call them bastards. The shift in tone re›ected the changing facts on the ground. As the threat posed by Nazi Germany became graver, McWilliams called for a more careful, precise public discourse. In The Liberal and the War Crisis, a speech published by the Southern California branch of the ACLU in July 1940, he con‹ded that he had uncharacteristically written out his remarks and reminded his audience that “we must weigh our words with the utmost care. Irreparable damage can be done the cause in America by unthinking, brash, and ill-considered rhetoric.” He also called for sober rationality in the face of Nazi aggression. “Now—if ever—is the time to think hard; to avoid hasty assumptions; to maintain, if it is at all possible to do so, some semblance of sanity in a world that has gone mad” (3). In a later version of the speech, however, he also mentioned his appearance before a legislative committee investigating Communist in›uence, casting himself as a “victim of psychic rape” (Geary 2003, 14). That characterization did not match his later recollections, which dismissed those probes as “a kind of outdoor political spectator sport” (ECM, 146). An even more signi‹cant reason for recalibrating his tone was the U.S. entry into the Second World War. That development easily eclipsed the farm labor issues McWilliams had signed on to address, and he soon realized that his reforms would not come to pass. As he recalled in the foreword to the 1971 edition of Factories in the Field, But for all the excitement of those years, the great confrontation that had been anticipated did not take place . . . What some of us had thought would be a climactic phase of the farm labor story turned out to be merely another chapter. Even so, McWilliams followed through with his book-in-progress, Ill Fares the Land: Migrants and Migratory Labor in the United States (1942), which extended his analysis of migratory labor to the nation as a whole. The book’s temper is far from docile. In his discussion of the Associated Farm100


ers’ strikebreaking techniques, for example, McWilliams refers to “the doglike subservience of law-enforcement of‹cials to private interests” (16). He also maintains that the advent of large-scale cotton development in Arizona had turned once prosperous small-farming communities into “desert sweatshops” (73). After describing the inhumane employment practices of the Great Western Sugar Company in Colorado, McWilliams skewers that company’s public relations counsel. To thousands of Mexican workers in Denver, Larimer Street, their main thoroughfare, is known as “Hunger Street.” I mention this detail for the bene‹t of Mr. Thomas Hornsby Ferril, “poet laureate of Colorado,” in the hope that he may fashion a lyric out of it. To the Mexicans on Larimer Street, Mr. Ferril, public-relations counsel for the company, is known as the “Poet Laureate of the Great Western.” (121–22) On balance, however, Ill Fares the Land is more modulated than Factories in the Field. It was also a less notable publishing event. Although the reviews were positive and McWilliams regarded it as one of his better efforts, Ill Fares the Land did not enjoy its predecessor’s excellent timing. Its calls for agricultural labor standards, rural public works, government-owned cooperative farms, land-use planning, state-administered welfare programs with federal standards, and a democratization of “industrial dominion” were almost completely overshadowed by America’s entry into the Second World War. As John Chamberlain noted in his New York Times review, the book’s thesis—that farm mechanization was displacing farm labor and creating subsidiary social ills—might very well be valid: “But the book is already dated, at least temporarily, by the overwhelming fact of the war, which will consume all our man power before we are through.” In fact, defense-related industries were expanding rapidly, especially in California. That expansion helped absorb an in›ux of migrants much larger than the one McWilliams, Steinbeck, and others had documented in the late 1930s. By 1942, the Joads were out of the ‹elds and working for Northrop Aircraft.

PRELUDE TO AN INQUISITION As his public commitments increased during this busy period, McWilliams managed to maintain his writing schedule and private life. Weekends in Public Service


Los Angeles were devoted to composing books and articles, but he reserved time on Sundays to visit with Bill Carey, who was sometimes accompanied by Dorothy. He also visited the Fantes at their home in Manhattan Beach, where the entire gang drank and played ping-pong. When McWilliams was in Sacramento and the Fantes were visiting their parents in nearby Roseville, they skipped the ping-pong. On more than one occasion, McWilliams chided himself for drinking with the Fantes on Friday night, thereby jeopardizing the next day’s literary output. After he “took a beating” during a hearing with the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, for example, McWilliams noted in his diary that he drank with the Fantes from noon until 4:00 a.m.—“and was not ready then to call it quits” (Feb. 24, 1941). The same diary entry includes an obscure reference: “Toyed for a time with notion of placing a long distance call to Susanville; but ‹nally abandoned . . . idea. A bad, hard, tiring, trying day.” Susanville was the home of Iris Dornfeld, who had grown up with Joyce Fante in Roseville. The daughter of a railroad worker and music teacher, Iris studied music at Mills College in Oakland and began teaching at Lassen Union High School, about 150 miles north of Roseville. In 1940, the Fantes agreed that Iris—a beautiful, petite, dynamic brunette—was a suitable match for McWilliams, and they arranged an introduction. The two hit it off, and their courtship continued through the fall of 1941, when they married in Yuma, Arizona. News of the marriage came as a disappointment to Beatrice Grif‹th, whose 1948 book, American Me, would explore many of the same themes of race and ethnicity in Los Angeles that preoccupied McWilliams during this time. According to McWilliams’s friends, Grif‹th was under the impression that McWilliams would marry her. Some family members, too, were displeased. Divorce was bad enough, but remarriage was beyond the pale.2 Within months of the wedding, however, Iris was pregnant, and she gave birth to their only child, Jerry Ross McWilliams, in October 1942. During this time, McWilliams maintained his literary productivity by driving himself hard, writing at all hours. A diary entry in June 1942 shows that he worked all day on a piece for Harper’s but ‹nally quit because of a worsening stomachache. He dragged himself to the doctor and had his appendix removed the next day. Even so, he noted, “Finished Harper’s piece propped up in bed” (June 29, 1942). Later that year, he submitted his 102


manuscript for Brothers Under the Skin and celebrated his achievement in his diary: “I got manuscript off on November 19th—which is really something—110,000 words in less than four months, plus Harper’s article and a 20,000 word report on the Japanese for the Institute of Paci‹c Relations” (Dec. 2, 1942). This determination earned him a reputation for what Rutgers sociologist Irving Horowitz later called a “one-man intensive labor system.”3 In 1941, McWilliams unexpectedly received a Guggenheim fellowship to study plantation labor in the Hawaiian Islands. He recorded his surprise in his diary: “I was stunned and amazed, and promptly began to worry about how in hell I could accept it” (Mar. 14, 1941). It was an attractive option, especially given his dismal experience in state government. In February of that year, he admitted that his legislative efforts “won’t do much good. The tide is all in the other direction. Everyone has forgotten about the migrants” (Feb. 26, 1941). He also despised the political culture in the capital. Only days after receiving the Guggenheim, he complained, “Sacramento is an awful place with these self-appointed Gestapo men, the legislators, around. I hate it and shudder upon entering its portals” (Mar. 25, 1941). One of those legislators, Sam Yorty, had denounced McWilliams in the Los Angeles Times as a radical propagandist whom Olson should ‹re. That denunciation re›ected the dramatic turn Yorty’s politics had taken since the mid-1930s. As a ‹rst-term assemblyman, he had been helpful in organizing the walnut workers McWilliams addressed on behalf of the ACLU. As labor organizer and Communist Party member Dorothy Healey recalled, “Yorty would come to our labor union meetings and tell the workers why they should join the union . . . The women just adored him. I even went out with him a couple of times” (Healey and Isserman 1990, 70). A few years later, however, Yorty chaired the Assembly Relief Investigating Committee, which was probing an earlier charge that Communists were using the State Relief Administration to develop their program. When McWilliams encountered Yorty in the lobby of the Sacramento Hotel, he found that Yorty’s “affability was positively disgusting. Anyone witnessing his greeting would have thought him my oldest and dearest friend. Damned little treacherous rat—and I had to shake his hand for fear of arousing still further ‘furies’ in the legislature” (Mar. 10, 1941). The gesture did little to soothe those furies. The next month, Public Service


McWilliams was hauled before an assembly committee and questioned about his “social philosophy.” At the same time, a bill to abolish his division was sailing through the assembly and state senate only to be pocket vetoed by Olson. McWilliams recorded the unpleasantness in his diary: “Then on to the Assembly committee hearing at which I took a terri‹c and sorrowful beating. A miserable affair, in which nearly every witness capsized under pressure . . . I, of course, had a knock-down session with the bastards” (Apr. 9, 1941). Despite this effort, McWilliams’s inquisitors won the public relations war by putting him on the defensive. The next day’s San Francisco Chronicle headline read, “McWilliams: ‘I Never Was A Communist’.” In the end, the Guggenheim award would not save him from his Sacramento travails. Indeed, he would have found the award more dif‹cult to accept than he imagined. In May 1941, an Of‹ce of Naval Intelligence memo compiled a long list of McWilliams’s political associations and activities before adding a recommendation: “Necessary steps be taken to insure that the subject does not go to Hawaii.” The same month, a memo from J. Edgar Hoover directed the FBI’s Honolulu of‹ce “to appropriately cover in a discreet manner the arrival of McWilliams in Hawaii and thereafter through appropriate arrangements keep advised as to his activities and contacts while in Hawaii.”4 FBI agents monitored steamship bookings throughout the summer, searching in vain for McWilliams’s reservation. In October 1941, Hoover raised the stakes when he recommended that McWilliams “be considered for custodial detention in the event of a national emergency.” McWilliams landed on the Custodial Detention List, which Hoover had begun compiling in 1939 without advising his superiors in the Justice Department. When the next national emergency occurred on December 7, 1941, McWilliams was not detained, but he quickly realized that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor scotched his Guggenheim project. On December 8, he wrote in his diary, “Everyone is slowly beginning to realize that the war changes everything . . . My Hawaiian project, for example, is now out the window.” McWilliams’s name remained on the FBI’s list for years, even though U.S. attorney general Francis Biddle ordered Hoover to discontinue it in July 1943. As Biddle wrote Hoover, there was no “statutory authorization or present justi‹cation for keeping a ‘custodial detention’ list of citizens.” Moreover, “the notion that it is possible to make a valid determination as to how dangerous a per104


son is in the abstract and without reference to time, environment, and other relevant circumstances is impractical, unwise, and dangerous.” By way of response, and without notifying the Justice Department, Hoover changed the name of his list to the Security Index and continued to maintain it (Schrecker 1998, 106–7). He also ignored Biddle’s directive not to investigate the National Lawyers Guild, in which McWilliams had been active since its inception.

THE WAR AND JAPANESE INTERNMENT Almost immediately after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, political pressure began to build for the evacuation of Japanese residents, aliens and citizens alike, from the Paci‹c Coast. By that time, McWilliams was well acquainted with anti-Japanese sentiment in California. His 1935 essay in the Nation, “Once Again the ‘Yellow Peril’,” claimed that Japanese-bashing “has been part of the stock in trade of every California politician for the last two decades.” Linking that “older chauvinism” to Senator Hiram Johnson, the Hearst press, and the McClatchy family, which owned the Sacramento Bee, McWilliams left no doubt about his views on the matter. “AntiJapanese propaganda,” he wrote, “has always been characterized by its offensive stupidity.” The same piece also predicted recurrences of antiJapanese feeling: “Unlike other alien groups the Japanese are members of a race which is, by popular legend, the future enemy of the United States.” Six years later, that popular legend became fact, and many of the same parties were urging the federal government to evacuate California’s Japanese and Japanese-American residents. Within two months, Senator Johnson delivered a letter to President Roosevelt on behalf of the three West Coast congressional delegations calling for the “immediate evacuation of all persons of Japanese lineage” to avoid the imposition of martial law. Governor Olson and California attorney general Earl Warren also favored evacuation. So did General John L. DeWitt, who, after Roosevelt authorized the evacuation in February 1942, became responsible for de‹ning the relevant military zones, prohibiting Japanese and Japanese Americans from leaving them, and then moving those residents ‹rst to assembly centers and on to relocation centers. The fate of the policy was sealed when, four days after Roosevelt signed the executive order, a submarine (presumably JapaPublic Service


nese) shelled a coastal oil facility near Santa Barbara, causing only light damage but heightening security concerns among the general public. McWilliams, who had joined the Olson administration to do something about farm labor, found himself in the middle of what he later described as “a tragic mistake, shameful and unnecessary” and “certainly the most serious violation of civil liberties in this century” (ECM, 101; HAT, 187). He instinctively doubted both the necessity and the wisdom of a full evacuation. In January, he noted privately, “This local Japanese situation seems to be getting completely out of hand. Proposals multiplying to evacuate all Japanese, citizens and aliens alike, from the coast” (Jan. 27, 1942). The next month found him composing an essay on the evacuation, but he had trouble ‹nishing the piece. He noted in his diary, “But the whole problem, as you think about it, becomes increasingly complicated” (Feb. 8, 1942). These complications did not prevent McWilliams from acting. He induced the Tolan Committee to hold hearings in California on the evacuation, but not before Roosevelt signed his executive order. When the hearings ‹nally came off, they did nothing to impede the evacuation itself. “Tolan Committee hearings opened today,” he wrote in his diary. “I arranged to get the state building auditorium for the hearings . . . The mess that is being made of this Japanese situation simply beggars description” (Mar. 6, 1942). The hearings “were dominated by politically potent elements demanding mass evacuation.” Hearst columnist Westbrook Pegler had called for such an evacuation immediately after Pearl Harbor, and Walter Lippmann added two in›uential articles to the same effect. HUAC, at that time chaired by Texas congressman Martin Dies, also issued a lengthy report that, according to McWilliams, “repeated every false charge ever made against the resident Japanese” (ECM, 104). McWilliams quickly realized that opposing internment openly was an uphill climb to the bottom. In his memoir, he described the powers in favor of evacuation. These elements were vociferous, well organized, and numerous, and their presentations were strongly backed by the press. Most state and local of‹cials, including Governor Olson and Mayor Fletcher Bowron of Los Angeles, testi‹ed in favor of removing the Japanese. Ill-informed and biased, Earl Warren’s testimony received wide media coverage and was quite in›uential. So, too, was the testimony of Tom Clark, chief spokesman for the Roosevelt Administration on the issue. Years later,



both Warren, then Chief Justice, and Clark, then an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, expressed regret for the position they had taken at the hearings. (ECM, 104) In fact, McWilliams did not publicly oppose Japanese internment while in of‹ce. Although some in his immediate personal circle—including his former father-in-law, Earle Hedrick, then provost at UCLA—shared his misgivings about the evacuation, McWilliams would later say that the number of public ‹gures who opposed it could be counted on one hand. “From the outset,” he wrote in his memoir, “I was drawn into the controversy that raged around the issue; in fact, I became an active participant. It was not a matter of choice; I was co-opted” (ECM, 101). In his testimony before the Tolan Committee on March 7, 1942, McWilliams focused on issues surrounding the evacuation, such as reestablishing public con‹dence, preventing unnecessary confusion and economic dislocation, and conserving alien property to facilitate the ultimate rehabilitation of the evacuees. His position on Japanese loyalty differed signi‹cantly from the testimony and statements of other public of‹cials. In a radio address on February 4, 1942, Governor Olson said it was much easier to determine the loyalty of Italian and German aliens than that of Japanese and Japanese Americans. “All Japanese people, I believe, will recognize this fact,” Olson asserted (Cray 1997, 117). In testimony before the Tolan Committee, Attorney General Warren, who privately had misgivings about the evacuation of Japanese citizens, concurred with Olson on this point. When asked whether there was any way of determining which Japanese were loyal, Warren responded that, with “the Caucasian race,” they could “arrive at some fairly sound conclusions . . . But when we deal with Japanese we are in an entirely different ‹eld and we cannot form any opinion that we believe to be sound” (Cray 1997, 121). In McWilliams’s view, this assumption impugned the ef‹cacy and values of American institutions, and his testimony before the Tolan Committee took exception to it. Although many people doubt whether there are any loyal Japanese, a doubt to which I do not subscribe, I am con‹dent that large numbers of citizens of Japanese descent are loyal to the United States, despite the fact that it might be dif‹cult and perhaps even impossible to differentiate between the loyal and the disloyal. I believe that they, and certainly

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the citizens among them, are entitled to full protection until such time as there appears a reasonable doubt about their individual loyalty. McWilliams then made an immediate but unsuccessful appeal to both security and practicality: “Indiscriminate evacuation may seriously and needlessly affect our food supply, from which our civil and military population will suffer without in any way affecting our security. This can and should be avoided through an appropriate system of licensing.” At the time, Japanese Americans in California controlled three-quarters of the distribution of agricultural foodstuffs. Only weeks before, Warren had ruled against a Department of Agriculture revocation of state licenses issued to ‹rst- and second-generation Japanese-American produce dealers (Cray 1997, 119). With Roosevelt and Olson behind the evacuation, however, resistance to it became increasingly pointless. On Aliens in Our Midst, an NBC radio program aired on May 10, 1942, McWilliams gently questioned some aspects of the policy and mentioned the loss of manpower entailed by the evacuation of Japanese-American citizens. He also regretted California’s of‹cial response to the evacuation. I have been somewhat alarmed to note a tendency in California to lock the door behind the departing Japanese. We are tightening the loopholes of the Alien Land Act of that state, and ordinances are being passed which might make it very dif‹cult for the Japanese as a group to return to the state of California.5 Here as elsewhere, McWilliams looked ahead to victory and the rehabilitation of the evacuees. He also commended the army and the Japanese Americans themselves for their “splendid behavior.” By the summer of 1942, McWilliams had accepted the internment of all Japanese Americans as a fact and began putting the best face on the policy. His piece in Common Ground, the magazine edited by Louis Adamic, maintained that the “herculean and utterly novel project” of relocating 117,000 Japanese was “a task which can be handled democratically and fairly for the attainment of highly desirable social objectives, or mishandled and botched in a manner that will gravely re›ect upon the ideals and standards which now, as never before, we are proudly emblazoning to the world.” He further claimed that the evacuation was “not only an immediate problem of great moment, but it can be utilized, properly han108


dled, as extremely important propaganda. It can become an outstanding example of how democracy can convert a military necessity into a program for the achievement of democratic objectives. It is the perfect propaganda foil for the treatment of the Jews in Germany.” Noting that he found it “extremely dif‹cult to imagine that the Japanese will eventually resettle again in large numbers on the West Coast,” McWilliams proposed planned resettlements along the lines of Greenbelt, Maryland, which was created as a planned community under the Resettlement Administration in 1935. As McWilliams described it, “The idea is resettlement plus evacuation, conceived of as an integrated plan . . . The resettlement of resident Japanese offers an opportunity to experiment with the original Greenbelt idea on a greatly expanded scale . . . and with much better prospects of success.” McWilliams was not simply being a loyal Democrat. Throughout his life, he strongly supported social and economic planning. That support re›ected his faith in rationality, his contact with proplanning architects in Los Angeles, and the experience of the New Deal and the war itself, which showed what could be done when the nation was mobilized. In this case, his resettlement proposal included compensation for the seventy-one thousand Japanese-American citizens whose property rights were being lost or destroyed without due process of law. He also conceded, however, that “Because the evacuation program is being carried out as a military measure, it will not be possible to realize all that might be hoped for out of it in the way of sound social planning . . . Nevertheless, the WRA [War Relocation Authority] has indicated that it does appreciate what can and should be accomplished in the ‹eld of resettlement.” McWilliams remained upbeat about the possibilities of resettlement. “I emphasize again that the evacuation program can be made to serve an important social end and need not necessarily be regarded as something inherently baneful and undesirable.” Just before leaving of‹ce in December 1942, McWilliams clari‹ed his position on the evacuation in a paper delivered at the Institute of Paci‹c Relations. That document, “Japanese Evacuation: Interim Report,” chronicled the domestic and international incidents, press furors, and of‹cial actions that negatively affected the Japanese Americans in California and elsewhere. He noted that virtually everyone who had testi‹ed before the Tolan Committee agreed that the decision to evacuate was a military one. Public Service


The arguments for and against mass evacuation, therefore, really entered into the problem only in the sense of possibly affecting the decision as to which groups were to be removed, the procedure by which they were to be removed, and the manner and methods by which relocation was to be effected. As to the larger question itself, those arguments were pointless once there had been a determination that evacuation must be ordered as a matter of military necessity. He then explained the rationale behind the evacuation of Japanese-American citizens and aliens alike. No one has doubted, and least of all the second generation themselves, that there were disloyal elements among the resident Japanese. Those individuals known to be dangerous were, of course, seized at the outset and are now in internment camps in Montana, North Dakota, and New Mexico . . . To have evacuated the aliens alone would have been tantamount to saying that none of the second generation were suspect. If the citizens had been left behind and the west coast were to be bombed, there was always the danger of mob violence, which might have affected other oriental groups, since, in a moment of hysteria, people would not have distinguished between Japanese, for example, and Koreans, Chinese, and Filipinos. It was deemed essential, therefore, that the general population receive emphatic assurance that all Japanese had been removed, so that they might then know that any remaining orientals were non-Japanese. McWilliams’s artful use of the passive voice obscured the federal government’s authority and agency as well as his own complicity in the evacuation. Still justifying the policy, he complimented the WRA personnel— “their spirit, their loyalty to the program, their patience, and their ef‹ciency”—and closed with a quotation from a related piece that he had written for Harper’s: “There is no reason why the relocation projects cannot be successful, cannot in fact re›ect great credit upon us as a nation—provided a majority of the American people will insist upon fair treatment of the Japanese and not succumb to demagogues and race-baiters.” The piece was not meant to challenge the military or civilian authorities responsible for the evacuation; indeed, in his 1943 testimony before the Committee on Un-American Activities in California, McWilliams volunteered that the Harper’s piece had been “approved and cleared by Major Norman Beasley and by the civilian control.” On that note, McWilliams ended his only stint in government. In 110


November 1942, Earl Warren dashed Olson’s reelection bid and became California’s new governor. During the campaign, Warren had pledged that his ‹rst act as governor would be to ‹re McWilliams as chief of DIH. The pledge was as gratuitous as it was popular among the state’s growers; any incoming governor would be expected to install his own appointees in such positions. But the division chief whom Warren replaced was not the same man who had railed against fascism in the mid-1930s, much less the young attorney and literary tastemaker who hoped to write the Los Angeles equivalent of Joyce’s Dubliners. Proud of his work on farm labor, housing, and immigrant welfare, McWilliams was disappointed by the Olson administration’s overall record and the Japanese-American evacuation—an issue to which he would return two years later.

BROTHERS UNDER THE SKIN As the evacuation unfolded and the 1942 elections approached, McWilliams was hard at work on his latest manuscript. Strapped for cash, he asked Maxim Lieber to pitch a new book to Little, Brown and Company and was delighted to receive a one-thousand-dollar advance. Later, when he delivered the manuscript to his editor, Angus Cameron, he claimed that writing the entire book from scratch in four months was “a killer of a job.” The contract called for 75,000 to 90,000 words on “the colored minority in the United States,” and Cameron told McWilliams he wanted something in the pamphleteering tradition, “compact and hard-hitting.” In the end, McWilliams delivered 110,000 words. “I realize that again I overshot the mark,” he wrote Cameron. “But the material, I think, is good throughout.” The two men traded title ideas throughout the summer and fall. Cameron proposed The Colored Peoples: In America and the Post-War World. McWilliams countered with The Last Front, which he drew from a Carl Sandburg poem, along with Those Other Americans, All These Americans, Of Every Hue and Cast, and The Color of Victory. When none of these titles was accepted, McWilliams strained to produce alternatives, including The Color of America Is Changing, We’ve Got to Live Together, and No Time for Promises. An executive vice president at Little, Brown mercifully settled the matter when he proposed Brothers Under the Skin in December 1942. Public Service


For Cameron, ripeness was all. McWilliams’s earlier books could expect steady sales for years, but this work would be something quite different: “With this book we shall have to get the sale at once or else,” he wrote. McWilliams had long been interested in the racial and ethnic minorities that shaped California’s farm labor story, but the war effort had magni‹ed the signi‹cance of their experience and the prejudice they faced. He was convinced that the nation could no longer afford the re›exive, institutionalized, and pervasive discrimination of the prewar years, and he saw the war as the best opportunity to dislodge that discrimination. “Sartre is right,” McWilliams maintained in his memoir, “catastrophe initiates social change; it was the war that set the racial revolution in motion” (ECM, 115). Tapping the talents and energies of Shadow America, however, also meant bringing deep social tensions to the surface. Because of its role in the war effort, California became a prime location for this process. Even as the army evacuated over one hundred thousand Japanese Americans from the West Coast, thousands of African Americans were arriving in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas to work in the rapidly expanding aircraft and shipbuilding industries. Many were working alongside whites for the ‹rst time at Kaiser Shipbuilding in Richmond, Lockheed Aircraft in Los Angeles, and other defense-related production sites. They joined California’s Latino, Asian, and white populations to construct what McWilliams believed was a kind of national laboratory for racial and ethnic relations. What made the state unique, McWilliams soon realized, was the speed with which its demographic landscape had been formed and altered. He later recalled, “In a relatively brief span of time the state’s population had grown so rapidly, communities had formed so swiftly, that the ‘history’ of social relations was visible, so to speak, to the naked eye; time had not blurred the record” (ECM, 100). Although much of McWilliams’s earlier work had focused on racism, Brothers Under the Skin was his ‹rst book-length work to treat the topic explicitly, and several of his subsequent books can be read as continuations of its project. First published in April 1943, it devoted one chapter each to the American experiences of Indians, Chinese, Mexicans, Japanese, Hawaiians, Puerto Ricans and other islanders, Filipinos, and blacks. (The 1951 and subsequent versions also included a chapter on American Jews.) That structure posed two risks. First, a serial treatment of minority groups 112 A M E R I C A N P R O P H E T

suggested that their histories were hermetically sealed from one another— literally separate chapters in the story of American prejudice. McWilliams addressed that potential problem, however, by frequently comparing and contrasting group histories to make larger points. He notes, for example, that the forced assimilation of the Indians coincided with the failure of reconstruction in the South, and he maintains that the 1870s marked the beginnings of a savage assault upon democratic values. Although this idea drives the ‹rst edition of Brothers Under the Skin, it ‹nds its most forceful expression in the 1951 revision. The real test did not come until the 1870’s for until then we had never seriously considered the acceptability of the Negro and the Indian as citizens. The moment they were considered and rejected, a strange dualism developed in the American tradition. For the truth is that we have since had two American traditions: one generous, and liberal, inclusive and democratic; the other narrow, bigoted, exclusive and authoritarian. (79) In a later chapter, McWilliams argues that this narrower tradition enabled anti-Chinese measures in California, for the prejudice directed at Indians and blacks had created a set of conditioned re›exes that the Californians soon discovered were responsive to racial propaganda. A related risk posed by the book’s structure was that of settling into a rehearsal of indignities, grievances, and atrocities. McWilliams solved that problem, especially in later editions, by setting the experiences of individual groups against larger political and historical backdrops. For example, in the 1951 edition, he maintains that anti-Chinese sentiment was complicated by the competition between the Republicans in the North and the Democrats in the South for Western votes (97–98). “Since it was useless for the South to campaign in the North, and vice-versa,” he observes, “both regions campaigned in the West” (101). That dynamic compelled both parties to accept California’s anti-Chinese line, which was shaped by the economic distress af›icting California after the gold rush boom. Initially welcomed by California employers as a cheap source of labor, the Chinese were soon blamed for a range of social ills. What with the completion of the Central Paci‹c, the decline of placer mining, and the generally undeveloped economy of the state, there were simply not enough jobs. The rapidity with which the argument Public Service


against the Chinese shifted from the economic to the biological, from “unfair competitor” to “incapable of assimilation,” exposed the delusion on which it rested. (101–2) He also adds that “the Negro and the Chinese issue fused with a larger national capital-labor con›ict,” again setting racial problems against a larger historical backdrop and touching on the socialist principles that guided his work for ‹ve decades (ECM, 321). Brothers Under the Skin concludes with a call for an expanded role for the federal government in ‹ghting discrimination. In particular, it recommends what would soon become the Truman administration’s Committee on Civil Rights. Many reviewers considered this proposal unrealistic or even harebrained. “One cannot always ‘pass a law’ and get exactly what one wants,” huffed R. L. Duffus in the New York Times Book Review. For McWilliams, however, the federal action was only a ‹rst step toward equality. “Certainly I never thought that civil rights would, per se, settle the issue,” McWilliams observed in a later interview. “It would make it possible to cope with the issue in an entirely new way” (HAT, 183). In his view, prejudice was not always or necessarily a natural outgrowth of mores; rather, “a lot of racial discrimination has been induced by legislation and sanctioned by legislation” (HAT, 238). Given the subsequent history of American race relations, it is dif‹cult to imagine substantial progress toward racial equality without federal action. In this sense, McWilliams was once again ahead of his time. Later editions of Brothers Under the Skin foreshadowed other important intellectual trends as well. For example, the 1951 edition contends that racial prejudice “is not a by-product of racial or cultural differences as such; it stems rather from con›ict or competition and is essentially a social phenomenon” (65). It also maintains that such prejudice is not a peculiarly American phenomenon; instead, it is “a special version of the world colonial problem, which, in the last analysis, is a problem involving the exploitation of labor” (339). As one scholar noted recently, McWilliams’s emphasis on the social construction of race, colonialism, and global economic systems presaged academic research carried out decades later (Robinson 2000). Although Brothers Under the Skin was popular as well as precocious— McWilliams later remarked that it sold more copies over its lifetime than 114 A M E R I C A N P R O P H E T

Factories in the Field—it would be easy to overlook now as the literature on race and ethnicity continues to burgeon. The circumstances of its composition practically ensured that it would have little or nothing in the way of original research. Moreover, many of its insights—about matters ranging from border enforcement to South Africa—have since become commonplaces. Yet the book’s relevance, honesty, and courage were immediately recognized in publications ranging from Time to the American Journal of Sociology. It should also be noted that the book barely postdated a period in which many American politicians and some social scientists accepted racial hierarchies as either self-evident or scienti‹cally based. These attitudes were changing quickly, as McWilliams observed in his introduction to the 1951 revision. “Even those who advocate white supremacy,” he maintained, “are today aware of the fact that they speak as poets of hatred and not as scientists” (13). But such poetry was in the air in 1943, and once again, McWilliams had written a book that seemed to be ripped from the headlines. As he later recalled, “No book of mine coincided more precisely with maximum national interest in the subject than Brothers Under the Skin” (ECM, 114).

SLEEPY LAGOON Less than two months after Brothers Under the Skin appeared, a highpro‹le murder case in Los Angeles dramatized the city’s ethnic tensions. On the night of August 1, 1942, Henry “Hank” Leyvas, his girlfriend, and friends from their 38th Street neighborhood visited a reservoir on the Williams ranch in southeast Los Angeles. The reservoir, which was nicknamed Sleepy Lagoon after a popular song, was used as a swimming hole by day and as a lovers’ lane at night. Hank and his girlfriend remained in the car while the others dispersed to more secluded spots around the reservoir. Soon a group of young men from a rival gang in Downey pulled alongside their parked car.6 A shouting match ensued, and the Downey boys began beating Hank and his girlfriend. After the incident, Hank and his friends returned to their neighborhood, recruited more friends, and went back to the reservoir to confront the assailants. The reservoir was deserted, but they could hear a party in the distance and decided to crash it. They missed the members of the Downey gang, who had already been Public Service


asked to leave, but their arrival at Eleanor Delgadillo Coronado’s birthday party sparked a ten-minute brawl. José Díaz, a twenty-two-year-old farmworker on the Williams ranch, left the party some ten to twenty minutes before Leyvas and company arrived. The next day, he was found unconscious on a road near the house. He later died in the hospital without regaining consciousness. He had knife wounds, bruises on his hands and face, and a fractured skull. A police dragnet ensued in which hundreds of youths, most of them Latinos, were detained and questioned. Eventually, twenty-two young men were charged. Five asked for separate trials, and the other seventeen stood trial in People of the State of California v. Zammora et al., the largest such murder trial in California history.7 Led by Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner, the press coverage was sensational, and the trial was later found to be biased. Superior Court judge Charles W. Fricke prevented the defendants from sitting with their defense attorneys on the grounds that their conferences would be disruptive. He also forbade them from changing their hairstyles or even cutting their hair during the three-month trial on the grounds that their distinctive ducktails were alleged to be gang characteristics that helped witnesses identify them. Moreover, the prosecution instructed the bailiff and guards to intercept packages of clean clothes sent to the defendants. As a result, the youths appeared increasingly unkempt as the trial wore on. There was also testimony that the police had beaten the defendants, making them even less presentable. On January 12, 1943, Leyvas and two other defendants were convicted by an all-white jury of ‹rst-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in San Quentin. Nine others were convicted of second-degree murder and given ‹ve years to life, also at San Quentin. Five were convicted of assault and sent to county jail, and the remaining ‹ve defendants, who were tried individually, were acquitted. Soon after the indictments were handed down, La Rue McCormick, a labor activist and Communist Party member, formed the Citizens’ Committee for the Defense of Mexican American Youth, which was organized on behalf of the defendants. Meanwhile, McWilliams was focusing on a special committee of the Los Angeles County grand jury appointed to investigate the problem of Mexican juvenile delinquency. The committee had already received a report by Captain Edward Duran Ayres, chief of the Foreign Relations Bureau of the Los Angeles sheriff’s of‹ce, on the prob116


lem. After describing the discrimination and segregation faced by native and immigrant Latinos, Ayres turned his attention to the root causes of juvenile delinquency. The Caucasian, especially the Anglo-Saxon, when engaged in ‹ghting, particularly among youths, resort [sic] to ‹sticuffs and may at times kick each other, which is considered unsportive: but the Mexican element considers all that to be a sign of weakness, and all he knows and feels is a desire to use a knife or some lethal weapon. In other words, his desire is to kill, or at least let blood. That is why it is dif‹cult for the AngloSaxon to understand the psychology of the Indian or even the Latin, and it is just as dif‹cult for the Indian or Latin to understand the psychology of the Anglo-Saxon or those from northern Europe. When there is added to this inborn characteristic that has come down through the ages, the use of liquor, then we certainly have crimes of violence.8 In short, Captain Ayres’s testimony was that Latino juvenile delinquency was primarily caused by a racial predisposition to lethal violence: “In fact, as mentioned above, economics, as well as some of the other features are contributing factors, but basically it is biological—one cannot change the spots of a leopard.” To offset the effects of Ayres’s report, Harry Braverman, a grand jury member and friend of McWilliams, arranged to have McWilliams appear before the special committee along with a University of California professor, a Mexican diplomat, a labor leader, and two other of‹cials. McWilliams began his remarks by quoting Vice President Henry Wallace’s speech in Los Angeles the previous month: “The present offers a unique case here in California of what might have been a sore spot, but which actually has become instead a fusion ground of two cultures.”9 Despite his admiration for Wallace, McWilliams’s impression was that, in this case, the wish was father to the thought. The problem in Los Angeles County was cultural con›ict, which McWilliams distinguished sharply from Ayres’s biological account. Speci‹cally, it was largely a second-generation problem created by social conditions and attitudes that emphasized a sense of cultural difference. Mexican-American youths were “victimized by their degree of visibility, or physical difference” as well as by the fact that their parents came from a culture that differed from that of the United States. Furthermore, social conditions in typical neighborhoods were deplorable, a claim that McWilliams backed up with DIH reports. Segregation comPublic Service


pounded the con›ict by narrowing the range of employment opportunities, reducing opportunities for cultural adjustment, and creating ample room for discrimination. “It would be folly indeed,” McWilliams concluded, “to deny that Mexicans are victimized by race prejudice in Los Angeles County, and, for that matter, in many other areas.” When guilty verdicts were returned in the Sleepy Lagoon case, several members of the defense committee approached McWilliams and asked him to chair it during the appeal. McWilliams agreed on three conditions: that the committee’s ‹nancial records be audited after the appeal and deposited at the UCLA Library, that the committee be broadened, and that it hire new counsel and staff. The audit, McWilliams later explained, was meant to disable the charge that the committee’s fund-raising efforts would bene‹t the Communist Party. Given La Rue McCormick’s membership in the Party, McWilliams regarded that charge as inevitable. The second condition arose from McWilliams’s perception that the committee would have to appeal to fair-minded people who probably did not agree with leftist activists on other issues. This view re›ected McWilliams’s long-standing conviction that the ad hoc committee, whose members dedicate themselves to a particular cause despite disagreements over other issues, was a chief source of democratic action in the United States. This conviction allowed McWilliams to work with a wide variety of ‹gures whose politics he did not necessarily share. In the Sleepy Lagoon affair, McWilliams felt that a broad committee of high-pro‹le members could best carry out the committee’s two chief tasks, fund-raising and publicity. The reorganized Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee included celebrities Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, and Anthony Quinn as well as well-known civic, business, and labor leaders. The third condition arose from McWilliams’s view that the original defense, led by the Long Beach labor lawyer George Shibley, was “spirited, and vigorous, but not maybe as tactful as it should have been—that is, in terms of winning a verdict, winning a jury over” (HAT, 158). Others thought that Judge Fricke’s obvious antipathy for Shibley aided the defense’s argument that the trial was biased. In the end, Ben Margolis Jr. was selected to lead the legal appeal. Margolis, whom McWilliams knew from the National Lawyers Guild, was the law partner of Charles Katz, McWilliams’s neighbor and law school classmate. McWilliams was not



involved in the legal work and had no personal contact with the defendants before, during, or after the trial. In discussing the committee’s work retrospectively, McWilliams was quick to credit Alice Green‹eld (later McGrath) for her efforts. McGrath, age twenty-‹ve, was a Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) associate who had been summarizing the trial transcript, running the mimeograph machine, and stuf‹ng envelopes until McWilliams offered her the position of executive secretary. “I’ve never done anything like that before,” she told McWilliams when he outlined her new job duties. “And now you will,” he replied (Sotomayor 2002). He considered her a brilliant organizer, and her opinion of him was nothing short of reverential. In later interviews, she frequently said that he in›uenced her conduct more than any other person she had known. “He was not a teacher-preacher. It’s just that his example was so marvelous and his attitudes were so incredibly good” (242). She was especially struck by his ability to focus on the key issue in any situation. When one defendant casually informed her that he paid for his impressive wardrobe by rolling drunks, she reported the information to McWilliams. He laughed and assured her, “It’s not the issue” (242). The same habit of mind frequently prevented McWilliams from defending himself against political and personal attacks. In his view, responding to such attacks might divert attention from the issue at hand. McGrath respected McWilliams for other reasons as well. For one thing, he did not need to have everything his way. Although he disliked some of the pamphlets put out by the committee, he felt no need to squelch them. She also admired his personal manner. He was “very funny and very fun-loving and loved small talk and switched from small talk to, you know, big talk without any dif‹culty at all” (182). In addition to asking about mutual friends and acquaintances, McWilliams quizzed his interlocutors about their views on issues and attended carefully to their answers. Although he was capable of holding forth on political subjects, heated political arguments were not his style. McGrath recalled that the only time she had ever seen him upset was after Arthur Schlesinger Jr. panned The Education of Carey McWilliams in the New York Times Book Review: “He made a little comment about it” (182). Otherwise she considered his comportment impeccable. Several years after McWilliams’s death, McGrath

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told an interviewer that she continued to make dif‹cult decisions by asking herself what Carey would have done. McWilliams’s friend Harry Braverman served as the reorganized committee’s treasurer, and the fund-raising effort consisted mostly of house parties, especially in the Jewish community and Hollywood, and three bene‹t concerts. McWilliams attended many of the parties, including one at the home of Orson Welles. The ‹rst bene‹t was at the Mocambo and featured Anthony Quinn, Gene Kelly, John Gar‹eld, and Lena Horne. The second was an evening of jazz at the Philharmonic Auditorium featuring Benny Carter, Buddy Rich, and Nat King Cole. The third event featured Latin American music and included Eudice Shapiro and Rita Hayworth. Between October 1943 and May 1944, the committee showed revenues of almost nineteen thousand dollars and slightly higher expenditures. Early on, it made a dif‹cult decision to use the funds to pay for expenses related to the appeal rather than to support the defendants’ families. In October 1944, the Second District Court of Appeal heard the Sleepy Lagoon case. McWilliams was present for Margolis’s argument, which he considered ‹rst-rate. The judges unanimously threw out the guilty verdict, and prosecutors decided not to retry the case. McWilliams later described the legal victory as a historic breakthrough and, for him, the inception of the Chicano movement (ECM, 109). McGrath was pleased but also surprised that the court found no evidence of racism in the trial. When she asked McWilliams about this ‹nding, he explained that there were suf‹cient grounds to throw out the decision without citing racism, which was always a touchy matter. Unable to post bail during the appeal, the defendants in San Quentin had already served two years. Leyvas, who had been involved in a knife ‹ght at San Quentin and was considered a dif‹cult prisoner, had been transferred to Folsom but was returned to San Quentin for release. Díaz’s murder was never solved. Shortly before her death in 1991, Lorena Encinas, a resident of the 38th Street neighborhood, reportedly told her children that her brother Louie and his friends had beaten Díaz minutes before Leyvas and the others had arrived at the party.10 Lorena was questioned by the police in 1942 and sent to the Ventura School for Girls after refusing to testify during the trial. Louie Encinas was also questioned but released. In 1972, he committed suicide while robbing a bank in Los Angeles. 120


THE ZOOT SUIT RIOTS As the Sleepy Lagoon appeal ran its course, ethnic tensions in Los Angeles took other forms as well. Perhaps the most spectacular were the so-called Zoot Suit Riots of June 1943, which began after a small cohort of sailors and soldiers scuf›ed with a group of young Latinos on a downtown street. On the evening of June 3, about ‹fty sailors, some armed with makeshift weapons, swept through downtown Los Angeles in search of Latinos in distinctively cut zoot suits. When the sailors found their targets, they beat them and stripped off their clothes, sometimes to the cheers of onlookers. The next night, some two hundred servicemen hired taxis to cruise Whittier Boulevard, where they harassed and beat Latinos. Some Latinos retaliated, and for the next several days, servicemen continued their sweeps through downtown, East Los Angeles, and Boyle Heights, occasionally storming into bars, cafés, and theaters. Later, the aggression was directed at other minorities, whether or not they were wearing zoot suits. The press coverage was sensational. Headlines blared: “Sailor Task Force Hits L.A. Zooters,” “Zoot Suit Chiefs Girding for War on Navy,” and “Zooters Planning to Attack More Servicemen.” The coverage drew thousands of sailors, marines, and civilian onlookers downtown. The Los Angeles Police Department did little to stop the mayhem, which lasted almost a week. When the police did intervene, it was usually at the expense of Latinos. For example, seventeen-year-old Enrico Herrera was sitting in a movie theater with a girl when sailors dragged him into the street, stripped him, and broke his jaw to the cheers of bystanders. When the police ‹nally moved in, they arrested Herrera. In another incident, a policeman beat a Latino youth with a nightstick and kicked him in the face when he refused to enter a police vehicle without an explanation for his arrest. After the pummeling, the of‹cers had dif‹culty loading the young man into the vehicle because of his prosthetic leg. Later, McWilliams offered a possible reason for the police department’s inaction. According to his sources, a Hollywood police captain told a movie producer that the disturbance drew attention away from the trial of Compton Dixon, a police of‹cer who had been accused of kicking a Central Jail detainee to death (North from Mexico, 248). The charges against Dixon were dismissed a few weeks after the con›ict erupted. Although not as lethal as other urban riots in America that summer—in Public Service


fact, the Zoot Suit Riots resulted in no fatalities and only slight property damage—the turmoil did little to improve the city’s image. Time blamed the LAPD and the local press for contributing to the violence, which Eleanor Roosevelt referred to as “in the nature of race riots.” McWilliams later noted that both the Los Angeles Times and the city’s Chamber of Commerce objected to the remark. An editorial ran under the headline “Mrs. Roosevelt Blindly Stirs Race Discord,” and the Chamber of Commerce’s president stated, “These so-called ‘zoot-suit’ riots have never been and are not now in the nature of race riots . . . At no time has the issue of race entered into consideration . . . Instead of discriminating against Mexicans, California has always treated them with the utmost consideration” (North from Mexico, 256). The city council responded to the violence by voting to make wearing a zoot suit a crime punishable by thirty days in jail. State senator Jack Tenney decided to investigate links between the juvenile gangsters and Axis agents. Mayor Fletcher Bowron and Police Chief C. B. Horrall were slow to intervene, and the national coverage was embarrassing to Governor Warren, who was already considering a bid for the presidency. McWilliams’s response was three-pronged: journalistic, civic, and legal. In addition to reporting on the disturbances for the New Republic and PM, a liberal national newspaper based in New York, McWilliams chaired an emergency meeting of several hundred residents following the second night of mayhem “to see what might be done to ‘cool’ the situation” (ECM, 113). After that meeting, McWilliams called his friend Robert Kenny, the state attorney general, and asked him to urge Governor Warren to appoint a committee to investigate the events. Kenny agreed, and Warren appointed a ‹ve-member committee. McWilliams later claimed that he suggested four of the ‹ve members to Kenny, while Warren’s ‹fth choice for the committee was actor Leo Carrillo, best known for playing Sancho, sidekick to the Cisco Kid of motion picture fame. McWilliams described Carrillo, a Democrat and old army friend of Warren, as “one of those ‘early Californians’ who don sombreros and serapes for the annual Fifth of May celebration and then forget about their Mexican-American heritage for the rest of the year” (ECM, 114). The next day, McWilliams met Kenny for breakfast in the exclusive California Club in downtown Los Angeles. They went over plans for the proposed hearing and discussed a draft report that McWilliams had already prepared. The report was modi‹ed slightly and released the following day. It called for more restrained press coverage and 122


evenhanded treatment on the part of the police. It also called for the navy to declare Los Angeles off-limits for its personnel. At Kenny’s request, McWilliams later drafted a manual for police of‹cers for dealing with racial disturbances, which Kenny’s of‹ce published in milder form in December of that year. McWilliams later said that his committee’s “prompt action in issuing the report had the desired effect: a measure of calm was restored, the press took a more temperate line, and some of the recommendations were heeded by local authorities” (ECM, 114). Beatrice Grif‹th concluded that the committee “was the determining factor in the riots’ end” (1948, 27). The decisive act came on June 9, when Rear Admiral D. W. Bagley declared Los Angeles off-limits to naval personnel, effectively quelling the disturbance. In his subsequent re›ections on the episode, McWilliams hinted that the committee itself was an end run around the governor: “Warren, of course, did not know that the idea for the committee was mine or that I had prepared the draft report” (ECM, 114). The suggestion is that Warren might have balked if he had known, but the ‹nal documents, which focus on “race riots” rather than rogue military personnel, presented no challenge to Warren’s views, authority, or political interests. The third prong, the legal response to the mayhem and the role of the police, was more pointed. As president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, McWilliams wrote a short report for the Guild Lawyer in the summer of 1943. There he recommended that “the Department of Justice prosecute Los Angeles police of‹cials for alleged violations of the federal civil rights statutes for detaining Mexican-American youths without preferring charges.” He also reported the charge that “the Hearst papers in Los Angeles were jeopardizing the war effort through a distorted and unfair presentation of the situation.” Under the headline “Police Culpable,” his report continued: The evidence clearly indicates that the police stood by laughing and kidding while the mob beat, insulted, and humiliated every Mexican they could lay their hands on (including also Negro youngsters). The newspaper stories about Zoot-Suit Gangsters are nonsense. Not more than one-third of the persons seized by the mobs were even wearing “zoot-suits.” It was Mexicans they were after. The evidence also indicates that the military police, when they did take soldiers and sailors into custody, patted them on the back and laughed and joked with them. Public Service


His report also included the text of his telegram to Attorney General Francis Biddle requesting immediate action. The telegram concluded, “Feel full federal investigation essential to prevent occurrence of similar disgraceful manifestations of race prejudice in the future. Your prompt attention to this wire is imperative” (Ginger and Tobin 1988, 48–49). If McWilliams’s telegram received that prompt attention, he never mentioned it in his memoir, oral history, or other accounts of his life.

THE TENNEY COMMITTEE Two weeks after the Zoot Suit Riots, McWilliams appeared before the Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California (CUAC). Formed in 1941, the committee was chaired by state senator Jack Tenney, a former songwriter and bandleader whose most famous composition was “Mexicali Rose.” Tenney had earned a law degree at night in 1935 and joined the California State Assembly as a Democrat in 1936. The following year, he was elected president of Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians. According to McWilliams, Tenney “was then as red as a Mexicali or any other kind of red rose” (ECM, 146). He supported numerous left-wing causes, including the dissolution of HUAC, which had collected af‹davits to the effect that Tenney was a member of the Communist Party between 1936 and 1937. With Sam Yorty, Tenney coauthored a bill to repeal the state’s criminal syndicalism act, which had been used against labor organizers such as Caroline Decker. He coauthored another bill that would have prohibited school boards from inquiring into the “political, religious or economic beliefs of schoolteachers” and yet another in 1939 that would have entitled political candidates to damages if they were falsely accused of being Communists. Tenney’s politics pivoted quickly, however, after he was defeated for reelection as president of Local 47, an outcome he attributed to the work of Communists. He subsequently served with Yorty on the Assembly Relief Investigating Committee, established in 1940 to investigate Communist in›uence in the State Relief Administration. In 1941, Tenney became chair of the newly formed CUAC. The following year, he was elected to the state senate as a Republican. In addition to questioning witnesses about his defeat in the Local 47 election, Tenney began investigating such groups as 124


the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, and other organizations to which McWilliams belonged. In its early years, the Tenney Committee also held hearings on the Ku Klux Klan and profascist groups, but as time went on, it increasingly targeted left-wing organizations. Tenney and the committee’s chief investigator, R. E. Combs, conducted most of the questioning, and Tenney either wrote or supervised the composition of the committee’s reports. Their method was straightforward. Using the ‹nal publication of the Dies Committee as their starting point, they collected names of suspected subversives and gathered information from People’s Daily World. Using over fourteen thousand index cards, they then cataloged and cross-referenced the names of residents belonging to organizations they deemed to be subversive, sometimes supplementing that information with details from the subject’s private life. If a particular index card listed enough subversive groups, the committee was prone to conclude that the person was trying to subvert the U.S. government. The hearings blended workaday questioning with reactionary speeches and overblown accusations. Edward Barrett Jr., a University of California law professor, concluded that the hearings “were not conducted in a manner calculated to permit rational ‹ndings of fact. A general view suggests that prosecution rather than investigation was the theme” (Barrett 1951, 44). Much of the questioning was devoted to con‹rming membership in the suspected groups, but Tenney encouraged “friendly” witnesses to testify freely while frequently cutting off “unfriendly” witnesses or those who tried to explain their views and associations. At public hearings, he habitually accused spectators of being Communist sympathizers if they responded favorably to an unfriendly witness’s ripostes, and he occasionally removed audience members who laughed or applauded. He was also quick to label the attorneys of unfriendly witnesses as Communists, and he ejected them for protesting the committee’s methods too strenuously. By the time McWilliams was called before the Tenney Committee, it had already accepted testimony and a lengthy af‹davit from Rena Vale, a writer who maintained that she and McWilliams had met as fellow Communist Party members. Vale also claimed that the Party had received legal services from “Comrade Carey McWilliams,” that she had been given McWilliams’s name as an organizer of the Communist Party’s Lawyers Unit, and that McWilliams was one of seventeen Olson appointees that she Public Service


“knew to be Communists or fellow travelers.” It was not the ‹rst time Vale had implicated McWilliams. In 1940, she described McWilliams in the American Mercury as “a liberal attorney and author, who during the Popular Front era consistently advanced the Muscovite line.” She added that McWilliams had chosen Margaret Kalisch, secretary of the Los Angeles local of the CIO Of‹ce Workers’ Union and wife of a Newspaper Guild of‹cial, as his executive secretary. Later reports would suggest that Kalisch was a Communist. McWilliams was the last witness called before the Tenney Committee on June 22, 1943.11 Over half the questions put to him came from Combs, who probed McWilliams about his af‹liations and acquaintances. McWilliams’s longest answers came in response to questions about the basic causes of the Zoot Suit outbreak, which McWilliams ascribed to a number of social handicaps af›icting second-generation Mexican Americans: inadequate housing, residential segregation, job discrimination, and poor English skills. He also mentioned various forms of social discrimination and cited an attempt to provide Mexican-American youngsters in Pomona equal access to the community pool. Combs then asked about the police, press, and Communist Party during the Zoot Suit Riots, giving McWilliams ample opportunity to air his views. Assemblyman Nelson Dilworth asked if McWilliams did not believe that “some racial segregation is necessary in a community of different nationalities” (4362). McWilliams said he did not, maintaining that “segregation of that type is fundamentally at variance with the American constitutional law, in violation to [sic] the spirit and letter of the 14 [sic] amendment, and productive of a great deal of harm and mischief” (4364). Tenney then began questioning McWilliams about interracial marriage, which McWilliams had mentioned in passing in Brothers Under the Skin. The transcript reads as follows: Q: I would like to ask you what you think of miscegenation? A: I think miscegenation statutes are a re›ection of prejudice in the community. Q: You think they should be abolished? A: I do. Q: You think there should be free intermarriage? A: I don’t think there should be a legal prohibition against intermarriage, and I’ll tell you why: In the Southern States they have had mis126


cegenation statutes for years, it hasn’t stopped inter-racial sexual intercourse; on the contrary, the effect of it has been to increase that very practice by reason of the fact that the white man who has sexual relations with a negro woman is not held accountable, he can’t contract a legal marriage, and sociologists who have gone into this subject at great length and who are very distinguished have said that the miscegenation statutes have had the opposite effect of what it was intended to produce. Q: Well, with the repeal of those statutes then, of course, marriage between various races would be permissible and legal, and would you advocate that? A: Mr. Tenney, it would be presumptious [sic] to advocate those marriages. I am not advocating anyone marry; I’m saying that these miscegenation statutes do not accomplish the purpose for which they were passed in the ‹rst instance. I think they should be repealed; I think they are symbolic of existing prejudice in the communities, and I feel this to the very degree, and I might say there is a considerable weight of opinion to sustain this judgment, to the very degree the negro race in the United States raises in the social statute [sic] in education and so forth, to that very extent you will have less interracial mixture than you have now, when they are, remember, at a disadvantage as a racial minority group in the United States. Q: I don’t think you have answered my question. A: You can repeat it. I think I have. Q: I say, do you favor intermarriage? A: I say it is presumptious [sic] upon me to say that “A” should marry “B.” Q: I understand. I am not talking about “A” and “B.” I am talking about the negroes and the whites. A: I am not advocating. I think the prohibition should be removed. (4364–66) Like Bertolt Brecht’s appearance before HUAC several years later, the colloquy seemed to resemble a zoologist being interrogated by apes (Friedrich 1986, 330). Tenney’s questions demonstrated the urgency of Los Angeles’s racial and ethnic problems even as they pointed to a chilling effort to enforce social and political orthodoxy. The exchange also illustrated McWilliams’s blend of ‹rm principle and ›exible tactics. Asked about miscegenation, McWilliams declared his opposition to those statutes and to the racial prejudice that gave rise to them. To support this liberal position, however, he employed a rhetorical strategy long favored by conservatives: He claimed that the statutes produced a perverse consequence. Public Service


If Tenney truly wished to prevent interracial marriage, McWilliams argued, he should oppose the statutes and raise the social status of African Americans. McWilliams was probably aware that these statutes, especially in the South, were designed as much to preserve white property as to prevent interracial intercourse. If so, his argument that the statutes failed to produce their intended effect was a sophistry—one that Tenney impatiently dismissed. Toward the end of his testimony, McWilliams brought up Vale’s af‹davit and maintained that her statement that he was a Communist Party member was “totally and maliciously false.” He also denied knowing or talking to Vale and coolly corrected one committee member’s impression that he generally subscribed to the principles of the Communist Party. “My political thinking,” McWilliams testi‹ed, “is that of a liberal New Deal Democrat. I subscribe to all the reforms of the New Deal Administration” (4370). His testimony was reasonably accurate, though McWilliams often distinguished himself from liberals, and his support for Patterson in 1940 showed that he was to the left of President Roosevelt. Indeed, that support was based on the belief that Patterson would carry out the New Deal reforms more effectively than Roosevelt. Tenney did not accept the self-characterization. “McWilliams’ views on racial intermarriage,” his committee’s 1945 report maintained, “are identical with Communist Party ideology” (CUAC 1945, 194). The report also attempted to discredit both McWilliams and his work. Carey McWilliams has a long record of Communist “front” af‹liations. He has written a number of books from the Communist Party ideological viewpoint, notable mostly for inaccuracies and misinformation. In testifying before a Senate Committee in Sacramento in 1941 he was compelled to admit that many of the assertions in his book “Factories in the Field” were without factual basis . . . As a Communist “front” propagandist he specializes in agricultural labor agitation and racial problems. (193) After accurately characterizing McWilliams’s testimony on the Zoot Suit Riots, the report outlined Tenney’s very different view of the same events. The mayhem in Los Angeles could be traced to Communists, who “hide behind the shield of housing, food and all that sort of thing in the advocacy of overthrowing the Government by force and violence.” 128


Vicious agitation, subtle conspiratorial intrigue, adroit manipulation of human relationships, skillful play upon prejudices and antagonisms— that is the devilish pattern woven by revolutionary Marxists as revealed by the Committee’s “zoot-suit” investigations. Over the next two decades, CUAC reports would list 161 entries for McWilliams. Most named him as a member of a suspected group; others rehearsed, with slight variation, the charge that he was “an individual belonging to an outstanding number of satellites in Stalin’s solar system” (CUAC 1947, 47). In public hearings, Tenney could be blunter, as when he claimed in passing that McWilliams was “one of California’s outstanding Communists.” The reports also documented the committee’s automatic suspicion of anyone who approved of McWilliams’s published work. The 1947 report, for example, accused a teacher at Canoga Park High School of placing “her stamp of approval on the books written by Carey McWilliams” because the school library contained his works (116). Perhaps the most bizarre accusation directed at McWilliams concerned an appearance he made before the adult education program in Chico, a small town in northern California. At the time, Chico’s high schools were introducing a new sex education unit, “Basic 12,” along with a textbook entitled Marriage and Family Relationships. Tenney asked a member of the Chico Board of Education if the books used in the classroom showed any indication of Communist doctrine. The board member replied that he would not say so, but that one could ‹nd plenty of suggestions that it was possible “to take our youngsters away from the home and give them to other people to teach them their philosophies of life, even opposed to that of their parents.” Tenney responded: That is why Carey McWilliams is going up and down the State speaking to school districts, of course. He is advocating the intermarriage of races, Negroes and whites, which is part of the Communist philosophy of breaking down the races. McWilliams had addressed the adult education program, not the school district, and he had not advocated interracial marriage. Yet Tenney did not allow these facts to interfere with his dark conclusion. The Chico incident is not an isolated one. The committee is in possession of suf‹cient facts to indicate an over-all pattern. The presence of Public Service


Carey McWilliams in Chico at or about the time of the inception of “Basic 12” is a fact that the committee is not overlooking. The Chico affair, taken into consideration with the use of “Land of the Soviets” and the Canoga Park High School teachers, indicates a carefully laid Communist Plan for the corruption of America’s coming generation. (CUAC 1947, 354) Eventually, Tenney’s suspicions would be matched only by his own sense of victimization. His committee’s 1949 report claimed that its members had suffered unconscionably at the hands of its critics. No group of men in California history have been subjected to the systematic, scienti‹c, concentrated, vicious abuse and vituperation that have been heaped on the members—past and present—of the California Legislature’s Committee on Un-American Activities, to all of which your committee is the direct lineal successor. (CUAC 1949, 687) The report then listed over three hundred of the committee’s “most notorious critics,” including McWilliams and such familiar ‹gures as anthropologist Franz Boas (who had died seven years earlier), Pearl Buck, Charlie Chaplin, Helen Gahagan Douglas, John Gar‹eld, Katherine Hepburn, Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, John Huston, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, Robert Kenny, Burgess Meredith, Gregory Peck, Dorothy Parker, Paul Robeson, Edward G. Robinson, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, former vice president Henry Wallace, and Orson Welles (688–89). A supplement to that report listed those who “publicly protested or denounced the mention of their names in the 1949 (Fifth) Report.” Again, the list included McWilliams, whose “record of Communist activity is so well known that we cite only the page numbers of references to his activity from recent reports by the California Senate Committee” (2987). By this time, however, Tenney had dug his own political grave by smearing scores of fellow legislators, prominent citizens, and important Democrats across the state, including San Francisco district attorney and future governor Edmund “Pat” Brown. Tenney had also alienated key newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Daily News as well as legendary lobbyist Artie Samish, who had recruited Tenney into politics in the ‹rst place. Even Yorty distanced himself from Tenney as his charges became more desperate. Shortly after the publication of the 1949 report, Tenney was removed as chair of CUAC. That year, he ‹nished ‹fth 130


in the Los Angeles mayoral election. In 1950, he defeated Glenn Anderson and Robert Kenny to retain his seat in the state senate but ran unsuccessfully for vice president in 1952 on the Christian National ticket. He subsequently wrote a series of anti-Semitic books, including Anti-Gentile Activity in America. By 1959, he was practicing law in the desert town of Banning. In July 1949, McWilliams wrote in the Nation that Tenney’s chief mistake had been to interrogate too many prominent citizens who were not actually Communists. Once witnesses of this kind are brought before the Inquisition, two concurrent developments are usually noted: the opposition is strengthened, and the position of the Committee is undermined, for it begins to look ridiculous even in the eyes of the less progressive elements of the community. Describing Tenney as a “supreme opportunist but potentially mischievous,” McWilliams later claimed that he had dif‹culty taking him seriously (HAT, 229; ECM, 147). Yet Tenney and others were not quite beneath his contempt. “By and large,” he recalled in his memoirs, “the West Coast red-baiters were an even crummier lot than those in the East” (ECM, 146). Some of those red-baiters were thickening McWilliams’s FBI ‹le. Entries from 1943 included negative newspaper editorials going back to 1940, excerpts from Tenney Committee transcripts, and items from the Assembly Relief Investigating Committee, which claimed that McWilliams’s secretaries were Communists. Another letter to the FBI dated August 5, 1943, one month after the Zoot Suit Riots, also raised suspicions. [S]ome of us here on the Paci‹c coast fear that your of‹ce underestimates his ability and his intelligence. We have good reason to believe that he has received money from Moscow for a long time and that he is now receiving money from the Japanese . . . Besides these activities, he has been taking an active part in stirring up the Negroes, the Mexicans, and the Jews . . . The Negroes have always been happy good citizens, until he and his co-workers started their propaganda. The ‹le also showed that, in 1945, Louis Budenz, former managing editor of the Daily Worker and a professional anti-Communist witness, was Public Service


reportedly told that McWilliams “was under Communist discipline” and that he was “supposedly making a Communist of STEINBECK.” McWilliams may have been unaware of these speci‹c accusations, but his experience with California anti-Communists prepared him well for similar investigations at the national level, where the personal and political stakes would be higher.

ONCE MORE THE JAPANESE EVACUATION As the Zoot Suit Riots, Sleepy Lagoon case, and Tenney Committee dramas were running their course, McWilliams was developing his next book project, Prejudice: Japanese-Americans: Symbol of Racial Intolerance (1944). In Brothers Under the Skin, McWilliams had been forthright about the problems created by the Japanese evacuation and internment, but he was unwilling to assign ultimate responsibility for them to President Roosevelt. Rather, he maintained that it would “serve no purpose” to retrace the steps leading to the decision to evacuate Japanese residents or to “debate the question of whether or not total mass evacuation should or should not have been ordered.” The fact is that the decision was made by the military and it is to be presumed that it was dictated by good and suf‹cient reasons. The decision, however, has created an enormous problem. The civil liberties of upward of 71,000 American citizens have been suspended without due process of law; property losses running into the millions of dollars have been sustained; and the government, at an initial cost of $70,000,000, is now attempting to resettle these evacués. (172) No longer bound by of‹cial duty or party loyalty, McWilliams was free to assess the mistreatment of residents and citizens based solely on their ancestry. Pulling together his previous work on the subject, Prejudice traces the history of that mistreatment and documents its consequences. In effect, McWilliams plays the role of defense attorney for the Japanese-American community. He grants that it was close-knit and maintained ties with the Japanese consulate, but he argues that its second generation was otherwise as assimilated as any other. He admits that immigrant parents wanted their children to learn Japanese, but he maintains that their 132


goal was not to split their children’s political loyalties, much less to facilitate espionage, but rather to ensure that their children maintained a modicum of continuity with Japanese culture. Besides, McWilliams points out, U.S. recruiting efforts had revealed that a very low percentage of the second generation could actually speak or write in Japanese—another sign that the Nisei were assimilating quickly. He concedes that Japanese Americans owned a good deal of land near military-industrial plants along the coast, but he also observes that only they could farm that expensive land intensively enough to turn a pro‹t. He admits that espionage and sabotage were not unknown on the West Coast, but he asks why the Japanese, and not the Germans or Italians, were singled out for internment. He also points to Hawaii, where there were much higher concentrations of Japanese but no calls for evacuation. Proceeding in this way, McWilliams refutes every argument offered to justify the evacuation and internment. He also offers a bouquet of racist comments from public ‹gures to indicate that prejudice in›ected by hysteria and self-interest, not military necessity, prompted the federal action. He describes the process by which the internment was undertaken, the court decisions that assessed its constitutionality, the conditions and notable incidents in the camps, and the social and psychological consequences of relocation. Finally, he demonstrates the full humanity of the relocated population by offering quotations from the evacuees’ correspondence and documents gathered by the War Relocation Authority. The patient, methodical exposition constructs a rational argument even as it points to the limits of such rationality during times of crisis. Perhaps the spookiest section of Prejudice describes the organized and irrefutably racist efforts to prevent the return of Japanese Americans to California. One such effort was aided by the Tenney Committee, whose 1943 report, McWilliams comments, “is chie›y remarkable for the illiteracies that are embalmed in its turgid pages” (243). Another was subsidized by C. M. Goethe, a Sacramento millionaire who had directed the Eugenics Society of Northern California and chaired the Immigration Committee of the Commonwealth Club, an organization founded during the Progressive Era. Yet another effort was undertaken by HUAC, which traveled to California to smear the WRA and interfere with the release program. This part of Prejudice features testimony from what McWilliams describes as the “usual parade of special-interPublic Service


est groups . . . all merrily grinding the same axes” (257). By way of example, McWilliams presents the following colloquy from a state senate hearing: Mrs. Benaph› [sic], representing the Gold Star Mothers: We want to keep the Japs out of California. Senator Slater: For the duration? A: No, for all times. Senator Slater: That’s the stuff! He also includes an unnerving exchange between Assemblyman Chester Gannon and Mrs. Maynard Thayer of the Committee on American Principles and Fair Play, whose members included Robert Gordon Sproul of the University of California and Robert Millikan of the California Institute of Technology. When Mrs. Thayer remarked, “It is of the greatest importance that in time of war we do not get off into race hatred,” Gannon replied, “Are you a Communist? That sounds like Communist doctrine.” Later, Gannon asked rhetorically, “Do you want to champion the rights of a people where different sexes do nude bathing together? You don’t know anything about the habits and morals of Japs in California. Mrs. Thayer, have you smelled the odor of a Jap home?” (260). In recounting the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Prejudice focuses mostly on such ‹gures as Senator Hiram Johnson, General DeWitt, and California attorney general Earl Warren. President Roosevelt and Governor Olson are effectively given a pass for their critical roles in the evacuation and internment. McWilliams later maintained that internment “was simply a practical decision on Roosevelt’s part: that he couldn’t be bothered endlessly with agitation about this issue” (HAT, 190). McWilliams also plays an insigni‹cant role in his own narrative. Only on page 265 does the reader discover that McWilliams was a government of‹cial during the evacuation and internment. Although the book downplays his complicity and Roosevelt’s ‹nal responsibility for the action, it should be noted that Prejudice appeared during wartime and while the internment was still in effect. In this sense, it reads as a slightly belated act of conscience as well as a powerful argument. It would be decades before Earl Warren would admit, even privately, that he regretted his actions during this period (Cray 1997, 520). But Prejudice was more than a defense of Japanese Americans or an act 134


of atonement. It was also a call to action. Once again, McWilliams proposed federal action to forbid discrimination based on race, color, creed, or national origin as well as a federal agency that would eliminate racist statutes and policies and manage race relations. He also called for a more serious orientation to the Paci‹c Rim, noting that language and cultural barriers were hindering the pursuit of signi‹cant economic opportunities. Finally, he called for a speedy end to the relocation program, which was of‹cially terminated on January 2, 1945. (“There endeth another chapter,” he wrote in his diary.) McWilliams later noted that Governor Warren opposed the termination but deserved credit for helping Japanese Americans resume their lives in California with few incidents. The notices for Prejudice were excellent. Newsweek, the New Yorker, Saturday Review of Literature, and Survey Graphic ran favorable reviews, and the academic journals praised the historical overview of anti-Japanese sentiment in particular. Writing for the American Historical Review, however, Donald Young cautioned his readers that the book was essentially a legal brief and maintained it would be unfair to judge McWilliams’s work by academic standards. By way of example, Young offered two conclusions that seemed unwarranted by the evidence. First, the notion that anti-Japanese sentiment was largely manufactured by individual persons and groups “seems grossly to underestimate the importance of basic social factors which have made it possible for a comparatively few individuals to stir up race con›ict.” Second, “the strong plea that Federal action is the main and practically the only hope for improving the lot of racial minorities in the United States is one-sidedly unrealistic in terms of the known socio-psychological factors in group tensions and con›ict.” One-sidedly unrealistic or not, McWilliams’s argument resonated immediately with Justice Frank Murphy of the U.S. Supreme Court. A New Deal Democrat who had joined the Court in 1940, Murphy disagreed with the Court’s 1944 decision to uphold the constitutionality of Korematsu v. United States, the landmark case prompted by a San Leandro resident’s refusal to evacuate in May 1942. Arguing that the evacuation “goes over ‘the very brink of constitutional power’ and falls into the ugly abyss of racism,” Murphy’s dissenting opinion cited Prejudice on four separate points. Murphy also cited a pamphlet, “What About Our Japanese-Americans?” which McWilliams had written as a prelude to Prejudice. Not content to let his book make his case, McWilliams entered the Public Service


hurly burly of the public arena, where he blended statistics, logic, and emotional appeals to carry his arguments. In two broadcasts of Town Meeting of the Air, he debated the possibility of Japanese assimilation and whether the evacuation should continue for the duration of the war. On the question of assimilation, a member of the California Joint Immigration Committee asked whether McWilliams or members of his family were willing to marry a Japanese. McWilliams did not take the bait. Rather, he argued, “Race as a clue to character, capacity, or conduct is a myth—one of Hitler’s vital lies.”12 On another broadcast, McWilliams was more pugnacious. When asked about HUAC chair Martin Dies’s opposition to the return of Japanese Americans to the West Coast, he replied: “I think that the chairman of the committee believes—the only kind of democracy in which he believes is the rotten poll-tax democracy in his own constituency. [Applause and boos.] I think he’s an antidemocrat.”13 The comment had extra force insofar as one of the program’s other guests, Los Angeles congressman John M. Costello, was a member of HUAC at the time. By the end of 1944, McWilliams was one of America’s most productive, versatile, and consequential writers. His articles appeared in the most in›uential political magazines, and his books, which dealt with current and controversial topics, were well received in legal and academic circles as well as the popular press. He lectured extensively, testi‹ed regularly and forcefully, and was an effective debater both in person and over the airwaves. Although he had begun to accrue powerful enemies, he was also becoming, in today’s parlance, a public intellectual of considerable stature and promise. As the war ran its course, McWilliams looked forward to its conclusion and what he hoped would be a period of unprecedented social progress.



V. T H E G R E A T E X C E P T I O N


J A N U A R Y 1 9 4 5 , McWilliams became the West Coast contributing editor of the Nation—“the realization of a longstanding ambition,” he recorded in his diary (Jan. 8, 1945). By his standards, the new duties were relatively light—at least one unsigned editorial per week and about one article per month—but the appearance of his name on the masthead changed his life in several ways. For one thing, he became “a target-ofopportunity for every left-of-center group and politician in the vast area west of the Rockies” (ECM, 116). In practical terms, this higher pro‹le meant more contacts with a wider array of writers, activists, and public ‹gures. It also led to nationwide lecture tours twice a year, mostly on the subject of racial minorities and related social issues. The schedule brought with it a new lifestyle. He was often away from his home and law of‹ce, sometimes for months at a time, crisscrossing the country giving lectures arranged by a New York agency. The honoraria— usually between one hundred and two hundred dollars per talk—became an important part of his income, and the tours gave him a chance to hobnob with other authors, publishers, and activists. On a 1943 trip to New York City, for example, he visited with Thurgood Marshall, Alfred Knopf, Edmund Wilson, and Richard Wright in addition to lunching at the RitzCarlton Hotel with his agent, Maxim Lieber, and his editor, Angus Cameron, who made the trip down from Boston. His impression of New York was positive: “New York is wonderful—so clean, fresh, and intelligent by contrast with Chicago and Washington.” Chicago was “a horrid place— where they distrust everyone and make you buy slugs for phone calls.”1 Dallas was even worse. On his approach to the city one morning, he lifted the window shade of his train compartment and relished the sight of cattle grazing in the green ‹elds. But after a short stay in March 1946, he recorded N


in his diary that he had “developed a frightful distaste for this dump of a place . . . people calling each other ‘honey’ and kicking Negroes around” (Mar. 29, 1946). His view of American culture did not seem to improve as a result of his travels. “Awfully depressed at state of things in general,” he noted the same month. “Shabbiness of American culture—its emptiness” (Mar. 2, 1946). He was always happy to return home, taking special pleasure in the leg from New Mexico to Los Angeles, where Iris and Jerry often met him at the station. When in Los Angeles, McWilliams split his time between writing at home, addressing local civic and church groups, working in the law of‹ce, and researching his latest subject at the USC library. When speaking in and around Los Angeles, he was often accompanied by Iris and Jerry. Although they could not ‹nd a house to rent or buy during wartime— “Rarer than cigarettes,” he noted in April 1945—they ‹nally bought a home on North Alvarado Street, between the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Echo Park and Silver Lake. Set on a steep, narrow ridge overlooking downtown Los Angeles, the large lot included lemon, eucalyptus, and avocado trees. The couple immediately began remodeling their new home, and McWilliams devoted some of his weekends to yard work. He also spent many afternoons taking Jerry to the merry-go-round at Grif‹th Park. On one occasion, McWilliams watched both of his sons for one day, playing what Bill Carey called “house husband.” “Kids nearly drove me crazy,” he recorded in his diary (Aug. 29, 1943). His visits with his older son were rarer after Dorothy accepted a teaching position in Merced, a small town hours north of Los Angeles in the San Joaquin Valley. When Bill Carey was in town, usually in the summer, baseball games were the order of the day. In 1945, McWilliams and Fante took him to Wrigley Field at the corner of Forty-‹rst and Avalon to watch the Los Angeles Angels play the Portland Beavers. Sitting between the two men, Bill Carey struck up a conversation with Fante about teams, players, and statistics. Although he later recalled that the conversation “left my father more or less a spectator,” he felt encouraged to show off his knowledge. He also recalled that “it was a delicious experience for a not-quitetwelve year old, and it was clear that John got his own mischievous pleasure out of it. But for me, it was a minor rite of passage” (Cooper 2000, 223). The following summer, after a doubleheader at Wrigley Field, McWilliams observed that Bill Carey was “developing into a wonderful kid. Almost as 138


large as I am nowadays; and he’s only thirteen” (Aug. 11, 1946). He also noticed and appreciated Bill Carey’s gentle way with Jerry. The McWilliams’s social life in Los Angeles was active. They visited often with the Fantes, Ross Wills, and Joe and Mary Aidlin, who shared McWilliams’s interest in politics. Joe, a fellow lawyer, had met McWilliams in the 1930s, when both men worked on a campaign to recall Mayor Shaw and replace him with Fletcher Bowron. In 1938, Aidlin ran unsuccessfully for the assembly; in 1945, he lost a close election for city council, in part because the Los Angeles Times labeled him a Communist. In fact, Joe tended to be more conservative than McWilliams; Mary Aidlin, however, was a Communist. When the two couples discussed politics, Mary found a sympathetic ear in McWilliams, with whom she got along well. She was not unique in this regard; according to Joe Aidlin, McWilliams “was not a womanizer, but women liked him—he was more of a people-izer.”2 Alice McGrath agreed, noting that women appreciated his attentive listening and could express warm feelings or even adoration without prompting an overture from him. It was Joyce Fante’s impression, however, that women admired McWilliams not for his listening but for his ability to command the attention of an entire room. She also noted that, given his hard-drinking ways with Fante and Wills, McWilliams was “the kind of man sometimes wives don’t want their husbands to associate with too much.”3 Often a fresh face would appear in the McWilliams household, as when Fante and Wills brought William Faulkner to the apartment. “Faulkner is a very interesting man—slight, neat, quiet,—very much the Southern gentleman, only with a nice, frosty irony,” McWilliams observed (Jan. 27, 1943). They drank and exchanged stories until 3:00 a.m., when Fante, deep in his cups, left an un‹nished drink—“Unheard of,” McWilliams noted dryly. Two nights later, novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg came by with Wills in the evening, “telling a long story about Fitzgerald.” Other guests and companions during this time included journalist Herb Klein, architect Richard Neutra, Orson Welles, FDR labor advisor Sidney Hillman, state attorney general Robert Kenny, actor Albert Dekker, Wallace Stegner, F. O. Matthiessen, Stanley Mosk, and Alice McGrath. As chair of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, McWilliams also met with and occasionally entertained guest speakers, including San Francisco attorney Bartley Crum, a Republican and Wendell Willkie advisor, The Great Exception 139

who visited Los Angeles in January 1945 to discuss the ongoing saga of Harry Bridges’s deportation case. Later that year, McWilliams mentioned Crum as a possible U.S. Senate candidate in a piece for the Nation.

AN ISLAND ON THE LAND None of McWilliams’s social activities impeded his progress on his next book, a work on Southern California for the American Folkways series edited by Erskine Caldwell, author of God’s Little Acre and Tobacco Road. McWilliams considered Caldwell a “rather strange guy—quiet, reserved and never exhibiting so much as a vague sense of humor . . . And not very— if at all—of the earth, like his stories and characters” (Jan. 25, 1943). The series was an extension of Caldwell’s project of “looking for America at its whistle-stops,” which had already produced Some American People in 1935. The excessive consistency of the titles in his series—Buckeye Country, High Border Country, Piney Woods Country, Lower Piedmont Country, and so on—was slightly at odds with the diversity he sought to document, but Caldwell managed to recruit Gertrude Atherton, who contributed Golden Gate Country, and Wallace Stegner, who wrote Mormon Country. As early as 1943, Caldwell began applying gentle pressure on McWilliams to contribute a book on Los Angeles, and McWilliams ultimately accepted the opportunity and wrote Southern California Country: An Island on the Land. The book’s title turned out to be rather ›uid. As late as 1945, a series announcement referred to it as Mission Country, and later reprints dropped the Country part of the title. For McWilliams, the project was a return to his regional interests and a self-described labor of love. “I really enjoyed writing that book very much because it gave me a chance to really unload, so to speak,” he laughingly told an interviewer in the 1970s (HAT, 209). McWilliams drew on the lore he had acquired for his Westways column as well as his extensive knowledge of California literature. He culled his book’s subtitle, for example, from the writings of Helen Hunt Jackson, whose Ramona was the ‹rst novel written about Southern California. Although McWilliams held Jackson’s work in low regard, he made extensive use of her island image throughout the book. Southern California Country is not an overtly political work, but 140


McWilliams’s political sympathies are easily detected below the clear surface of his prose. The ‹rst indication of his stance is the book’s dedication to “Robert Walker Kenny, Native Son.” A former newspaperman, judge, cofounder of the National Lawyers Guild, and friend of McWilliams, Kenny had managed the Olson campaign’s ‹nances in 1938. The same year, he won the state senate seat Olson vacated and supported Earl Warren for state attorney general. In his ‹rst term, he announced that he would run for governor if a petition to recall Olson quali‹ed for the ballot. When Warren became governor in 1942, Kenny replaced him as state attorney general and worked with McWilliams during and after the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943. In 1946, the same year Southern California Country appeared, he reluctantly agreed to run for governor against Warren. That McWilliams would dedicate a book to his friend and colleague is no surprise, but the form and timing of the dedication suggest that his gesture had another layer of signi‹cance. In dubbing Kenny “Native Son,” McWilliams effectively co-opted the appellation of the Native Sons of the Golden West, an organization that McWilliams had been skewering since the 1930s. The allwhite group, which Earl Warren had joined in the 1920s, “was to anti-Oriental agitation in California what the KKK was to Southern racism, albeit in a somewhat more decorous form,” McWilliams later claimed (ECM, 107). The election-year dedication touted Kenny at the expense of Warren, another native son, even as it attempted to reclaim that term from its reactionary connotations. McWilliams signals early on in Southern California Country that his readers should not expect pleasant local color. In the foreword, he announces his plan to dispense with romance and “to examine, with a degree of realism, the actual structure of social classes in Alta California” (vii). After offering a superb description of the area’s terrain and climate, he sets about demolishing the legendary history of Southern California from the mission period to statehood, a supposedly idyllic period when the region’s Spanish residents, “all members of one big happy guitar-twanging family, danced the fandango and lived out days of beautiful indolence in lands of the sun that expand the soul” (22). “Before explaining how this legend came into existence,” McWilliams notes coolly, “it might be well to take a look at the facts” (22). Drawing heavily on the work of S. F. Cook of the University of California, McWilliams sketches a less uplifting history in which heterogeneous Indian tribes succumbed to the unyielding demands The Great Exception 141

of the Spanish mission system. “With the best theological intentions in the world,” McWilliams writes, “the Franciscan padres eliminated Indians with the effectiveness of Nazis operating concentration camps” (29). An even more aggressive Anglo assault after the gold rush decimated the region’s Indian cultures. “The Spanish policy was to regard the Indian as a potential economic asset,” McWilliams writes, “but, under American rule, he was regarded as a liability to be liquidated as rapidly as possible” (42). The Anglo domination extended to the aristocratic gente de razon as well. After the passage of the Land Act of 1851, at least 40 percent of the land owned under Mexican grants was sold to meet the costs of compliance. As more Anglos began arriving in Southern California, especially in the 1880s, these landholders began to be called Mexicans rather than Californios or native Californians, and the region’s pre-Anglo past was obscured, distorted, and commodi‹ed to suit the interests of the new elite. By documenting that process and bringing it to the attention of general audiences, author Gray Brechin has claimed, McWilliams “peeled back the giddy and gaudy orange-crate label of of‹cial state history” (Stewart and Gendar 2001, xix). Having surveyed the facts, McWilliams turns to ‹ction: speci‹cally, the novel Ramona and its cultural and commercial consequences. By McWilliams’s account, Helen Hunt Jackson’s romance ‹lled a vacuum created by a land with little in the way of a usable past. The newness of the land itself seems, in fact, to have compelled, to have demanded, the evocation of a mythology which could give people a sense of continuity in a region long characterized by rapid social dislocations. And of course it would be a tourist, a goggle-eyed umbrellapacking tourist, who ‹rst discovered the past of Southern California and peopled it with curious creatures of her own invention. (71) Originally commissioned to write stories about the missions for Century magazine, the ‹fty-four-year-old Amherst native ended up producing one of the most widely read American novels of its time. Published in 1884, the story of Ramona and “the half-breed Alessandro” coincided with the rise of the region’s winter tourist industry, which eagerly adopted the book’s themes, images, and characters for its own purposes. Jackson also helped launch the movement to restore the missions, which, McWilliams notes, was “a strictly Protestant promotion” (79). He offers a left-handed compli142


ment for the restorations themselves, noting that the missions are “a much better, a less embarrassing, symbol of the past than the Mexican ‹eld worker or the ragamuf‹n pachucos of Los Angeles” (83). He also mocks Southern California’s Cinco de Mayo ‹estas, whose relationship to the region’s Mexican past struck him as comically vestigial. McWilliams’s commitment to a racially inclusive portrait of the region is clear from the subsequent chapter on Chinese Americans, whom he credits with developing the ‹shing industry, laboring in the ‹rst citrus groves, and enduring perpetual harassment and discriminatory legislation. Maintaining a loose chronology, he then turns to the rise of both the tourist industry and “the cult of the body” in the late nineteenth century (111). From there, he traces the pattern of the region’s population growth since 1870, which he characterizes as “one continuous boom punctuated at intervals by major explosions” (114). He notes that many of the earliest settlers were progressive builders and men of vision and supports that point with several deft pro‹les. However, Los Angeles quickly developed an ethic of speculation and quick pro‹t that became a kind of local religion. Drawing on various local wits, McWilliams assembles an amusing portrait of a complacent population of Midwestern transplants dominated by a small band of avaricious boosters. Quoting Louis Adamic, McWilliams maintains that these boosters were “blowing down the city’s windpipe with all their might, hoping to in›ate the place to a size that will be reckoned the largest city in the country—in the world” (160). Yet even these pro‹teers and their “great terrifying singleness of purpose”—the phrase is also Adamic’s—needed more than their own hot air to expand Los Angeles, and the quest for water became a signature event in the city’s history. The details of that quest were well suited to McWilliams’s narrative talents and long-standing distrust of the system. In McWilliams’s version, a small group of businessmen led by Los Angeles Times publisher General Harrison Otis bought up forty-four thousand acres of the San Fernando Valley in 1905 and proposed a 238-mile aqueduct to fetch water from the Owens Valley.4 By that time, Fred Eaton, a former mayor of Los Angeles, had quietly acquired riparian rights to the Owens River by purchasing options on adjacent parcels. The citizens of Los Angeles approved a $25 million bond to fund the aqueduct only to discover that it ended at the north end of the formerly unirrigated San Fernando Valley, which had not yet been annexed by Los Angeles. Having doomed the Owens Valley farmThe Great Exception 143

ing economy by relieving its residents of their water rights, the businessmen proceeded to sell their suddenly valuable San Fernando Valley parcels for an estimated $100 million pro‹t. By the time Southern California Country appeared, the Owens Valley story had enjoyed a lengthy if somewhat obscure afterlife. Throughout the 1920s, residents of the Owens Valley had decried and even sabotaged the aqueduct, earning some of them prison time in San Quentin. The Los Angeles Times, however, had not covered the original story in depth, perhaps because Harrison Otis had founded the land syndicate that set it in motion. McWilliams ‹rst heard the Owens Valley water story from Mary Austin, whose husband, a federal land agent, had tried to thwart the scheme. Austin ‹ctionalized the story in The Ford (1917), and Morrow Mayo recounted the details of the “colossal swindle” in Los Angeles: The Western Scene (1933), but McWilliams’s account was the ‹rst to receive signi‹cant attention. Decades later, the Owens Valley story became well known, at least indirectly, following the release of the ‹lm Chinatown (1974), which featured Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. Directed by Roman Polanski in the noir style, the detective story was set in the 1930s against a backdrop of events similar to those surrounding the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Widely considered one of the best Hollywood ‹lms of its generation, Chinatown was conceived by screenwriter Robert Towne, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from Pomona College. In a later interview at the American Film Institute, Towne noted that Southern California Country inspired his Academy Award–winning original screenplay and remained “probably still the single best book on California and Los Angeles ever written—and quite germane today if anybody decides to look at it” (AFI 2001). The continuing appeal and in›uence of Southern California Country, especially among academics and a‹cionados, can be traced to its impressive historical and literary range, its pointed and humorous ironies, and its extraordinary perceptiveness. For the ‹rst time in his career, McWilliams blended an insider’s political and legal acumen with a seasoned journalist’s knack for selection and presentation, a literary historian’s command of the regional literature, a longtime resident’s (but not a native’s) sense of Los Angeles society, and a Menckenesque eye for folly. His pithy discussions of the region’s geography, natural resources, demography, economy, sociol144


ogy, urban development, architecture, politics, and literature betray no conceptual strain and hold up remarkably well to repeated reading. Even more extraordinary, McWilliams offers a resilient portrait of a region that appears to reinvent itself constantly. The ‹nal stroke in that portrait, which describes an epiphany McWilliams experienced in downtown Los Angeles, has become one of his most frequently cited passages. By way of prologue, he reports his ‹rst impression of Los Angeles. 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 ‹rst time. I found nothing about Los Angeles to like and a great many things to detest. (375) He realized, however, that his attitude had changed after an experience in Pershing Square. My feeling about this weirdly in›ated village in which I had come to make my home (haunted by memories of a boyhood spent in the beautiful mountain parks, the timber-line country, of northwestern Colorado), suddenly changed after I had lived in Los Angeles for seven long years of exile. I have never been able to discover any apparent reason for this swift and startling conversion, but I do associate it with a particular occasion. I had spent an extremely active evening in Hollywood and had been deposited toward morning, by some kind soul, in a room at the Biltmore Hotel. Emerging the next day from the hotel into the painfully bright sunlight, I started the rocky pilgrimage through Pershing Square to my of‹ce in a state of miserable decrepitude. In front of the hotel newsboys were shouting the headlines of the hour: an awful trunk-murder had just been committed; the district attorney had been indicted for bribery; Aimee Semple McPherson had once again stood the town on its ear by some spectacular caper; a University of Southern California football star had been caught robbing a bank; a love-mart had been discovered in the Los Feliz Hills; a motion-picture producer had just wired the Egyptian government a fancy offer for permission to illuminate the pyramids to advertise a forthcoming production; and, in the intervals between these revelations, there was news about another prophet, fresh from the desert, who had predicted the doom of the city, a prediction for which I was morbidly grateful. In the center of the park I stopped to watch, a little self-conscious of my evening clothes, a typical Pershing The Great Exception 145

Square divertissement: an aged and frowsy blonde, skirts held high above her knees, cheered by a crowd of grimacing and leering old goats, was singing a gospel hymn as she danced gaily around the fountain. Then it suddenly occurred to me that, in all the world, there neither was nor would there ever be another place like this City of the Angels. Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano; here, indeed, was the place for me—a ringside seat at the circus. (376) The passage distills several of McWilliams’s characteristic habits, themes, and in›uences. There is the reverence for Colorado’s natural beauty and the critic’s sense of estrangement and exile. There is the carousing—a Hollywood night on the town so raucous that McWilliams cannot or will not recount it. There is also the work ethic; despite his degraded condition, he is heading for his of‹ce. There is the absurdity of his surroundings, which leads directly to the Menckenesque reference to the circus. But even the goatish absurdity that he witnesses in Pershing Square—all the more absurd for its contrast with the implied glamour of the previous evening— is another manifestation of the erotic energy that gathers in Los Angeles before erupting volcanically. Finally, there is the epiphany itself, a kind of Southern California sublime. In a ›ash, McWilliams realizes his rightful place. Later, the city of Los Angeles would acknowledge the ‹tness of his observation by inscribing the passage on the back of a low, curved wall in Pershing Square. Having completed his portrait, McWilliams considers the region’s future. In doing so, he shifts from demythologizer to prophet and thereby reveals one of the book’s animating tensions. Throughout Southern California Country, he attends carefully if ironically to “the swamis, the realtors, the motion-picture tycoons, the fakirs, the fat widows, the nondescript clerks, the bewildered ex-farmers, the corrupt pension-plan schemers, the tight-‹sted ‘empire-builders,’ and all the other curious migratory creatures that have ›ocked here from the corners of the earth” (377). For historian Kerwin Klein, this part of the portrait suggests “a frontier eschatology in which California represented the collapse of historical consciousness” (Klein 1997, 10). This collapse is signaled by an array of apocalyptic images, many derived from the work of Robinson Jeffers and Nathanael West, both of whom McWilliams cites in passing. Taken with the “relentless chronicle of swindles, scandal, and corruption,” Klein maintains, these apocalyptic images pose a problem, for they make it “virtually impossible to cobble 146


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together a successful conclusion appealing, as the ending of Southern California Country vainly did, to future hopes that the story might change, the culture cohere, and the tensions be transcended” (23). To be sure, McWilliams’s prediction that Southern California would host America’s “great city of the Paci‹c, the most fantastic city in the world,” is vague, oracular, and oddly juxtaposed with the skepticism and irony that precede it. In this sense, Southern California Country resembles Louis Adamic & Shadow-America more than Factories in the Field, whose optimism grows out of McWilliams’s socialist utopianism. Klein is also right that Southern California Country does not debunk California’s prophetic heritage so much as redirect its energies. However, Klein exaggerates McWilliams’s apocalyptic overtones and neglects the basis for his optimism. For McWilliams, the authority of the land, not the region’s raf‹sh society, was its chief source of hope. The book’s epilogue indicates that the future would be found west of California in the manner suggested by Jeffers’s “Continental End,” which McWilliams cites not to show the limits of the American frontier, much less the collapse of historical consciousness, but rather to dramatize the importance of the region’s location and potential in›uence on the Paci‹c Rim. There are many apocalyptic allusions in Southern California Country—the Pershing Square epiphany, for example, mentions McWilliams’s morbid gratitude for the prediction of the city’s imminent doom—but there are also many allusions to youthful energy and optimism. Indeed, some of McWilliams’s most evocative passages combine both elements. The erupting volcano in the same epiphany, for example, suggests both erotic energy and potential catastrophe. For historian Kevin Starr, this combination of eros and thanatos is the interpretive key to California in the 1940s, and that blend is everywhere evident in Southern California Country. One contemporary reviewer predicted that McWilliams’s contribution to the American Folkways series would be the least regional of them all. In fact, the book’s national audience was deemed large enough to warrant an essay in the New York Times Book Review by then journalist and future U.S. senator Alan Cranston, who characterized McWilliams’s demythologization of the region’s history as ruthless and somewhat angry. Yet the book’s enduring appeal has largely been a local affair. Los Angeles a‹cionados, including Robert Towne and Mike Davis, continue to tout the book, and it is still quoted regularly and reverentially in the Los Angeles Times and other The Great Exception 147

Southern California publications. In July 2002, Los Angeles Magazine named it the best book about the city, a distinction that tested McWilliams’s claim about the city’s chronic cultural amnesia. Mike Davis is more apocalyptic and Kevin Starr more of a booster, but the great historian of this city remains Carey McWilliams. When he wrote about the stolen water, real estate swindles, and mythologies upon which L.A. was built in Southern California: An Island on the Land, published in 1946, McWilliams was bemused, charmed, and at times infuriated by the city, but in love nonetheless. And we love him. In addition to collecting such critical bear hugs, Southern California Country continues to serve as the baseline for serious studies of the region.5 The three sorts of reception—broad acceptance among contemporaries, continuing respect among scholars, and a retro reverence among journalists—are typical for McWilliams’s oeuvre as a whole, but they are most pronounced for Southern California Country and McWilliams’s subsequent book about his adopted state, California: The Great Exception (1949).

THE CAMPAIGN CONTINUES Even as Southern California Country began to attract critical praise, the California landscape was changing both literally and ‹guratively. Between July 1945 and July 1947, more than one million new residents arrived in California, and kindergarten enrollments increased 28 percent (Starr 2002, 193; McWilliams 1949b, 17). McWilliams’s earlier observation that houses were rarer than cigarettes was well founded; in response to a 53 percent surge in the population during the 1940s, the state faced a de‹cit of nine hundred thousand housing units as late as 1948—despite the new tracts that were springing up everywhere. College campuses were also bulging with new students. At McWilliams’s alma mater, more than half the student body was made up of veterans, many of whom were housed in army barracks (Starr 2002, 191). Wages and productivity were also climbing, and aircraft production, which was absent from the list of the state’s top ten industries in 1930, had vaulted to the number one position by 1947 (Rhode 2001, 30). With the war over, the 1946 elections afforded Californians a new 148


opportunity to focus on such issues. Hoping to capitalize on the opportunity, the state’s Democratic Party ‹elded several attractive candidates, with Robert Kenny at the top of the ticket. McWilliams threw himself into the campaign. His friendship with and respect for Kenny—in September 1944, he described the state attorney general in the Nation as “the outstanding personality in California politics’’—would have been suf‹cient to enlist him in the campaign, but he also held a low opinion of Governor Earl Warren, who had targeted him in the previous election. In October 1943, shortly after the Zoot Suit Riots, McWilliams described Warren in the New Republic in un›attering terms. Warren is completely the creature of the Hearst-Chandler-Knowland clique in the Republican Party in California; he is the darling of the Associated Farmers of California (although he is not too enthusiastic about their public support); and he is the particular pet of the great shipping, ‹nancial, agricultural, and industrial interests of California. In McWilliams’s view, any gestures Warren made toward social progress were inauthentic political calculations. He was best understood as “the front man for this machine . . . taught to mouth—and this must have been a bitter tutelage for this essentially grim and hard-boiled individual—such phrases as ‘old-age security,’ ‘collective bargaining,’ and ‘social planning.’” However, to those who knew Warren, McWilliams argued, “his performance is unconvincing. For to such people, he has always been as he is today, the personi‹cation of Smart Reaction.” McWilliams’s attack grew uncharacteristically personal, referring to Warren’s “mean-natured and vindictive character,” before detailing his administrative mediocrity and reactionary track record as Alameda County district attorney and state attorney general. By 1945, McWilliams was more measured in his criticism of Warren but still skeptical of his program. By that time, Warren had done more than mouth the phrases; he had proposed a compulsory health insurance bill, a school of industrial relations at the University of California, a commission on race relations, and the extension of unemployment insurance to agricultural workers. Political editor Earl Behrens of the San Francisco Chronicle called the program the most far-reaching of its kind since Governor Hiram Johnson’s ‹rst term during the Progressive Era. Others claimed that Warren was trying to out–New Deal the New Deal, that he backed socialThe Great Exception 149

ized medicine, and that Governor Olson must have forgotten to clean out his desk (Cray 1997, 162–63). Yet McWilliams remained dissatis‹ed. Warren’s proposals were “markedly at variance with his 1943 program and, indeed, with his entire political career to date,” he wrote in the Nation in February 1945. McWilliams also commented acerbically that, as late as 1942, those who had pushed for unemployment bene‹ts for agricultural workers were automatically denounced as Communists, “a practice in which the governor actively participated.” He construed Warren’s implementation of liberal programs as “the minimum change consistent with political survival” and characterized his position as “precarious.” In fact, Warren was immensely popular, and Kenny’s bid for governor was always considered a long shot. In September 1945, Kenny told the Sacramento Bee that anyone who challenged Warren that year was “a fool or a martyr.” After announcing his candidacy in January 1946, Kenny promptly departed for Nuremberg to observe the war crimes trials. Upon his return, he declined to raise money and refused to attack Warren’s record, noting only that he was “a fake liberal” and “pseudo-nonpartisan” (Cray 1997, 173). Warren was unfazed; Republicans had criticized him more harshly. Both candidates cross-‹led, as was then permitted under California law, and Warren defeated Kenny overwhelmingly in the Republican primary and decisively in the Democratic one, effectively voiding the top of the Democratic ticket in the general election. Following his victory, and in response to pressure from “higher ups,” Warren mildly endorsed Los Angeles Superior Court judge and Republican Goodwin Knight for lieutenant governor (Cray 1997, 175). He also supported the reelection of conservative William Knowland, whom he had appointed to the U.S. Senate following the death of Hiram Johnson in 1945. McWilliams claimed in the Nation that this rare endorsement was a simple case of political reciprocity; Knowland’s father, publisher of the Oakland Tribune, had been supporting Warren since his days as an Alameda County prosecutor. Before the June primary, McWilliams noted in his diary, “I hear nothing but politics; think nothing but politics; and talk nothing but politics” (May 13, 1946). In addition to writing a speech for Kenny in May, McWilliams was working on behalf of Congressman Will Rogers Jr. for U.S. Senator, Pat Brown for state attorney general, and state senator John Shelley of San Francisco for lieutenant governor. Rogers had impressed McWilliams in 1943, when he tangled with Martin Dies and HUAC. After 150


Rogers won the 1946 Democratic primary, McWilliams was particularly active in his campaign, writing speeches for the likable but unpredictable candidate. “Twirling a rope and ad-libbing at rodeos and county fairs, he was a dream candidate,” McWilliams later wrote (ECM, 122). The climax of McWilliams’s contribution was a conference sponsored by the Nation in September 1946 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where McWilliams had met Mencken twenty years earlier and where Robert F. Kennedy would be assassinated twenty-two years later. Devoted to the liberal movement in the postwar world, the event included Rogers and an array of other speakers, including then liberal Ronald Reagan, whose speech was entitled “How Can the War Veterans Be Reintegrated into the Life of the Country?” For the occasion, McWilliams edited a forty-eightpage supplement on liberal politics in the western states, which was published as a special issue of the Nation. The turnout for the event was large, and the event earned twenty-‹ve thousand dollars for the magazine, yet McWilliams noted privately that he was miffed with his candidate: “Sat around drinking afterwards—thoroughly annoyed with Will Rogers, Jr.” (Sept. 21, 1946). In an article for the Nation, McWilliams reported that the candidate’s “unblushing opportunism” was off-putting to some liberals, and Joe Aidlin later recalled that McWilliams considered Rogers “wishywashy on public commitments.”6 After the June primary, McWilliams forecast victories for Brown and Shelley, but traveling the lecture circuit before the general election, McWilliams realized defeat was imminent: “Looks like a Republican landslide,” he noted in his diary (Nov. 2, 1946). The election was an unmitigated disaster for the state’s Democrats. Rogers lost to Knowland by a quarter million votes, the gubernatorial race was already over, and the rest of the statewide Democratic ticket went down to defeat. The news was no better at the national level. The Republicans took control of Congress, and Joseph McCarthy defeated Robert La Follette Jr. for his Senate seat in Wisconsin. In his postmortem, McWilliams blamed the shutout on a resurgence of anti-Communist sentiment but also on Truman, whose approval rating had slipped to 32 percent. Certainly anti-Communism was a factor in the race between Los Angeles congressman H. Jerry Voorhis, an alumnus of Sinclair’s EPIC movement in the 1930s, and the successful newcomer Richard Nixon, who charged that his opponent was soft on Communism. As for Truman, McWilliams thought he possessed good qualities The Great Exception 151

but “was a disaster as a president” (HAT, 289). In particular, McWilliams held Truman responsible for much of the damage resulting from the domestic purges of Communists. Disappointed with Truman, McWilliams shifted his attention to Henry Wallace, whom he had met in Los Angeles earlier that year. In 1944, President Roosevelt had replaced Wallace with the more conservative Truman as his running mate, but Wallace stayed on as secretary of commerce until 1946, when he was forced to resign after publicly criticizing Truman’s foreign policy. In July 1947, McWilliams suggested in the Nation that the western states could organize a successful pro-Wallace revolt against Truman and alluded to Kenny’s efforts along those lines in California. In April 1948, however, he wondered openly about the wisdom of Wallace’s thirdparty candidacy. Two months later, he was still underestimating Truman. “A Dewey-Warren ticket will be hard to beat; and Little Harry will be a push-over,” he noted in his diary (June 25, 1948). Although McWilliams resigned from the recently formed Progressive Citizens of America when Wallace decided to run as a third-party candidate, McWilliams ultimately voted for him. When Wallace drew less than 2.5 percent of the vote—a smaller percentage than that received by Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond—McWilliams construed the election result as a green light to cold warriors in both major parties. For him, the only redeeming feature of the 1948 national election was that Wallace, who had held nonsegregated political rallies for the ‹rst time in the South, forced Truman’s hand on civil rights. Truman eventually created his Committee on Civil Rights, which McWilliams had called for in Brothers Under the Skin and Prejudice, but he also bolstered his cold war foreign policy, called for loyalty oaths for federal workers, and created the Central Intelligence Agency. McWilliams also expressed reservations about the ›edgling Americans for Democratic Action (ADA)—whose founding members included Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.—when it refused to allow Communists to join. He advised his friend and ADA cofounder Harry Girvetz, Make the statement of your objectives as speci‹c as you want to make it; provide for the expulsion of any member who is obviously trying to undercut those objectives after a hearing; but don’t bar people by a generic name. Don’t deal with groups in that fashion, because this is very, very dangerous. (HAT, 253) 152


The advice was consistent with McWilliams’s view of the ad hoc committee and its virtues. More speci‹cally, it showed that he saw no need to make special rules for Communists, who were increasingly suspected of disloyalty and espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. Other organizations to which McWilliams belonged, including the ACLU, had already purged their ranks of Communists to avoid such suspicion. The National Lawyers Guild had reviewed and rejected that route, and McWilliams vainly urged the ADA to follow suit.

BROTHERS UNDER THE SKIN—THE SEQUELS As his favorite candidates were vanquished in 1946 and 1948, McWilliams continued to write voluminously. Moving through the Midwest frequently, he had become interested in patterns of anti-Semitism he observed there. After publishing an article on the subject in Common Ground, which Louis Adamic had helped launch in 1940, McWilliams was contacted by Hubert Humphrey, who was then mayor of Minneapolis. McWilliams conferred with Humphrey and his newly established Council on Human Relations, and the Twin Cities eventually removed most of their exclusionary restrictions. The Common Ground article had two other consequences as well. It prompted CBS Radio to launch Neither Free Nor Equal, an award-winning show on race relations, and it led to McWilliams’s next book project, A Mask for Privilege: Anti-Semitism in America. Published in 1948, the year Humphrey was elected to the U.S. Senate, it was McWilliams’s ‹fth book in six years and complemented the one hundred articles he had published since 1942. A Mask for Privilege opens with a description of an 1877 incident in Saratoga Springs in which the Grand Union Hotel refused to accommodate New York banker Joseph Seligman and his family. The incident, McWilliams maintains, illustrated the effects of a sweeping historical movement that included the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the birth of the modern corporation. This revolution, America’s second, “uprooted the earlier democratic cultural pattern with the ruthlessness of a tornado” (10), creating an entirely new system of status and hierarchy based in large part on ethnicity. Even as the courts granted unprecedented rights to corporations during this time, they failed to protect the civil rights of The Great Exception 153

minorities and indirectly sanctioned discrimination against them. Jim Crow, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and anti-Indian measures were of a piece with anti-Semitism, which, despite its long history in Europe, had been largely alien to America. In McWilliams’s view, American anti-Semitism did not grow from the soil so much as it was manufactured and deployed for political purposes: “Anti-Semitism has always been used by the enemies of the people; for the purpose of arresting social progress; in periods of social upheaval and social stress; and against the interests of the people” (88). At no point does McWilliams mention his own anti-Semitic views as a young man. To the contrary, anti-Semitism appears to be a disease that af›icts other people, a swamp fever exhaled by sick people in a sick society. Ranging farther historically and geographically than usual in his analysis, McWilliams offers two sorts of remedies. Because the illness could usually be traced to economic causes, the ‹rst remedy is to create a society “in which production is organized on some basis other than individual self-aggrandizement” (224). The second remedy is a more speci‹c campaign “to eliminate all forms of discrimination based solely on race, color, or creed” (223). He had offered the same remedy ‹ve years earlier in Brothers Under the Skin, but by 1948, he could also praise the establishment and some of the early work of the Committee on Civil Rights. McWilliams had written about anti-Semitism as early as 1935, but as Daniel James claimed in his review for the Nation, McWilliams by then had built a national reputation as “one of our most effective ‹ghters against bigotry and prejudice.” This reputation was also re›ected in ACLU head Roger Baldwin’s review in the Saturday Review of Literature. His books distill wide research, reading, and observation ‹tted into a pattern of democratic principles and conclusions. Packed with quotations, incidents, facts, they each present the failures of American democracy to achieve equality for racial and national minorities. Although essentially the work of a reformer, they are written with a documented detachment calculated to reach even the unconverted. By McWilliams’s standards, however, the reviews were less than stellar. A Mask for Privilege received positive if somewhat perfunctory notices in the New Yorker, Ethics, Survey Graphic, and elsewhere, but even Baldwin found McWilliams’s call for wholesale economic reorganization dubious 154


and questioned his tendency to identify anti-Semitism with fascism. He also noted that McWilliams addressed anti-Semitism in Germany and Czarist Russia but never mentioned anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. The reviewer for the Commonweal, George Streator, was disappointed that the book scarcely mentioned the problems of contemporary Palestine and the Jewish migration out of Russia. Even James’s review for the Nation claimed that McWilliams’s thesis borrowed too heavily from Marxist critiques of fascism; in doing so, it overlooked the fact that the proletariat “swarmed into the Nazi and Fascist legions quite early in the game” as well as the possibility that the middle class could act as a bulwark against totalitarianism. Writing for the American Journal of Sociology, Harry Alpert claimed that McWilliams indulged “in the luxuries of hyperbole, unproved generalizations, and self-contradiction,” while Joseph Roucek faulted the book’s haphazard organization, signs of hasty composition, and “startling dogmatic pronouncements which are presented as facts although they are but his own emotionalized convictions.” Historian Richard Hofstadter, too, would later take McWilliams to task for claiming that American anti-Semitism was originally an upper-class phenomenon and not the product of the Greenback-Populist tradition, which Hofstadter argued “activated most of what we have of modern, popular anti-Semitism in the United States” (1955, 80–81n3). Although A Mask for Privilege won the Thomas Jefferson Prize, awarded by the American Library Association to the year’s ‹fty most notable books, McWilliams later acknowledged that it “wasn’t—in my judgment—as well written as it should have been . . . So it’s not one of my favorite books” (HAT, 266). By way of explanation, perhaps, his memoir notes the feverish intensity of both his schedule and Southern California politics during those years. “Not surprisingly,” he concludes, “A Mask for Privilege . . . indirectly re›ects the severe tensions of this period” (ECM, 132). Contributing to those tensions were cold war politics and domestic race relations, which worried him more than the labor issues he had focused on in the 1930s. Satis‹ed that he stood on the long-term winning side of the labor struggle, he was less con‹dent about the ultimate outcomes of the issues that preoccupied him in the 1940s.7 In 1947, McWilliams began the ‹nal book-length installment of the work he had begun with Brothers Under the Skin. Louis Adamic commissioned North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United The Great Exception 155

States for his “Peoples in America” series, which he had began editing for J. B. Lippincott in 1943. Meeting at McWilliams’s house, the two friends squabbled, complained, and laughed as they worked on the book into the early hours of the morning (Larralde and del Castillo, 234). Adamic’s interest in the book was such that McWilliams later wished that he had credited him as a coauthor (239). After ten months of collaboration, McWilliams ‹nished the manuscript on March 12, 1948, the very day A Mask for Privilege was released. “One down, one up, and two to go,” he noted in his diary. For “the Mexican book,” which he dedicated to Iris, McWilliams assumed the role of popular historian, synthesizing a broad range of works on the Southwest and California from the early sixteenth century to the late 1940s. He had already mined some of these sources for Southern California Country, but North from Mexico also included a wealth of new material. It takes special care, for example, to describe the Mexican in›uence on two activities—cattle ranching and mining—that shaped the West and its legacy. No stranger to the cattle business, McWilliams refers occasionally to his own boyhood ranching experience in Colorado to underscore his points. His treatment of mining is even more memorable and pre‹gures a longer discussion of the industry’s importance to the development of California’s economy and society. In the early nineteenth century, he writes, mining was virtually an unknown art among white Americans. When gold and silver mining began in the American West, its techniques, legal precedents, and basic vocabulary (placer, bonanza) were derived directly from the Spanish-speaking culture of the Southwest. The most frequently cited passages of North from Mexico, however, pertain to events McWilliams had witnessed ‹rsthand: the Sleepy Lagoon case and the Zoot Suit Riots. These chapters—“The Pattern of Violence” and “Blood on the Pavements”—draw on McWilliams’s own journalism to underscore the inequities experienced by Latinos in contemporary Los Angeles. After rounding up his usual suspects—Captain Ayers, the local press, Senator Tenney, and others—McWilliams adds a list of fresh abuses by the Los Angeles police to expose the racism directed at the Latino community. When ‹rst published in January 1949, North from Mexico received less attention than any book McWilliams had ever written (HAT, 278). Its historical orientation may have failed to intrigue the general readership that 156


McWilliams had addressed so successfully in previous works. Also, his thesis that the Mexican-American population was a “well-kept secret” may have been all too true, at least when it came to marketing his book. Even so, the reviews were positive. Writing for the New York Times Book Review in January 1949, for example, longtime friend Duncan Aikman called it “by far the most thorough coverage of ‘the Mexican problem’ which this reviewer has ever seen between covers” (3). North from Mexico then slipped off the radar for more than a decade. In the early 1960s, Lippincott returned the rights, and Monthly Review Press, edited by McWilliams’s friends Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy, brought out another edition, which sold out quickly. In 1968, Greenwood Press published yet another edition with a new introduction, and a Spanish translation was released in Mexico City. Coinciding as it did with the rise of the Chicano movement, the new edition ‹nally made North from Mexico a best-seller—almost two decades after its initial publication. In 1980, Greenwood Press was still selling over two thousand copies per year, and a decade later, it brought out a new edition updated by Matt S. Meier. By that time, North from Mexico had in›uenced virtually every subsequent history of California and Chicanos.8 In conjunction with McWilliams’s previous work, North from Mexico became part of another movement as well—a renewed and more successful effort to organize farmworkers. That movement began in 1947, when two acquaintances of McWilliams, Saul Alinsky of Chicago’s Industrial Areas Foundation and the community organizer Fred Ross, created the Community Service Organization (CSO). With nine thousand dollars in seed money raised by Harry Braverman at McWilliams’s request, Ross began building the organization in the immediate aftermath of Edward Roybal’s unsuccessful bid for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council. CSO concentrated its ‹rst organizational efforts in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles, where it fought segregation and police brutality. Its voter registration campaign was particularly successful, and in 1949, Roybal became the ‹rst Spanish-surnamed city council member in more than sixty years. In 1962, he also became the ‹rst Mexican American to win a seat in Congress. In the meantime, Ross continued his organizational work in San Joaquin Valley and San Jose, where he recruited and trained César Chávez in 1952. For the next ten years, Ross and Chávez organized CSO chapters in the state’s major barrios and registered voters. In 1958, CSO worked with the The Great Exception 157

United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) to establish a pilot project for organizing farmworkers in Oxnard (Ross 1989). Three years after the completion of that project, Chávez founded the National Farm Workers Association, later renamed the United Farm Workers (UFW). In 1966, Ross returned to California after a teaching stint at Syracuse University to train organizers for Chávez and to lead UFW ‹eld strikes and boycotts. As the leading ‹gure in the farmworkers’ movement, Chávez later re›ected on the role McWilliams had played in his education. In those early years, I was hungry for any information on organizing, particularly farm labor, and some of the ‹rst books I read on Fred’s advice were Factories in the Field, North from Mexico, and Brothers Under the Skin. Although I had been a farm worker traveling the migrant streams for many years and knew through bitter experience what prejudice and discrimination were, these books gave me new insights into the forces that create wealth and poverty. They provided a link to the past and helped me focus my determination to improve the lives of the farm workers into strategies and tactics and a plan for action. (Weinstein and Wesley 1979) In 1971, Chávez also praised North from Mexico and Factories in the Field, which he called “the book for the ordinary guy.” Chávez was not alone; Ross required the two thousand organizers he trained over the years to read McWilliams’s work. According to Ross’s son, Factories in the Field remains the labor movement’s “major credible source” for historical background on California farm labor.9 Although McWilliams devotes only a short passage of his memoir to North from Mexico, many would later cite it as one of his most important books. By the 1970s, some were calling McWilliams the grandfather of Chicano studies, and he occasionally encountered men with such names as Carey McWilliams Garcia or Carey McWilliams Lopez. Characteristically, McWilliams de›ected such honors with humor. On one occasion, he sent his older son, who had been going by the name Carey since childhood, a newspaper clipping with one such name circled and an accompanying note: “Not mine. Yours?” In those less delicate times, he also joked privately that he was “the Marcuse for spics”—a reference to the Frankfurt School social theorist acclaimed by the New Left during the 1960s.10 McWilliams was more comfortable acknowledging his role in the Sleepy



Lagoon appeal, which he discussed at length in his memoir and regarded as the beginning of an important movement.

THE CALIFORNIA CULMINATION Re›ecting on his hectic schedule during the late 1940s, McWilliams commented on the increasing dif‹culty of book writing. For me, writing a book, any kind of book, in California in those years was like trying to study in a shipyard . . . the phone rang constantly and there seemed to be a new emergency every day, another meeting every night. And I had lectures, journalistic assignments, and Nation commitments to worry about. (ECM, 132) The image recalls Fante’s impression of McWilliams as he departed the Western Writers Congress in San Francisco over a decade earlier. McWilliams’s reputation for accomplishing things had made him an important part of virtually every progressive effort on the West Coast, yet the accumulation of committee assignments and meetings did not diminish his literary productivity, which he sustained with iron discipline and intense concentration. As Bill Carey recalled, McWilliams’s day often consisted of entering his study in the morning and emerging at dinnertime— not always a visiting son’s preference, perhaps, but one of the reasons for McWilliams’s impressive output.11 Despite various demands on his time, McWilliams began a book on California for A. A. Wynn’s Current Books in February 1948, a month before he sent off the manuscript for North from Mexico. His regular publishers were uninterested in the project, but the book appeared in 1949, California’s one hundredth anniversary as a state. Packaged in a dust jacket of gold and black, the color of the state’s license plates, California: The Great Exception did not sell well when ‹rst published, but it eventually became one of McWilliams’s most signi‹cant, durable, and quotable works. Committed to the thesis signaled in the subtitle—that California’s development was unique among the states—the book recounts the events that transformed a sleepy, remote outpost in the mid-nineteenth century into a social, political, and economic power a century later.

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In McWilliams’s analysis, the state’s anomalousness is its interpretive key. Comparisons to other states shed no signi‹cant light on California’s experience, and no march-of-time explanation could account for its startling growth. “Like all exceptional realities,” McWilliams claims at the outset of the book, “the image of California has been distorted in the mirror of the commonplace” (4). Writers attempting a portrait of the state generally fell into two general categories: “the skeptics, who, in retrospect, have been made to look ludicrously gullible; and the liars and boasters who have been confounded by the ful‹llment of their dizziest predictions” (4). Hoping to avoid both pigeonholes, McWilliams presents his effort as “the notes, the working papers, of a California journalist; the summation, not of California, but of my effort to understand California” (7). Yet even McWilliams could not avoid falling into the ‹rst category. By 2000, the state was home to nearly 35 million souls—15 million more than McWilliams had the audacity to predict in 1949 (8). For McWilliams, the state’s exceptional status began with the discovery of gold: “Examine any phase of California life—agriculture, labor, government, industry, social organization—and the examination inevitably involves some consideration of the importance of the discovery of gold” (35). His emphasis on this northern California phenomenon is striking. By 1948, most of the state’s explosive growth was taking place in and around McWilliams’s base in Los Angeles, but McWilliams is concerned less with the location of the growth than with its model scene. Gold mining was crucial insofar as it brought wealth to California in one stroke and supercharged all subsequent developments. In a widely cited passage, he maintains: But in California the lights went on all at once, in a blaze, and they have never been dimmed. It was, of course, the discovery of gold that got California off to a ›ying start, and set in motion its chain-reaction, explosive, self-generating pattern of development. (25) Gold mining was also important for the template it created for the state’s future growth. In manifold ways California has been reenacting the drama of the gold rush—at different levels, in different forms, but always in striking conformity with the underlying pattern set in the crucial ‹rst two decades. (64) 160


Over ‹fty years later, anyone who witnessed the growth of the high-technology sector in and around Silicon Valley might concur with McWilliams’s observation. Gold mining had other consequences for California as well. It began a pattern of uninterrupted population growth based largely on domestic and international in-migration, which helped account for the exceptional diversity of the state’s population: “In California, for the ‹rst time, Americans of every type, profession, background, and social class were thrown together in the great and compulsive confraternity of gold miners” (65). Furthermore, the gold rush shaped the state’s attitudes about labor, women, and agriculture. Beginning with the discovery of gold, labor was more respectable in California than in many other places. The new state attracted high-skill workers, its geographic isolation strengthened their position, and anti-Asian agitation was used freely to build a more powerful labor movement. (The exception was farm labor, to which McWilliams devotes a separate chapter.) Because California’s gold rush created a frontier society, women were scarce; as McWilliams notes, “Where women are at a premium, women’s rights are freely granted” (80). Finally, mining had implications even for California’s agricultural economy. In its large-scale, exploitative, corporate approach, “farming has always resembled mining in this state. The soil is really mined, not farmed” (101). Whatever its historiographical merits, McWilliams’s exceptionalist thesis was a useful organizing device. By stressing the state’s anomalousness and tracing it to a single source, McWilliams could simultaneously cover his favorite topics and tame a mass of disparate material. Turning his attention to the state’s political institutions, which he also regards as unique, McWilliams notes the absence of party machines and bosses, the state’s tradition of independent voting, and the unusual power wielded by lobbyists and campaign consultants. The ‹rst two features are obviously related. In a state characterized by massive in-migration and high mobility, party machines are not especially adaptive: “Political machines simply cannot function with ef‹ciency in areas which are largely made up of newcomers and strangers” (194). Furthermore, California’s system of cross-‹ling weakened party regularity and discipline, and the state’s voters were notably independent. The title of the chapter on this subject—“The State that Swings and Sways”—provides a serviceable description not only of California in 1949, when nonpartisan Earl Warren was on his way to a The Great Exception 161

third term as governor, but also of the state today. Although a lack of party loyalty is even now reported as an emergent political trend, McWilliams quotes a study of voting patterns from 1920 to 1930 that concludes, “Voters in California changed their party allegiance from election to election in accordance with changing issues and personalities rather than adhered to any party symbol” (196). McWilliams was also among the ‹rst writers to call attention to the enormous power of lobbyists and campaign consultants in California. He devotes one section of the book to Arthur Samish, the unof‹cial “governor of the legislature,” whose power was as legendary as his hospitality. As he recalled decades later, McWilliams ‹rst met Samish in the halls of Sacramento during his stint in the Olson administration. After a committee hearing in which McWilliams’s political opponents “had been working me over for this, that, and the other thing about farm labor,” Samish slapped him on the back and assured him that the rough treatment was “par for the course” (HAT, 143). In one way or another, McWilliams explains, Samish represented virtually every major interest in the state, and his position allowed him to block legislation and serve as political sponsor and auctioneer. “He is . . . a new kind of political boss,” McWilliams claims. “What Mr. Samish has done . . . is to convert the interest-group into a political machine which functions independently of the party” (202). Much of the material on Samish originally appeared in McWilliams’s 1949 article in the Nation entitled “The Guy Who Gets Things Done,” but when Samish was subsequently featured in a controversial Collier’s piece, “The Secret Boss of California,” the negative publicity spelled his doom in Sacramento. After a legislative investigation of his activities produced no results, Samish was convicted of income tax evasion in 1953. McWilliams felt partly responsible for Samish’s fall and was pleased that the former lobbyist bore him no ill will after his release from prison. In an almost comically modulated compliment offered years later, McWilliams said that Samish “had elements of decency about him in a way” (HAT, 143). McWilliams also calls attention to Californians who had begun to tap the power of mass media for political purposes. His chief example is political consultant Clem Whitaker of Campaigns, Inc., who specialized in California voter initiatives and referenda. Along with his wife and partner, Leone Baxter, Whitaker also managed Earl Warren’s 1942 gubernatorial campaign. One of their chief contributions was to humanize Warren by 162


exchanging his black-rimmed glasses for gold-rimmed ones. Their relationship with Warren was agreeable until the last weekend before the general election, when Warren ‹red Whitaker, a Republican, for linking Warren to a Republican candidate on the campaign letterhead (Cray 1997, 132). Later, Whitaker and Baxter would organize two campaigns to defeat Warren’s proposed health insurance program. Although McWilliams does not mention it in his book, Whitaker and Baxter had also helped defeat Upton Sinclair in his 1934 gubernatorial bid by mining Sinclair’s writing for politically embarrassing pronouncements (Mitchell 1992, 83–86). AntiSinclair forces then combined these statements with staged Hollywood newsreels that showed indigents ›ocking to California to take advantage of Sinclair’s EPIC plan. Continuing his freewheeling tour through the Golden State, McWilliams turns to the state’s industrial base. Taking what he calls “the cultural approach” to its expansion, he highlights the head start provided by the gold rush and the ways in which California’s geographical isolation allowed for the development of home markets. By living on “the edge of novelty” rather than following traditions less suited to the local climate or culture, however, California ‹rms eventually developed products, markets, and whole industries that served global needs. The examples of this innovation have multiplied since 1949, but McWilliams’s impressionistic analysis squares well with more systematic histories of California manufacturing.12 Although many parts of California: The Great Exception strike the modern reader as prescient, no section is more remarkable in this respect than McWilliams’s treatment of power and water issues. He focuses his discussion of power on Paci‹c Gas and Electric (PG&E), the state’s premier regulated utility at that time. “Sooner or later,” he predicts, “the state or federal government must take over the PG & E lock, stock, and barrel” (337). Although that takeover has never come to pass, the question returned with a vengeance with the electricity shortages, rolling blackouts, and PG&E bankruptcy of 2001. Water remains an even more fundamental issue than power, and McWilliams discusses it under various aspects. Water “is not merely a ‘problem’ in California,” he observes, “but a code-word to designate a hundred problems” (288). The state’s massive surface water projects were still in the planning stages, but McWilliams calls attention to the importance of groundwater issues, which only recently have come within reach of legal and policy interventions. Even in 1949, underground water The Great Exception 163

was being overdrafted in certain parts of the Central Valley in excess of one million acre-feet per year. “What this means,” McWilliams warns, “is that a resource of incalculable value is being extinguished. For pumping conducted on this scale and by these means is not pumping: it is ‘mining’” (277). McWilliams devotes considerable attention to the politics of the Colorado River water, the incipient Central Valley Project, and the case of Imperial Valley, which he refers to as “nature’s freak” and “an aborted community” whose development was “misbegotten at the outset.” The hyperbolic description of that valley—“a half-formed, twisted, ill-conceived mongrel”—recalls earlier accounts of the labor disputes he reported on there. In its concern for Southern California’s air quality problems and the state’s ecological vulnerability, California: The Great Exception has enhanced McWilliams’s image as a proto-environmentalist. His more immediate purpose, however, was to introduce what he calls “the problem of California”: namely, its colonization of other western states. In writing the introduction to another book published that year, Rocky Mountain Cities, McWilliams explored the development of the western states more generally, noting that the three West Coast states “occupy, if they have not always recognized the fact, a parental relation to the inter-mountain states” (23). The California book, however, offers a different trope. As long as the development of other western states was retarded, California could act in this imperial manner. But today, with the West coming to a new maturity, California is rapidly discovering that its interests are closely related to the interests of the entire region . . . It is the failure to realize this fact . . . which makes up the California problem. (344) The problem is one of sustainable growth, and McWilliams maintains that any solution will require a comprehensive plan based on regional cooperation rather than on empire building. By way of conclusion, McWilliams returns to another favorite topic: California’s role in the development of the Paci‹c Rim. The state was “destined to occupy in the future, not a marginal, but a central position in world affairs” (365). The ports of the west coast will be the ports through which the expanding trade and commerce of the West will ›ow to ports throughout the entire vast area of the Paci‹c. Once the impact of this development 164


really begins to make itself felt, California will come to occupy a new position in the western scheme of things; not that of the Colossus of the West, the Big Bully, the Untamed Panther, but the state which will link western America with the Orient. (365) This may be McWilliams’s soundest prediction of all, though once again he was insuf‹ciently audacious. California would link the entire nation, not just the western states, to Asia. By the end of the twentieth century, most of the nation’s exports to Asia would pass through the state’s custom districts. Taken together, McWilliams’s observations and predictions eventually secured his reputation as the state’s most astute political observer and “the single ‹nest non-‹ction writer on California—ever” (Starr 2002, 103).

A SAVAGE AND DEPRESSING YEAR By the fall of 1949, McWilliams had every right to feel content. Nationally acclaimed as an author and social critic, he had recently completed his eighth book in ten years. Each had been reviewed favorably or very favorably in the nation’s leading newspapers, magazines, and academic journals. He had headed a state division and developed extensive contacts in various branches of the local, state, and federal governments. He had coordinated the successful appeal of high-pro‹le murder convictions in Los Angeles, helped lower the city’s temperature during the Zoot Suit Riots, been cited in a Supreme Court dissent to a landmark civil rights decision, and witnessed the establishment of the civil rights committee he had called for in his books. He was a contributing editor to a reputable liberal magazine and a leading ‹gure in several national organizations, including the ACLU and National Lawyers Guild. Remarried and the father of two sons, he was surrounded by close, creative, even glamorous friends in an energetic city that afforded him an agreeable lifestyle. Why, then, did he describe 1949 as “a savage and depressing year”? In a word, politics. The onset of the cold war and a fresh round of antiCommunist investigations were especially worrisome to him. In July 1948, the federal government, using Marxist-Leninist tracts as its primary evidence, indicted twelve ranking members of the Communist Party under the Smith Act for conspiring to overthrow the government. In February 1949, Senator Joseph McCarthy brandished his list of 205 State DepartThe Great Exception 165

ment employees “that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party.” Three months later, Alger Hiss, a former high of‹cial in the State Department and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was tried for perjury after Whittaker Chambers identi‹ed him as a Communist Party member in a HUAC subcommittee investigation spearheaded by the ‹rst-term congressman Richard Nixon. In November, the government again tried Harry Bridges for allegedly concealing his Communist Party membership and thereby violating immigration laws. In the same year, China was “lost” to the Communists, and Truman announced that the Soviet Union had developed an atomic bomb. Closer to home, Tenney’s inquisition was ‹nally collapsing under the weight of its own absurdity, and McWilliams obligingly performed the autopsy in the pages of the Nation. At the national level, however, HUAC had received new life after Republicans took control of Congress in 1946, and the committee reset its sights on Hollywood radicals. After assuming the chairmanship, J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey announced that “hundreds of very prominent ‹lm capital people have been named as Communists to us.” Thomas traveled to Los Angeles for closed-door interviews at the Biltmore Hotel—by coincidence, the same hotel from which McWilliams had emerged to experience the hangover epiphany described in Southern California Country. Thomas began by quizzing fourteen socalled friendly witnesses, who advanced his cause by naming nineteen leftists, most of them screenwriters who were or had recently been Communist Party members. After receiving his subpoena, the producer and director Herbert Biberman invited the other “unfriendly witnesses” to review their legal options with four attorneys McWilliams knew well: Robert Kenny, Ben Margolis, Charles Katz, and Bartley Crum. (One of the unfriendly witnesses, Bertolt Brecht, hired his own counsel.) Over the course of several meetings, the unfriendly witnesses and their attorneys worked out a general strategy of invoking their First Amendment rights. Their basic argument was that the right to free speech included the right to refrain from discussing one’s political views and associations. They preferred this option to invoking their Fifth Amendment rights, which Congress and the public would perceive as an attempt to conceal wrongdoing. All nineteen unfriendly witnesses



traveled to Washington, D.C., for the HUAC hearings in October 1947. After Chairman Thomas refused Kenny’s motion to stop the hearings on constitutional grounds, HUAC heard a week of mostly cooperative testimony from Hollywood studio heads and actors, including Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan. Although Reagan’s public testimony was principled and measured, he and his wife, Jane Wyman, had already provided the FBI with information regarding Hollywood radicals in private meetings the year before. The following week, HUAC took testimony from the unfriendly witnesses, the ‹rst group of whom became known as the Hollywood Ten. McWilliams, whose social and professional circle included friendly and unfriendly witnesses alike, was not surprised that the ‹rst witness called, John Howard Lawson, de‹ed the committee. The founding president of the Screen Writers Guild, Lawson had noted in a 1934 magazine article that he was a Communist Party member and that his aim was to “present the Communist position.” Known for articulating and enforcing the Party line in Hollywood, Lawson evidently had not impressed McWilliams with his ›exibility. After attending a conference in February 1941 at Ella Winter’s house that generated “radical enthusiasms . . . big plans—and talk,” McWilliams recalled that Lawson had served on a committee with him in 1934 or 1935. “Really I don’t think he has learned a thing since,” McWilliams concluded privately (Feb. 26, 1941). The Hollywood Ten did not succeed in recasting their appearance before HUAC as a constitutional issue, and their de‹ance cost them some of their support. Director John Huston, who had organized the Committee for the First Amendment (which included Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Danny Kaye, Ira Gershwin, and Gene Kelly), met with the Hollywood Ten and their attorneys the night before the hearing. He suggested that they invoke the First Amendment, call a press conference, ask Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter to put them under oath, and answer all of the reporters’ questions. His suggestion, he reported later, “was greeted by stony silence.” The next day, each witness read his prepared statement and avoided answering the committee’s questions directly. Lawson was cited for contempt and removed from the hearing. The police also removed the next witness, Dalton Trumbo, who shouted, “This is the beginning of the American concentration camp!” The other nine witnesses offered varia-

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tions on the theme that HUAC, not the Hollywood Ten, was on trial before the American people. “It was a sorry performance,” Huston concluded (Grobel 1989, 303). Congress agreed, voting 347–17 to cite all ten witnesses for contempt. Only Bertolt Brecht, the eleventh witness that day, successfully held HUAC at bay by alternately baf›ing, misleading, and appeasing his inquisitors. After his testimony, Brecht ›ew to Paris on Halloween and never returned to the United States. McWilliams later credited the Hollywood Ten for their “intelligence, verve, and courage,” but he also wondered about the decision to invoke the right to silence quite so loudly. If they had said that the First Amendment protected them against a public inquisition into their political beliefs, which they had a right to discuss or not discuss as they saw ‹t (the one being the counterpart of the other), it might have made for a better understanding of their position. (ECM, 135) As it was, their sometimes aggressive loquacity worked against them, and their prospects for a successful appeal faded when two Supreme Court justices—one of them Frank Murphy, who had cited McWilliams in his Korematsu dissenting opinion—died and were replaced by more conservative Truman appointees. McWilliams’s contribution to the Hollywood Ten defense took two major forms: writing about the case (in the Nation and elsewhere) and working with Alexander Meiklejohn, the respected educator and First Amendment scholar, and Berkeley law professor Max Radin on an amicus brief for the appeal of Lawson & Trumbo v. United States. McWilliams’s sixty-eight-page draft, dated June 1949, claimed that the Ninth and Tenth Amendments protected the witnesses from any duty to answer HUAC’s questions; its conclusion maintained, “Under our system of government, we do not reject a policy by arresting the person who proposed it.” The ‹nal brief, published in October 1949, re›ected McWilliams’s labors, but in the end, the Supreme Court chose not to hear the appeal. The Hollywood Ten were ‹ned and served between six months and one year in various federal prisons. By that time, former HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas had been convicted of padding his congressional payroll and accepting kickbacks from employees. He was joined in Danbury federal



prison by Hollywood Ten screenwriters Ring Lardner Jr. and Lester Cole. Over the years, McWilliams would stay in touch with several defendants, including Albert Maltz, who sent him, Iris, and several other friends a letter upon his release from the Mill Point prison camp in West Virginia in April 1951.13 The Hollywood Ten case fractured an already fractious ‹lm community, and McWilliams’s chief recollections of the period were of the ruined friendships and careers in the wake of the hearings and convictions. But Hollywood writers were not the only targets of anti-Communist efforts on the West Coast; California legislators were also pressuring the University of California to identify and ‹re its Communist faculty and staff. In January 1949, Tenney introduced a legislative resolution commending the University of Washington for dismissing two tenured professors who were members of the Communist Party. The California legislature sent a copy of the resolution to University of California president Robert Gordon Sproul, and in July of that year, the University of California regents adopted a loyalty oath for faculty. It later became clear that their chief goal was to avoid a showdown with the state legislature, which might cut the university’s budget. When the academic senate asked the regents to revise the oath, they delivered a more speci‹c version requiring the faculty to pledge that they did not belong to the Communist Party. As the regents and faculty moved toward a standoff, Senator Tenney introduced a bill that would bypass the regents altogether and impose the loyalty oath directly. At the same time, HUAC investigated alleged subversion at the Radiation Laboratory at the Berkeley campus. By targeting Hollywood, the universities, and the unions, HUAC and CUAC disrupted the natural habitat of California’s most prominent leftists. McWilliams’s response was swift and pointed. In November 1949, he began writing columns for the Nation describing the antileftist crackdown on the West Coast. The ‹rst piece was on the Hollywood “gray list,” which concerned the ambiguous status of leftists working in Hollywood. The second piece featured the perjury conviction of Harry Bridges, the third treated the loyalty oath controversy at Berkeley, and the fourth reported on Los Angeles County’s loyalty oath and the registration of subversives. In the last piece, McWilliams’s description of Los Angeles took a clinical turn: “Here, where the symptoms of hysteria are most pronounced, the clearest

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view of the underlying pathology can be obtained.”14 But McWilliams’s diagnosis did not take. Indeed, the rhetorical tables would be turned two years later when the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called McWilliams a Typhoid Mary of the left. McWilliams also made his case on the lecture tour and in other personal appearances. On the tenth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he participated in a Harvard Law School forum entitled “Can We Afford Academic Freedom?” There he argued that such oaths have adverse consequences on faculty screening, campus speech, and the curriculum. His main objections concerned faculty selection and retention. First, such oaths “attempt to deal, not with individuals, but with groups, categories, ideologies.”15 Second, such oaths “are designed, as their history indicates, to subordinate the will of the oath-taker to that of the oath-giver.” Third, the effect of loyalty oaths is to coerce conformity. The more scrupulous the oath-taker, the more hesitant he will be about doing or saying anything that might possibly violate the oath, and many of the oaths now in use relate to the future as well as the present and the past. In self-protection such a person must ‹nally come to follow two simple rules of conduct: one, to think only approved and orthodox thoughts; and, two, when in case of doubt, not think at all. For this reason, McWilliams concluded, test oaths infringed on the freedom of conscience and belief. Finally, McWilliams objected to the enforcement of the loyalty oath, which “implies some check-up, some technique of surveillance; it also implies a political police; it implies possible investigations and hearings.” This enforcement eventually leads to ‹rings, the denial of pensions and bene‹ts, the registration of heretics, and concentration camps. “These consequences, I can assure you, are not imaginary. All such measures lead to an abuse of power not by accident but because of an inner logic or dynamic.” McWilliams was followed by Allen A. Zoll, who began with the following salutation: “Mr. Moderator, Fellow Americans, I hardly know whether to address you as ‘Fellow Americans’ or fellow suckers. I think we are all that.” His argument was that academic freedom should apply to research but not to teaching. A young McGeorge Bundy, then professor of government at Harvard, steered a middle course between McWilliams and Zoll.



Before doing so, however, he remarked that he wished that McWilliams “could have pushed over a little bit to the left.”

WITCH HUNT All four Nation pieces on the West Coast crackdown fed what McWilliams had been calling “the Civil Rights book,” which was published in November 1950. Witch Hunt: The Revival of Heresy surveys the national wave of loyalty tests and ‹rings and argues that they systematically deranged the freedoms guaranteed by custom, statute, and the Constitution. It also maintains that the compelled oaths themselves were of no real value. “No rational person really believes that one loves one’s country or one’s wife the better for swearing to love” (108). On this point, McWilliams was joined by Governor Warren, who maintained that a real Communist would sign a loyalty oath and laugh (Cray 1997, 203). In his usual forensic fashion, McWilliams documents the most salient examples of political crackdowns, including the case of the Hollywood Ten, the faculty dismissals at the University of Washington, and the beginning of the loyalty oath controversy at the University of California. He also analyzes the onset of McCarthyism and the sociology, psychology, and semantics of political persecution. In his review for the Nation, Alan Barth called Witch Hunt “an angry and uncompromising book,” but it is by no means a collection of unmeasured rants. Rather, it is an exposé of fear-based political persecution and a meditation on the production and punishment of heresy, a term McWilliams meant literally. For him, the parallels to medieval witch trials were strict, and the book patiently maps the points of contact. The core analysis and argumentation are predictably lucid and well documented, but McWilliams’s outrage occasionally pushes his prose to new and darker registers. After casting the red-baiters as the true agitators, for example, he describes them in otherworldly terms. The modern agitator is a prestidigitator, a necromancer, a sociological medicine man. He is a wizard who brews, out of a strange assortment of herbs, bones, rags, hair, and bits of dung, the poison which induces those who drink it to act out, on the stage of history, their paranoid delusions and fantasies . . . His words are feverish and re›ect delusion; but

The Great Exception 171

his audience is made up of people whose cheeks are ›ushed with the fever of resentment and whose minds are in›amed with delusions of persecution. (133–34) The description then takes a diabolical turn: “In a paranoid age, the Devilas-Agitator can work miracles, for his favorite, and in a sense his secret, weapons are confusion, delusion, and dissension.” McWilliams goes on to develop this demonology. The Devil’s secret is simply that he knows that those who suffer from delusion are incapable of distinguishing fact from fantasy and that they tend to project their own inner fears upon other persons, thereby creating imaginary monsters of error . . . The Devil-as-Agitator invariably reappears with the Heretic and he uses the Heretic as his foil. For the Heretic is always mistaken for the Devil, who cleverly masquerades as a fool . . . The failure to understand that it is the Devil, not the Heretic, who is the real architect of social disaster is one of the major delusions of our time. (135) The tone is unprecedented in McWilliams’s corpus; indeed, some passages in Witch Hunt resemble more elegant and ironic versions of Tenney’s depictions of Communists. Judging by contemporary reviews, McWilliams’s approach produced mixed results. Writing for the New Republic, labor and civil rights attorney Leonard Boudin endorsed the book’s overall analysis but had misgivings about the diction: “McWilliams’ repeated use of such terms as witchcraft, heresy and the devil is somewhat irritating; but their use is fundamentally correct.” Barth’s review also hinted that McWilliams had overdone the necromancy: “The analogy [to the persecution of witches] is, admittedly, not a novel one, but it is painstakingly developed by Mr. McWilliams.” A more fundamental objection was that Witch Hunt nowhere conceded the existence of an actual Communist threat, internal or external, to America. For McWilliams, “the question of loyalty has only the slightest relation to security; it is concerned, rather, with the control of heresy” (17). A short notice in the October 1951 issue of Foreign Affairs dismissed the book on these grounds: “The implication of the book, as in the title, is that witches don’t exist; this assumption robs the present Communist problem of its very disturbing reality.”



Barth was more balanced and replete in his review. Having credited McWilliams for performing three important services—recounting the most egregious forms of persecution, exploring their psychological roots, and demonstrating how the appeasement of witch hunters only fueled their fervor—Barth concurred that “the attack today is aimed only nominally at Communists; it is aimed, actually, through them, at freedom and diversity.” Yet McWilliams “fails adequately to take into account the real problems arising from the relationship of American Communists to the Soviet Union.” Although American Communists “may not be conscious Soviet agents, they are tools of Soviet foreign policy; as such they may, under certain not altogether imaginary circumstances, constitute a ‹fth column too dangerous to be ignored.” In March 1950, Klaus Fuchs, a British atomic scientist, heightened the perception of that danger when he confessed to spying at Los Alamos for the Soviet Union during the Second World War. In one form or another, Barth’s point about Witch Hunt settled over McWilliams and his work for decades; indeed, it continues to this day. Was he oblivious to the Communist threat? He certainly did not regard American Communists as any threat to domestic politics. In the 1970s, McWilliams described his view of the Party as follows: It was far less conspiratorial, for example, than the kinds of meetings in both major parties that go on in smoke-‹lled rooms. And that it was ever a menace I could never for a second believe. Because it was too small, too marginal, and it made very, very fundamentally serious mistakes. So I could never see it as any kind of threat. (HAT, 240) As for the Soviet Union, he rarely commented on it directly. One of his few remarks came during an April 1946 speech delivered to the National Citizens Political Action Committee. We believe that neither the interests of the American people nor the interests of world peace can possibly be served by a Get-Tough-withRussia policy. We are convinced that the Soviet Union desires peace as fervently and world security as ardently as any nation in the world today. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, McWilliams thought it unwise to brand “our gallant ally of yesteryear” as “a truculent disturber of the peace.” This was as close as he ever came to touting or

The Great Exception 173

defending the Soviet Union. However, he clearly pined for a more rational and democratic alternative to capitalism, and he refused to denounce Communism or Communists as such. This refusal, along with his emphasis on the cold war’s domestic effects, would divide him from many opinion makers, conservative and liberal, particularly on the East Coast. In their view, it was one thing to resist the red-baiters; it was quite another to turn a blind eye to Stalin’s well-documented atrocities. This division cannot be explained away, but part of it seems to issue from a mismatch between McWilliams’s chief concerns and those of his critics. Although McWilliams followed international affairs and occasionally wrote about them, he was much more perceptive about domestic issues, where his insights were honed by years of ‹rsthand reporting and legal activism. Later, this discrepancy in expertise would make him vulnerable to Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s claim that he was “a surprisingly parochial fellow.” In retrospect, McWilliams thought Witch Hunt had two serious drawbacks. The ‹rst was its timing, which was premature (HAT, 283). Only later, when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist investigations dominated the headlines, were the stakes more obvious to the public at large. The second drawback was that the book overworked the parallels between anti-Communism and witch hunting. It was ›awed also in the sense that when I got into it and was doing the writing, I became fascinated with the history of witch-hunting and of the concept of heresy and what heresy really is all about, and so forth. I couldn’t suppress that curiosity. So it’s not a well-integrated book. (HAT, 284) In the end, the book did not sell well. “I think people were sort of afraid of the issue,” McWilliams observed decades later (HAT, 289).

SURVEILLANCE AND ITS DISCONTENTS As Witch Hunt struggled to ‹nd its audience, McWilliams turned to handicapping the 1950 California elections for the Nation. The gubernatorial race was another foregone conclusion; Earl Warren steamrolled Democrat James Roosevelt to win his third term as governor. The weakness at the top 174


of the Democratic ticket hurt the chances of Helen Gahagan Douglas in her Senate race against Richard Nixon, a HUAC member whom McWilliams described in the Nation as “a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice.”16 McWilliams reported that Nixon’s campaign consisted of “brazen demagoguery,” while Douglas was trying “to combat this trickery by a consistently sensible and digni‹ed rebuttal.” Although she had not managed to disrupt “the hypnotic rhythm of the Nixon theme song: ‘Helen Douglas is a red,’” McWilliams predicted her victory. That week, however, Nixon overcame a huge Republican registration de‹cit to win the election. As president, Nixon would con‹rm his capacity for petty malice, but McWilliams had underestimated the political effectiveness of the thirty-seven-year-old Republican. By the late 1940s, McWilliams’s views had earned him increased FBI surveillance. On June 23, 1950, former Communist Party member and professional witness Louis Budenz furnished the FBI with his report that McWilliams “was under Communist discipline and continued to be so until I left the Party in 1945.” Another entry in McWilliams’s FBI ‹le noted that he “is one of the 400 concealed Communists whom BUDENZ stated he knew.” A former Party member “of known reliability,” however, undermined Budenz’s claims in August 1950. CAREY MCWILLIAMS was never an actual member of the Communist Party within the informant’s experience, and the latter characterized the subject as being a very independent thinker, who has disagreed with the Communist Party on many issues. The informant cited as an example, that during World War II MCWILLIAMS took sharp issue with the Communist Party over the so-called “Zoot Suit riots” in Los Angeles, which the Communist Party tried to maintain were instigated by the Nazi elements. McWilliams’s ‹le also noted that he received payment for his work on the Hollywood Ten brief, that he described the Smith Act as unconstitutional in a Los Angeles speech, and that FBI surveillance produced no evidence of large meetings at his home. As early as June 1947, McWilliams and Iris were aware of his growing FBI dossier. However, they may not have known that an informant had relayed this awareness to the FBI. One entry from McWilliams’s FBI ‹le read: The Great Exception 175

Informant said that she was of the opinion that IRIS and CAREY MCWILLIAMS have a feeling that whatever information the FBI has about them is very detrimental and informant believes the MCWILLIAMS are worried about this fact. IRIS is also angry with the Communists for the way they have treated CAREY. The entry also noted that McWilliams’s contacts in the FBI had told him about his dossier, but the author of the entry doubted the veracity of that information. In February 1948, the FBI’s Los Angeles of‹ce noti‹ed Hoover that it was removing McWilliams’s name from its Key Figure List on the grounds that there was no evidence of membership in the Communist Party. Instead, “all of his activity had been centered in groups advocating civil rights, some of which are in‹ltrated by Communists.” However, McWilliams’s name was placed back on the list later that year. The surveillance did not interfere with McWilliams’s entertainments in and around Los Angeles. He and Fante continued to amuse themselves with drink and other pleasures, including a boxing card at the Olympic Auditorium followed by a visit to Strip City on Pico and Western, where they witnessed what McWilliams called “the most unpalatable strip teases I have ever seen (which doesn’t mean much)” (Dec. 12, 1950). Two years later, however, Fante was also dragged into the anti-Communist imbroglio when Rena Vale identi‹ed him as a Party member. Even the improvident Fante was cautious enough to protect himself as the Hollywood blacklist began in earnest. After writing an open letter denying Vale’s charges, Fante managed to escape the political purge in Hollywood. Many of McWilliams’s other friends would not be so lucky.





1 9 5 0 , T H E Nation’s publisher and editor, Freda Kirchwey, found herself in a dif‹cult spot. The magazine had always struggled ‹nancially, but its money problems were especially acute during the early years of the cold war, when its unpopular editorial stands attracted harsh criticism and scared off longtime supporters. For Kirchwey, the ‹nancial struggles also had personal, political, and moral dimensions. Having spent more than three decades with the magazine, she considered the Nation a cause as well as a publication. The daughter of a Columbia Law School dean and a graduate of Barnard College, she had begun clipping articles for the magazine’s international relations section in 1918 and risen through the editorial ranks before buying the paper, using the trust fund of her husband, Evans Clark, in 1937. Six years later, she divested herself of ownership and created a nonpro‹t organization responsible for the magazine’s publication. Even so, she was spending most of her time raising money, and the strains of her editorial and fund-raising responsibilities were becoming less manageable. Furthermore, she was having dif‹culty working with Lillie Shultz, who ran the magazine’s fund-raising apparatus. A product of working-class Philadelphia, Shultz spoke plainly to Kirchwey, who was unused to such bluntness.1 Kirchwey decided that she needed help with her duties, and the chief prospect was her forty-‹ve-year-old West Coast contributing editor. She probably did not know that his ‹nances were as dire as the magazine’s. In January 1950, he wrote in his diary, “I’m as ‘low’ as I’ve been in the last eight years. What the hell does one do . . . go on starving as a writer or return to the law and starve for ‹ve years, trying to rebuild a law practice? I wish I knew” (Jan. 3, 1950). Later entries documented his sleeplessness, panic, and despondency over his ‹nances, but his anxiety was unaccompaN


nied by a thoughtful ‹nancial plan. Although meticulous in his bookkeeping, McWilliams typically responded to money problems by cutting expenses instead of reviewing his investments and opportunities.2 He later admitted, somewhat ruefully, that he had never owned a single share of stock.3 In November 1950, Kirchwey wrote to McWilliams, asking him if he had any plans to come east: “Haven’t you got any lectures in this vicinity?” (Nov. 14, 1950). Later, she asked him to move to New York and expand his responsibilities with the magazine. He countered by recommending that the Nation open a regional of‹ce in California. The West, he wrote, “and California in particular, are among the most progressive regions in the country—I should say potentially the most progressive; hence the logical place to expand the in›uence and circulation of The Nation” (Jan. 10, 1951). Unconvinced, Kirchwey persisted in her efforts to bring him east. In a letter to Kirchwey in February 1951, McWilliams laid out two options— heading a West Coast of‹ce or moving to New York—while expressing a strong preference for the ‹rst and repeating his argument for a stronger presence in California. The whole point about the West Coast is that it is now in process of becoming something; that that mould is not ‹xed—as yet; that now— not later—is the time to establish The Nation as the indispensable weekly for every west coast liberal and progressive. (Feb. 25, 1951) To this argument, he added an explanation for his personal preference. There are—‹nally—some personal factors which carry great weight. You will forgive me for repeating this, but I don’t like the idea of living in New York nor does Iris; both of us are spoiled and prejudiced Californians. Jerry, our 8½-year-old, is one of these horizontal kids; I can only hope that he might be able to adjust, somehow, to a vertical New York existence. The concern about Jerry was real. “Jerry has shown marks of swift change,” McWilliams noted in his diary at this time. “Less of a baby; more of a boy. Raising hell. Not doing as well in school; shouts; stamps through house; is de‹ant, etc.” (Nov. 9, 1950). McWilliams realized, too, that Jerry’s behavior had aggravated his own anxieties, which he attributed largely to his ‹nancial problems. Although the offer from the Nation was not lucrative—



McWilliams eventually asked for a three-year contract with thirteen thousand dollars in annual salary and expenses—the prospect of steady income may have made Kirchwey’s offer more attractive. In the same letter, McWilliams cautioned Kirchwey about the enemies he had acquired over the years, including the Associated Farmers, the American Legion, and the Los Angeles Times. 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 upon 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. Kirchwey was unfazed, and in early March, she asked him to move to New York temporarily and to edit a special issue on civil liberties, which he had proposed in November. She also ›attered him in explaining why she needed him in New York. There are so few people who combine the right point of view, a fertile and creative mind, passionate interest in the job that needs to be done, and ‹rst-rate writing ability. You can understand, therefore, why I am loath to give up the idea of having you here at “headquarters.” (Mar. 2, 1951) Moreover, she assured him that she would not pressure him to relocate permanently. You can be sure that you will be put under no pressure whatsoever—not so much as the weight of a feather—to subordinate your conviction to our wishes. That’s a promise, as far as I’m concerned. Politically, I may be a Socialist of sorts, but in these matters I am laissez faire to the limit. Within days, he accepted the compromise, which he characterized as a victory for her: “You win. Glad to spend two months in New York at weekly salary of $150 plus travel expenses and my actual living expenses there. Will arrange matters here so that I can stay through August if you wish” (Mar. 6, 1951). On April Fools’ Day 1951, the Aidlins threw him and Iris a large goingaway party. They would never again reside permanently in California.

The Vile Decade


THE NATION AT WAR McWilliams ›ew to New York the day after President Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his command in Korea. Within a week, he realized that the magazine was struggling. “Up early and to The Nation; their press day. Chaos is pretty awful and it made me wonder what it was all about” (Apr. 16, 1951). He noticed that the staff was apologetic and lacked direction; the next day, he observed that “the whole situation is extremely precarious.” There were other problems brewing as well. In February 1951, the magazine’s former art critic, Clement Greenberg, had written a letter to the editor claiming that the column of Julio Alvarez del Vayo, the Nation’s foreign editor, “had become a medium through which arguments remarkably like those which the Stalin regime itself advances are transmitted in a more plausible form to the American public.” To Kirchwey, Greenberg’s letter implied that del Vayo was a foreign agent. Furious, she refused to print the letter on the grounds that it was “clearly false and defamatory.” She also threatened to sue for libel if the letter were published elsewhere, a threat she delivered on when the New Leader, an in›uential magazine controlled by the Socialist Party’s anti-Soviet faction, ran the letter two months later. McWilliams advised Kirchwey against the lawsuit, which would drain the magazine’s limited resources and leave the Nation more vulnerable to criticism from neoconservatives and anti-Communist liberals. In a letter to the Nation, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. maintained that the magazine’s decision not to run Greenberg’s letter prevented its readers from judging matters for themselves. Furthermore, Schlesinger argued, the magazine was “betraying its ‹nest traditions . . . when it prints, week after week, these wretched apologies for Soviet despotism.” Kirchwey declined to publish Schlesinger’s letter as well, but it appeared in full in historian Peter Viereck’s “Sermons of Self-Destruction,” which ran in the Saturday Review of Literature in August 1951. One of Viereck’s claims was that the Nation and the New Statesmen in London were “the chief organs of ‘softness’ towards the Soviet among American and European non-Communists intellectuals.” He acknowledged the “witch-hunt hysteria” that so concerned Kirchwey and McWilliams, but he also maintained that “the savage armies of Soviet fascism are the gravest single menace to mankind.” In Viereck’s view, the libel suit was the latest evidence that “high-brows near the top of the liter180


ary and journalistic world” were insuf‹ciently alarmed by this menace. But even at the Nation, Viereck observed, some were catching on; the Greenberg ›ap had led theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and Robert Bendiner to request that their names be removed from the Nation’s masthead. Schlesinger praised Viereck with a letter to the Saturday Review of Literature, in which he noted that he was “particularly glad that [Viereck] directed attention, not only to the sickly neutralism of the doughface left, but also to the hardboiled neutralism of the reactionary right,” which included General MacArthur.4 Former Communist Granville Hicks also targeted the Nation in Commentary, where he argued that the Nation’s eighty-‹fth anniversary issue “may well serve in its total effect—however high-minded the intention and in spite of various articles that take a contrary position—as a piece of special pleading. There is a pro-Soviet bias in enough of the twenty-‹ve articles to color the entire issue.” Hicks singled out articles by Kirchwey, del Vayo, and Isaac Deutscher for special criticism. By way of reply, an angry Kirchwey ‹red off a letter that ran in a subsequent issue of Commentary. Even some of McWilliams’s friends and associates shared the view that the Nation was insuf‹ciently critical of the Soviet Union. When asked to renew his subscription in October 1951, for example, Will Rogers Jr. took the occasion to rebuke McWilliams: “You quite properly condemn tyranny in Georgia, U.S.A. and continually overlook the far greater tyranny in Georgia, U.S.S.R.” McWilliams responded, “Hear, hear! You don’t really mean everything you say in your letter, do you?” and then called Rogers’s attention to recent articles criticizing the Soviet Union. Rogers was unsatis‹ed. A week later, he wrote back, Regarding the rise of Communist totalitarianism as the most important thing facing liberals today, I am not going to be satis‹ed with a few little milksop articles opposing it. What I want is a continuous campaign, a la the New Leader; the sort of campaign The Nation used to devote against the Nazis. Rogers had a point. Fascism in the 1930s had alarmed McWilliams enough to condemn even democratic socialists like Upton Sinclair for their lack of militancy. No such alarm about Stalinism made its way into his writing, presumably for three reasons. First, it would have reinforced the broader anti-Communist effort that he thought was dis‹guring American public The Vile Decade


life. Second, McWilliams held out hope that Eastern European Communism was a painful transition to something more like the democratic socialism he had espoused in his letter to Kirchwey. Third, McWilliams did not wish to see a split on the left of the sort he had witnessed after the SovietNazi pact of 1939, which caused many Communists to leave the Party. McWilliams had observed ‹rsthand the effects of that withdrawal both on Popular Front politics and on individual friendships. The Hollywood Ten case, too, had shattered long-standing friendships, as leftists struggled to reconcile their political convictions with their personal loyalties and careers. In any case, the United States did not lack for anti-Stalinists; if McWilliams did not preface his criticism of U.S. policies with a denunciation of Stalin, it did not follow that he was a Soviet supporter or dupe. Yet a large segment of American society was looking for just such a denunciation before turning to other matters—a fact that McWilliams refused to accommodate. Choosing to ignore the criticism, resignations, and legal bills, Kirchwey carried on with the libel claim against the New Leader. She insisted that del Vayo, who had served as foreign minister in the Spanish Loyalist government from 1936 to 1939, embodied a deep moral principle: “He represents something very profound in our tradition of independent radicalism, and in our individual consciences. He is a declaration of faith.” As with many legal actions, however, moral principles cost extra. The suit dragged on for four years before ending inconclusively, and the continuing attacks on the Nation put the lie to Kirchwey’s hopeful claim that “newspapers and magazines are likely to pipe down about the whole affair if only because any repetition of the libel is itself libelous” (Alpern 1987, 213). In addition to splitting the liberal ranks while McCarthyism ›ourished, the Greenberg affair led to further unpleasantness. In February 1952, del Vayo and his wife, Luisi, were detained under the McCarran Act when they returned to New York City from Europe. Sponsored by two Democrats and passed in 1950 over Truman’s veto, the law prohibited any member of a registered Communist organization from applying for or using a passport; it also prevented government of‹cials from issuing a passport if they knew or had reason to believe that the applicant was a member of a registered “Communist-action” organization. After several days of pleading by Kirchwey and Evans Clark, the White House intervened, and the del Vayos were released on parole and later cleared. Kirchwey and Clark believed that someone associated with the New Leader instigated the 182


charges, and although he was less speci‹c in his speculation, McWilliams seemed to concur: “I thought then and think now that The Nation’s ‘liberal’ critics who disagreed with its stand on the Cold War instigated this action” (ECM, 150). Those critics renewed their attacks on Kirchwey when she ‹red Margaret Marshall as literary editor of the Nation in January 1953. Although an outside consultant had suggested staff cutbacks as well as a shorter format for the magazine, Marshall felt singled out because of the anti-Communist views expressed in the book review section. When Marshall declined to stay on as drama critic at a reduced salary, Kirchwey announced a new format for her former section and praised Marshall’s twenty-four years of service. Time promptly ran an article on Marshall’s dismissal under the headline “Dissenter Eliminated.” Kirchwey insisted that the decision was a ‹nancial one, citing in›ation and the cost of the libel suit among its causes, but many were skeptical. Richard Hofstadter wrote to Marshall, “I need hardly add that I won’t write for the Nation under the new dispensation— ever” (Alpern 1987, 223). Several other writers, including Irving Howe, also disappeared from the magazine’s pages, and the book reviewers who replaced Marshall, including McWilliams, were less sympathetic to the anti-Communist line. The legal wrangling and internecine quarrels did little to ease Kirchwey’s strains, but McWilliams’s editorial work was appreciated from the outset. Shortly after McWilliams arrived in New York, executive editor Harold Field resigned, and McWilliams took over his responsibilities. In a February 1952 letter to his son, Evans Clark wrote that Kirchwey “has been under such terri‹c pressure trying to keep ‘The Nation’ a›oat that she hasn’t had time for anything else—not even editing the paper. Luckily Carey McWilliams is proving to be a very capable next-in-command” (Alpern 1987, 225). In fact, his editorial and fund-raising duties were consuming almost all his energy. Although he still met with editors to discuss book ideas, he did not attempt another book-length work until the mid-1970s.

LEAVING LOS ANGELES In February 1952, McWilliams’s title on the Nation’s masthead changed from associate editor to editorial director, and the brief sojourn in New The Vile Decade


York was beginning to look more and more permanent. After subletting the del Vayos’ apartment in Greenwich Village while they were in Europe, McWilliams and Iris had rented a large, two-bedroom apartment on West Seventy-eighth Street, where Jerry could attend public school. They were joined there that summer by Bill Carey, who had just ‹nished his freshman year at Berkeley. While in New York, he dated an intern at the Nation who was also the daughter of a donor, prompting some simple advice from his father: “Be careful.”5 The irony of McWilliams’s permanent move to New York is rich, especially given his earlier complaints about the eastward migration of Western writers. In “Young Man, Stay West” (1930), for example, he argued that this migration had impeded the development of California letters and failed to reward the authors who made the journey. Only Mary Austin, he wrote, had “realized that her place was in the West . . . Her entire career is eloquent proof that the West is, artistically speaking, habitable.” (Austin was unconvinced; she thought that some experience in New York was important and urged Adamic to make the move east.) Besides, McWilliams remarked, “New York is a vile place to live—costly, vulgar, crowded, polyglot . . . and essentially provincial.” Iris probably agreed with some parts of this assessment. It took time for her to adapt to apartment living—she objected in particular to the cockroaches in Greenwich Village—but she soon came to appreciate New York’s superior art, music, and theater. When the McWilliams family arrived in New York, painters Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko were leading the abstract expressionist movement in Greenwich Village. Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, and a young Miles Davis were making jazz history in the city’s nightclubs. Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan were collaborating productively on Broadway, and Lee Strasberg was directing the Actors Studio, whose members would soon include Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, and Steve McQueen. Martha Graham, another New Yorker by way of Los Angeles, was the central force in modern dance, and fellow California transplant Joe DiMaggio and rookie Mickey Mantle were leading the Yankees to another World Series victory. A young Allen Ginsberg and the other Beats were starting out as writers, and Norman Mailer, back in the city after a short stint in Hollywood, had just published Barbary Shore, a novel that pre‹gured his emergent style. Amid this swirling cultural scene, McWilliams devoted most of his 184


energy to the Nation and his family. A typical day consisted of long hours at the of‹ce and lunch with someone associated with the magazine. In the absence of Fante and Wills, his nightlife also became tamer. He had meetings and conferences several evenings a week, and the family spent other nights watching television, going out to the movies, or browsing at Barnes & Noble Bookstore on the Upper West Side. As in Los Angeles, however, he and Iris socialized frequently, and their apartment became a salon and refuge for New York progressives. “Carey’s apartment on the upper West Side was a wonderful oasis in those days,” recalled journalist Bernard Nossiter. “The intelligent and decent civil liberty types all drifted in, and as discouraging as the country seemed, the possibilities of an open and sane society seemed alive there” (Downie 1976, 210). His lunch and evening companions included journalists Edgar Snow, I. F. Stone, Matty Josephson, and Duncan Aikman; Hugh Wilson, a professor of political science at Princeton University; philanthropist W. H. (Ping) Ferry; and left-wing labor lawyer and Marx scholar Louis Boudin. Boudin, whom McWilliams described as a good friend in the foreword to Southern California Country, died the year after McWilliams arrived in New York, but McWilliams also came to know his nephew Leonard as well as Leonard’s law partner, Victor Rabinowitz. Although impressive, this network was less diverse than the one McWilliams had assembled in Los Angeles, where he consorted with actors, screenwriters, architects, labor of‹cials, local politicians, and novelists as well as journalists, professors, attorneys, judges, and activists. As McWilliams predicted, the move to New York was dif‹cult for Jerry. A shy, bright, and intense eight-year-old, he left his few close friends in Los Angeles and found the beginning of each school year nerve-wracking. The night before Jerry started seventh grade, he was “keyed up terribly; hardly slept last night, and we didn’t either,” McWilliams noted in his diary (Sept. 13, 1954). The following night was no better. “Same old business. Every time he starts school, he throws a ‹t—a real emotional upset.” Despite these dif‹culties, McWilliams relished the company of his son. After Jerry spent a summer visiting his grandparents in California, McWilliams was grateful for his return: “Wonderful to have the rascal home” (Sept. 9, 1954). The next month, McWilliams noted appreciatively in his diary, “Jerry has been reading ‘The War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells and is totally enthusiastic. ‘One of the great writers,’ he reports” (Oct. 26, 1954). McWilliams was no less charmed by Bill Carey, who hosted him during The Vile Decade


a 1955 stopover in San Francisco. After lunch with campaign consultants Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter and an afternoon with Robert Kenny at the Press Club, McWilliams was collected by his son and his ‹ancée. Bill and Carol picked me up at hotel and drove to Berkeley. They—Bill, I suspect—‹xed a ‹ne dinner. Bill is a truly wonderful guy; I haven’t seen him in over a year. Wonderful in every way. Has his plans all made re wedding, future etc. (Apr. 18, 1955) The next month, McWilliams noted their wedding day in his diary. After receiving his degree in political science and history, Bill Carey, who had signed up for ROTC at Berkeley, joined the army in November 1955. He and Carol spent his ‹rst Christmas with McWilliams and Iris before moving to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he received his of‹cer training. The next year, he shipped out to Munich, where he completed his two-year tour. As the McWilliams family settled in to New York, Fante lobbied jocularly but persistently against a permanent move. Having received a large payment for the ‹lm rights to his latest novel, Full of Life, Fante purchased a ranch house in Malibu and promptly wrote his old friend. McWilliams, how is it with the poor? How is it with the teeming sweating Jewish masses in the most wicked city in the world? Do you like salt air, Kid? Do you like sensuous California hills, and white people all around you? How would you like to be out here on this precious strip of golden earth, the sea roaring in your ears, keeping you awake, the massive hunk of moonlight like a poised atom bomb over your house, and your house a California rancho (that’s the word, Kid)—a rancho, a big Y shaped joint with a white concrete roof and 4 bedrooms on a acre of verdant soil, the soil of our beloved Golden State? How can you stand it in that ‹lthy bedlam, niggers to the right, dagos to the left, and Hebes everywhere? They tell me they even got Greeks in New York. Come back, Man. Take a bath, get the greasy smell of wops out of your clothes and come on home to the goddamndest climate, the sweetest air, the loveliest women, the coolest breezes, the best prose in all these United States. (Fante 1991, 228) For the next two decades, Fante continued to urge McWilliams to return to Los Angeles. In 1965, after McWilliams referred to New York approvingly in the pages of the Nation, Fante objected, “It’s okay for you to say on paper that you’re glad you went to that scabrous place where you now 186


dwell, but I tell you that your place in time and history today is LA and The West” (Fante 1991, 288). McWilliams found New York agreeable enough, however, especially after he and Iris secured a two-bedroom apartment at Broadway and West 115th Street. Located across the street from Columbia University, their building was close to leafy Riverside Park and only one block from the 116th Street subway stop that connected McWilliams to his downtown of‹ce. Furthermore, their spacious apartment was rent-controlled—a signi‹cant boon given their modest means. Although the 115th Street apartment would become their permanent residence, McWilliams seemed to regard that fact as more or less accidental. Had they known that they were staying in New York, he later observed, they probably would have settled in the suburbs. For years, too, he and Iris considered returning to their hilltop house on Alvarado Street. The move to West 115th Street completed the arc that he had started in his teens—from isolated natural splendor to the enormous village of Los Angeles to high-density, vertical living in New York. Although he never became part of any particular literary, political, or social scene in New York, McWilliams attended some meetings of an informal group of writers and publishing people calling itself “The Observers.” The group had approached Kirchwey with an offer to supply the Nation with occasional reports on blacklisting and censorship. The participants included Arthur Miller, whose play The Crucible would recreate the Salem witch trials on Broadway in 1953; William Shirer, who had witnessed and would document the history of Nazi Germany in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960); journalist Edgar Snow, author of Red Star over China (1938); Merle Miller, president of the Authors Guild of America and board member of the ACLU; and Matthew Josephson, whose biography of Sidney Hillman appeared in 1952. Miller and Josephson also contributed to McWilliams’s special issue on civil liberties that same year. The meetings, which often turned into late-night bull sessions, were usually held at the Greenwich Village apartment of Jack Goodman of Simon & Schuster. The Observers disbanded, however, after Goodman was summoned to Washington and questioned about the speci‹cs of their exchanges. Someone had passed along detailed information from the meetings to federal of‹cials. Years later, McWilliams wrote that he “would like to learn the identity of the stool pigeon responsible for ending those lively sessions” (ECM, 148). The Vile Decade


From his perch in Malibu, Fante had a slightly different view of the crackdown that preoccupied The Observers. When the CUAC hearings were televised in Los Angeles, Fante described them to McWilliams as “a hideously fascinating show.” He focused on the reactions that the testimony of Ellenore Abowitz drew from Fante’s fellow patrons, many of them servicemen, in a Western Avenue bar. Born in Fresno—her maiden name was Bogigian—Abowitz was a labor activist and EPIC alumna who joined the Communist Party in Los Angeles in the mid-1930s (Healey and Isserman 1990, 77). McWilliams had known her at least since 1940, when he and Fante attended the Conference for Democratic Action in Fresno (Fante 1991, 322). Later, she began to appear frequently in his diary, often in the company of her close friend Robert Kenny, who served as her lawyer during the hearings. A typical entry places her at a CSO dinner for Edward Roybal in 1950, where McWilliams was on the program. Afterward, he, Abowitz, and Kenny stayed for drinks and then repaired to McWilliams’s house for a nightcap. For Fante, watching Abowitz’s testimony was “acutely painful because [the bar patrons] hated the sight of her, of her Jewishness, and the baleful irony [of] her features. It was a very cruel business” (1991, 229). When HUAC investigated the screenwriters guild, however, he did not regard the hearings as completely baseless. Fante had witnessed ‹rsthand the maneuvering by Communists within the guild, and he was reluctant to concede that all of his colleagues were victims. He explained his views in a letter to McWilliams. It is not easy for me to say that the Committee was merely witch-hunting, because I think the investigation did reveal the Communist strangle-hold on the guild, the ef‹cient methods of a few well-organized guys to direct policy, their great skill at parliamentary procedure, and their in‹nite patience in an organization composed of notoriously impatient guys . . . Nor is it so easy to say that, come the time for liquidations, they would shed a human tear for anyone who failed to agree with their way of running the show. If the tables were turned, if those accused were permitted to make accusations and mete out punishment, how many would say, go and sin no more? (229) He also wondered about the Communists’ ability to screen out writers whose ideologies were incompatible with their own.



I noted too that of the 175 or so names brought to light, 95% were working writers. This is an interesting ‹gure, for, day in and day out, about 200 writers are regularly employed in this town. Is the implication too remote that, unless you carry a party card, you can’t work? I offer this not as a fact, but only for your consideration. (229) In the same letter, Fante recounted for McWilliams the ironic blessings the anti-Communist hearings had visited on his own life and work. In his view, writer-director Carl Foreman, who had ›ed Hollywood for England to continue working, wanted to ‹lm Full of Life, the story of a young Catholic family and their home life, to distance himself from the consequences of his political views. Did this Communist buy such a novel because it appealed to his philosophy, because he found (all at once) great warmth and tenderness in the script? Or did he, hearing the howling of wolves coming from behind the hills, quickly say to himself: this is the kind of material I want to be caught with, when they catch me? (229–30) The other bidder on Full of Life, King Brothers, had lined up Edward Dmytryk as director. A member of the Hollywood Ten, Dmytryk had already served his sentence for contempt in a West Virginia federal prison before repudiating Communism in a signed af‹davit. For Fante, Dmytryk’s interest in the picture was further proof of his theory. Dmytryk! The wolves had already torn his britches and taken a big chunk out of his ass, and he of course is afraid they might come yowling after him again. I can only say that this is the most fortuitous 40 thousand a man ever made: two guys pulling and tugging on a priest’s cassock, both of them trying to prove how nicely the sack-cloth ‹ts. (230) In the end, Fante’s interest in character and motive trumped his interest in ideology. For the life of me, I can’t understand why they embraced Communism. Where is the charm of this philosophy? Where is the human side of it. Those who recanted, and those who didn’t . . . it’s all the same to me: they are no different than Nazis in their grim and moody and vengeful faith in the future. (229)

The Vile Decade


For McWilliams, however, personalities and private motives were not the issue. He protested the hearings not because those under investigation were pleasant or well intentioned, but because an infringement on their rights would weaken everyone else’s. However, his comment about the stool pigeon among The Observers suggests that his position was not solely a matter of high legal principle. Many of his friends felt threatened or were harmed by the anti-Communist probes, and he naturally wanted to help them. In this sense, his personal loyalties aligned well with his convictions. What distinguished him from many who felt the same way was his willingness to challenge the investigations publicly. That stand earned him a reputation for moral courage in some circles and deep suspicion in others.

THE COLD WAR CASUALTIES By McWilliams’s calculation, the anti-Communist investigations reached their high point in 1952. By that time, Senator Joseph McCarthy had instigated what McWilliams called the second and more dangerous phase of the witch hunt—the proliferation of blacklists and gray lists in one sector after another. Compared to McWilliams’s experience in California, where “witch-hunting was a kind of outdoor political spectator sport” (ECM, 146), this phase was more sophisticated and consequential. It was also more dif‹cult to report on, as the ‹rings and blighted careers were harder to trace to speci‹c causes. Hundreds of Hollywood actors, screenwriters, and directors found it dif‹cult or impossible to ‹nd work. The singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson became the ‹rst person to be barred from American television. Dashiell Hammett was investigated, tapped for back taxes, blacklisted, and sentenced to six months in federal prison for refusing to answer questions regarding Communist Party members for whom he had arranged bail. William Shirer was blacklisted for signing the amicus brief that McWilliams helped prepare for the Hollywood Ten case. McWilliams’s agent, Maxim Lieber, closed his literary agency and chose exile—‹rst in Mexico and then in his native Poland—after the Hiss case connected him to former Communist and Time editor Whittaker Chambers, whom HUAC subcommittee chair Richard Nixon had turned into a celebrity (Weinstein 1978, 525). Angus Cameron, McWilliams’s editor, was also forced to resign as vice president and editor-in-chief of Little, Brown 190


and Company after American Legion magazine and then Counterattack targeted the ‹rm’s leftist authors. Not everyone on the blacklist was destroyed professionally. For example, one of Cameron’s authors, novelist and Communist Party member Howard Fast, had appeared before HUAC in 1950, refused to cooperate on First Amendment grounds, and served a three-month sentence for contempt. The following year, he formed his own publishing company and released his new novel, Spartacus, which in 1960 became an Oscar-winning ‹lm starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Peter Ustinov, and Laurence Olivier. Most of those blacklisted, however, had no awards to show for their troubles. Many were ‹red on the slenderest of grounds—an association with someone who read a radical magazine, for example—or without any explanation at all, sometimes after a visit from the FBI (Schrecker 1998, 266–305). As McWilliams was settling in at the Nation, a steady stream of such victims visited the of‹ce “in single ‹le and platoons, to tell their stories, to seek advice, to gain publicity and editorial support, bringing bales of documents, clippings, and personal statements” (ECM, 147). Compounding their dif‹culties, and those of any reporter trying to cover their stories, was the fact that many of those who were in a position to resist or speak out were often reluctant to go on record. In Witch Hunt, McWilliams had considered the arithmetic behind this reluctance. Using the Hollywood Ten case as an example, he asserts that [T]o measure the pressure which the House committee [HUAC] brought to bear upon the Hollywood writers, one would have to multiply, so to speak, the fear of the jail sentence by the size of the monetary prizes which Hollywood offers for conformity and then add to this pressure of incessant of‹cial propaganda which labels certain ideas “good” and others “bad.” (77) The mathematics, he maintains, is fairly straightforward. To convince a man who receives a salary of $30,000 a year that it is “inexpedient” for him to be identi‹ed with a certain “controversial” issue is usually about thirty times easier than to convince the man who makes $1000 a year or the man who is unemployed. (78) Neither HUAC nor McCarthy could ‹re anyone in the private sector, but their investigations made up one part of what McWilliams called “the triThe Vile Decade


angle of pressure”: the interaction of terror, corruption, and propaganda that convinces employees to remain silent when choosing between speaking their minds or losing their jobs. Eventually the fallout went far beyond workplace pressure, false charges, and fouled careers, and McWilliams counted numerous friends among these “Cold War casualties.” Several committed suicide. Harvard scholar F. O. Matthiessen, a frequent guest in McWilliams’s home, leaped to his death from the twelfth-›oor window of a Boston hotel in April 1950. The two men had met in the early 1940s, when McWilliams gave a talk in Cambridge, but they had known each other by reputation for at least a decade before that. McWilliams had come to see “Matty”—a gay, Christian, socialist academic devoted to international peace—as “a classic example of the intellectual of ‘unshielded sensibility’ caught in the vicious ideological and political crosscurrents of a turbulent time” (ECM, 175). Sensitive, complex, and anguished by world events, Matthiessen felt increasingly isolated when some of his Harvard colleagues criticized him harshly after he visited Prague. McWilliams’s last visit with Matthiessen was in Los Angeles the year before his death; he later remarked that he had never been in the presence of a person in a more tormented frame of mind (ECM, 175). He and Iris were saddened but not completely surprised when they read about Matthiessen’s suicide in the newspaper. According to McWilliams, Matthiessen had expressed deep concern over “world conditions” and the perjury trial of Harry Bridges in San Francisco. The Bridges jury began its deliberations on April Fools’ Day 1950, the same day Matthiessen defenestrated himself. This time around, the charge against Bridges was that he had sworn falsely at his 1945 naturalization hearing that he had never been a member of the Communist Party. Four days later, the jury returned a guilty verdict, which McWilliams made the subject of an article in the Nation. In McWilliams’s view, Bridges’s membership in the Communist Party had never been the issue; the real charge had always been that the Australian-born Bridges was a “stubborn, able, militant trade-union leader who years ago made the serious mistake of arousing the undying enmity of of‹cials in the Immigration Service.” The government’s pursuit of Bridges stretched back to 1939, when its efforts to deport him as a Communist alien failed. The following year, the House of Representatives passed a bill with a provision to deport Bridges, but the Supreme Court ruled it illegal in 1945, the year Bridges became a citizen. 192


Bridges’s attorney, Vincent Hallinan, who would run for president in 1952 on the Progressive Party ticket with Communist Party support, had more dif‹culty proving his client had not committed perjury. “He now stands convicted of this charge,” McWilliams remarked in the same Nation article, “largely for the reason that he could no more prove he was not a Communist than the defendants in a certain Salem prosecution of 1691 could prove they were not witches.” McWilliams focused on the government’s methods in the perjury case, which “constitute a sinister precedent and a blow to the liberties of every citizen.” In the end, Bridges received a ‹veyear prison term, but the Supreme Court dismissed his indictment in 1953, thereby voiding the sentence. He was reindicted on similar charges, but a federal judge ruled in 1955 that the government had failed to prove that he was a Communist or that he had concealed that status when he was naturalized. Shortly thereafter, the Justice Department announced that, after almost two decades, it was giving up its effort to deport Bridges. A year after Matthiessen’s suicide and Bridges’s perjury conviction, Louis Adamic shot himself in the head at his home near Milford, New Jersey. The circumstances struck McWilliams as suspicious: the house was on ‹re, a .22 caliber ri›e lay across Adamic’s knees, and his pro-Tito views had drawn threatening letters and messages from Croatian nationalists. Even so, McWilliams shared Stella Adamic’s view that it was a suicide. Extremely sensitive and high-strung, Adamic had been struggling with marital problems, and his grueling work schedule had left him exhausted. He had also been targeted by the Tenney Committee as well as Louis Budenz and Elizabeth Bentley, the erstwhile Soviet courier turned highpro‹le informer. At the time of his death, Adamic had a clipping in his wallet with the headline “Adamic Red Spy: Woman Charges.” By this time, however, Bentley’s credibility was suspect. She had settled a libel suit for nine thousand dollars with William Remington, a Commerce Department employee who Bentley said had passed her secret government documents. Remington’s guilty verdict was voided when it became known that the grand jury foreman had provided editorial assistance to Bentley, but Remington was reindicted and convicted of perjury in January 1953 on the strength of his ex-wife’s reluctant testimony. (Her reluctance stemmed from her concern that Remington would be unable to pay child support from prison.) Sentenced to Lewisburg federal prison, Remington was brutally beaten by fellow inmates in November 1954. As The Vile Decade


Remington fought for his life in the prison hospital, Attorney General Herbert Brownell refused to permit a transfer to a better-equipped University of Pennsylvania hospital. Remington died two days later from the effects of a skull fracture (May 1994, 307–10). McWilliams would grieve for Remington, but it was Adamic’s death— which Ross Wills characterized as “assassination by suicide”—that moved him most deeply. The suicide did not surprise him, however; once again, Iris had presaged a possible disaster. “I suppose I would have fallen out of my chair,” McWilliams noted in his diary, “if it had not been for the fact that Iris had suggested that something of this sort might happen—slept scarcely a wink all night” (Sept. 4, 1951). McWilliams published a eulogy in the Nation designed to shame those who questioned Adamic’s patriotism. Those who knew him well will, I trust, never forget or forgive those who slandered him when he was alive and persisted in their slanders when he was dead. To imply that this man was “un-American” in any sense whatever was an evil libel. Yet all the Los Angeles Herald-Express could ‹nd to say of him after his death was that the California Committee on Un-American Activities had listed him “forty-nine times” and had referred to him as “the notorious pro-Communist, pro-Soviet Louis Adamic.” If Adamic appeared to surrender too soon, McWilliams concluded, it was not because he lacked courage but because he felt betrayed: “And so he was, in a time when Louis Budenz, as in this instance, sits in judgment on the living and the dead.” McWilliams considered another close friend, actor Albert Dekker, a cold war casualty because his personal problems “stemmed in large part from his political dif‹culties” (ECM, 181). McWilliams met Dekker in the late 1930s, when he arrived in Los Angeles from New York. As Dekker built his acting career—which included supporting roles in Beau Geste (1939), The Killers (1946), Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), East of Eden (1955), Suddenly Last Summer (1959), and The Wild Bunch (1969)—he also became involved in politics. In 1944, he won an assembly seat in a district that also helped send Helen Gahagan Douglas to Congress. A Henry Wallace Democrat, he served a single two-year term and became a target of anti-Communist suspicion. After his name appeared in the 1949 CUAC report, Dekker’s Hollywood work dried up, and he



returned to New York in 1950 to work in the theater. He spent the next ‹fteen years mixing ‹lm, theater, and television work and coping with the effects of the Hollywood gray list, which McWilliams had described in the Nation in 1949. In fact, McWilliams had Dekker in mind when he described the Kafkaesque experiences of an unnamed actor who was never actually blacklisted or called before a committee but “lived and functioned in the shadow of the blacklist” (ECM, 181). In May 1968, Dekker was found dead in his Normandie Avenue apartment in Los Angeles. McWilliams’s memoir describes Dekker’s death as a suicide and offers no details. However, the death certi‹cate cites accidental asphyxiation as the immediate cause of death, and the coroner’s report takes careful account of the lurid circumstances. Dekker’s naked corpse was found kneeling in his bathtub, a slack noose around his neck, his hands and feet bound, his mouth ball-gagged, a hypodermic needle hanging out of each arm, and his body covered with sadomasochistic obscenities written in lipstick. Although McWilliams’s unwillingness to include those details in his memoir is understandable, he uncharacteristically strains his credibility by describing his friend’s death as a suicide and linking it to the cold war. The circumstances of Dekker’s death notwithstanding, these casualties permanently transformed McWilliams. Decades later, he declined to cast the anti-Communist investigations in melodramatic terms, but he could not forgive or forget the brutality that he witnessed. At its worst, the “terror” was livable; most of the victims survived; not too many went to jail; not all those “‹ngered” lost their jobs. Some actually did better on “the outside” than on “the inside.” But it was a brutal business just the same. I never felt that I had been a victim, but what happened to my friends happened to me vicariously and it is this I remember. The experience left me with a bitter aftertaste which I have not lost. (ECM, 185) Doing what he could for the walking wounded, McWilliams published the work of Edgar Snow, Agnes Smedley, Anna Louise Strong, and East Asian expert Owen Lattimore, all of whom experienced professional dif‹culties during the 1950s. In addition to writing Red Star Over China, Snow had worked steadily as a mainstream journalist and associate editor at the Saturday Evening Post, but most mass-market magazines would not hire him

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from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. McWilliams gladly accepted Snow’s work and company throughout the 1950s before Snow moved to Switzerland and published more widely. Like Snow, Smedley had covered the Chinese Revolution, but in February 1949, the U.S. Army accused her of spying for the Soviet Union, largely because of her close connection to German journalist and spy Richard Sorge, who was found guilty of similar charges and executed in Tokyo in 1944. Eight days later, the U.S. Army apologized and withdrew its charge, but suspicions lingered. Smedley moved to England, where she died the following year at the age of ‹ftyeight. Anna Louise Strong, whom McWilliams described as “a kind of grandmotherly anarchist with missionary impulses,” had known McWilliams since the 1930s, when she joined him in condemning Upton Sinclair in the pages of Paci‹c Weekly. By that time, she had already earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and settled in Seattle, where she supported the Wobblies, the 1919 general strike, and the newly formed Soviet Union. After attending a Lincoln Steffens lecture, she traveled to Moscow on his advice and became a foreign correspondent for radical American newspapers. In 1958, at the age of seventy-two, she moved to China, where she was admired at ‹rst by Mao Tse-tung and then arrested in 1968. She died there in 1970. Lattimore’s case was more extravagant. The director of the School of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University, Lattimore had served as political advisor to Chiang Kai-shek (on Roosevelt’s recommendation) for a year in the early 1940s before becoming deputy director of the Of‹ce of War Intelligence and serving on the Japanese reparations committee after the war. He was considered a Communist sympathizer after arguing that the United States should not support Chiang but rather focus its attention on Communist China, and FBI records include the allegation that he was a Soviet spy.6 Shortly after the Truman administration was accused of “losing” China to the Communists, Senator McCarthy identi‹ed Lattimore as the Soviet Union’s top espionage agent in the United States. A subsequent investigation cleared Lattimore of the charges, but in 1952, a federal grand jury concluded that he had lied when he told a Senate subcommittee that he had not promoted Communism or Communist interests. In the same year, Irving Kristol wrote a much-discussed piece in Commentary suggesting that liberals should concede the culpability of Lattimore and others. By 1955, all charges against Lattimore had been dis196


missed, but his academic career was in shambles. Throughout the 1950s, McWilliams published Lattimore’s work, much of which pointed out the faulty assumptions behind U.S. foreign policy in Asia. In 1963, just as some of those assumptions were being tested in Vietnam, Lattimore left Johns Hopkins for the University of Leeds. In the early 1950s, McWilliams published his own views of American Communism and Communists in the small-circulation Chicago Jewish Forum. There he argued that the very aspects that Americans found most menacing about Russian-style Communism doomed the Party in the United States. It struck him as strange that America was so worried about Communists when they were so few and powerless in this country. The paradox is so strange, indeed, as to suggest that we might feel much easier if the Communists had succeeded here as well as they have in France and Italy. For we would then be forced to deal with Communism as a political reality and not as a “menace.” In McWilliams’s view, the Party’s propaganda was ineffective, and its attempt to control the lives of Party members had produced ten times as many former members as current ones. “Far from being a source of strength,” McWilliams observed, “Communist discipline has been the party’s major organizational weakness.” Although the Party had started several organizations and participated in many others, its power tended to decline in proportion to the breadth of an organization’s appeal. Given this pattern, McWilliams maintained, a sound policy would be to protect the Communists’ right to advocate force and violence from every soapbox, for nothing would better ensure their failure to secure American support. But if McWilliams was unconcerned about the Communist menace in the United States, he was also scathing in his description of American liberals and their political purposelessness. His disdain for the latter group was never so clear. “What is their conception of the purpose of America? Is it to maintain a rat-race in which everyone is supposed not only to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ but to be one step ahead of them?” He shifted quickly from this rhetorical question to a sketchy portrait of political action in a dramatic, even apocalyptic, social context. Our problem is not to suppress anything, including Communism, but rather to liberate the creative political energies of the American people The Vile Decade


so that we can compete, with all comers, for the leadership of those new social forces which will transform or destroy the world in which we live. This approach could never console those who feared the effects of Communism, much less the effects of Soviet conspiracy, sabotage, and espionage. In effect, it neglected the second half of Philip Rahv’s claim that Communism was not a threat in America but to America. By focusing on the domestic effects of the anti-Communist probes and remaining silent on the Soviet Union and its ambitions, McWilliams could not shake the perception that he was a Stalin apologist. According to his longtime friend Joe Aidlin, neither of them tolerated Stalinism, but McWilliams was unconcerned about the Soviet threat, predicting that “Europe would swallow the Soviet Union.”7 His decision not to denounce Soviet abuses—presumably because that would empower his ideological adversaries in America, but also because he still hoped that capitalism would be superceded by a more democratic and rational economic order—was not lost on his critics. McWilliams’s domestic prescription also remained vague. What did he mean, exactly, when he argued that we should “liberate the creative political energies of the American people”? He probably did not wish to liberate the political energies of the nation’s ultraright wing, which, in an act of impressive creativity, would soon convince itself that Chief Justice Warren was a Communist agent. His essay’s implicit argument was that leftist activism would enable America to compete with all comers in a Darwinistic struggle for global leadership, and that the crackdown on Communists made America less ‹t for this competition. Parts of this claim would become more explicit in McWilliams’s writings and speeches in the 1960s and 1970s, when he emphasized the cold war’s negative effects on American politics. By then, however, his language had become less apocalyptic. Instead of advocating the mastery of the social forces that would either transform or destroy the world, he was pushing for a reordering of the nation’s priorities.

DEFENDING CIVIL LIBERTIES As the investigations of anti-Communists intensi‹ed, the ACLU became reluctant to take the cases of known Communists or even of their lawyers, 198


who often faced related charges. Indeed, the ACLU had purged its own staff a decade before when its counsel, Morris Ernst, argued that the Communist Party presence in the ACLU made it vulnerable to attack and destroyed its effectiveness. (Ernst was later revealed to be an FBI informant.) In 1940, the organization passed a resolution declaring it “inappropriate” for its of‹cers to belong to any group that supported authoritarian dictatorships in any country. The resolution was primarily aimed at Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a former Wobbly, ACLU founder, and Communist Party member who exclaimed at a hearing to remove her from the ACLU board, “If this trial occurred elsewhere, it would be a case for the ACLU to defend!”8 Ernst also led a simultaneous effort to purge the National Lawyers Guild of Communists. That effort failed, however, and Ernst submitted his resignation shortly thereafter. In the 1950s, when the ACLU hesitated to defend political pariahs such as Owen Lattimore, McWilliams joined historian and college president Stringfellow Barr and Yale law professor Thomas Emerson (who would later become known as Hillary Clinton’s mentor) in signing an open letter protesting the dif‹culties that suspected citizens had in obtaining legal representation. On September 2, 1951, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. used his New York Post column to compare the letter’s signatories to carriers of a lethal disease: “None of these gentlemen is a Communist, but none objects very much to Communism. They are the typhoid Marys of the left, bearing the germs of infection even if not suffering obviously from the disease” (Navasky 1980, 54). Three months later, McWilliams argued in the New Statesman that “this was the language of McCarthyism even if spoken with a Harvard accent.” In an interview conducted more than ‹fty years later, Schlesinger rehearsed this comment verbatim but could not remember whether he had ever met McWilliams.9 As the anti-Communist probes created new demands for legal support, the ABA showed no interest in defending the rights of those under investigation. Its Bill of Rights Committee reported that no rights violations in 1952 had required its intervention, a situation that the committee found “gratifying.” Meanwhile, the ABA’s Special Committee to Study Communist Tactics, Strategy, and Objectives, which was working closely with HUAC and the American Legion, announced that “the time for ousting the communist attorney is at hand” (Auerbach 1976, 238). The following year, Attorney General Herbert Brownell told the ABA that the National The Vile Decade


Lawyers Guild was a “Communist-dominated and controlled organization” and that it should therefore provide him with evidence that it did not belong on his list of subversive organizations (235). The move forced the National Lawyers Guild to spend precious time and resources defending itself rather than those who might bene‹t from its services. During this time, McWilliams believed that more strenuous efforts were necessary to protect civil liberties. In 1953, he helped found the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (ECLC), whose other members included Emerson, I. F. Stone, Princeton political scientist Hugh Wilson, and philanthropist Corliss Lamont. Much of the ‹nancial support came from Lamont, a long-standing ACLU board member who had resigned when the organization hesitated to support him during his encounter with McCarthy’s committee. (Lamont denied any past or present Communist Party membership but refused to answer the committee’s other questions.) The ECLC immediately became a target for the recently formed American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF), which maintained that the ›edgling organization was “Communist-dominated and dangerous.” Before the ECLC’s 1953 conference, for example, Irving Kristol wired Reinhold Niebuhr, asking “Are you aware that this organization is a Communist front with no sincere interest in liberty in the United States or elsewhere?” After singling out McWilliams, Emerson, and Stone for suspicion, Kristol added, “There are, of course, non-Communists who are also taking part, but no one who can be legitimately described as anti-Communist” (Navasky 1980, 56). If McWilliams had problems with the ACCF, his standing with the FBI was predictably abysmal. In March 1952, a month after he publicly called for an investigation of the FBI following leaks of con‹dential information to McCarthy, McWilliams wrote to the FBI’s director of personnel to check the accuracy of an article under consideration at the Nation. McWilliams’s question concerned the applicability of general civil service regulations and statutes to the FBI, but an internal memo to Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s longtime assistant and companion, indicates that the FBI felt no obligation to provide McWilliams with even the most pedestrian information: “McWilliams has no purpose to write about us except to be critical,” FBI assistant director Louis Nichols asserted in the memo. “He is a liar of the ‹rst degree and I see no point to be achieved in even acknowledging his letter.” Largely on the strength of Louis Budenz’s testimony, McWilliams 200


remained on the FBI’s Security Index at least through 1958, and his writings, af‹liations, and travels were monitored well after that. On June 28, 1952, the Nation’s special issue on civil liberties, which had drawn McWilliams to New York in the ‹rst place, ‹nally appeared. At twice the size of a typical issue and with a Ben Shahn picture of the Statue of Liberty on its cover, “How Free Is Free?” discussed threats to civil liberties in law, publishing, the labor unions, motion pictures, advertising, education, civil service, and science. Kirchwey’s opening piece began promisingly but quickly settled into an account of recent European history, some parts of which would not age well. The United States, leading the Western world, has abandoned the revolution to Moscow; and while the Russians are exploiting this opportunity with a brutal energy which may defeat the very purposes they proclaim, at least they have the initiative, while we carry the thankless, hopeless job of sweeping back the great tide of change. Shifting back to the domestic scene, Kirchwey wrote, “As this discussion has tried to show, the American witch hunt is tied, too closely for comfort, to the course of economic and political developments throughout the world.” She then presented the remainder of the issue as “a compilation of the reports of specialists” from “those occupational groups which have suffered most heavily from repressive measures, statutory and otherwise.” Those reports show various signs of McWilliams’s connections and expertise. Matthew Josephson’s “The Battle of the Books” featured antiCommunist pressure in publishing, including the plight of Angus Cameron. Another article, “Hollywood Meets Frankenstein” by “X,” maintained that ‹lm executives, “gibbering with fright” in the face of HUAC pressure, “would rather buy off a racketeering union boss than sit down with an honest labor leader. It was this policy that led to the B-picture episode, a few years back, when the studio heads left a satchel of greenbacks in a hotel room to buy off Willie Bioff.” McWilliams’s own piece considered the distinction between civil rights, which had been expanding modestly for blacks since the formation of Truman’s commission in 1948, and civil liberties, which were under assault. Citing a string of recent attacks against blacks and combining analyses from Brothers Under the Skin and Witch Hunt, the piece concluded, “Civil liberties and civil rights are not separable. One cannot be achieved while the other is denied.” The Vile Decade


The most remarkable article in the issue, perhaps, was Louis Adamic’s “Confessions of a 33d-Degree Subversive,” which McWilliams excerpted from an unpublished manuscript. The tone of the excerpt was playful and ironic. Having read various descriptions of himself, Adamic relished the discovery that he was “a Stalin stooge, and, at the same time, a Tito-tooter.” He also wondered whether the job of exposing subversives would be abandoned when “Washington discovers that practically everybody in America is subversive and that there’s no point competing with the telephone book.” Adamic’s humor belied the gravity of his personal crisis, and the reader’s knowledge of his suicide, to which there was no direct reference, heightened the pathos. By publishing the excerpt posthumously, McWilliams demonstrated rather than asserted the personal consequences of the antiCommunist hearings and investigations. With the exception of Kirchwey’s introduction, the special issue focused exclusively on the domestic effects of the cold war and McCarthyism. By doing so, it may have sought to de›ect criticism that the magazine’s staff had failed to grasp the horrors of Stalinism. This focus, however, did not protect the Nation from its critics. Richard Rovere wrote in the New Leader that the special issue would provoke cheers in the Kremlin, a comment that Time reprinted in July 1952 (ECM, 148). Although the sharp exchanges between anti-Communists and the Nation would eventually subside, lowlevel con›ict would continue for decades. The main difference between his position and that of the anti-Communists, McWilliams would say in 1979, was that he thought that Communists “had some constitutional rights.” He also said that the more freewheeling Wobbly tradition in the West had not prepared him for the Eastern neoconservatives and their “myopic hatred of The Nation,” which almost put the magazine out of business. He was used to red-baiting, California style, but he found these critics rigid, obsessive, and “quite vicious” by comparison.10 Decades later, McWilliams noted that two organizations formed during this period—the ACCF and its af‹liate, the Congress for Cultural Freedom—included key critics of the Nation and were sponsored either directly or indirectly by the CIA (ECM, 154–55). Organized in 1950, the Congress for Cultural Freedom counted Schlesinger, philosopher Sidney Hook, and Commentary editor Elliot Cohen as members. The ACCF was formed the following year. Hook and Irving Kristol were founding of‹cers, and active participants included Schlesinger, Rovere, Viereck, and Diana 202


Trilling. McWilliams began collecting information on CIA sponsorship in the 1950s, turned it over to Christopher Lasch in the 1960s, and eventually published Lasch’s essay, “The Cultural Cold War,” in a 1967 special issue of the Nation.11 He also tried to commission Dalton Trumbo to write a piece on the “the great CIA can of worms.” In a March 1967 letter, he wrote to Trumbo: As a subject, I think it has hilarious implications. Every aspect of it can be translated into the clichés of “anti-communism.” There are “fronts,” “conduits,” “pass throughs,” etc. And isn’t it obvious that we have CIA “fellow travelers” and isn’t it obvious that a very large number of American intellectuals were “under CIA dominance and control” and/or “CIA discipline”? Not everyone was scandalized by the revelation that the CIA was involved with these groups. Historian Theodore Draper, for example, called it “the only enlightened thing the CIA ever did.”12 In 1998, philosopher and all-purpose liberal Richard Rorty—whose father belonged to the Congress for Cultural Freedom and coauthored a book on McCarthy sponsored by the ACCF—expressed a similar view: “When in 1967 Lasch triumphantly proclaimed that the CIA’s connection with the pre-Sixties Left showed how bankrupt the reformist Left had proved to be, I could not see what he was making such a fuss about” (Rorty 1998, 63–64). The con›ict between the anti-Communists and McWilliams and his cohort would continue for decades. In 1979, Schlesinger reviewed The Education of Carey McWilliams and argued that its author’s view of the cold war was incorrigible. The idea that it was possible to be both anti-Stalin and anti-McCarthy— indeed that no other position was conceivable for a truly independent American liberal or radical—eluded him at the time and eludes him still . . . The Soviet Union is a dim abstraction for him, evidently not worth the bother of thinking about. He mentions Stalin only as a leader wronged by the United States. The criticism blends accurate observation and misleading characterization. It is true that McWilliams’s memoir mentions Stalin only in passing, but nowhere in his extensive corpus did McWilliams depict the Soviet leader as a victim. Schlesinger may have assumed, with some justi‹cation, that McWilliams’s position resembled that of Freda Kirchwey, who was not The Vile Decade


a Communist but believed that Soviet repression was a painful transition stage in the historical development of Communism (Alpern et al. 1992, 167). As the special issue of the Nation demonstrated, Kirchwey could still write of the great tide of revolutionary change sweeping the world. McWilliams’s chief concern, however, was mitigating the cold war’s domestic effects. McWilliams rarely criticized the Soviet Union in print; likewise, many anti-Communist liberals declined to criticize McCarthy publicly. Schlesinger decried the ‹rst sort of silence, McWilliams the second. Ideology was one thing, due process another, and McWilliams’s longstanding interest in the latter was on display in his review of John Wexley’s The Judgment of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In 1950, the Rosenbergs and Morton Sobell were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage, and the high-pro‹le case resulted in the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953 and a thirty-year sentence for Sobell, part of which was spent on Alcatraz. The ‹rst paragraph of McWilliams’s August 1955 review showed a blend of concern and circumspection one rarely associates with the case. It was the essential tragedy of the Rosenberg-Sobell case that the American public never received a clear and timely statement of the facts, that is, of the way in which the case began and the strange sequences of events that took place before the trial. This was not exclusively the fault of the press nor can it be entirely explained in terms of mass hysteria. The defense left a great deal to be desired. Then, too, some of the facts did not come to light until much later. The factual pattern, moreover, was inherently complex; it was not easy then—it is not easy today—to get a clear view of the case. Nowhere in his review did McWilliams assert the innocence of the Rosenbergs. Rather, his interest was in the procedural irregularities that marked the case. Recognition that the handling of the Rosenberg-Sobell case, from its inception to the unseeming [sic] haste with which the ‹nal motions were disposed of, did not measure up to the standards of American justice will come slowly, painfully, one phase at a time, as the nightmare of fear and suspicion out of which it emerged is ‹nally dispelled. Although evidence obtained since the dissolution of the Soviet Union has persuaded most observers that Julius Rosenberg was a spy, McWilliams’s 204


contemporary conclusion warrants little or no retraction. His procedural concerns seem especially valid considering the slender evidence against Ethel Rosenberg, who was also executed after refusing to cooperate with prosecutors, and against Sobell, who took the Fifth Amendment during the trial and was released from federal prison in 1969. Those concerned about civil liberties during this time received little support from the Democratic Party. In 1952, the Nation touted William O. Douglas for president—he had written a New York Times Magazine piece on the dif‹culties radicals and their lawyers had in obtaining legal representation—before supporting the Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson. However, McWilliams was unimpressed with Stevenson, who “endorsed the Smith Act prosecutions, thought it was proper to discharge teachers tainted with heresy, and said we should continue to wage war in Korea ‘for as long we have to’” (ECM, 164). For McWilliams, the one bright spot of the mid-1950s was Earl Warren’s performance on the Supreme Court. Presidential candidate Eisenhower had promised his ‹rst appointment to Warren in return for the California governor’s support in the 1952 campaign. (Warren had won the California Republican primary as a favorite son candidate.) Although Eisenhower tried halfheartedly to renege on the deal when it became clear that the ‹rst appointee would serve as chief justice, Warren held Eisenhower to his promise and joined the Court in 1953. Under his leadership, it initiated a long series of consequential civil rights rulings beginning with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. For his part, Eisenhower famously called Warren’s appointment “the biggest damn fool thing I ever did.” McWilliams wrote in his memoir that “not even Joe McCarthy could have found much in Warren’s record as district attorney, attorney general, and governor in California to criticize, so how was Eisenhower to know that, unwittingly, he had made one of his best appointments?” (ECM, 165). McWilliams’s comment managed to praise Chief Justice Warren even as it retrospectively justi‹ed his earlier conviction that Governor Warren personi‹ed Smart Reaction.

THE FALL OF MCCARTHY As the Warren Court pushed the nation toward desegregation, McWilliams continued to rail against McCarthy and those who would The Vile Decade


accommodate him. A March 1954 piece in the Nation criticized Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens for his capitulation to McCarthy when his committee turned its gaze to alleged Communist sabotage in the armed services. McWilliams refused to attribute Stevens’s ineffectual performance to the notion that the army’s case was weak. McCarthy doesn’t care whether a case is strong or weak. He is always in complete control of the hearings and knows that his bluffs will not be called. He does not need to prove a charge; all he needs to do is whisper “communism” and even men sworn to uphold and protect the Constitution will act like so many sheep. According to McWilliams, however, there was another reason for the unwillingness to call McCarthy’s bluff: namely, a “gentlemen’s agreement”—the phrase recalls the 1947 Elia Kazan ‹lm dealing with antiSemitism—among top of‹cials that McCarthy’s work was necessary. McWilliams was impatient with that approach. What they want is a “nice” witch hunt, directed by men of decorum, subject to “proper rules” which make it possible to lynch a witness politely. On this score McCarthy is right: it is impossible to conduct a successful heresy hunt without using his methods. Only Allen Dulles had resisted McCarthy’s incursions when he “refused to permit McCarthy to muscle in on the operations of the Central Intelligence Agency.” By McWilliams’s account, even the New York Times had gone along with the gentlemen’s agreement when it compared the actions of the Subversives Activities Control Board favorably with “the irresponsible sideshows staged so frequently in Washington.” “What the Times was saying,” McWilliams remarked, “is simply that the hearings of the board have been ‘quiet,’ that is, they have not been conducted by high-powered medicine men like McCarthy.” Although no effective political opposition to McCarthy had yet appeared, McWilliams insisted that the junior senator from Wisconsin was vulnerable. McCarthy had no social program other than rooting out Communists, his foreign policy was to isolate America and then provoke a war with China, he had no deep support in the business community, and he lacked an effective organization.



Despite his latest and dizziest triumph, McCarthy lives on borrowed time. But so did Hitler—for years—until his backstage sponsors ‹nally overcame their distaste for his methods and placed him in power. And this too, could happen here, with or without gentlemen’s agreements. Here the allusions to fascism and anti-Semitism, which McWilliams often con›ated, echoed some of his earliest political writing. McWilliams was correct that McCarthy was living on borrowed time, but he may have underestimated the senator’s adversaries in government. When McCarthy accused Stevens and his aides of concealing evidence of espionage activities at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, the army (with backstage help from the Eisenhower administration) accused McCarthy and his staff of seeking preferential treatment for a former consultant to the subcommittee, then a private in the army and a close friend of McCarthy’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn. After widely publicized hearings, McCarthy and his aides were cleared of the army’s charges, but McCarthy’s reputation never recovered from his televised encounter with army counsel Joseph Welch. When McCarthy took an impromptu swipe at a young lawyer at Welch’s law ‹rm, Welch’s famous riposte—“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”—‹nally succeeded in shaming McCarthy publicly. The junior colleague, whom Welch referred to repeatedly as a “lad,” belonged to the National Lawyers Guild, which McCarthy said was named “years and years ago as the legal bulwark of the Communist Party.” Before the hearing, Cohn had agreed not to raise the National Lawyers Guild point in exchange for Welch’s silence on Cohn’s draft status, but McCarthy intervened on his own. “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness,” Welch responded. The hearings concluded eight days later. In November, the Democrats regained control of Congress, and when the Senate censured McCarthy the following month, his power diminished steadily until his death three years later, at the age of forty-eight, of liver disease brought on by alcoholism. McCarthy’s censure may have come as a relief to the Nation’s staff, but by that time, the magazine’s of‹cers were involved in what McWilliams described as “one of the zaniest episodes of the McCarthy years” (ECM, 186). In April 1954, the magazine published Frank Donner’s “The Informer,” which described the system used to investigate radicals. Donner

The Vile Decade


and then McWilliams were subsequently contacted by Harvey Matusow, a professional anti-Communist witness who was preparing a manuscript on the same subject called “Blackmail Was My Business.” McWilliams suggested that Matusow see R. Lawrence Siegel, the Nation’s attorney, who was representing clients who might have been interested in Matusow’s recantations. One conversation between the two men occurred in a restaurant near Siegel’s of‹ce, where Siegel was dining with one of his private clients, actress Gloria Swanson. Matusow joined their dinner and proceeded to describe his experiences as an informer. McWilliams ultimately decided not to publish Matusow’s manuscript, but the book-length version was picked up by Angus Cameron, who had formed his own company with Albert Kahn after being forced out of his position at Little, Brown and Company. The title of Matusow’s book, False Witness, shrewdly echoed the biblical commandment as well as Whittaker Chambers’s best-selling Witness of 1952. In a double irony, Matusow had once worked for Counterattack, whose pursuit of Cameron had brought about his ouster at Little, Brown and Company, and Chambers was represented by McWilliams’s agent, Maxim Lieber, with whom Chambers had reportedly performed underground work on behalf of the Communist Party in the 1930s (Weinstein 1978, 127–30). When the publication of False Witness was announced at a press conference in February 1955, Attorney General Brownell was concerned that Matusow’s revelations would weaken several pending cases. Five days after the press conference, Brownell announced that a New York grand jury would investigate a conspiracy to undermine the informer system. At the same time, but independent of the Matusow affair, Toledo businessman Edward Lamb was facing charges that he had falsely denied membership in the Communist Party in applying for a renewal of his radio and television station licenses. McWilliams put Lamb in touch with Matusow, who had worked brie›y for the Ohio Un-American Activities Committee. By doing so, McWilliams drew Brownell’s attention to the Nation, which had run two articles on Lamb’s dif‹culties, and its alleged role in the alleged conspiracy to undermine the informer system. Later, a witness in Lamb’s Federal Communications Commission hearing, Marie Natvig, recanted her testimony against him. The Department of Justice indicted her for perjury—not for the putatively false original testimony, but for allegedly lying in her recantation (Navasky 1980, 41). 208


For several months, the Nation’s staff was preoccupied with the investigation and its potential repercussions. In March 1955, the grand jury received testimony from McWilliams, Siegel, Freda Kirchwey, and Martin Solow, the Nation’s business manager. Siegel later found himself in legal trouble when his memorandum to the grand jury failed to mention that Swanson was present at one of his meetings with Matusow, but eventually the grand jury hearings were phased out, and Matusow served a three-year sentence for perjury following his recantations. In McWilliams’s view, Matusow was prosecuted for ‹nally telling the truth, whereas dozens of other informers who had given false testimony—he singled out Elizabeth Bentley—“managed to lead charmed lives” (ECM, 189). In fact, Bentley died at age ‹fty-‹ve of heart disease, whereas Matusow went on to lead a colorful life as a self-acknowledged hustler. Before his death in 2002, he was married twelve times to eleven wives, one of whom was the wealthy exwife of a congressman. Matusow also invented the Wheelo (a stringless yoyo that became a best-selling toy in the late 1950s), converted to Mormonism, and worked as a journalist, actor, and professional clown.

CAREY MCWILLIAMS, EDITOR In 1955, Kirchwey retired and named McWilliams editor of the Nation. McWilliams explained the change to one ‹nancial backer as follows: “For a variety of reasons—principally having to do with accumulated psychological fatigue—[Kirchwey] wants to pass on the major responsibility for the paper to me.” If she was forced to seek an outside buyer for the Nation, the magazine “would be sold to a rival publication and liquidated” (Alpern 1987, 229). For the transfer to take place, however, McWilliams needed to raise eighty thousand dollars in sixty days. He had raised ‹fty-‹ve thousand dollars and was about to give up when he learned that George Kirstein, an insurance executive whom he had met only once before, had recently retired and was looking for a new endeavor. A Harvard graduate and former executive secretary of the War Labor Board, Kirstein had excellent contacts and a long-standing interest in public affairs. He was also sympathetic to the liberal tradition of the Nation, and after several meetings, he agreed to take over as publisher. McWilliams used the occasion to insist that two of the Nation’s legal actions be dismissed: the libel case against the New The Vile Decade


Leader and a lawsuit to restore the magazine to the library racks of New York City’s schools. The latter had been brought after the New York City Board of Education banned the Nation following a series of articles on the Catholic Church in 1948. (That ban was eventually lifted in 1963.) As the ‹nal details of the transfer were being worked out, McWilliams had lunch in New York with Bartley Crum, the San Francisco attorney who had represented members of the Hollywood Ten. Crum had relocated to New York City to operate PM (which he renamed the Star), but the newspaper folded shortly thereafter. McWilliams had known him from the National Lawyers Guild in the 1930s; since then, the FBI had investigated Crum, tapped his telephone, and placed him on its Security Index, which meant he would be subject to detention in case of national emergency. McWilliams’s memoir recalls their lunch conversation. In the course of a rambling discussion of our experiences on both coasts in the domestic Cold War, in which we fancied ourselves veterans, Bart suddenly exclaimed, “And to think that we have survived ten years of this!” (ECM, 192) Crum’s comment caused McWilliams to re›ect on the dif‹culties of the previous decade. “But the mere fact that we had been able to survive that long offered some assurance,” McWilliams wrote (ECM, 192). Crum’s survival was short-lived, however. Having informed on two known Communists, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and burdened by drug and alcohol problems, Crum committed suicide in 1959, a fact that McWilliams’s memoir passes over in silence. In his new role at the Nation, McWilliams experimented with a column, “Off the Editor’s Spike,” which resembled his “Tides West” column for Westways in the 1930s. He combed through newspapers looking for interesting topics and then devoted anywhere from one to three paragraphs to each item. Later he dropped the column and put his long-standing penchant for newspaper clipping to other uses, sending story ideas to potential contributors along with envelopes stuffed with relevant newspaper articles. According to Leonard Downie Jr., now executive editor at the Washington Post, this method was both cumulative and systematic. Whenever he found something signi‹cant or troubling in the mail, newspapers, journals, popular magazines, Congressional Records, books, 210


and other material that regularly came across his desk, he tucked them away in a particular ‹le folder in one of the cabinets, until they began forming what McWilliams recognized as an alarming pattern still unnoticed by the rest of the media. He then wrote or telephoned one of the devoted newspapermen and free-lance writers who have periodically done articles for him for relatively little money. (Downie 1976, 202–3) When sending along these packets to contributors, McWilliams rarely included explicit instructions. “He’d suggest questions,” journalist Bernard Nossiter said, “but carefully avoided steering you in any direction” (Downie 1976, 203). Later, McWilliams followed a similar method for commissioning unsigned editorials, for which he paid between ten and ‹fteen dollars. Ed Cray, at that time a freelance journalist, later recalled that even this meager commission could cover a week’s worth of groceries.13 As editor, McWilliams made a habit of supporting young writers. Gene Marine, the Nation’s West Coast correspondent during the 1950s, recalled that McWilliams made only slight changes to his copy but frequently returned written responses to Marine’s submissions that exceeded the length of the submissions themselves. Like other young writers, Marine appreciated the attention and used it to generate new material. Marine’s 1956 piece on Richard Nixon, for example, grew out of a short conversation with McWilliams. “I really hate the guy,” Marine told McWilliams. “Everyone does,” McWilliams replied. “I wonder why?” Marine’s subsequent article, “What’s Wrong with Nixon? Public Life of a Cardboard Hero,” answered that question, though Marine himself came to prefer Michael Straight’s pithier answer in the New Republic: “Everyone hates a guy who uses a knife in a ‹st‹ght.”14 Another young contributor, historian Howard Zinn, also recalled that McWilliams showed little interest in putting his stamp on the work of others. “He gave you the bene‹t of the doubt. His attitude was, ‘It’s your story, and I’m not going to interfere.’”15 Financial necessity was another reason to develop young writers. The Nation could not consistently attract high-priced talent, and this fact converted McWilliams into a talent scout. When Dan Wake‹eld began to contribute to the Nation in the 1950s, the going rate for an article was forty dollars, but he later arranged a six-story series, written from Israel, at one hundred dollars per story. He cut the deal with Kirstein, however, and when McWilliams issued the ‹rst check for forty dollars, Wake‹eld The Vile Decade


reminded him of their arrangement. McWilliams reissued the check but advised Wake‹eld that the Nation should not be mistaken for the Saturday Evening Post.16 Stanley Meisler remembers receiving seventy-‹ve dollars per piece—“about the same rate that Henry James got from the Nation in 1870, when he could live for a month in Paris on that.”17 By the 1960s, contributors were receiving one hundred dollars per article, but Howard Zinn’s ‹rst piece for Harper’s, which preceded his work for the Nation, fetched ‹ve times that much. Even today, the Nation is not known for its largesse; Calvin Trillin jokes that his going rate per contribution is “in the high two ‹gures.”18 Besides developing new talent, McWilliams’s other great editorial accomplishment was the revival of muckraking that he initiated in his ‹rst decade on the job. That journalistic tradition had lain dormant for decades before historian James Playsted Wood pronounced it dead in 1956. Overcoming signi‹cant obstacles—chief among them the Nation’s short format and small budget—McWilliams sponsored an impressive body of investigative reporting at a magazine known primarily as a journal of opinion. His chief vehicle for this work was the special issue of the sort he had edited in 1952 on civil liberties. Kirchwey held such issues in check during her tenure, but soon after he became editor, McWilliams devoted an entire issue to reconsidering the case against Alger Hiss, whom McWilliams considered innocent. On Bernard Nossiter’s suggestion, McWilliams approached New York journalist Fred Cook, a rewrite man at the conservative New York World Telegram and Sun, and asked him to review the evidence McWilliams had accumulated. In a 1999 interview, Cook recounted their conversations. I had done some reporting on the William Remington case, which was similar to the Hiss case, and Carey had read the articles. One day, I had just gotten back from lunch and was sitting at the rewrite desk when the phone rang. It was Carey. He wanted to know if I would do an article for him on Alger Hiss. I said. “My God, no, Carey. I think he’s as guilty as hell. I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.” Ten days or so later he called again. “I was wondering if you had any second thoughts about the case.” “No, I haven’t thought any more about it.” “Ok, I thought I would check.” Two weeks later, he called a third time. “Look, I have a proposition to make you. I know how you feel about the case, but I’ve talked to a lot of people who I trust. They say if anybody looked hard at the evidence they’d have a different opinion. You’re known as a fact man. Will 212


you do this for me? No obligation. Will you at least look at the facts?” He had me by the short hairs. How can a journalist who prides himself on being a good fact researcher refuse to even look? So I said, “All right. It won’t change my mind, but I’ll look.” Of course, as soon as I looked and really dug into it, I began to shake my head and say, “Jesus Christ, what is this?”19 Cook then considered the project’s potential effects on his career and personal life. Before I made my ‹nal decision to write about the case, I had this discussion back and forth with myself. I said, “Look, Fred, if you do this you’re probably going to lose your job because the Hiss case is the prize exhibit of Roy Howard [the owner of the Telegram]. What is in your background that they can go after?” I thought about that. “Well, I’ve never run around with women. I’ve always been faithful to my wife. And I’ve never taken dirty money from anybody either to kill a story or write a story. So, I don’t see how I can be attacked even though I will be.” And then I began to get mad. I thought, What the hell kind of country do we live in if an honest journalist can’t write a story that he feels has to be told without subjecting himself to harassment and being ‹red from his job? I kept getting madder and madder until I ‹nally said, “That’s it, I’m going to write it.” So I called Carey, and I said, “Look, this isn’t a 1000 word essay. It’s got to have space.” And he said that was ‹ne, and he would give me the whole magazine, which he did. After six weeks of writing—Cook was renowned for his quick, accurate composition and revision—he delivered the special issue in 1957. The book-length version, The Un‹nished Case of Alger Hiss, appeared the following year. Cook recalled “an explosion of publicity because this kind of thing just wasn’t being done in that period.” Cook was ‹red from the Telegram, the FBI began gathering information on him, and his mail was opened through the late 1970s. Even so, he maintained that writing the story was the best thing he ever did. For his part, McWilliams continued to feature the Hiss case in editorials, articles, and one additional special issue. As late as 1973, McWilliams asked in the pages of the Nation whether President Nixon would exonerate Hiss. His intense and long-standing interest in the Hiss case prompted one historian to observe, “McWilliams has served as Zola to ‘the American Dreyfus’” (Weinstein 1978, 514). Cook delivered another special issue (on William Remington) in 1957 and went on to write or coauthor at least one such issue per year on such The Vile Decade


topics as the FBI (1958), political corruption in New York City (1959), organized crime and gambling (1960), the warfare state (1961), the CIA (1962), the rise of radical right-wing groups (1962), business and government corruption (1963), and the trial of Jimmy Hoffa (1964). By the Nation’s standards, the special issues sold well, and Cook typically parlayed his long articles into books. Moreover, the special issues on the FBI and CIA represented the only sustained efforts to critique those agencies and their activities before the 1970s. In terms of method, Cook was no Ambrose Bierce; instead of personally confronting J. Edgar Hoover or Robert Moses on the steps of an August public building, Cook amassed and sifted through records and other written sources and then wove them into an accurate and compelling story. In addition to producing Cook’s reports and other special issues, the Nation published many notable pieces of investigative journalism during this time. One was a 1953 piece on smoking and lung cancer; another was a 1959 article on automobile safety by Harvard law student Ralph Nader, whose book on the subject, Unsafe at Any Speed, would appear six years later. By the late 1960s, several mainstream news organizations were rediscovering investigative journalism, and soon a new generation of muckrakers emerged, including Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Tad Szulc, and Seymour Hersh. Television also began doing more investigative journalism; in September 1968, CBS launched 60 Minutes, the ‹rst television magazine. Eventually, the Nation could not match the efforts of its betterfunded competitors, but McWilliams took special pride in the magazine’s almost solitary muckraking efforts through the mid-1960s. Shortly after McWilliams retired from the Nation, Washington Post columnist Nicholas von Hoffman complimented McWilliams’s journalistic compass: “Other editors try to ‹nd out what the trend of the moment is and then get with it. McWilliams doesn’t cash in on trends, he makes them” (Downie 1976, 204).

CIVIL RIGHTS REDUX As McWilliams settled in as editor, he received his ‹rst visit from Wake‹eld, a young reporter for a New Jersey newspaper. Wake‹eld offered to cover the Emmet Till murder case in exchange for a round-trip bus 214


ticket to Mississippi. In August 1955, the fourteen-year-old Till had been sent from Chicago to visit relatives near Money, Mississippi. While there, he allegedly used sexual language while speaking to a twenty-one-year-old white woman working in a country store owned by her husband, Roy Bryant. Till disappeared a few days later, and his corpse was later found wired to a factory fan on the bottom of a river. He had been severely beaten and shot in the head. Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, were tried and acquitted by an all-white jury, but they later sold their story of murdering Till to Look magazine for four thousand dollars. McWilliams had asked Murray Kempton to cover the trial, but the Post had already hired him for that job. Kempton recommended Wake‹eld, whom Kempton had noticed after Wake‹eld reviewed his book on the 1930s. As it turned out, Wake‹eld’s price was right. Bus ticket in hand, he traveled to Mississippi, ‹led a story in October, and soon became a regular contributor to the Nation. Two months later, the national media covered another story in the South when Montgomery, Alabama, authorities arrested Rosa Parks for refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger as required by a local ordinance. The Supreme Court struck down the ordinance the following year, but Parks’s trial led to the Montgomery bus boycott, the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and the emergence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a national leader on civil rights. In the summer of 1956, McWilliams responded by publishing a special issue of the Nation, “Time to Kill Jim Crow: The Negro, the South and the Coming Election.” His introductory essay, “Enforce the Constitution,” began by noting that the 1956 election offered voters “an extraordinary opportunity to set the stage for a full, ‹nal emancipation of the southern Negro.” In his view, the chief obstacle to that emancipation was the gradualist path touted by moderate whites in the South. That sort of moderation, McWilliams argued, was temporizing at best, and he quoted Thurgood Marshall on that point: “One group says let’s violate the law. The other groups say, let’s follow the law. Well, who’s in-between?” McWilliams took the point a step further: “There is something cowardly about the suggestion that the Constitution should be ‘gradually’ enforced by ‘moderate’ means.” He closed his piece with a moral call to arms: “This year voters have a clear moral duty to insist that both parties take a ‹rm stand on the one issue The Vile Decade


about which it is immoral to be moderate.” Paradoxically, the exhortation pre‹gured Barry Goldwater’s famous remark at the 1964 Republican National Convention that moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue. However, Goldwater’s opposition to civil rights legislation during this time remained the best proof that the two men’s political views, if not their formulations, diverged sharply. McWilliams’s exhortation was designed to challenge the expected outcome of the 1956 Democratic National Convention the following month: namely, a stunning triumph for moderation. The party’s plank on civil rights, which rejected all proposals for the use of force, condemned extralegal violence in the South but also signaled the party’s unwillingness to enforce court-ordered desegregation with troops and bayonets. The plank’s wording re›ected the perceived need to accommodate the Dixiecrats, whose power had waned but whom the Democrats still needed to maintain a majority in Congress. Although the Dixiecrats had not seriously discussed a defection in 1956, few major Democrats were eager to push them on civil rights. McWilliams considered this accommodation self-defeating but remained hopeful that the Democratic Party could eventually lead the nation. This hope was redeemed not in 1956, when Eisenhower routed Stevenson, but in the Democratic victories of November 1958, when McWilliams observed, “After a decade of benumbing cold-war politics, domestic witchhunting, of stagnation and complacency, a new political consciousness is beginning to assert itself, a new mood is seeking to ‹nd expression.” In California, that mood led to the election of Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, who became the state’s second Democratic governor in the twentieth century— after Culbert Olson. Taking over from conservative Goodwin Knight, Brown immediately began building the highways, aqueducts, schools, and universities that would sustain the state’s startling economic growth for another generation.

CURTAIN CALLS IN CALIFORNIA McWilliams was hopeful about California politics, but not all was well with his friends and family there. While passing through Los Angeles in 1955, McWilliams had learned that John Fante, by then a father of four, 216


had been diagnosed with diabetes. Pushing on to northern California, where Ross Wills had retired from the motion picture business, McWilliams commiserated with his old friend in a San Francisco bar. As McWilliams and Wills pondered Fante’s diagnosis, their waiter left their table twice without an order. Finally, the two men returned to form. As Wills described it in a letter to Fante, Then we got to remembering the occasions when the martinis and cocktails piled up by the dozen, or the empty scotch and bourbon bottles burdened the sink, and we started ordering again and sort of taking on your share . . . At 9 p.m. I drove [McWilliams] thru the rain to the airport and poured him on the plane for N.Y. (Cooper 2000, 251) By 1958, however, Fante reported that he was feeling great, watching his diet, and laying off the alcohol. He admitted that he “got boiled New Year on champagne but it was not harmful and my blood sugar stayed down” (Fante 1991, 259). Fante’s career was also in good shape. After two decades of screenwriting, he had ‹nally struck gold with the ‹lm version of Full of Life. Although Fante was unimpressed with the book—he later wrote to McWilliams, “Full of Life was written for money. It is not a very good novel” (Fante 1991, 294)—its humor and strong characters helped make the ‹lm version his most memorable cinematic venture. Opening in 1956, the year of Mencken’s death, it starred Judy Holliday, who had already won an Oscar for her work in Born Yesterday, and Richard Conte, best known to later generations as Don Barzini in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). MGM released the picture in December, promoted it shrewdly, and did brisk business in early 1957. Even this sentimental comedy, however, could not completely escape the shadow of the Hollywood blacklist, which provided the subplot for that year’s screenwriting Oscars. In March 1957, the Writers Guild of America, which had nominated Full of Life for Best Written American Comedy, awarded Best Written American Drama to Michael Wilson for Friendly Persuasion; but Wilson’s blacklisted status made him ineligible for an Oscar under the Academy’s bylaws. The most unusual moment of the ceremony, however, occurred when the award for Best Original Story went to Robert Rich for The Brave One and no one came forward to claim the Oscar. In the end, Robert Rich turned out to be Hollywood Ten member The Vile Decade


Dalton Trumbo, who had evaded the blacklist by using the name of the producers’ nephew, an assistant bookkeeper. Trumbo, who later wrote the 1960 screenplay for Spartacus under his own name, eventually received his award for The Brave One in a 1975 special ceremony. If Fante was peaking, McWilliams’s mother was declining quickly. In March 1958, Casley called to report that Harriet, who was living with him and his wife, Kay, in Manhattan Beach, was nearing the end. On April 7, McWilliams received a call at 6:00 a.m.—“and I knew what it was before I answered,” he noted in his diary. “Kay was saying that Harriet had passed away about 2 or 3 a.m.” McWilliams was speechless. He ›ew to Los Angeles for the services: “Casley was there to meet me, shaken as I knew he would be.” After attending the services—“a terrible jolting experience”— he accompanied Harriet’s casket on the train to Denver, where she was interred. “Out the old familiar route,” McWilliams observed—past snowcapped Mt. Baldy and across the high desert, “watching signals change from green to red, watching re›ections of light on cars as they snaked along, around the bend, up the grades.” His reverie was cut short when he remembered that Harriet’s body was in the baggage car. “Her last trip home, poor dear, to Colorado. And all so ironic and meaningless and cruel” (Apr. 10, 1958). His description of the burial—“The casket was in place under a canopy or tent, as the sky was overcast. Flowers slightly wilted”—suggests keen, detached observation. After the service, a walk around Denver activated an old memory. “Visited old Standish Hotel . . . where we stayed our very ‹rst visit to the great city” (Apr. 12, 1958). When he returned to New York, his thoughts were on the next generation. “Jerry growing up fast,” he noted. “More self-assured.” Indeed, the fourteen-yearold was already thinking about his postsecondary education. “Jerry seems suddenly to have resolved the college situation: wants to go to Columbia. More ‘cosmopolitan,’ he says” (May 6, 1958). By any measure, the 1950s were rough on McWilliams, his family, his friends, and the Nation. In a 1960 address to the San Francisco chapter of the ACLU, he dubbed those years “The Vile Decade,” and he later admitted to some residual bitterness from that time. Yet he had not merely survived that trying decade. He had also assumed editorial control of a distinguished but beleaguered magazine, shepherded it through the most dif‹cult period of its lengthy history, and raised a host of important but 218


neglected issues in American public life. His wife and sons were also doing well. In Berkeley, Bill Carey’s graduate studies in political science were under way. Despite his parents’ steadfast secularism, Jerry would soon enter Harvard (not Columbia) to pursue his interest in music and theology. Iris was preparing for her own career as an author of young adult ‹ction, eventually producing two novels, Jeeny Ray (1962) and Boy Gravely (1965). Moreover, the resurgent Democratic Party was creating new opportunities for progress on the issues that most concerned McWilliams. As the 1960 elections approached, McWilliams’s cool but chronic optimism seemed well justi‹ed.

The Vile Decade




J U L Y 1 9 6 0 , McWilliams traveled to Los Angeles to cover the Democratic National Convention for the Nation. He had not been away from the city long, but it was still changing quickly. When Hollywood was a village and Westwood did not exist, McWilliams had plied the city’s boulevards, recording the strange mélange of images that washed over him, wondering about the locals on the trolley cars, and savoring the yellow blaze of wild mustard that grew in the open ‹elds between La Brea and Beverly Hills. Now the trolleys were gone, open space was evaporating, freeways honeycombed the sprawling metropolitan area, and the automobile was the region’s prime mover. In his address to the delegates, Senator John F. Kennedy alluded to the city’s rapid development, depicting Los Angeles as a frontier whose early residents had sacri‹ced “their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world.” Kennedy did not mention, however, the sacri‹ces that this new world demanded of its current residents. As the delegates gathered in the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, which resembled an enormous ›ying saucer, they were issued eye drops to help them cope with the effects of the city’s thick smog. The convention itself, McWilliams noted in his coverage, presented few novelties or surprises. Kennedy’s nomination was a foregone conclusion. Two other senators, Hubert Humphrey and Wayne Morse of Oregon, had offered only token opposition to Kennedy in the primaries, and Adlai Stevenson made little effort at the convention to rally his enthusiastic supporters. Hoping that Kennedy could not win on a ‹rst ballot, Senator Lyndon Johnson announced his candidacy only days before the convention. When it became clear that Kennedy had wrapped up the nomination, however, Johnson stayed behind the scenes. The only unanswered question was Kennedy’s choice for vice president, and Johnson con‹rmed his N


reputation as an expert in‹ghter when Kennedy added him to the ticket. Given Johnson’s strong, long-standing ties to leading segregationists in the South, that decision gave McWilliams pause. In “The Kennedys Take Over,” McWilliams credited Kennedy’s walkover to his political assets combined with weak leadership within the party. The Senator is an excellent campaigner, his attractive family constitute a distinct political asset, and his organization is a thing to marvel at. But while the Kennedys have scored a personal family triumph, they have also ‹lled an enormous leadership vacuum in the Democratic Party. The house was not vacant, but it was not defended; and the Kennedys, all of them, led by Jack and brother Bobby, simply moved in and took over. McWilliams wrote that Kennedy’s most direct appeal was to Catholics and young people, yet his typical supporter was not a youthful idealist. “The Kennedy ‘young men’ are young junior executives: they feel they have it made,” McWilliams observed. “They may be young in years and energy, but they are not young ideologically.” The young people in Los Angeles, he observed, were for Stevenson. Back on his old turf, McWilliams also called attention to a local story involving California governor Pat Brown. Brown should have run as a favorite son, McWilliams wrote, if only to unite the state’s divided delegation: “Solidly pledged to Brown, California alone could have stopped the Kennedy putsch.” In fact, Brown had laid the groundwork for a presidential or vice presidential bid, but he eventually endorsed Kennedy without releasing the state’s delegates. The result of this maneuver, which McWilliams described as an “inept political fan dance,” was that the state’s full strategic strength was never realized. In his report, McWilliams also credited the story circulating at the convention that Brown’s decision was the result of an earlier meeting with Kennedy’s father, Joseph Kennedy, at which it was agreed that Senator Kennedy would stay out of the California primary in exchange for Brown’s personal support. For McWilliams, the highlight of the convention was Eugene McCarthy’s nomination speech for Stevenson, which ‹red the audience but had no effect on the outcome. As for the party platform, McWilliams appraised it with the cool eye of a literary critic. It was “in many ways an 222 A M E R I C A N P R O P H E T

excellent document,” but “it reads as though two dozen precocious political science majors had pooled all their ‘bright’ ideas. It lacks selection, emphasis, vital relevance, organization and, on key issues, it is vaguer than need be.” In the end, McWilliams could muster only two cheers for “the hollow, synthetic quality of the Kennedy movement.” Later, he criticized both the unpleasant techniques used to advance Lyndon Johnson and Kennedy’s “empty, pretentious, and imitative” language (ECM, 257). Some of McWilliams’s misgivings about the Democratic nominee can be ascribed to his feelings about Robert Kennedy, who managed his brother’s campaign and later served as attorney general. During the height of the Red Scare, Robert Kennedy had worked as staff counsel for Senator Joseph McCarthy; later, he conducted an aggressive investigation of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa and stalled progress on civil rights by nominating Harold Cox for a federal judgeship in Mississippi. (Cox would later call black defendants chimpanzees from the bench.) None of these achievements recommended him to McWilliams, and when Robert Kennedy ran for the Senate in New York in 1964, McWilliams joined a group of liberals and leftists—including I. F. Stone, Richard Hofstadter, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Nat Hentoff, and Paul Newman—that supported Republican incumbent Kenneth Keating (New‹eld 2003, 152–53). An unsigned editorial in the Sept. 14, 1964, issue of the Nation reviewed the records of both candidates unenthusiastically before recoiling from Robert Kennedy’s political ambition: “What should defeat him is his patent attempt to use the Senate seat, to use the New York electorate to further his grandiose ambitions, and to do this in a hard-boiled, almost insolent fashion.” Later, McWilliams called his endorsement of Keating a protest against “the way in which Kennedy by barging into New York politics had kept Robert Wagner from being elected to the Senate seat his father had once held. In our view Wagner would have made the better senator” (ECM, 281). However, McWilliams also mentioned Kennedy’s connection to Joseph McCarthy and the tactics used to “get Hoffa.” McWilliams was no more enthusiastic about the Kennedy administration than he was about the campaign. When President Kennedy authorized a halfhearted invasion of Cuba in the ‹rst months of his presidency, McWilliams was not surprised. During his televised debates with Republican opponent Richard Nixon, Kennedy had sought to bolster his credentials as a cold warrior by advocating a U.S. intervention in Cuba. But the The Age of Nixon 223

prospect of invading Cuba was more than exuberant campaign rhetoric. In November 1960, McWilliams learned that the CIA was training a guerrilla force in Guatemala for that purpose, and the Nation ran an editorial that month calling for the administration to “abandon this dangerous and hairbrained [sic] project.” Later, the New York Times acknowledged the existence of the base but reported that its purpose was to train forces to defend Guatemala against an invasion by Cuba (Jan. 10, 1961). After the invasion was repelled in the Bay of Pigs ‹asco, Kennedy complained privately to Turner Catledge of the New York Times that the paper’s coverage had amounted to a premature disclosure of security information. Catledge reminded Kennedy that the information had already appeared in the Nation and even earlier in La Hora, a Guatemalan newspaper. Kennedy replied, “But it was not news until it appeared in The Times” (ECM, 229). McWilliams included this exchange in his own memoir, perhaps to establish the Nation’s prophetic status. Insightful, even prescient, the magazine was ignored by U.S. policymakers unless it somehow managed to in›uence the newspaper of record. When the internal memos about the Cuban invasion were made public in the 1970s, McWilliams singled out Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s role in the preplanning. Interviewed by Los Angeles journalist Derek Shearer, McWilliams continued the sniping that had begun in the early 1950s. Schlesinger has tried to do a turn, a real turn, since the CIA disclosures, and all that’s known about the Bay of Pigs and his role in that, sitting there feeding Kennedy suggested alternative scenarios—all the rest of it. He was caught with his trousers down, and he’s now trying to offset that. They all are. They’re all running for cover. You know, in those days Schlesinger spoke the language of McCarthyism with a Harvard accent. McWilliams’s memoir goes further: “A series of preinvasion memos which Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., then a top aide, prepared for President Kennedy clearly anticipated the Watergate ethic” (ECM, 227). Returning the favor, Schlesinger panned McWilliams’s memoir in the New York Times Book Review. Although McWilliams remained unenthusiastic about President Kennedy and his policies, he was shocked by Kennedy’s assassination. His diary entry for November 22, 1963, which he labeled “Black Friday,” recorded the exact local time of Kennedy’s death and his own location— 224


the Humpty Dumpty coffee shop in New York—when he heard the news. Three days later, with Lee Harvey Oswald also dead, McWilliams recoiled from the tableau in Dallas, where of‹cials were “on TV re-establishing the terrible image of Big D . . . I don’t like those Texas voices nor do I like the white Stetsons—they’re trigger-happy, paranoid about ideas, and generally stupid” (Nov. 25, 1963). It was the harsh assessment of a grieving citizen who, even in less catastrophic times, harbored a low opinion of the region. He later described the Kennedy assassination as a key national event. “Measured in terms of political impact, the ri›e shots ‹red at Dallas had the explosive force of a nuclear blast,” he noted in his memoir. “The initial reaction was a combination of shock, sorrow, dismay, fear, rage, panic, and deep national concern. Overnight the popular mood changed from exuberance to paranoia” (ECM, 258).

WATCHING THE REPUBLICANS If McWilliams was uncharmed by Kennedy, he was even less impressed with Kennedy’s Republican opponent in 1960. Yet Richard Nixon had come a long way since 1950, when McWilliams described him as a “distinctly third-rate Thomas Dewey.” After short stints in the House and Senate, Nixon served two terms as Eisenhower’s vice president before garnering the Republican presidential nomination. McWilliams wrote no signed pieces about Nixon or his narrow loss in 1960, but when Nixon reemerged as the Republican nominee for California governor in 1962, McWilliams pro‹led him in the Nation. In “Has Success Spoiled Dick Nixon?” McWilliams suggested that Nixon was not a political personality so much as a list of political strategies. As in 1952, the faceless, amoral Nixon is still on the make, still “‹ghting communism,” still full of tricks, haunted as always by the lack of selfknowledge, of identity, that makes everything he says sound empty of meaning and turns everything he touches into putty. Noting that Nixon’s decision to run for California governor was “a desperate gamble,” McWilliams predicted, “If he is defeated in November, he is through. True, he may retain an in›uence, even a major one, in the Republican Party; but as a Presidential contender he will have had it.” The Age of Nixon 225

After losing to incumbent Pat Brown, Nixon seemed to agree with McWilliams’s assessment, famously remarking in a postelection press conference at the Beverly Hilton that the newspapers “won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” McWilliams quickly made that speech the basis for a follow-up piece, “Mr. Nixon and the Press,” in which he pointed out the irony of Nixon’s remarks. From the beginning, McWilliams claimed, Nixon’s remarkable career had depended heavily on “the well-known incapacity of the press to resist the news bait of ‘charges’ and ‘denunciations.’” McWilliams maintained that Nixon had exploited this weakness to defeat Jerry Voorhis, to persecute Alger Hiss, and to triumph over Helen Gahagan Douglas. For McWilliams, however, the deeper irony lay in another Nixon comment: “And I can only say thank God for television and radio for keeping the newspapers a little more honest.” Certainly television had helped Nixon on various occasions, most notably in the case of the so-called Checkers speech of 1952, when Nixon went on air to defend himself against charges of ‹nancial improprieties. Yet this reference to television, McWilliams argued, expressed a deep delusion. But it was television that, in a famous Presidential campaign debate, revealed to the American people more sharply than the press had ever succeeded in doing, and in a matter of minutes, the real Nixon: not the black-jowled villain of the Herblock cartoons, or the haloed hero of the far Right, but an empty, faceless, insecure, weak, almost abject opportunist striving mightily, with no sense of values and a most uncertain sense of self-identity, to claw his way to the top by fair means or foul. In brief, Mr. Nixon is an American tragedy in the classic pattern, but it took television to reveal the truth. McWilliams was not alone in this view. As David Greenberg notes in his study of Nixon’s image, many liberals in the 1950s thought that the American public was vulnerable to what they regarded as Nixon’s phony populism and demagoguery. After the televised debates, however, these liberals were relieved that “Americans were able to see through the scrim of appearances that Nixon draped before them and glimpse the heavy hand of the petty striver pulling the strings” (2003, 71). But as Greenberg also observes, that account overlooks how close the 1960 presidential election actually was. If we accept McWilliams’s view, almost half the voters in that



election, having learned the truth about Nixon, preferred a weak, insecure, nihilistic opportunist to an excellent campaigner with a powerful organization and an attractive family. Moreover, McWilliams’s prediction before the 1962 gubernatorial election was well off the mark. Even after his loss to Pat Brown, Richard Nixon was far from through politically. Once again, McWilliams had underestimated Nixon’s resourcefulness if not his ambition. Following the California election, McWilliams continued to monitor the Republican Party and its leaders, paying special attention to their rising in›uence in “the sunshine belt” stretching from Cape Canaveral to San Diego. Fueled by federal contracts in the aerospace industry, business in the Sun Belt was booming, and its leaders were becoming less reliant on the Eastern Establishment for support. The region was prime habitat for Goldwater Republicans, and McWilliams quickly perceived the long-term signi‹cance of the Arizona senator’s 1964 presidential campaign. To many, Barry Goldwater’s positions on immigration and school prayer, not to mention his failure to court labor, blacks, and liberal Republicans, were not calculated to win a general election. McWilliams, however, saw a larger strategy behind them. In “High Noon in the Cow Palace”—the GOP convention that year was held in the San Francisco arena—McWilliams wrote about Goldwater. He wants the liberals out of the party the better to get the conservative Democrats in. On balance, he feels that he would gain by the exchange, but he also feels that undisputed control of the Republican Party would in any case be a tactical advantage worth the price. This swap was made easier by the civil rights legislation President Johnson signed after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Johnson knew the resulting white backlash could hurt the Democratic Party in the South, but McWilliams correctly observed that nondiscriminatory housing legislation would also have signi‹cant consequences in California. McWilliams also took note of Goldwater’s organization and the true believers within it. “The Kennedy organization at Los Angeles, in 1960, was impressive, but this one is awesome,” he claimed. “It will not disintegrate even if Goldwater suffers a smashing defeat.” Its goal was not a victory in 1964 but party control and increasing power as the nation’s population, moving inexorably south and

The Age of Nixon 227

west, became more conservative. “In one form or another,” McWilliams concluded, “the consequences of the hard turn to the Right, which the Republican Party has taken, will be with us for a long time.” That prediction would be borne out most clearly in the career of Ronald Reagan, who in 1966 challenged Pat Brown’s bid for a third term as California governor. By that time, McWilliams had known Reagan for decades. In 1946, Reagan participated in the Los Angeles fund-raiser that McWilliams had organized for the Nation, and the two men had fought on the same side of the Hollywood labor battles going back to the Willie Bioff days. Even then, Reagan was showing more than a passing interest in politics, contemplating congressional runs in 1946 and 1952. In 1947, the Screen Actors Guild elected him president for the ‹rst of six times. The same year, he cooperated with both the FBI and HUAC in their closeddoor investigations of Communism in Hollywood, and the following year he testi‹ed in a HUAC open hearing. For most of the 1950s, he hosted television’s General Electric Theater and toured the country on General Electric’s behalf. During this time, he became a practiced and sought-after speaker, and his politics became increasingly conservative. A Truman supporter in 1948, Reagan supported Nixon in 1960 and offered to register as a Republican, but GOP leaders agreed that he was more useful to them as a Democrat. Two years later, he of‹cially became a Republican, and after his speech at the Republican National Convention in 1964, many considered him a rising star in the party (Cannon 2003). McWilliams’s piece on the 1966 California gubernatorial election, “How to Succeed with the Backlash,” opened with a bold claim: “California is in the throes of one of the most subtle and intensive racist political campaigns ever waged in a Northern or Western state.” For him, the election’s key issue was nondiscriminatory housing. The state legislature had passed the Rumford Fair Housing Act in 1963, but California voters used the state’s initiative process to pass Proposition 14, which disabled the housing legislation and prohibited future laws to the same effect. Although the fate of Proposition 14 was later settled in the courts, the issue reverberated through the 1966 gubernatorial contest. Brown referred the matter to a nonpartisan commission; Reagan decried racism but declared that “the right of an individual to the ownership and disposition of property is inseparable from the right of freedom itself.” Delivered to an audience of real



estate brokers, Reagan’s declaration received a standing ovation. Brown’s Democratic challenger in the primary, Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty, opposed Proposition 14 until it passed by a two-to-one margin. Seeking an advantage over Brown, Yorty then predicted that the California Supreme Court, to which Brown had appointed six of the seven justices, would invalidate the proposition, which it did. “Unless Governor Brown can ‹nd some potent issues to outweigh this obsessive fear of open housing,” McWilliams concluded, “he is in grave danger.” In any case, McWilliams added, the key issue in the election would receive no direct examination. There won’t be much plain talk from Californians about the racism that they know permeates the Brown-Reagan contest. Most of them won’t talk about it at all if they can escape it. They don’t want the nation to know—they don’t want to admit to themselves—that the number-one state may elect Ronald Reagan governor in order to “keep the Negro in his place.” Two years earlier, he had predicted a white backlash in California; now he was bracing himself and the Nation’s readers for its consequences. McWilliams’s piece identi‹ed a potent issue, but there was much more to the 1966 gubernatorial election than fair housing. California’s postwar growth had created a host of problems, including congestion, pollution, and high taxes to ‹nance Governor Brown’s ambitious public works and social programs. Facing a large de‹cit as well as a constitutional requirement to submit a balanced budget, Brown used an accounting gimmick to delay a tax increase until after the election, and the state’s reputable legislative analyst, A. Alan Post, publicly criticized the move as irresponsible. Another issue was law and order. In December 1964, protestors acting in the name of the Free Speech Movement had occupied the administration building at the University of California, Berkeley. Brown eventually ordered the California Highway Patrol to remove and arrest almost eight hundred protestors, but Reagan and others criticized him for dithering, and the campus protests continued to irk many residents throughout the state. The next summer, a more momentous challenge to social order arose in the predominantly black Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. After a routine arrest of a drunk driver spun out of control, six days of rioting, looting, and arson left thirty-four residents dead, more than one thousand

The Age of Nixon 229

injured, the neighborhood’s business district in ›ames, and white residents even more anxious about residential integration. Vacationing in Greece, Governor Brown was unable to provide leadership during the crisis. Meanwhile, labor actions were heating up in the San Joaquin Valley. In September 1965, the National Farm Worker Association endorsed an ongoing strike against thirty growers over the right to represent ‹eld-workers. The union’s leader, César Chávez, recruited student activists from Stanford and Berkeley and invited workers from the Congress of Racial Equality and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to organize the picket lines. In March 1966, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Farm Labor held hearings in Delano, where Kern County sheriff Roy Gaylen informed subcommittee member Robert Kennedy that picketers had been arrested and charged with unlawful assembly. As Gaylen explained, “The men right out there in the ‹eld that we were talking to said, ‘If you don’t get them out of here, we’re going to cut their hearts out.’ So rather than let them get cut, we removed the cause” (Dunne 1967, 29). That spring, Chávez led a twenty-‹ve-day, three-hundred-mile march from Delano to the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento, but Governor Brown was not there to meet him; instead, he was spending Easter weekend at Frank Sinatra’s house in Palm Springs. Reagan’s aides cringed when their candidate referred to the Chávez march as “an Easter-egg roll,” but Brown could not capitalize on the gaffe (Cannon 2003, 159). Reagan easily defeated Brown in the general election, and another Southern California Republican began his march to the presidency. The hard turn to the right McWilliams had noted in 1964—and partly ascribed to the decimation of the radical left in the 1950s—shaped the nation’s political life for decades. Between 1968 and 2000, only two Democrats would occupy the White House, and by the end of the century, conservatives would also control Congress and the Supreme Court.

THE NEW GENERATION As McWilliams monitored national politics from New York, Bill Carey was ‹nishing his graduate studies in political science at Berkeley and launching his academic career. Although most of his professors discouraged activism, he had become involved in Berkeley’s student party, SLATE, 230


which Tom Hayden later called the grandfather of the New Left. Because SLATE supported civil rights and opposed nuclear testing, the cold war, capital punishment, and HUAC, his participation led to several citations in the annual CUAC reports. In 1961, he accepted a teaching position at Oberlin College and began writing regularly for Commonweal. He also coauthored a piece for the Nation on campus politics with Steven Roberts, then editor at the Harvard Crimson. His byline on that piece, like the entries in the CUAC reports, was “Carey McWilliams, Jr.” Both the shared byline with Roberts and the moniker were his father’s ideas. From early childhood, the younger McWilliams had been going by the name Carey (without Junior), but both men agreed that some distinction had to be made between their names to avoid confusion. When he signed his subsequent work with the name Wilson Carey McWilliams, a rumor circulated that he and his father had clashed over the name issue. According to that rumor, Carey Sr. declared that he had spent decades building his own good name and insisted that his son make his own way. If the rumor was unfounded it was nevertheless true that McWilliams’s closest friends did not give him high marks as a parent. Although his diaries reveal his warm regard for his sons, he was often busy, had high expectations, and rarely expressed his affection directly. (According to Carey Jr., he was much more comfortable signaling intimacy with gentle teasing.) It was one longtime friend’s impression that McWilliams left it to Carey Jr. to reach out to him if he wished to have a closer relationship—not an easy task, especially after the move to New York. In 1967, Carey Jr. closed the geographical gap by accepting a faculty position at Brooklyn College. By that time, his ‹rst marriage had dissolved, and he had married Nancy Riley, a former student at Oberlin who would go on to become an accomplished psychotherapist and author. Three years later, he moved to Rutgers University, and in 1973, a year after his mother’s death, he published his ‹rst book, The Idea of Fraternity in America. Moving easily between the realms of political theory and American literature, that work focused on citizenship, community, and moral values—topics that Carey Sr. would later stress in the conclusion of his memoir. Although Carey Jr. dismissed the reports of his estrangement from his father as “indications of how enigmatic he was to most people and how little they understood him,” the rumors led some young writers to speculate that McWilliams’s interest in their careers was somehow compensatory.1 In fact, The Age of Nixon 231

the Nation’s spare budget made it necessary for McWilliams to recruit young, relatively unknown writers. For those seeking an active mentor, McWilliams could be a disappointment. Many who worked closely with him described him as gracious but reserved. For more than a decade, Robert Sherrill, the Nation’s Washington correspondent, spoke almost daily with McWilliams on the telephone; he admired him personally and was one of only four speakers at McWilliams’s memorial service in New York City. In a recent interview, however, Sherrill noted that he and McWilliams were not particularly close. McWilliams had sent Sherrill few letters aside from story ideas and newspaper clippings, and they had met only twice—once in New York and once in Washington, where they dined with I. F. Stone.2 In Somebody’s Gotta Tell It, New York journalist Jack New‹eld recalls an even greater distance between McWilliams and himself. In his memoir, The Education of Carey McWilliams, Carey described me as a contributor and as a door-opener to a new generation. But the truth was I was never able to form a strong bond with him. He was an aloof and formal man, whose strength was his intransigent radicalism on the big issues like McCarthyism, civil rights, and Vietnam. (New‹eld 2003, 115) Although they met frequently during the 1960s, New‹eld never visited McWilliams’s home—indeed, he had no idea where McWilliams lived— and their meetings highlighted the differences between their worlds. At the Village Voice, where New‹eld worked, the of‹ce was likely to be occupied by people “smoking dope and listening to the Rolling Stones.” But crossing over to the Nation’s of‹ce “was like walking into the 1930s.”3 Even the Nation’s musty of‹ce at 333 Sixth Avenue (two blocks from the Voice) felt like a relic. An old-fashioned switchboard sat in the outer of‹ce, and you had to take a rickety freight elevator up to the fourth ›oor. I used to joke that I feared getting black lung every time I went up to that of‹ce, where dust seemed to drift like snow through the dirty Venetian blinds. (115) Judging from this description, the Nation’s of‹ce seemed as old-fashioned to New‹eld as McWilliams’s ‹rst law of‹ce in Los Angeles had seemed to him. Dan Wake‹eld also described the Nation’s of‹ces as a kind of time



machine. Heightening this effect was the fact that Wake‹eld knew only one other staff writer, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, who was under thirty years old, while the rest were over forty. McWilliams struck Wake‹eld as curiously passive and soft-spoken, especially during their weekly editorial meetings, when publisher George Kirstein seemed to be a fountain of energy and ideas. Wake‹eld was surprised to hear that McWilliams’s friends in Los Angeles considered him fun-loving. “That would be the last description I would apply,” he said. More impressive to Wake‹eld was the footwear that McWilliams sported in the of‹ce, a futuristic-looking pair of shoes that helped McWilliams deal with his long-standing foot pain. “I never saw him without them,” Wake‹eld said. “They looked like the kinds of shoes Frankenstein would wear.” He also noted that di Giovanni came to refer to McWilliams as “Old Space Shoes.”4 Wake‹eld’s recollection bears a strong resemblance to the ranch hands’ view of Jerry McWilliams’s garb and footwear, but it also emphasizes a difference in sensibility that separated Wake‹eld and di Giovanni from McWilliams. Wake‹eld’s book on the period highlighted that difference. We were both young and crazy for literature and experience, and to us Carey McWilliams, with his space shoes, buttoned-up cardigan, and thinning black hair slicked straight back from his pale forehead, seemed like the ultimate square. The image was reinforced by what we regarded as his sober, right-thinking, well-meaning, unexciting editorials. McWilliams seemed like the safe, predictable liberal, the person who believed in all the correct causes but without any passion or ‹re. (1992, 66) Di Giovanni, who would later translate the works of Jorge Luis Borges, could charm McWilliams, but Wake‹eld’s own relationship remained distant. “Carey and I simply never hit it off; we worked together and maintained a polite manner toward each other, but really felt no rapport” (66). Despite differences in age and fashion sense, however, McWilliams seemed attuned to the exigencies of Wake‹eld’s career. Early in Wake‹eld’s tenure with the Nation, for example, McWilliams asked if he would like to cover the trial of a Communist defendant. Murray Kempton advised against it, maintaining that the Indiana-born Wake‹eld would soon be known as “The Hoosier One.” Perhaps mindful of the toll he himself had paid for his own advocacy on this point, McWilliams did not insist.5

The Age of Nixon 233

Other contributors held related but more sympathetic views. Stanley Meisler noted that there was “no phony backslapping of any kind” with McWilliams, but that he helped many young writers and made them feel welcome in the New York of‹ce. McWilliams also wrote Meisler a strong letter of recommendation for a Ford Foundation grant to travel in Africa— an opportunity that did little for the Nation but helped launch Meisler as a foreign correspondent. After a long career with the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times, Meisler held a high opinion of McWilliams’s editorial abilities as well. “He was, beyond any doubt, the ‹nest editor that I have ever worked for,” Meisler maintained. “I never ran into anyone who has as many good ideas. With a full-time staff of his own, he would have been very far ahead of the major newspapers.”6

BACK AT THE RANCH A group of West Coast journalists held a similar range of views about McWilliams. Some contributed to the Nation but worked more closely with Ramparts, a new magazine that exempli‹ed San Francisco radical chic. According to Ramparts editor Gene Marine, who was also the West Coast contributing editor for the Nation, McWilliams could be dif‹cult to approach with new ideas. Following Mencken’s example, McWilliams responded quickly to submissions and queries, but this practice required him to test story ideas against his own experience, which was extensive but not an infallible guide. “He was stubborn,” Marine recalled, “and pretty sure he was right.” McWilliams rejected Marine’s idea for a story in 1964 on the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, calling it “a local California story”—the same criticism a Houghton Mif›in editor had applied to Factories in the Field twenty-‹ve years earlier. In Marine’s retrospective view, California had become an idée ‹xe for McWilliams, as much a product of his memory as a continuously unfolding reality. Nevertheless, Marine regarded him as one of the greatest editors he worked with in his ‹fty-year career.7 Robert Scheer, who became managing editor of Ramparts after writing a seminal book on Vietnam, also noted the distance between McWilliams and the Ramparts staff. Respectful of McWilliams’s reputation at the Nation, where he is now a contributing editor, Scheer believed that 234


McWilliams regarded the Bay Area journalists as “hicks”—an ironic observation given Scheer’s New York origins. According to Scheer, McWilliams also seemed to consider the Ramparts writers “fresh,” suggesting a difference in manners as well as urbanity. Like Marine, Scheer thought that Ramparts was too ›ashy for New York intellectuals, including McWilliams.8 The magazine invited that perception with its radical tone, lavish spending, and bold visual design. Each of these qualities distinguished the San Francisco upstart from the Nation, which celebrated its one hundredth birthday in 1965 with a centennial issue that highlighted its place of honor in the history of American journalism. Bay Area peace activist and historian Theodore Roszak was less ambivalent about McWilliams, whom he met for the ‹rst and only time in 1964. McWilliams struck Roszak as a gentle, friendly, avuncular, and remarkably generous older man who listened carefully to Roszak and astutely assessed his strengths and weaknesses. After McWilliams suggested an article on the state of the universities, he introduced Roszak to Pantheon editor André Schiffrin, and the idea evolved into an edited volume, The Dissenting Academy (1968), which concluded with Noam Chomsky’s seminal essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” Three years later, McWilliams proposed a series of articles on prominent ‹gures in the student protests. Roszak struggled with the format, however, and found himself developing a more speci‹c thesis: that the campus protests re›ected a broader cultural movement that questioned much of Western industrial society itself. Roszak cast about for a ‹tting label for this movement, which encompassed radical politics; psychedelic experience (“counterfeit in‹nity,” in Roszak’s parlance); sexual freedom; an aversion to “technocracy”; and an interest in Eastern religions, mysticism, and the occult. Based on his experience with the antiuniversity movement in London, Roszak toyed with the term anti-culture, but this label suggested philistinism or even barbarism, which worked against his claim that the movement had its roots in Romanticism. He then coined the term counter culture, which McWilliams immediately endorsed. Like many contributors, Roszak was grateful for McWilliams’s hands-off editorial style. “He didn’t intervene, interfere, or climb over the work,” Roszak recounted. Instead, he supported Roszak and let him develop his thesis in his four-part series. “It was exactly what I needed at the time,” Roszak recalled.9 The series formed the core of Roszak’s subsequent book, The Making of a Counter Culture, which created a popular neologism and The Age of Nixon 235

became his signature work. Later, Roszak contributed a piece to The California Revolution, a 1968 volume McWilliams edited. Another West Coast writer who bene‹ted from his contact with McWilliams during this period was reporter Lou Cannon, who was hatching a book on Ronald Reagan and Jess “Big Daddy” Unruh, who at that time was speaker of the California Assembly. At the outset of the project, Cannon sent over forty letters to various ‹gures and received exactly two responses: one from William F. Buckley and the other from McWilliams. After striking up a correspondence, Cannon met McWilliams for the ‹rst time in 1968 at a journalism awards dinner in Sun Valley, Idaho, where McWilliams was one of the speakers. (According to Cannon, McWilliams made the trip to meet young journalists and to visit Hemingway’s grave.) The two saw more of each other in the 1970s, when Cannon served as the Los Angeles bureau chief for the Washington Post and McWilliams made frequent visits to the city. Later, when McWilliams taught a course on muckraking at UCLA in the late 1970s, he asked Cannon to address his students. Cannon came to admire McWilliams’s work on California for its scope, insight, and prescience. He also appreciated McWilliams’s unassuming manner. When UCLA did not publicize his presence on campus, for example, McWilliams took his anonymity in stride. “That was just ‹ne with Carey,” Cannon recalled. “He didn’t give a rat’s ass if you knew him. He was interested in you, or ideas . . . I thought he was great to be around because he wasn’t demanding in the way great men could be demanding.”10 Cannon later became senior White House correspondent for the Washington Post and has cited McWilliams in each of his eight books to date, including several on Ronald Reagan as well as Of‹cial Negligence (1997), the de‹nitive account of the 1992 Rodney King incident and Los Angeles riot. Yet another writer living on the West Coast was even more grateful for his contact with McWilliams. In 1964, Hunter S. Thompson was an obscure journalist and aspiring novelist living in San Francisco when he received a letter from McWilliams praising his work for the National Observer. Eager for assignments, Thompson alerted McWilliams to his dire ‹nances: “I am long past the point of simple poverty, and well into a state of hysterical destitution. The wolves have eaten my door” (Thompson 1997, 481). Less than two months later, McWilliams suggested a piece on California’s motorcycle gangs. Thompson regarded the story idea as “a 236


pleasant surprise . . . I’m surprised anybody in an editorial slot would be interested in a long look at this action” (497). McWilliams offered Thompson one hundred dollars for the article. “That was the rent,” Thompson observed in a November 1974 Playboy interview, “and I was about ready to go back into journalism, so I said, ‘Of course, I’d do anything for a hundred dollars.’” Thompson began his research for the piece by crashing a Hell’s Angel meeting near Hunters Point in San Francisco, where he showed club members articles about them in Newsweek and Time. “I’d go nuts if I read that stuff all the time,” one of them told Thompson. “It’s all bullshit.” After the meeting, Thompson invited ‹ve Hell’s Angels back to his apartment, which he shared with his wife and young son, Juan, for an all-night drinking session. “Before I let them in, I explained that I wasn’t in the habit of settling my beefs with my ‹sts, but with a double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun,” Thompson recounted to a colleague. “This seemed to strike a balance of terror that eventually dissolved into a pleasant evening” (1997, 502). Based on two weeks of research, “The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders” appeared in the Nation in May 1965. The following year, Thompson told a friend, “Writing for Carey McWilliams is an honor . . . So what if he doesn’t pay much . . . When your article appears in The Nation you feel clean” (xxvii). That clean feeling may have subsided temporarily when several Hell’s Angels attacked Thompson during a 1966 Labor Day rally in Cloverdale. Badly injured and bleeding profusely, he repaired to a Santa Rosa hospital. The Hell’s Angels article was the turning point in Thompson’s career. It introduced him to editors at major publishing houses, including Angus Cameron, who by that time had resurfaced at Knopf.11 The article also formed the centerpiece of Thompson’s best-selling book, Hell’s Angels. “More than any other person, Carey was responsible for the success of Hell’s Angels,” Thompson acknowledged in the 1999 Modern Library reprint. After that success, Thompson wrote a series of articles and books animated by his legendary appetite for alcohol and drugs, his penchant for ‹rearms, and his deep if somewhat fantastical suspicion of America’s corporate and political leaders. He soon became a pop culture ‹gure enshrined in Hollywood ‹lms (Where the Buffalo Roam, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and in the character of Uncle Duke in Garry Trudeau’s comic strip, Doonesbury. Thompson continued to correspond The Age of Nixon 237

with McWilliams, dropped by his of‹ce while in New York, and held him in the highest regard. Historian Douglas Brinkley, who edited Thompson’s letters, notes that “throughout his long literary career there was one editor whom Thompson unhesitatingly admired: Carey McWilliams of The Nation” (Thompson 1997, xxvii). Even in the early 1970s, when McWilliams was preparing to step down as editor of the Nation, he was still supporting young—sometimes very young—West Coast writers. One was Derek Shearer, whose piece on the Pentagon McWilliams accepted when Shearer was in his early twenties. Over the next several years, the two traded correspondence and story ideas, and Shearer eventually pro‹led McWilliams for In These Times. In a recent interview, Shearer recalled that McWilliams was “not the kind of guy who was your buddy. What I liked was that he treated me like a professional and a grown-up writer when I was 21.” Shearer also appreciated McWilliams’s modus operandi at the magazine: “He knew there were a lot of good reporters whose papers wouldn’t run their longer, tougher pieces, and he gave them a national outlet for that work.” Shearer was drawn to the Nation’s fact-based reporting as well. “It wasn’t all ideological,” he recalled. “You actually learned something by reading it.”12 Like McWilliams, Shearer went on to mix journalism, activism, and government service, eventually serving as ambassador to Finland during the Clinton administration and teaching at Occidental College.

BEFORE THE REVOLUTION Over age sixty when Hell’s Angels, Ronnie and Jessie, and The Making of a Counter Culture appeared, McWilliams inhabited a different world from that of his younger West Coast colleagues. However, he would soon ‹gure incidentally in the cause of one former Ramparts staff writer, Eldridge Cleaver. By 1968, Cleaver had become the minister of information for the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which Bobby Seale and Huey Newton had founded two years earlier to monitor police activity in the black neighborhoods of Oakland, California. Confrontational, heavily armed, and legally informed, the Black Panthers quickly drew the suspicion and animosity of the Oakland police. The feeling was mutual and eventually led to several shootouts. 238


In April 1968, two nights after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Cleaver reportedly organized four carloads of Black Panthers for an outing. Cleaver would later claim that he and his friends were preparing for a picnic the following day, but their ostensible goal was to ambush a police of‹cer while they transported weapons to various apartments in Berkeley and Oakland. When they encountered police of‹cers on a routine patrol in West Oakland, gun‹re broke out. Two of‹cers were wounded, and Cleaver and seventeen-year-old Panther Bobby Hutton ›ed to the basement of a nearby house. Police surrounded the house, and a gun battle ensued. The police lobbed tear gas into the house, a ‹re started in the basement, and Cleaver, who was wounded in the foot by a ricocheting bullet and hit in the chest by a tear gas canister, shouted that he was coming out of the house. He emerged from the house naked with his hands in the air. Hutton also emerged with his hands up, but after he was apprehended and searched, he stumbled while walking. His hands dropped, and the police shot and killed him (Pearson 1994, 154–55). James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and others promptly signed a letter decrying the violence against the Black Panthers. “We ‹nd little fundamental difference between the assassin’s bullet which killed Dr. King on April 4, and the police barrage which killed Bobby James Hutton two days later,” the letter read. The following month, McWilliams joined many of the same writers, journalists, and celebrities in signing a more modulated letter that ran in the New York Review of Books. The signatories called the events in Oakland “further evidence of the continuous oppression of black people. We particularly condemn the murder of Bobby James Hutton and the wounding of Eldridge Cleaver as acts of violent white racism” (May 9, 1968). But the violence in Oakland was just getting started. Later that year, a jury found Huey Newton guilty of voluntary manslaughter in the death of an Oakland police of‹cer. Displeased that the jury did not convict Newton of homicide, two drunken police of‹cers ‹red shotgun rounds into the headquarters of the Black Panther Party that night. Cleaver responded by calling for attacks on whites, especially judges and police of‹cers. While addressing a group of San Francisco lawyers in September 1968, for example, Cleaver said, “We need lawyers who have a gun in one hand and a law book in the other, so if he goes to court and the shit doesn’t come out right, he can pull out his gun and start shooting.” After a polite ovation, one lawyer asked Cleaver, “What can we whites do to help the The Age of Nixon 239

black man’s cause?” Cleaver responded, “Kill some white people!” (Pearson 1994, 170). As seventeen-year-old Jonathan Jackson’s lethal shootout at the Marin County courthouse showed, Cleaver’s scenario did not lack for real-life counterparts. In a December 1969 speech to the ACLU, McWilliams noted in passing that the leadership of the Black Panther Party had been “marked for extinction.” He also collected some issues of the Black Panther, the party’s weekly newspaper, one of which included a front-page photograph of Cleaver and a quotation: The American ›ag and the American eagle are the true symbols of fascism, and they should elicit from the people the same outraged repugnance elicited by the swastika of Nazi Germany and the ›ag of the rising sun of the Japanese imperialists. The same cover included a quotation from Kim Il Sung of the Peoples Democratic Republic of Korea: “U.S. Imperialism is the most heinous common enemy of the Peoples of the world and target No. 1 in their struggle.”13 Although McWilliams was suspicious of the government’s actions regarding the Black Panthers, he had long been averse to such revolutionary bombast. Interviewed about the Chicano movement during this time, for example, he noted that it included elements that were “demagogic, that tend to be rhetorically ›amboyant.”14 He may have had in mind the words of David Sánchez, a member of the Brown Berets in Los Angeles. In February 1968, while serving a jail term of sixty days for unlawful assembly, Sánchez wrote a piece admonishing Chicano activists to avoid Anglos: “DO NOT TALK TO THE ENEMY, FOR HE IS EITHER A DOG OR A DEVIL” (Chávez 2002, 46). The following year, the Brown Berets disrupted a speech by Governor Reagan at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, where small ‹res broke out on several ›oors. That same year, Chicano student activists met at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to draw up a manifesto to promote cultural nationalism, self-determination, and education. The manifesto, which came to be known as El Plan de Santa Barbara, claimed that there are “de‹nite advantages to cultural nationalism, but no inherent limitations”—a view that McWilliams did not share. It also proposed a consolidation of student groups into MEChA—El Movimiento Estudiantíl Chicano de Aztlán (The Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán). For its symbol, MEChA chose an eagle with a stick of dynamite in 240


one talon, and the organization’s slogans included “Por la Raza todo. Fuera de la Raza nada.” (For the race, everything. Outside the race, nothing.) The manifesto also proclaimed a policy of liberation for Aztlán, its name for the American Southwest. McWilliams did not comment speci‹cally on the Brown Berets or MEChA, but he endorsed the work of University of California, Santa Barbara, history professor Joseph Navarro, which McWilliams believed balanced militancy with intellectual responsibility. (Navarro subsequently wrote a laudatory article on McWilliams for the Journal of Mexican-American History, which Navarro founded and edited.) In fact, McWilliams rarely denounced left-wing activists for their excesses, including the incineration of a bank next to Navarro’s home campus and the bombing of the campus’s faculty club, which killed a janitor. When he did criticize these actions, he usually dismissed them as counterproductive or tactically unwise. He did not regard similarly in›ammatory language or violent action from right-wing groups as merely counterproductive, however. Rather, he kept a close eye on them and did not hesitate to raise the warning ›ag about impending fascism.

THE NEW LEFT The turbulent California scene bore little resemblance to the one McWilliams left in 1951, and his distance from it was both geographical and generational. In the 1930s, his notion of revolution meant militant trade unionism, collectivization, organizing, and meetings—not bombings, shootouts, or strident ethnic politics. Just as the Black Panthers and Brown Berets could not be mistaken for the Sleepy Lagoon defendants or Zoot Suit Riot victims, the cardigan-clad McWilliams, planted in his archaic of‹ce, would never be confused with student leader Tom Hayden—although Hayden would eventually be named the Carey McWilliams Fellow at the Nation Institute. As cultural and political differences sharpened during the 1960s, a new generation of leftists came to idolize I. F. Stone, for example, but saw less need to monitor McWilliams’s views or those of the Nation. That feeling was not mutual. McWilliams followed the younger generation and its politics carefully, and he wrote frequently and perceptively The Age of Nixon 241

about them. In its earliest forms, the New Left struck him as little more than an attempt “to put a new gloss on the causes of the 1930s.” Later, a more distinctive form of political engagement emerged under that name, and McWilliams complimented its ideals. Asked to contribute a foreword to a collected volume called The New Student Left (1965), he saluted the movement’s utopian impulse and its attention to a “multitude of ugly and dif‹cult domestic problems.” Yet some misgivings can be detected in McWilliams’s generalities and silences. He stopped short of endorsing what he called the New Left’s “unconventional action,” noting only that “the substance of a new politics will emerge” from it. He also claimed that the mass media’s interest in student unrest was “not intended to be helpful and in fact it isn’t.” In his view, that media coverage did not explain the movement so much as “smother it in a froth of words” (Cohen and Hale 1965, x). Like the Old Left it sought to replace, the New Left stressed civil rights, social justice, and an end to the arms race. Its proponents, however, had not endured the labor struggles and Red scares that had shaped and scarred their precursors, and their own lives had been cushioned by an unprecedented postwar economic expansion. Unburdened by lingering attachments to or delusions about the Soviet Union, their hopes were hitched more ‹rmly to the promise of Castro’s Cuba. As universities proliferated to accommodate the baby boomers, campuses became breeding grounds for various New Left groups, including Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which began as a branch of the anti-Communist League for Industrial Democracy.15 In general, these groups drew more heavily than their predecessors on the media and popular culture, harbored a deeper suspicion of hierarchy and institutional power, and placed more emphasis on self-expression and personal commitment as opposed to doctrine and strategy. Later, they rallied around a critical issue, U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which propelled their movement. Unlike Dissent editor Irving Howe, McWilliams scheduled no meetings with SDS leaders to forge cross-generational links. Instead, he “did what I usually did when a new movement or major social trend seemed to be emerging—i.e., gather materials about it while looking around for the right person to examine them and report what was happening” (ECM, 247). One of those persons was Jack New‹eld, whose 1965 article on the student left gave SDS its ‹rst national exposure. Another was Theodore Roszak, 242


who had impressed McWilliams with his rare ability “to examine new social and cultural developments in an unbiased, reasonably sympathetic, and profoundly curious way” (ECM, 248). Indeed, McWilliams regarded Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture as the classic statement of the cultural constellation it described. Like Roszak, McWilliams was reasonably sympathetic to the New Left and its aspirations. What criticisms he had were offered mildly, as in an October 1968 campus speech in which he said, “Our generation is realizing that thought without action is not good, but [student protestors] must still learn that action without thought will not accomplish the end they are seeking.” In his thank-you letter to McWilliams after the speech, the chair of the faculty lecture committee wrote that he thought McWilliams’s treatment of SDS was “over-gentle.” In many ways, however, his 1979 memoir previews the analysis offered by sociologist and former SDS leader Todd Gitlin in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987). Like Gitlin, McWilliams focuses on the movement’s ability to attract media attention and its “revulsion against the complacency, stuf‹ness and conformity of an ‘af›uent’ society” (ECM, 246–47). He also claims that the new radicalism “was more a product of irritation, resentment, and boredom than a reaction to social inequalities and injustices personally experienced or observed at ‹rst hand” (247). Yet these resentments were real, and when neither major party assumed leadership on key issues of the day, McWilliams realized that the young activists “had to strike out on their own.” The young radicals were eager to break, not merely with the bipartisan Cold War consensus, but with the “liberalism” of their parents, to which they initially responded but later came to regard as unreal and pretentious. Theirs was in part a personal revolt; they sought to “liberate” themselves by repudiating conventions and attitudes that had grown irksome. In a sense, they were more concerned with ‹nding where they stood, who they were, and what it was they found so hateful in the society than they were in de‹ning political positions or drafting action programs or organizing at the grass roots. (247) The last sentence hints at the differences between McWilliams and the student activists. He, too, had found many aspects of American society deplorable, but for him, these were problems to be solved rather than occasions for self-expression or self-fashioning. Much of what he witnessed in the 1960s was too symbolic and self-indulgent for his taste, too much Allen The Age of Nixon 243

Ginsberg and not enough Harry Bridges. While many Americans were letting it all hang out, McWilliams probably hoped that they would tuck it all back in and organize a caucus. McWilliams also had misgivings about the movement’s pervasive suspicion of institutional power. For activists of his generation, the federal government was a potential ally of great importance, and during the early 1940s, he had testi‹ed that his political views were entirely consistent with the New Deal. New Left activists could make no such claim about the Kennedy, Johnson, or Nixon administrations. Their politics traded more heavily on opposition and disaffection, and McWilliams began a January 1968 piece for the Nation by noting an irony. A preoccupation with power—black power, student power, ›ower power, poor power, “the power structure”—is the most striking aspect of the American political scene at the moment. Oddly enough, obsession with power goes hand in hand with a fear of power. Some of the New Left groups that talk the toughest about power are extremely reluctant to see power operate in institutional form; within their own organizations, they shun “hierarchies” and formally structured relations of authority. What the preoccupation with power re›ects, essentially, is a deepseated, pervasive feeling of powerlessness. That feeling, he maintained, prevented many Americans from participating in politics in the most productive way. What was needed was a radical politics “to goad the major parties, to offer a general critique of the society, and to give political expression to the discontents that can gain a hearing in neither major party. The New Left may meet this need; it has not done so to date.” His use of italics signi‹es that, for him, such protests only became political when they were tied to a speci‹c campaign or program. Whatever its merits, McWilliams’s critique failed to move the New Left leaders, who considered the Nation a muckraking magazine rather than a journal of ideas.16 Moreover, McWilliams’s contributions to the radical politics he called for were modest, at least compared to his prodigious efforts of previous decades. His legal activism was limited, he had not written a book-length work since 1950, and there was no possibility of his serving in government again. His journalism, too, had undergone a gradual transformation. He was writing fewer, longer pieces, many of which originated from predictable news sites, such as party conventions. Compared to his earliest political journalism, which turned a gimlet eye toward electoral 244


politics, his output during the 1960s focused more on major-party candidates and their positions. Furthermore, his articles increasingly re›ected the view from the cultural if not the political center of the country. Although they retained his usual perceptiveness, ›uency, and critical posture, fewer grew out of his own ‹eldwork. There were no more weeklong drives through the Central Valley or ‹rsthand reports of civic disturbances in Los Angeles. For the most part, only fund-raising tours and occasional trips abroad interrupted his editorial work in the Nation’s downtown of‹ces. When he did travel, McWilliams gravitated to Europe—hardly the chief concern of the New Left. He visited Ireland and England in 1963; Poland in 1965; Holland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, and Yugoslavia in 1967; and Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and Holland in 1972. He scheduled many of these trips around publishing conferences, but they also re›ected his continuing interest in the cold war and his curiosity about life in the Warsaw Pact countries. In Poland, he met with former agent Maxim Lieber, who helped him arrange interviews with public of‹cials. His prepared questions for those meetings offer a glimpse into his worldview. One question was whether West Germany would be tempted to “establish an opening to the east” now that East Germany had become the tenth-ranking industrial power. Another asked, “Suppose that West Germany, tired of stalemate, decided to make some settlement with the USSR. Would such a settlement be feasible? What would the attitudes of the East European countries be?” The questions suggest that Eastern Europe was on the right side of history and that Western Europe might eventually accommodate this fact. Although his dispatches from these locales do not press this suggestion, neither do they demonstrate the prescience that characterized much of his domestic reportage. Although McWilliams spent most of his time in New York, he did not write about the city frequently or with the insight he brought to the California scene. Indeed, his only regionalist effort during this time was The California Revolution, a collection of essays he edited in 1968. His introductory essay rehearsed and updated his argument about California’s exceptionalism, mentioning the early promise of the computer industry and reemphasizing the commercial importance of the Paci‹c Rim. However, his crystal ball was becoming murky in spots. Although he correctly perceived the potential of Paci‹c Rim trade to California’s economy, he The Age of Nixon 245

focused on Australia, “one of the most interesting areas of international commerce,” and argued that trade with and immigration to that country were the keys to California’s future. By training his attention on Australia, which he had never visited, McWilliams neglected the Asian economies that would play an increasingly important role in California’s economy. If McWilliams’s instincts in the international arena were faulty, his critique of the New Left was on target. Although sympathetic to the movement, he sensed a disjunction between its virtues and effective political action. The New Left’s appeal was never broad enough to supercede the coalition of labor, ethnic and religious minorities, and intellectuals that had been forged in the 1930s, and it therefore provided no practical alternative to Republicanism.17 Like his younger counterparts, he opposed the war in Vietnam and sought to push the Democratic Party toward a reordering of its priorities, but his voice was largely drowned out by the hectic events of that fractious time.

VIETNAM The New Left’s key issue, the war in Vietnam, dominated national politics during McWilliams’s ‹nal decade as editor of the Nation. By the time the war came to the forefront of U.S. politics, McWilliams was thoroughly familiar with the issues surrounding it. Throughout the 1950s, the Nation had monitored the situation in Indochina with reports and analysis from its European correspondents, Claude Bourdet and Alexander Werth. It also ran several critical pieces by Bernard Fall, a former French soldier and professor of international relations, which culminated in Street Without Joy (1961), a history of French and American involvement in Vietnam to that point. Supported by detailed descriptions of speci‹c tactics, strategies, ‹re‹ghts, and results, Fall’s book left little doubt that the United States was repeating many of the mistakes made by the French. Even Colin Powell found its analysis irrefutable. In his 1995 memoir, Powell claims that its timely reading in Camp David might have saved many American and Vietnamese lives. Fall continued his work until 1967, when he was killed by a land mine in Vietnam. Soon after President Kennedy took of‹ce, the Nation began issuing a series of warnings about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. July 1961: “The 246


dirty war may not be lost by the United States, but neither will it be won. At the expense of mounting American casualties, it will drag on.” January 1963: “Despite our arsenal of weapons we do not have the power to ‘win’ this war.” September 1963: “The odds are that the Communists will eventually win in South Vietnam, their patience is more durable than America’s enthusiasm for an expensive, futile war.” A May 1964 editorial, “Mr. Johnson’s War,” also called attention to the military escalation in Vietnam, but McWilliams later admitted that the magazine’s criticism was muted by its support for Johnson’s domestic program and its antipathy for Goldwater. The following summer, the Nation published Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s conclusion that the United States’ chances of defeating the guerrillas in Vietnam were zero. A very different sort of piece, written by Daniel Ford and published in 1964, offered a ‹rsthand report of the problems U.S. aircraft were experiencing in the ‹eld. Later, Ford commented on the gap between McWilliams’s politics and his own. I put [the dispatch] in an envelope with a ‹ve-cent stamp on the outside, and the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group generously ›ew it to Carey McWilliams in New York. McWilliams was what most Army of‹cers would have called a pinko, but he was happy to publish even Republicans like me, if they’d work for what he could afford to pay, which in this case was $65.18 In publishing Ford’s piece, McWilliams was both challenging the wisdom of U.S. policy in Vietnam and continuing the tradition of H. L. Mencken, whose willingness to feature authors from all walks of life had impressed McWilliams as a young man. In McWilliams’s view, Vietnam was the inevitable culmination of the cold war mentality, and he could not resist tracing it to anti-Communist hysteria in the 1940s and 1950s. For historical background on the con›ict, he turned to ‹gures such as Owen Lattimore and Edgar Snow, but a new generation of leftists did not need a thorough understanding of the debates and debacles of yesteryear to oppose the war ‹rmly and loudly. Vietnam was the formative political experience for them, just as the Depression and labor struggles of the 1930s had radicalized McWilliams. Recognizing this fact, McWilliams also called on younger writers, including historian Howard Zinn, to provide this perspective. McWilliams’s opposition to the war took other forms as well. He served The Age of Nixon 247

as vice chairman of the Lawyer’s Committee on American Policy Toward Vietnam, which was founded in 1965 by a group of New York lawyers to protest what McWilliams called “State Department sophistries” (ECM, 301). Initially chaired by Robert Kenny and drawing most of its members from the National Lawyers Guild, the committee challenged the legal and constitutional basis for the undeclared war in Vietnam. In 1972, a month before the Watergate break-in, the group pressed for the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Later, it drafted a bill of impeachment, a modi‹ed version of which was introduced by Representative John Conyers. The bill never made it out of committee, but McWilliams considered it a notable achievement. His memoir notes that “a small group of lawyers, mostly of the so-called ‘old left,’ had offered the ‹rst legal challenge to the legitimacy of a war that had been waged for nearly three decades in de‹ance of the UN Charter and the Constitution” (ECM, 302). However, U.S. involvement in Vietnam did not end because of legal action, and impeachment was a nonissue until the Washington Post broke the Watergate story. In 1967, McWilliams arranged an event in Los Angeles, patterned on the one he had coordinated for the Nation more than two decades earlier. This time, the theme was “the imperative need to mobilize national political opposition to the war in Vietnam and to reorder and redirect American priorities” (ECM, 274). His emphasis suggests that he regarded most antiwar activism to that point as local, insuf‹ciently political, or both. He later described many of these protests as fruitless activity in which “discussion had been superceded by uproar, debate by demonstrations, dialogue by confrontations, civil disobedience by overt resistance.” Such demonstrations “angered and annoyed thoughtful critics of the war and made it dif‹cult to launch a serious political opposition” (ECM, 277). To help launch that opposition, he recruited an impressive list of speakers for his event, including Senators Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Mark Hat‹eld along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was beginning to speak out more forcefully against the war. McWilliams also clari‹ed what he meant by national political opposition when he suggested to McCarthy that “a respected political ‹gure, preferably a senator not up for reelection,” enter key 1968 primaries on an antiwar platform. McCarthy agreed, leading McWilliams to conclude that his conference helped set the stage for McCarthy’s candidacy in 1968. Privately, McWilliams recoiled from the war and its effects. “War in 248


Vietnam is ghastly beyond description,” he noted in his diary in early 1968. “And how, I wonder, can it get better” (Feb. 3, 1968). He was also repulsed by the traditional efforts to support the troops. “Listened to Bob Hope on Vietnam: ghastly and unbelievable. He says the ‘natives’ regard us as Jolly Green Giants” (Jan. 13, 1968). But more ghastliness was in the of‹ng. In April of that year, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, an event that McWilliams described in his diary as “a shattering experience.” After hearing the news over the radio at a paperback bookstore in New York, he and Iris returned home to watch the coverage on television. “Iris was crying and I must confess I had tears in my eyes—a great good man— Dr. King” (Apr. 4, 1968). Three months later, while McWilliams was busily preparing for an extended trip to Europe, he recorded no such powerful emotion following the assassination of Robert Kennedy. But Europe had its own problems that summer. When the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, McWilliams was frustrated and concerned. He noted in his diary, “This ghastly Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia has just about capped the climax—this is about it. The impudence of the alibis, for one thing. But more than that, the effect on the climate of opinion here is likely to be very bad” (Aug. 21, 1968). As usual, McWilliams was more concerned about the reaction in the United States, especially during an election year, than he was about international affairs. Although he was never as attached to the Soviet Union as his critics charged, Prague marked the end of whatever illusions he still harbored about the Kremlin’s goals and methods. Five days later, McWilliams traveled to Chicago to cover the Democratic National Convention for the Nation. He found there “a mob of people and police all over the place—big, pot-bellied aggressive cops, Chicago-style.” His diaries, however, indicate that he spent little time out on the streets, where demonstrators clashed repeatedly with those of‹cers. Instead, he visited with I. F. Stone, Nelson Algren, and Studs Terkel, who interviewed him for Hard Times, his book on the Great Depression. The convention itself did not encourage McWilliams’s hopes about national political opposition to the war. As per McWilliams’s suggestion, Eugene McCarthy entered several key primaries in 1968, but that campaign did not result in an antiwar plank at the Democratic Party convention. Combined with the assassinations of King and Kennedy, that failure left McWilliams with a feeling of hopelessness. In his memoir, he described that disapThe Age of Nixon 249

pointment: “For the moment, Chicago wrote ‹nis to the brave talk, the long marches, the fervent teach-ins, and the violent agitations that had preceded the convention. Chicago was a bad scene, one of the worst of my political experience” (ECM, 284). By his reckoning, a sense of national frustration beginning with President Kennedy’s assassination “built to a climax in 1968, when the nation suffered what might be described as a kind of moral, ideological, and political breakdown” (ECM, 258). The election brought more bad news. Following the implosion of the Democrats in Chicago, Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey for the presidency, and Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening lost their reelection bids in the Senate. Both were close allies of the Nation, where Gruening was a former editor. Four years later, when the Democratic Party ‹nally selected an antiwar presidential candidate, Senator George McGovern was soundly defeated. In the aftermath of that loss, Theodore Roszak later wrote, “the liberal wing of American politics found its position in the national mainstream steadily undermined, as, one by one, the old Democratic Party constituencies drifted into the conservative camp” (Roszak 1999, xxix). Composing his memoir during the Carter years, McWilliams tried to ‹nd a lesson in the Vietnam ‹asco and its domestic consequences. “Perhaps the debacle in Vietnam has ‹nally taught us to respect other people’s history,” he wrote hopefully (ECM, 246). Read a generation later, even this conclusion must be regarded as overly optimistic.

THE NEW NIXON In the aftermath of the 1968 election, McWilliams’s antipathy for Nixon was stronger than ever, but he no longer underestimated the new president’s resilience or political skills. The instant dislike and distrust which I felt for him in 1946, when he made his political debut in California, had grown with the years, but I had learned not to discount his special brand of political cunning, his basic opportunism, or his often canny readings of American political attitudes. (ECM, 287) By the late 1970s, McWilliams agreed with William F. Buckley that Nixon was the central ‹gure in American politics between 1945 and 1975. He also 250


shared James Reston’s amazement that “such a ‹gure without belief, for whom ‘winning’ was everything, could for a quarter of a century so dominate the political life of a country that prides itself as the greatest democracy in the world” (ECM, 288). McWilliams did not trust Nixon to do the right thing in Vietnam, but he did trust him to seek political advantage at every opportunity. He therefore sought to raise the political cost of the war by following Nixon’s words and deeds carefully and using the Nation to hammer away at U.S. policy. These efforts, however, were often overtaken by domestic and international events. Following the U.S. bombing of Cambodia and the deaths of six protestors at Kent State University and Jackson State University, a more militant antiwar insurgency threatened to supercede the peace movement. McWilliams traced much of this militancy to a more pervasive disenchantment, which led many activists “to dismiss political action as meaningless and a waste of time” (ECM, 276). He did not have to look far for examples of such activists. One was Kathy Boudin, who followed three relatives—great uncle Louis, father Leonard, and uncle I. F. Stone—into leftist politics. McWilliams knew and respected all three men. In an obituary published in Lawyers Guild Review, McWilliams had called Louis Boudin a mentor and “the wisest person I had ever known.” His memoir thanked civil rights lawyer Leonard Boudin (whose clients included the ECLC, Paul Robeson, Fidel Castro, and Daniel Ellsberg) and Boudin’s law partner, Victor Rabinowitz, for encouragement. Stone, of course, was a longtime friend and former Washington correspondent for the Nation who had touted Factories in the Field in 1939. Kathy Boudin’s activism, however, would take a very different course from her relatives’. After graduating from Bryn Mawr, where she dated the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, she quickly became a leading ‹gure in the antiwar movement and eventually a member of the Weathermen (later, the Weather Underground), which Tom Hayden described as the antiwar movement’s id. When that group split off from SDS in 1969, even other activists regarded its political philosophy and strategy as increasingly incoherent. Eventually, the Weathermen were responsible for at least twenty bombings, including one planted by Boudin and a colleague in a women’s room at the U.S. Capitol. In 1970, Boudin herself survived a bomb blast that killed three Weathermen who were assembling explosives in a New York The Age of Nixon 251

townhouse. Stumbling out of the building naked, she borrowed clothes from a neighbor and went underground. Five years later, McWilliams noted in his diary, “Bomb went off in State Department. No one hurt but major damage. Weathermen claimed credit in a 12-page statement. Shows how vulnerable the Establishment is to this kind of terror” (Jan. 29, 1975). The next night, he appeared with Leonard Boudin at an NYU Law School event. When the United States withdrew from Vietnam, Kathy Boudin joined a black liberation group. In 1981, that group robbed a Brinks truck of $1.6 million in 1981 and killed three people, including two police of‹cers at a roadblock. With her father acting as her attorney, Boudin pled guilty to homicide and robbery. She received a sentence of twenty years to life and was paroled in 2003 (Braudy 2003). Boudin’s exceptional story dramatizes the challenges faced by McWilliams’s “thoughtful critics of the war.” Chief among them was a combination of youthful disdain for workaday politics and a penchant for anarchic destruction. “We have to create chaos and bring about the disintegration of the pig order,” read the Weathermen’s invitation to their 1969 National War Council (Gitlin 1987, 399). But at least some of the Weathermen’s anger and violence was directed at themselves. An excerpt from their last aboveground communiqué reads, “Smashing the pig means smashing the pig inside ourselves, destroying our own honkiness” (403). Until the Brinks robbery, the Weathermen had not killed anyone but themselves. Among their chief victims, however, was the English language. As Todd Gitlin has argued, bad writing was essential to their purpose. Clarity would have exposed their fantasies, but revolutionary slogans kept logic at a safe distance. McWilliams had little appetite for the fantasies or the rhetoric. He declined to “go all out in support of the insurgents,” and his memoir comments on their methods and effectiveness. Tactically the violence was counterproductive; so, too, was much of the gaudy sophomore rhetoric with the mindless repetition of such words as “pig,” “bullshit,” and “motherfucker.” And so, too, was the inexcusable mistake of permitting the hardhats to monopolize the symbols of patriotism, and the failure of the activists to relate the war to the issues of most immediate concern to blue-collar workers and other elements of the middle and lower-middle class who might have been won over by more intelligent tactics. (ECM, 292–93) 252


To the insurgents, such objections no doubt exempli‹ed weak-kneed liberalism and tired blood. Certainly McWilliams’s assessment strikes a note that would have been out of place in his own youthful writing. The middle class he disdained in the 1930s was by this time a potential ally, at least on the nation’s most important issue. Moreover, that class no longer consisted solely of complacent bourgeoisie immune to the insights of Herbert Croly. Rather, it included blue-collar workers and others who might be responsive to more intelligent tactics. The times were changing and so was McWilliams, but not in the same direction. During these years, the Nation entertained but ‹nally distanced itself from the more extravagant claims about Nixon’s character and activities. Many of these claims were not completely baseless. The Nixon administration was routinely monitoring, wiretapping, in‹ltrating, disrupting, and auditing protest organizations throughout this period. Likewise, Nixon’s fears about violent revolutionaries were not entirely fantastical, and the two sets of suspicions reinforced and escalated each other. In 1970, the Nation mentioned but stopped short of validating a story that the Nixon administration had commissioned a RAND Corporation study of whether violent rebels would make it unsafe to conduct the 1972 election. An editorial maintained that, as “an old-time Red hunter,” Nixon was “inclined by temperament in that direction himself.” However, an article by Ron Dorfman criticized former SDS leader Carl Oglesby’s book for suggesting that Nixon was responsible for both Kennedy’s assassination and a plane crash that killed Howard Hunt’s wife and dozens of other passengers. McWilliams’s suspicions did not run that deep, and he had too much respect for evidence and logic to go in for conspiracy theories. Yet he admitted that Nixon unnerved him. “One never knew what he might do next, for he was capable of almost any action,” he later recalled (ECM, 288). This nervousness persisted even after Nixon’s impeachment and resignation. Once Nixon had left the White House, a mood of relief and self-congratulation swept the nation . . . In general, it was agreed that “the system” had worked, and so it had, after a fashion. Even so, the nation had come closer to a coup d’etat than many cared to admit then or later. (ECM, 304) Viewed historically, McWilliams’s nervousness was the product of several decades of disappointment interspersed with occasional victories. He had

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embraced the labor movement and the New Deal in the 1930s only to witness a string of administrations that he found lacking. Truman was ineffective, Eisenhower a lost cause, Kennedy hollow and synthetic. Even Johnson’s Great Society programs and civil rights victories were tainted by his Vietnam policy. After Nixon’s comeback, McWilliams was skittish about the American polity as well as its electorate, whose predilections he frequently misread. Following Nixon’s departure from the White House, McWilliams wondered why and how Nixon had become his generation’s dominant political ‹gure. “Again and again I asked myself why it was that so many Americans either found it dif‹cult to take Nixon’s measure or were prepared to give him the bene‹t of the doubt” (ECM, 304). Although Nixon was politically unpredictable, McWilliams maintained that his character was not particularly hard to read. By the late 1970s, however, he had come to a sobering conclusion. Despite the liberal view that he had once advanced—that Nixon was a ruthless demagogue playing on the emotions of a gullible public—McWilliams eventually acknowledged that many Americans had not been fooled. To the contrary, much of the electorate understood Nixon perfectly. In his memoir, he notes, “A section of the public apparently felt that the times called for a bastard and that Nixon met the speci‹cation” (ECM, 305). He also claimed in the Nation that many Americans not only tolerated Nixon, but they resonated with him: “An important section of the public identi‹ed with Nixon; they would not admit it publicly, but they would have done what he did had they been in his shoes” (Dec. 23, 1978). For at least two reasons, this conclusion must have been a dif‹cult one for McWilliams to draw. First, he never felt this identi‹cation with Nixon or anything like it. Indeed, he instantly disliked Nixon and identi‹ed strongly with his arch-nemesis, the courtly Alger Hiss, with whom he continued to correspond. Perhaps for this reason, he consistently underestimated Nixon’s appeal to the average voter. Second, the public’s identi‹cation with Nixon was probably more disturbing to him than was the notion that a demagogue could fool the electorate for a generation. Political health can be restored when the demagogue leaves or is evacuated from the public square. The moral equation is more complicated, however, when the public knowingly places a soulless opportunist in a series of increasingly important posts, including the nation’s highest of‹ce. In that



case, the electorate would be at least partly responsible for the White House corruption. This sobering conclusion also had implications for McWilliams’s selfunderstanding. In particular, it placed him outside the country’s political mainstream and in direct opposition to the major political ‹gure of the postwar era. McWilliams began seeing himself as an outsider like his heroes Mencken and Bierce: an unreconstructed radical, western style— not part of any particular movement but nevertheless connected to a tradition that surfaced intermittently in American life. As such, he was part of “a minority within the minority of the left. Unlike liberals, [radicals] never feel part of the existing order and are invariably critical of it . . . The radical is the perpetual outsider, the odd man (or woman) out, constantly critical of the power structure and of things as they are” (ECM, 322). One cannot refute this sort of self-description, which is inherently subjective and expressive, but it should be tempered by a consideration of McWilliams’s objective status. For most of his adult life, he enjoyed immediate access to countless of‹ceholders, candidates, judges, and policymakers of different stripes, not to mention writers, journalists, and Hollywood celebrities. He had served in state government, edited a distinguished journal of news and opinion, and was an exemplar of civic engagement. If McWilliams was an outsider, the average citizen was an isolate by comparison. Yet this selfdescription made increasing sense to McWilliams in the immediate aftermath of the Nixon era.

LIVING IN THE RUINS If political corruption at the top was a concern to McWilliams, another was urban decay. His diaries began to devote more attention to the problems he observed in New York City—crime, poor city services, housing shortages, of‹ce vacancies, and unpredictable mail. In March 1972, he noted a mugging—not the ‹rst—in his apartment building. Two months later, he was dismayed to learn that crime had spread to health-care facilities: “In New York, hospitals have security problems. Druggies rob nurses and attendants and create an atmosphere of fear and terror. In hospitals—it has come to that. Sad and depressing, and weirdly irrational” (May 18, 1972). A later

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diary entry observed, perhaps ironically, “The Democratic mess in New York is getting messier. Maybe Boss Daley can show them how to do it” (Mar. 16, 1976). His concerns about safety came to a head in August 1972. As he was leaving his of‹ce at the Nation, four young black men stepped off the elevator on his ›oor, asked a question of McWilliams and a fellow of‹ce worker, and returned to the elevator. In an act of “total folly,” McWilliams joined them. When the doors closed, the youths began beating McWilliams, and he clutched his briefcase to his stomach (“I was afraid of a knife”) and started yelling. “They really let me have it,” he noted in his diary. “As they left, one took aim and gave me a knockout punch” (Aug. 10, 1972). The sixty-six-year-old McWilliams was relieved of $160 and came away with a fractured cheekbone, a black eye, and cuts. He spent the evening at St. Vincent’s Hospital and returned for X-rays the next day. After the robbery and beating, McWilliams directed his aggression at himself: “A bloody nuisance and I felt lousy, hating myself for ever having been so stupid as to step into that elevator with those 4 young blacks.” The next day, an acquaintance from Los Angeles happened to see him. McWilliams looked terrible, but his only comment was that he wished he could get to work without using an elevator.19 (Elevators had made McWilliams nervous since early childhood, when one in the state capitol in Denver began rising and shutting its bars as he was entering it.) When discussing the incident with friends, Iris could become agitated, but McWilliams urged her to consider the social factors that led to crime.20 Two months later, however, when his secretary’s purse was taken from her desk on her ‹rst day of work, he remarked, “What a world, what a crazy demented cruel world!” (Nov. 13, 1972). McWilliams contacted the New York Times about the robbery, and the paper mentioned it in the “Notes on People” section: “The editor said the incident had not altered his liberal views, but ‘I’ll be a little more cautious about getting on elevators’” (Aug. 16, 1972). The San Francisco Chronicle also picked up the story, and McWilliams began to mention the robbery— along with the fact that Iris was robbed at knifepoint in a Columbia University elevator—in his speeches on liberal approaches to crime prevention. For the next months, however, he was taken aback by the volume and hostile tone of the mail that he received as a result of the Times notice. Not everyone was willing to shrug off the problem of violent crime—a fact that 256


Nixon seemed to understand better than McWilliams. Nor did McWilliams relate his own concerns about Jerry—who, after a sojourn in Paris, had moved to San Francisco to study creative writing at Stanford—to Nixon’s claim that the culture had become too permissive. Although Jerry’s partying, ‹nancial dependence, and lack of direction worried McWilliams, such concerns did not affect his politics. The same day his secretary’s purse was lifted, for example, he re›ected on Nixon’s huge win in the 1972 presidential election. “I think Nixon has misread the returns. This is no big personal triumph, no big mandate, hardly a mandate of any kind. He seems to think it is a referendum on ‘permissiveness,’ etc.” McWilliams’s concerns about New York and Jerry persisted, but he became more adept at living with them. Later, he noted that his neighborhood near Columbia was “a scene these days: bizarre types, old ladies, Negro dudes, you name it . . . Still there are some advantages in living in the midst of urban decay, in the ruins, so to speak” (Feb. 13, 1976). He also wondered whether Jerry and his friends—whom McWilliams dubbed “California’s new Polynesians”—had “shrugged off progress, and opted for ‘the steady state.’ Time will tell” (Feb. 12, 1976). Even as he adapted to the times, however, questions of civic and moral values bulked larger in his thoughts. McWilliams’s mood remained dour through the fall of 1972. In October, he joined George Kirstein and his successor at the Nation, James J. Storrow, for lunch at the Harvard Club. “I was not feeling very bright—no sleep; and perhaps for this reason I was deeply disgusted with both of them. The rich are the rich and they live in a different time and space zone; Scott Fitzgerald was right about them” (Oct. 5, 1972). Later that month, he re›ected on the death of Jackie Robinson, who courageously broke the color barrier in major league baseball. “Jack Robinson is dead at 53 and the media is pulling out all the stops—but not mentioning how he threw Paul Robeson to the wolves—such details are soon forgotten. Robeson was and is a much more important and admirable ‹gure” (Oct. 24). After Nixon’s victory in November, McWilliams’s year did not improve. In December, he learned that Dorothy had died suddenly in Merced. “I heard by chance this morning that Dorothy had passed away last night around 11:30,” he noted in his diary. “A colleague of Bill’s. I had phoned him—told me he had seen a sign to this effect on Bill’s of‹ce door.” After checking in with Nancy, Carey Jr. (who was already in Merced), Casley, The Age of Nixon 257

and Jerry, he wondered, “What next can happen? This has been for us the year of the toad” (Dec. 8, 1972).

SUMMING UP When not putting out the Nation, McWilliams devoted much of his attention during this time to re›ection, consolidation, and summing up his experience. He accepted awards, wrote new introductions to earlier books, attended conferences, donated his papers to university libraries, and sat for interviews. The awards often provided the occasion for correspondence with old friends. A 1974 letter from Matty Josephson, then a faculty member at the University of California, Santa Cruz, mentioned a New York Times article about McWilliams receiving the mayor’s Legion of Honor ribbon. The article, Josephson noted, described the sixty-eight-year-old McWilliams accepting the award and demonstrating his vanity and pride in “extravagant variations of reticence.” Many of the favors he performed for old friends also had a retrospective quality. In 1972, he complied with a request from Marilyn MurphyPlittman, a graduate student gathering biographical material on John Fante, to describe his friend’s work, its signi‹cance, and their relationship. Before agreeing, however, McWilliams wrote to Fante seeking his guidance on the matter. Do you want me to cooperate; if so, to what extent and at what level? . . . Am I to tell her about the total desolation that you have spread among young ladies from Roseville to Calexico? Shall I tell her of all the places we have visited together or describe in what condition we were when the visits were made? Please advise. Remember, despite my years, I have nearly total recall! (Fante 1991, 289) The response was vintage Fante. Marilyn Murphy-Plittman is a seeker after the true facts of my life and any reticence on your part would prove embarrassing in the long run. By all means spare me not and let the chips fall where they may. However . . . I prefer you make no mention of Roseville, or of my knowledge of the Smart or Dornfeld families.21 I think too that you must be very care-



ful not to indicate any deep or lasting relationship between you and me, since, as everyone knows, you are a member of the Communist Party and I could be besmirched by association. I would prefer that you make no mention of my friendship with Ross Wills. This is a dark and shameful era of my life which can add very little to my skill as a writer. Avoid too any mention of Jo Pagano, Frank Fenton, Bob Brownell, Helen Purcell, Marie Baray, Jean Win‹eld, and, in truth, all incidents having to do with my life on Bunker Hill. I also prefer that Stanley Rose and William Saroyan not be mentioned in connection with myself. Do not mention William Faulkner or Edmond Kohn. I think too that any reference to Musso-Frank would be in very bad taste. In your letter you speak of “all the places we have visited together,” but for the life of me I cannot remember them, and am convinced you are thinking of somebody else. Mrs. Murphy Plittman will probably ask you about Camilla, the heroine of Ask The Dust. I prefer that she be mentioned as a purely imagined characterization and not a real person. Otherwise, by all means let her have the truth with both barrels blasting. I have nothing to hide. (289–90) McWilliams’s letter to Murphy-Plittman, a copy of which he sent to Fante, provided a lengthy and forthright response to her concerns, but he also tried to guide her away from her concerns about Fante’s ethnicity. “I have some doubts that ethnic differences and ethnic backgrounds are as important as the current fashion makes them out to be,” he wrote. “In my view, for what it may be worth, John is as American as Huckleberry Finn” (Fante 1991, 291). He suggested that she focus on other factors, for example, Fante’s natural gifts and the fact that he was most productive when least af›uent. Joyce Fante, an able manager of her husband’s literary legacy, later remarked that McWilliams’s comments were “very shrewd for the most part,” but she bridled at his notion that Fante was “pretty much a preWorld War II writer.” “Despite the close friendship that existed between the two men,” she concluded, “McWilliams seems to have underrated Fante as a novelist” (Fante 1991, 291). Fante’s immediate response was more playful: “Your letter to Ms. Murphy-Plittman of Feb. 18 is interesting, informative and possibly even truthful. I enjoyed it thoroughly. The fellow you write about is most unusual. I should like to meet him sometime, but I don’t think I would care to know him intimately.” At the end of the letter, which included comments on and corrections of McWilliams’s assess-

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ment, Fante dropped the jocular tone. “Your letter to Plittman is generous, thoughtful, warm, kind, honest and essentially the truth, a nice balance of affection and honesty, and I thank you for having written it” (293–95). Two years later, Fante asked for a more important favor, this one also pertaining to literary posterity. After receiving a copy of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, reprinted by the University of Washington Press with a new introduction by McWilliams, Fante praised his friend’s writing at length before making a request. The reprint of Carlos’ book is a beautiful job, and I would give both testicles if the editors could be persuaded to do my Ask The Dust for their list. I can’t just bust in and ask them, however. I need someone like yourself to pass the word. Will you, can you do this for me without compromising yourself? (Fante 1991, 295) McWilliams wrote to two presses, the University of Washington and Peregrine Smith, which was handling his own paperback reprints, on Fante’s behalf. Although Ask the Dust had been out of print for some time, it was not completely dormant. Screenwriter Robert Towne had optioned the ‹lm rights three years before, and Fante described how Towne had come upon his novel. You will be interested in knowing how I came to meet Robert Towne. Five year ago he was seated in the Seattle Public Library reading Southern California Country, where he came upon a mention of Ask the Dust. He got hold of a copy, read it, and immediately got in touch with me. Small world. (298)22 Despite Towne’s interest in Ask the Dust, both publishers passed on the reprint. The novel remained out of print until 1980, when Charles Bukowski persuaded a small West Coast publisher, Black Sparrow Press, to reissue it with his new preface.23 Towne also contacted McWilliams while ‹nishing the screenplay for Chinatown, which adapted the Owens Valley water controversy to the ‹lm noir style and the political mood of the early 1970s. In one letter to McWilliams, Towne wrote that Southern California Country “really changed my life. It taught me to look at the place where I was born, and convinced me it was worth writing about.” Since then, Towne has frequently acknowledged that McWilliams’s 1946 book inspired his screen-



play, which earned him an Academy Award in 1975. For his part, McWilliams considered Chinatown brilliant. The formal perfection of its screenplay, its masterful direction, and its excellent performances recommend the ‹lm to anyone. For McWilliams, however, the ‹lm also worked at the autobiographical level, for it dramatized both the events in the Owens Valley and the scope of his career. In effect, his life and work connected the experiences of Mary Austin, who witnessed the Owens Valley developments personally, with those of Robert Towne, an A-list Hollywood screenwriter of the 1970s who polished scripts for Francis Ford Coppola and partied with Jack Nicholson. Rooted in Austin’s world, that work was still blossoming long after Towne himself was regarded as a senior Hollywood eminence.

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V I E T N A M A N D Watergate left McWilliams enervated. At their peaks, both stories unfolded swiftly, forcing him to write most of the Nation’s editorials himself, usually at the last moment, in addition to preparing the rest of the magazine for publication. “The incessant editorial grind began to get to me, but at the time there was no escape. I was a prisoner of events, of headlines” (ECM, 318). With Nixon’s resignation, McWilliams decided to conclude his editorial responsibilities at the Nation. “When Nixon ‹nally left the White House and the ‹ghting ceased in Vietnam, I was convinced that for me another ‘world’ had ended and that it was time to move on” (318). There were other, less momentous reasons for the decision as well. Although McWilliams did not advertise the fact, his relationship with publisher James Storrow was not excellent, and neither was his health. In 1975, he noted in his diary that his energy was waning, but he insisted that the real problem was the time and energy he spent responding to people who knew him well enough “to ask for favors and expect replies—even help” (Feb. 22, 1975). The number of such people, he observed, had risen dramatically over the years. A more acute problem, however, was his trigeminal neuralgia, also known as tic douloureux, which began to af›ict him years earlier. An excruciating malady, it usually attacks one side of the face without warning for ‹fteen to twenty seconds while its victims stop everything, including their breathing, for the duration of the attack. McWilliams began keeping track of his condition by marking each page of his diary. Iris, too, was unwell, suffering from glaucoma and a series of chronic, low-level maladies that McWilliams thought were stress-related. By June, McWilliams realized that a major change was necessary. “I’m concerned about the tic, the Nation, Iris, and other worries,” he noted in OVERING


his diary. “And I feel that a personal and political climax is in the of‹ng, close at hand” (June 11, 1975). Less than two weeks later, he met with Storrow over lunch and told him of his intention to resign at the end of the year. As that time approached, contributors, friends, and fans honored him with ›attering articles. Even the Los Angeles Times, which Otis Chandler had transformed after taking over as publisher in 1960, recognized McWilliams’s achievement. In November, Times columnist Art Seidenbaum, who had contributed a piece to The California Revolution in 1968, lauded McWilliams’s long career, including his humble beginnings at the newspaper. McWilliams wrote Seidenbaum an appreciative note. Like Clem Atlee, I am a reasonably modest person with a great deal to be modest about but I must confess that your column made me feel ten feet tall. My wife complains that my ego has swollen to monstrous and intolerable proportions! In the December 1975 issue of More magazine, Howard Zinn wrote that McWilliams “kept The Nation’s voice clear compelling, its mood indignant, and its contents devastatingly factual.” Zinn also praised McWilliams’s “kindness, his enormous energy, his amazing skill at picking the right writer on the right topic, his incessant quest for meticulous reporting as well as for thoughtful analysis, and, most of all, his adamant moral integrity.” The same month, a tribute to the Nation and the Progressive was held at the Waldorf Astoria. McWilliams and the cartoonist Herbert Block were among those honored, and the program included John Kenneth Galbraith, Senator Frank Church, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Ralph Nader. McWilliams did not seem to revel in the accolades. In his remarks, he admitted that the event was a thinly veiled fund-raiser, and his diary entry for that day was typically laconic: “It was a p.r. success—on the tube, network news, radio, etc., but the papers laid off. Got home at 11:30. Not bad” (Dec. 16, 1975). The next day he was back in the of‹ce early: “Worked like a bastard. Up at 7 a.m. cleaning out the of‹ce.” It was not until Christmas Eve that he considered the emotional stakes of his resignation. This cleaning out process is painful. To throw away ‹les that obviously have value is not nice; yet what to do with them? Also painful to realize, suddenly, how much has happened, what great changes have taken



place, how dead today are certain issues and concerns. Did they ever really matter? Were they as important as they seemed? He did not dwell on these questions. Instead, he donated some of his manuscripts and papers to the University of California, Berkeley, and turned his attention to other projects.

AFTER THE NATION After retiring as editor, McWilliams immediately began work on his memoir. In 1974, journalist Derek Shearer wrote that he had suggested such a project to his friend Bill Whitehead, an editor at Dutton. McWilliams wrote back in January 1975, “Sometime I would like to write not so much an autobiography as ‘The Education of Carey McWilliams,’ though that would not be the title.” Six months later, Whitehead followed up with a letter; three months after that, he asked McWilliams for some sample material. By way of reply, McWilliams suggested that Whitehead review his previous books as well as his entry in Who’s Who. His response had the intended effect. The next month, the ‹rst of McWilliams’s retirement, Whitehead offered a contract with a six-thousand-dollar advance, McWilliams’s largest ever. By that time, however, Simon & Schuster had heard about the project, and senior editor Patricia Meehan wrote to McWilliams expressing interest. They arranged a meeting on January 23, and McWilliams drafted an outline three days later. In the end, McWilliams signed with Simon & Schuster, at that time part of the Gulf & Western conglomerate. For various reasons, the book was dif‹cult to write. McWilliams had saved almost everything over the years—diaries, scrapbooks, journals, correspondence, juvenilia, reviews, and other clippings—but more than two decades had passed since he had written anything longer than a book chapter. Moreover, weekly deadlines had marked the tempo of his writing life for those years, and their absence made it easier to ›ounder. McWilliams mentioned his dif‹culties in a letter to Fante and received the following reply: “I can’t imagine the cause of your literary travail. Maybe you’re bored with the material; maybe you should rewrite to get a fresh start. Maybe, cooped up with that Susanville school ma’am, you’re longing for a

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›agon of freedom. In any case, I’m sure you’ll make out as time goes by” (Fante 1991, 303). In the end, McWilliams dedicated the book to the Susanville school ma’am, adding a verse from W. B. Yeats’s “When You Are Old” for good measure. While researching and drafting his memoir, McWilliams also maintained his correspondence with old friends and acquaintances, including Alvah Bessie and Lester Cole, Leone Baxter, Roger Baldwin, Harry Bridges, Stanley Mosk, Matthew Josephson, Herb Klein, and Alger Hiss. In 1978, he received what must have been an unexpected note from Esther Blaisdell, his lover and “red protegee” from the 1930s. Blaisdell, age sixtysix, explained that she had decided to contact McWilliams with “a mild, conciliatory Christmas greeting” whose content indicated that they had been out of touch at least since the 1940s. Accompanied by a snapshot, her typed, ‹ve-paragraph note alluded to her rightward political turn and the toll it evidently took on their relationship. “The ideological strain between you and me may still exist,” she wrote, “but I hope you are well and had a good life.” She wrote that she had worked for the federal government for thirteen years (“including a year overseas Greek mission—1947–48—but you would not have approved of that”) and with the Ford Foundation in New York for ‹fteen years. Although McWilliams was also in New York the entire time she worked there, she never contacted him. Rather, she lived with her mother in Bronxville before returning to Southern California in 1968, three years after her mother’s death. Her political views remained conservative until the end of her life. When her relatives went through her house in Fontana after her death, they found an unmailed check to the Oliver North defense fund.1 McWilliams also corresponded with many of the next generation’s writers and academic notables, including presidential historian Michael Beschloss, sociologist Todd Gitlin, Kevin Starr (then city librarian of San Francisco), and historian Patricia Nelson Limerick. Many of these exchanges were perfunctory, but in a 1993 tribute to McWilliams, Limerick recounted the signi‹cance of her contact with McWilliams. As a graduate student at Yale, she had sent McWilliams a fan letter and received an invitation to lunch in New York. Some years later, she met Carey Jr. and mentioned the meeting, whereupon he described in detail her itinerary for that day: where they met, where they had lunch, even what his father ordered. Admitting that the predictability of 266


McWilliams’s hospitality made their appointment seem less unique, Limerick made the best of it by recognizing that his “generosity and kindness extended this far, and so inclusively” (Limerick 1993, 1–2). Over the next several years, Limerick and her husband spent several lively evenings visiting with McWilliams and Iris. McWilliams’s discovery that Jeffrey Limerick was an architect led to a series of enthusiastic conversations about Southern California architecture, with McWilliams recounting anecdotes about Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler. In a recent interview, Jeffrey Limerick described McWilliams as “great fun—sharp and witty. I loved him!”2 The Limericks were also impressed by Iris’s outspokenness and McWilliams’s live-and-let-live cosmopolitanism, neither of which they expected from a couple of their age. During a lunch at a Greek restaurant, for example, McWilliams was greeted warmly by the owner. The owner and his wife, McWilliams explained to the Limericks, had been unable to conceive a child, so they invited another woman to join their household. The owner impregnated her while maintaining a loving relationship with his wife. The Limericks were especially struck by the nonjudgmental quality of McWilliams’s account. In a recent interview, Victor Navasky also recalled being impressed by McWilliams’s casual acceptance of an unusual circumstance. McWilliams had asked Navasky to speak to a Hungarian national he had met, but when the Hungarian began calling him once a month, Navasky suspected that he was a spy. Navasky eventually voiced that concern to McWilliams, who responded matter-of-factly, “Of course, they’re all spies.”3 In addition to writing, corresponding, and socializing, McWilliams remained active in other ways. He continued to lecture, updating his thesis about California’s exceptionalism at the Institute for Governmental Studies at Berkeley in April 1976. The same year, he also served as a consultant to a National Endowment for the Humanities project that examined various aspects of life in the Central Valley. The other consultants on the project, writers Gerald Haslam and James D. Houston, regarded McWilliams as a hero, and Haslam later reported that he and Houston were “stunned by his affability.” McWilliams had corresponded with Haslam since 1973, when he reviewed Haslam’s Okies: Selected Stories favorably. McWilliams’s interest led a national publisher to purchase the rights to the stories and to reissue an illustrated edition the next year. Haslam also wrote three articles for Moving On 267

the Nation on California topics: the Okies in the Central Valley after forty years; the right-wing Posse Comitatus, which had a chapter near Haslam’s home in Petaluma; and racial tensions in the valley town of Taft. In a recent interview, Haslam said he could not have written about the Central Valley as he did without the bene‹t of McWilliams’s example. “When I was growing up in Bakers‹eld, no one ever talked about the connections between big agriculture and government,” he recalled. Few had commented on the lack of family farms in the area, and no one mentioned the “fake patriotism and all the other stuff so common in the valley.” As a result, the locals “made the map real and the territory unreal.” McWilliams broke that pattern by becoming “one of the few who told the truth about the valley in writing.” Moreover, he did it “with a remarkable combination of love of humanity and distrust of power.”4 Houston was similarly impressed with McWilliams and later paid tribute to him in Californians: Searching for the Golden State (1982), which credits “various works by the late Carey McWilliams, particularly California: The Great Exception . . . In the days when very few were looking, he saw it all” (286). A key challenge in writing about the state, Houston remarked in a recent interview, was ‹nding continuities in its rapid and seemingly chaotic development. On this point, he compared McWilliams to Tocqueville, noting that both men’s observations tapped down to the bedrock of American society.5 Even as McWilliams won over younger writers, he had occasion to recall his own heroes. In March 1977, he addressed the Press Club of Long Island on the subject of H. L. Mencken, and his notes re›ected Mencken’s deep in›uence on his life and career. He began by noting that Mencken was ‹rst and foremost a journalist, not a literary critic, and should be read and studied as such. Mencken was also a superb editor, the best McWilliams had known and one of the nation’s greatest. Mencken acknowledged inquiries promptly, brie›y, personally, and decisively; he rarely called for heavy revision; and he never objected to an offbeat phrase. Furthermore, he was “totally democratic.” Names and reputations did not awe him; his magazines were open to all kinds of writers, including women and minorities; and he loved to discover new talent. According to McWilliams, Mencken also embodied “the maverick strain” in American journalism as established by Poe and Twain and embodied by Bierce. Both



Mencken and Bierce remained outsiders, made no effort to join the “New York Establishment,” and were basically journalists who happened to write books. A key difference between them was that Bierce was bitter, though McWilliams maintained that Bierce “had his reasons.” McWilliams concluded his speech by commenting on Mencken as a friend, recalling their lunch in his home in the 1930s—the ‹ne china, glasses, silver, and his slightly old-fashioned, gracious manner. Although McWilliams’s remarks pertained to Mencken during his heyday, they were also highly re›exive. Like Mencken, McWilliams offered rapid, personal replies to queries, edited lightly, identi‹ed and developed new talent, appreciated America’s diversity, felt connected to Bierce, maintained distance from the New York literary establishment, and seemed oldfashioned to younger writers. Moreover, McWilliams regarded himself as a journalist who had written books, not as an author who edited and wrote articles on the side. This helps explain McWilliams’s lack of regret over his move to New York, which virtually ended his career as an author but placed him in a position comparable to his hero’s. As for demeanor, McWilliams was probably closer to Mencken’s bluff good nature than to Bierce’s caustic bitterness, but he was quick to defend Bierce on this score and later admitted to his own residual bitterness over the fallout from the anti-Communist probes of the 1950s.

THE RELUCTANT HERO Coming in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, McWilliams’s retirement coincided with a national reassessment of the federal government’s trustworthiness. Many of his predictions, analyses, and suspicions had been borne out, and his retirement brought them into sharper focus. Even before stepping down at the Nation, he had received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from USC, and over the next several years, he accepted a series of awards with unremitting modesty. In 1976, the California Historical Society honored him with the Henry R. Wagner Memorial Award, which it conferred on him in a ceremony at the Los Angeles Times’s corporate headquarters. The program included his longtime friend and UCLA historian John Caughey as well as Phil Kerby, the former editor of Frontier

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and a member of the Times editorial board. Historian Earl Pomeroy, whose book The Paci‹c Slope McWilliams had credited in The California Revolution, was also on the selection committee for the award. Two years later, McWilliams received the George Polk Memorial Award in Journalism, the ‹rst ever granted for career achievement, and the Earl Warren Award for Civil Liberties, which was created by the ACLU of Northern California in 1972. The ACLU honor was not without irony, if only because McWilliams could never quite explain Warren’s status as a progressive jurist. In a 1974 piece for the Nation called “The Education of Earl Warren,” McWilliams had summed up Warren’s career three months after his death. Guided in part by the observations of Pat Brown, whom he had quietly consulted before writing the piece, McWilliams maintained that Governor Warren showed little sign of the transformation he would experience on the bench. In fact, this claim contradicted Brown’s observation that Warren’s second gubernatorial term was a turning point. However, McWilliams did include Brown’s con‹dential comment—unattributed, as per Brown’s request—that Warren was “a good hater who never forgave those who opposed him.” Although this implied that Warren’s transformation could be traced in part to con›icts with right-wingers, McWilliams ‹nally ascribed Warren’s “strong, tactful, and politically astute leadership” on the Supreme Court to his growth in moral insight and political understanding while in of‹ce. In a 1979 letter to attorney Charles Katz, he was even more generous. “Now I can remember that he was lousy in the King-Connor-Ramsay days,” McWilliams wrote, referring to a 1936 murder case that Warren, as district attorney, brought against three local labor organizers, “and he gave me an awfully quick brushoff then. But the man did become everybody’s hero in the ‹fties, and I have remained starry-eyed about him.” The ACLU award also prompted a note from Casley in Manhattan Beach, who was delighted that his brother had been recognized for standing up for his beliefs—a position that “took a lot of guts.” He added that it “must be a personal pleasure to prove you were and are on the ‘Right’ wavelength.” McWilliams received several other awards that year as well, including an honorary doctorate from Claremont College and a more intriguing one from the Institute of Cosmogeosophy in Warsaw. He also sat for a series of oral history interviews at UCLA, which rehearsed and ampli‹ed the material in his memoir, which he was working on at the 270


time. The interviews were later transcribed and titled Honorable in All Things, which recalled the standard of comportment his father had laid out for Casley and him. In 1978, too, the Nation honored him again, this time at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City with a dinner program that included Studs Terkel, I. F. Stone, United Farm Workers vice president Dolores Huerta, Senator James Abourezk of North Dakota, playwright Luis Valdez, and cartoonist Jules Feiffer. In his speech, McWilliams repeated his remark that he was “a reasonably modest person with a great deal to be modest about.” He then reviewed the various names he had been called over the years—pinko, red, subversive, fellow traveler, and dough-faced Typhoid Mary of the left (“this from a Pulitzer prize-winning historian”)—before observing that all these sobriquets, along with his 1972 mugging, were “intended to reinforce my native sense of modesty.” His many references to this virtue, especially at such ceremonies, suggest that it carried a special signi‹cance for him. Widely praised for his graciousness, generosity, and consideration, he was by no means immodest, vain, or self-aggrandizing. At the same time, he neither sold himself short nor lacked con‹dence, and his faith in his own perceptions and convictions helped him resist the name-calling and pressure. His speech also described a psychic defense mechanism he had employed during the 1950s. In fact, the experience of living in the political doghouse in the McCarthy era had a kind of reverse snobbery in which epithets were regarded as medals, and the only citations that counted were those in the index to the voluminous transcripts issued by the inquisitorial committees. He joked that many of his friends competed for status by comparing the size of their FBI ‹les. (McWilliams requested his own ‹le, which ran more than seven hundred pages, during this time.) The remarks probably contained a kernel of truth. He had long since dropped the snobbishness of his youthful writing, but his sense of correctness, if not social superiority, enabled him to continue voicing his dissent when he and his friends were targeted. Privately, the old elitism manifested itself as humor. He enjoyed quoting Wendell Phillips, the nineteenth-century abolitionist who said, “My opponents are people of no family whatever.”6 Moving On 271

Between awards ceremonies, McWilliams continued to write pieces for the Nation that blended re›ection and shrewd observation. One of them, a 1976 article called “Dope & Jobs: The Border Story,” could have been written twenty-‹ve years later. The Mexican-American border has seldom been strictly policed over any extended period; both countries and the special-interest groups involved prefer a policy of opportunistic enforcement. Merchants want the business from across the border; agricultural and other employers want cheap labor. Mexico is interested in employment for its citizens and welcomes the earnings they bring back. Both Congress and the Executive are willing to accommodate the demands of our special-interest groups. What was needed, he concluded, was a heightened awareness of the historical roots of the problem and a recognition that “these are people, not cattle or sheep, who are moving back and forth across a ‘border’ that has never made much social, geographical, or economic sense.” In 1978, Victor Navasky took over as editor of the Nation and began meeting McWilliams for lunch every other week. “He was really smart, solid, and I felt he knew everything,” Navasky remarked in a recent interview. “He gave good advice, which was never arrogantly offered. It was often presented in the form of a question: ‘Are you happy with such-andsuch?’”7 Navasky also asked McWilliams to write a biweekly column, which became “Second Thoughts.” The title denoted retrospection, and, indeed, McWilliams mostly revisited his favorite themes in light of current news. If readers expected doubts about or revisions of his earlier views, however, they were usually disappointed. When Richard Nixon began to rehabilitate his image in 1978, McWilliams reminded readers, as he had since 1950, that Nixon was “a good tactician because he has no political values, none.” The Jonestown tragedy in 1979, in which Reverend Jim Jones of San Francisco led hundreds of people to their deaths in Guyana, momentarily revived his interest in California cults, though he was more concerned that Congress would infringe on First Amendment rights in trying to deal with them. When CIA covert operations were revealed, he maintained that the agency tended to misjudge insurgencies because “a leftist background or theoretical interest in Marxism is an automatic bar to employment.” Governor Jerry Brown’s election and administration were fresh evidence that California was exceptional, and McWilliams 272


applauded the establishment of agricultural cooperatives for eleven Mexican-American families near Salinas. The death of journalist Carleton Beals, a frequent contributor to the Nation, drew a reference to Beals’s stories about Cuba’s invasion jitters in 1960, a rehearsal of the Guatemalan guerrilla training base story, and an allusion to an editorial discouraging the invasion. These were not second thoughts so much as ‹rst thoughts reactivated by fresh experience. Not all of these pieces hit the nail on the head. In a December 1979 piece on the rise of fundamentalism, McWilliams noted that Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were appealing directly to evangelical Christians. Only three years earlier, however, he had doubted the staying power of the movement. “In time,” he wrote, “the evangelicals will divide on the basis of status, income, education and achievement; indeed the process seems already to be starting.” Moreover, mass communications would “pose a problem,” though he also observed, “evangelicals have shown considerable skill at exploiting the mass media.” Finally, the newness of the Sun Belt cities would fade, and “familiar ‹nancial and social disciplines” would be imposed. He also seemed to underestimate Ronald Reagan’s appeal. In June 1979, his only comment on the former California governor was that he was “even older politically than his age indicates.” “Given Republican weakness and a nominee of [Senator Edward] Kennedy’s vote-getting ability,” McWilliams concluded, “the Democrats could win and, in the process, reverse a drift to the right that is not nearly as massive as it has been made out to be.” Although sensible at the time, these observations now suggest that McWilliams was whistling past the political graveyard of American liberalism. In 1978, McWilliams also began submitting pieces to Westways, the Southern California magazine that had run his column in the 1930s. One of them, “Writers of the Western Shore,” re›ected on the Los Angeles literary scene of his youth. In it, he described his ‹rst dinner with Louis Adamic and his connection to John Fante, whom McWilliams had consulted while composing the article. By way of response, Fante complimented Jerry’s article on writer Clarkson Crane, which appeared in the same issue, before turning his attention to McWilliams’s effort. As to your piece, I had some dif‹culty getting through it. I found it tedious and boring. You seem to have lost the old ‹re, and your phrasMoving On 273

ing has become cumbersome and without conviction. Your article took on the quality of an Earl Wilson column, gossipy, trivial, and of no value whatsoever. The article was hardly a piece of serious literary journalism—it was written, after all, for an audience of automobile club members—but the real problem seemed to lie with McWilliams’s depiction of Fante. The few scant paragraphs about myself were embarrassing, untrue, and hardly depict the strength of character I possessed in those formative years. Your effort to put me down as a servile hash slinger in a lowly Third Street saloon was so humiliating that I have forbidden my children to read your piece. My poor wife wept as she read those ugly words. Mind you, I am not discounting your otherwise generous talents, but in this article you have stumbled badly. (Fante 1991, 307) The hyperbole is pure Fante, but he and Joyce might have felt that McWilliams had once again slighted his literary achievements. If so, both men’s in‹rmities left little time for mending fences.

ILLNESS McWilliams’s activities during this period took place against a backdrop of poor and declining health. In January 1978, his doctor directed him to New York University Hospital for a biopsy and, almost certainly, some kind of surgery. Returning from the doctor’s of‹ce, his ‹rst thoughts were for Iris. I came back by way of the Y—stunned: hating to report this to Iris. And dear God do I worry about her! The whole situation in Los Angeles in a mess. Her mother to watch. And her own health—her eyes. I’m beside myself with concern. (Jan. 17, 1978) His reaction seems unusual, but it is typical of McWilliams. Faced with a serious and possibly fatal illness, he was more concerned about Iris’s reaction and her less urgent concerns and maladies. The Aidlins and Jerry arrived in New York to support McWilliams as he waited anxiously for his biopsy results. On January 26, he noted in his diary, “Tic bad. Waited around again for the biopsy which inadvertently I had referred to with [Dr.] Tessler—slip of the tongue—as an autopsy.” Four 274


days later, the results came in: “in effect, three operations! A devastating verdict.” He was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the penis, a rare disease in North America whose gravity increases when it spreads to the lymph glands. The ‹rst surgery would remove the cancer from his penis, and the second and third operations would remove nodes from his lymph glands. A visit with Iris, Jerry, and the Aidlins consoled him, but he met separately with Carey Jr., whom he entrusted with The Education of Carey McWilliams if he could not ‹nish it: “Dear Bill was here from 10 to 12. Good talk. Briefed him about the book and what needs to be done to the last chapter.” It was an extraordinary gesture for a writer who almost never collaborated on any manuscript, much less his memoir. The ‹rst operation was performed on February 1: “A ghastly experience that I did not relish but managed to endure.” Afterward, he noted, “I guess Bierce was right: only change and death are ultimate realities” (Feb. 4, 1978). Still, he was grateful for the company and support of his friends. Joe and Mary [Aidlin] are going back tomorrow. I will miss them sorely; they were of enormous help to Iris and to me. Such a generous, gracious, compassionate act of loyalty and love. Someone said today, “You have the friends you deserve.” I have much better than I deserve. (Feb. 3, 1978) He also received visits from labor and civil rights attorney Victor Rabinowitz—“wonderful friend, that Victor”—and telephone calls from Blair Clark (who succeeded him as editor of the Nation), Alger Hiss, and others. He was grateful, too, for Iris’s devotion. “Dear, darling, irreplaceable Iris was here from about 2 p.m. to 5. I had no other visitors, so we had a ‹ne, sensitive, quiet communion. Not much talk; not a lot of hand-holding— just communing” (Feb. 5). In between visits and calls, he worked: “I rewrote and retyped the book review for The Nation and got it mailed” (Feb. 8). Despite his condition and the gravity of the situation, he was able to maintain an earthy humor. When the bandages were removed, he showed the Aidlins the results of the surgery, joking with Mary, “Well, you should have seen my penis before the operation!”8 The second operation was on February 9: “This was Bad Day No. 2— was operated on for removal of nodes in left lymph gland.” The nodes were benign, but six days later, he was in low spirits. “A tiresome day—but they are all that way—watched Ali-Spinks ‹ght; it seemed like a ‹x to me . . . Moving On 275

Jerry goes back Saturday. I wish he could stay longer . . . Iris stressed out, with cold, in bed.” Several days later, his mood picked up after a visit with Jerry. Jerry came by on the way to the airport. A good 2½ hour visit with him— which made me feel better—just seeing him, just feeling his presence, knowing that we are strangely on some common wave-length; he understands me and what I think and vice versa. I hated to see him leave. (Feb. 20, 1978) The visit was no doubt reassuring to McWilliams. Excellent communication with Jerry, who was then working in San Francisco as a music librarian, was by no means a foregone conclusion. Three years earlier, McWilliams had noted in his diary, “Took Jerry to lunch to sound him out: to get him to talk. But, as usual, I was largely stymied” (Feb. 3, 1975). The night before his visit with his father, Jerry stayed in New Jersey with Carey Jr. and his family, which now included two daughters, Susan and Helen. Becoming a grandfather had been an unexpectedly powerful and touching experience for McWilliams. It was also a source of strength as he coped with his illness. The third operation occurred on February 22, and the results were worrisome. The nodes were not benign, but the doctors thought they had removed them early enough to prevent further problems. By the ‹rst week of March, McWilliams was wondering when he could resume work on his book. He also received welcome telephone calls from the Fantes and his brother: “Good old Casley phoned; it was a pleasure to hear his voice and chat with him” (Mar. 5, 1978). McWilliams checked out of the hospital on March 9 and began chemotherapy. This brush with mortality reminded McWilliams that his time was limited. In Malibu, Fante was thinking along the same lines. Two months before McWilliams learned of his cancer, Fante had written him. I really sympathize with you living in New York. Merely surviving there seems an act of human courage far beyond the struggle for existence. I too wish you would pack up and get out of that ghastly black hole. What keeps you there now that you have disengaged yourself from The Nation puzzles me. Come back to God’s country and enjoy whatever time you have left. (Fante 1991, 304)



Although the message was familiar, there was more urgency this time. Fante was trying to maintain his own good spirits as his health declined precipitously. His diabetes had already deprived him of his left leg, and glaucoma was threatening his vision. Eye surgery forced him to dictate this letter to Joyce while he waited for his sight to return. “Meanwhile I lie on the couch, listen to the radio and curse my fate. It was good hearing from you. Do write soon and give some thought to California.” In fact, McWilliams and Iris were giving California considerable thought. Occupied by renters for two decades, the house on Alvarado Street was in poor repair, but a return to Los Angeles was appealing for several reasons, including the chance to see more of Jerry. Just before McWilliams was diagnosed with cancer, he noted in his diary, “Iris is very restless—who can blame her?—but would she like Los Angeles if we were to relocate? And if we didn’t, what then?” (Jan. 15, 1978). A year later, the same questions were still pending. “I’m still very uncertain what we should do about the Alvarado house—the beautiful hilltop lot. Where would we go if we had to get out of this apartment? For ease and convenience, this is a good bet, and moving would be a God-awful ordeal. But—and there I pause—there I falter; I can’t ‹nish the sentence” (Jan. 10, 1979). In the end, McWilliams decided on an extended stay in Los Angeles. He had received many teaching and lecturing offers over the years, and now he accepted two: a short stint as Regents Lecturer at the University of California, Riverside, followed by a quarter in the History Department at UCLA, where he would teach two courses: “Muckraking: Journalism and Progressive Politics in Twentieth-Century America” and “Southern California Between the Wars.”

THE EDUCATION OF CAREY MCWILLIAMS As McWilliams prepared for his teaching duties, Simon & Schuster published his memoir. Despite his earlier misgivings, he chose a title that echoed Henry Adams’s 1918 autobiography. Like Adams, McWilliams wanted “to convey some measure of my feelings and perceptions, past and present, about the evolving and disappearing ‘worlds’ of this period” (ECM, 13). He was also attracted to Adams as a moral critic and was

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increasingly seeing his own work as part of that tradition. In other ways, however, Adams’s approach was inapt. Even at his most re›ective, McWilliams was not an intellectual in Adams’s mold. With his Olympian perspective, Adams regarded the politics of his time as “the systematic organization of hatreds,” but he longed to make a contribution that re›ected his intelligence and political lineage. (Two of his relatives had occupied the White House.) Although his father had been a state senator, McWilliams never considered a political career his birthright; rather, his political education resulted from decades of legal work, journalism, and other forms of intense civic engagement. The Education of Carey McWilliams divides its author’s life into ‹ve more or less discrete “worlds”: his Colorado boyhood, Los Angeles during the 1920s, his political transformation in the 1930s and early 1940s, the immediate postwar years, and his two decades at the Nation. The ‹rst four worlds, which span his years in Colorado and California, take up the ‹rst half of the book. The ‹fth world, which stretches out over the second half of the book, is often more attuned to domestic political history than to McWilliams’s personal experiences and relationships. Well before the book was published, he was advised that something was amiss. New editor Jonathan Segal—Patricia Meehan had left Simon & Schuster by that time—offered the following response to a draft. After chapter three, a certain tone of impersonality sets in and a factual, rather than anecdotal, style takes hold; it gives the book a remove which I personally believe weakens its appeal. You make your family, Mencken, Bierce, Jeffers, et al real ›esh and blood characters early on. Later on it is you alone . . . It becomes the facts, m’am, nothing but the facts (with exceptions, of course).9 In Segal’s view, two additional elements were needed: vignettes and a sense of intimacy with the author. The vignettes should highlight “the tensions, risks, sacri‹ce, courage, stupidity” of his dealings with the famous and not so famous. “Get away from the reporting for a while and let the color come through,” Segal urged. As for adding intimacy, Segal suggested a few possibilities: “We would like to know how you agonized over a decision; had a revealing conversation; spent a weekend in the mountains; argued with famous ‹gures; stumbled onto facts; reacted to threats against you; saw terrible or wonderful things; got angry.” 278


McWilliams had anticipated the suggestion. In December 1976, he noted privately, “The problem is a wealth of material—so much ground to cover and how to cover it in a personal way . . . A tough job and I have not been up to it lately, physically or otherwise” (Dec. 12, 1976). In the end, he did not implement Segal’s suggestion fully. Indeed, the opening pages dash all hope for juicy revelation or confession: “In only the most limited sense is this an autobiographical narrative. I am much too discreet to write about my private life, and besides I lack the temperament even if that were my intention, which it is not” (ECM, 13). Both claims are accurate. As autobiography, the book is limited. Although rich in detail about his deceased relatives, for example, it is almost silent about his living ones. Even as a “personal political memoir,” McWilliams’s preferred term, the book is oddly impersonal. Also, McWilliams was too discreet to write about his private life. The closest thing to a revelation appears in the book’s acknowledgments, where he thanks Iris and his sons for their “undeviating support through some rough and troubled times”—a reference, Carey Jr. later speculated, to the dark days of the 1950s. McWilliams was equally discreet about his impressive array of friends and colleagues—yet another obstacle to a best-selling autobiography. Like his discretion and modesty, McWilliams’s external focus was also re›exive. Even in the 1920s, when his private writings were relatively chatty and personal, they were not distinguished by their probing introspection. As he aged, his entries stayed even more on the surface of his experience, mostly recording speaking engagements, travel details, lunch and dinner companions, headlines, and notes on the weather. A lack of interest in one’s inner life—or, at least, in dramatizing it—would spell mediocrity for a ‹ction writer, and, indeed, Flags in the Sunset was no Dubliners. This same disposition had proven to be less of an obstacle in his political analysis and commentary. By focusing his attention on the domestic scene instead of his inner life, he had produced or sponsored an enormous body of high-quality work. Yet this external focus made the task of writing his memoir extraordinarily dif‹cult. If he had not failed to develop within— the very lack he had noted in his father’s character—he also had not developed the resources to write movingly about his experiences. Although McWilliams did not take his young editor’s advice, Segal enjoyed their work together. “I liked him and made excuses to see him,” Segal said. “He was a gentleman, always polite.” However, their collaboraMoving On 279

tion was “a sadder experience than it might have been.” As he recalled, “I wanted to do more for him, and maybe I could have if I were more experienced. But I also realized that the book would have a hard time commercially, and he had a very clear idea of what he wanted, so I didn’t insist.” It did not help, of course, that McWilliams had two debilitating conditions while composing the book. “He faded at the end,” Segal recalled.10 The book sold modestly—it was never issued in paperback—and the reviews were mixed. Many were written by friends and longtime fans who praised the life and sometimes the book. Robert Sherrill’s review for the Chicago Sun-Times called McWilliams “perhaps the most in›uential radical in America today.” Writer John Gregory Dunne con‹rmed that in›uence, at least in his own case, by noting in the Chicago Tribune that he had shamelessly tapped McWilliams’s insights for years, and his 1967 book about the UFW strikes acknowledges that debt explicitly. Writing for the Nation, Studs Terkel called McWilliams the “best muckraking editor of his time” and reeled off a list of investigative works to support his claim. “What most impresses the reader,” Terkel claimed, “is the editorial prescience as well as the guts.” USC historian Doyce B. Nunis Jr. was even more emphatic. Like a beacon his ‹rm commitment to democratic principles, human dignity, unswerving truth illuminates the pages. His apt characterizations and blunt evaluations of the immediate past will inform, infuriate, de›ate, and delight . . . One puts [the book] down with admiration for a dedicated American, a man of conscience and purpose. Francis Carney, who was planning to write McWilliams’s intellectual biography, made a virtue of the book’s omission of personal detail by noting that “the reader will ‹nd no narcissistic fancies, no tortured self-analysis, no hyping of marginal connections into history-shaping importance. We get a whole lot of who, what, when and why and very little of I.” Other reviewers were less impressed. Writing for the Washington Post, Peter H. Schuck, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, noted that McWilliams’s predictions about McCarthyism, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, and cold war excesses had demonstrated his courage and vindicated his judgment. “How, then,” Schuck asked, “is one to account for the emotional ›atness and intellectual aridity of this book?” Intellectual historian John Patrick Diggins 280


lauded McWilliams’s career and considered the book a “gracefully written recollection of an active life that spans a half-century of American history,” but he faulted McWilliams for failing to repudiate Stalinism: “The refusal to face this issue squarely makes McWilliams a poor guide to the meaning of the Cold War and McCarthyism, subjects one could gladly pass over if only McWilliams did not devote the greater part of the book to them.” In the New York Times Book Review, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. made more of Diggins’s point. After praising McWilliams’s books, three of which (Factories in the Field, Brothers Under the Skin, and North from Mexico) he deemed “‹rst-rate,” Schlesinger quickly turned to his central question: “How could an independent American radical, so honorably concerned with civil liberties, the oppression of minorities and the overweening state, regard the Soviet Union with such complacency and anti-Stalinism with such hatred?” His implicit answer was that McWilliams was naive about international affairs. “In many respects, Mr. McWilliams is a surprisingly parochial fellow. If he ever traveled abroad, the experience did not impress him enough to make his memoirs.” Although not distinguished by its objectivity, Schlesinger’s review made several valid observations. One was that the memoir “declines in value and interest once Mr. McWilliams leaves California and ‹rst-hand social investigation for the editorial seat.” Conceding that the Nation had performed some valuable exposés, Schlesinger remarked, “One wishes that Mr. McWilliams had written less about The Nation and more about himself.” He also faulted McWilliams for failing to portray his friends and acquaintances more vividly. Although McWilliams knew many interesting people, “He characterizes most of them, apart from his own family, in banal terms.” Schlesinger concluded his review with a barb. Any book that calls itself “The Education of . . .” invites comparison. Henry Adams need not worry. This memoir is, in the end, unrevealing, satis‹ed, even smug. Looking back, Mr. McWilliams regards his life with unrelieved admiration. He seems to have been right about everything. He records no mistakes and no regrets. His recital illuminates neither himself nor his times. There was enough truth in Schlesinger’s review to produce the cranky response from McWilliams that Alice McGrath noted later. The memoir is Moving On 281

unrevealing, it records no signi‹cant regrets, and many would agree that there is too much about the Nation and not enough about him and his experiences. The charge of smugness, however, is gratuitous, and Schlesinger’s attempt to paint McWilliams as an apologist for Stalin is strained. McWilliams wrote almost nothing, positive or negative, about the Soviet Union or its leaders, and although one can criticize him for his silence, one cannot fairly conclude that he was pro-Stalin. Schlesinger’s other criticisms of the book are cavils, leaving one to wonder exactly which sins McWilliams was expected to confess. Given the long-standing friction between the two men, many readers also wondered about the choice of Schlesinger as a reviewer in the ‹rst place. One letter to the editor asked, “Why not employ Satan to review the Bible?” Alexander Saxton, who would soon be McWilliams’s colleague in the History department at UCLA, managed to tell the truth with charity. Like other reviewers, Saxton mentioned the extraordinary quality of McWilliams’s career and endorsed Fred Cook’s observation, offered on the book’s back cover, that McWilliams took lonely political stands at great risk to himself and was “vindicated by events time and time again.” Yet Saxton also lamented “the long gap in his own book list, and especially since the Education is in certain respects disappointing.” For Saxton, that disappointment derived from the book’s failure to reach out to those who had not personally witnessed or experienced the events documented in the memoir. Unlike McWilliams’s earlier works, Saxton claimed, The Education of Carey McWilliams “lacks the power to explain itself.” Saxton also faulted the decision to borrow Adams’s title and format. Education for Adams was essentially narcissistic; the reader knows from the beginning that the outer world will display meaning only through its exquisite perceptions in Adams’s consciousness. This will not do for McWilliams whose interest in his own consciousness derived primarily from his desire to apply it to change the world outside. Furthermore, the title suggests an intellectual evolution that the memoir does not consistently demonstrate. McWilliams remained the rebel-radical that he was from the 1930s on, and “the moving force of that marvelously sustained commitment remains largely unexamined.” The result, Saxton concluded, “is that the Education oversimpli‹es, and underrates, Carey



McWilliams—which leaves one no choice but to fault the book in this respect in order to do the author justice.” It was a shrewd reading not only of the book but also of the author and his life’s work.

BACK IN CALIFORNIA In January 1979, months before the memoir’s reviews began to appear, McWilliams and Iris ›ew to Los Angeles for an extended stay. The next week, a large contingent of local journalists, civil rights attorneys, labor activists, and civic leaders turned out at Los Angeles’s Union Station to honor him. KPFK, a Los Angeles public radio station, sponsored the event, and a volume of articles and photographs edited by Henry Weinstein and David Wesley was produced for the occasion. That publication included photographs by Dorothea Lange and pieces by César Chávez, John Gregory Dunne, Alice McGrath, Derek Shearer, I. F. Stone, and John Caughey extolling McWilliams and his work. Les Brown’s Band of Renown provided the music for the event, but the acoustics in the vast rail station were poor. “Could not hear the speakers over the noise,” McWilliams wrote in his diary (Jan. 28, 1979). Even so, he complimented two speeches, including Chávez’s. His own speech showed that he was still capable of surprising even his closest friends and colleagues. He focused on a relationship between a mythical salesman and a “little old lady from Dubuque” that was sparked on the old Starlight Express, the train that ran along the coast. The two ›irted and made friends, McWilliams said, and “by the time the train had reached San Luis Obispo, they had been born again.” The audience, which was made up largely of activists and journalists, was almost certainly prepared for something more politically charged.11 After ‹nishing his lectures at the University of California, Riverside, McWilliams and Iris continued to make their social rounds in and around Los Angeles, meeting Casley and Kay in El Segundo and joining Jake and Josephine Zeitlin for dinner at Musso-Frank’s. In May, McWilliams was planning a trip to Massachusetts General Hospital to treat his tic, but he was also hatching two book projects, one on the “New Californians” and the other on the East Coast’s Hispanic population. The next month, he delivered a graduation speech for the history department at the University

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of California, Berkeley, where he rehearsed his arguments about California’s exceptionalism and proposed historical studies of neglected ‹gures, including Sheridan Downey, C. C. Julian, Samuel Clover, Artie Samish, and Hildegarde Flanner. He then reworked the speech into a March 1980 piece for Westways under the title “Resourceful California.” In September, Los Angeles reporter Tritia Toyota interviewed McWilliams for local television, and he later received a telephone call from Governor Jerry Brown, but his arrival at UCLA’s history department prompted little other fanfare. Despite his radiation treatments at the university’s medical center, he maintained a busy schedule of teaching, writing, speaking, and sitting for interviews. He also found time to meet with old friends and to make some new ones. In November, Alice McGrath brought Rene Rodriguez, a Spanish instructor at Ventura College, to meet McWilliams. By that time, Rodriguez had known of McWilliams, whom one of his professors at the University of California, Santa Barbara, had referred to as the grandfather of Chicano studies, for a decade. In preparation for their meeting, Rodriguez wrote out questions for McWilliams, and McGrath drove them to McWilliams’s apartment on Moreno Avenue. In the end, Rodriguez never had a chance to pose his prepared questions; instead, the conversation consisted of McWilliams quizzing Rodriguez about his views.12 In early December, after a television interview with Kelly Lange, McWilliams traveled once again to Berkeley, this time for a seminar entitled “Images of California” at the Institute for Governmental Studies. After recounting his early experiences in California and offering his thoughts on its future, he returned to Los Angeles for an interview with Kay Mills of the Los Angeles Times. Mills had begun a series for the opinion section on California “thinkers and doers” that included such ‹gures as Ansel Adams, Wallace Stegner, Jessica Mitford, and Luis Valdez, whose play Zoot Suit had opened at the Mark Taper Forum earlier that year. Mills found him frail, owlish, sharp, greatly quotable, and ›attered that she knew his work so well. Having maintained a schedule that would have exhausted a healthier man, he then turned his attention to completing his teaching duties at UCLA. Although his arrival there had been unheralded, his efforts did not go unnoticed; on the last day of the quarter, he received a standing ovation from his students. In the end, McWilliams proved to be an easy grader; the



dozen or so students in his muckraking class received an A of some form or another.13 At the conclusion of the term, McWilliams and Iris spent Christmas Eve with the Fantes in Malibu. It was their ‹rst meeting in years, and both men were aware it would be their last. Although McWilliams was ill and Fante was physically ravaged, both were in good spirits. Fante had spent the fall dictating a novel (Dreams of Bunker Hill) to Joyce, and Black Sparrow Press was scheduled to reissue Ask the Dust the following month. That evening, McWilliams presented the Fantes with a copy of The Education of Carey McWilliams with the inscription “For John Fante, ‘dear friend and evil companion,’ and Joyce, the Witch of Malibu.” (Joyce had a longstanding interest in the occult.) After dinner, Nick Fante read three chapters from his father’s recent novel. At the end of the evening, the two men shook hands and said their good-byes (Cooper 2000, 315). McWilliams spent New Year’s Day with the Aidlins watching the Rose Bowl, which even he conceded was spectacular. “More elaborate than ever: a stunning pageant for its phony qualities” (Jan. 1, 1980). The next day, he reviewed the transcript for his oral history, which he described as a tedious job. When he and Iris returned to New York, he resumed his radiation therapy. His health continued to decline, however, and he spent the next months in chronic pain. He began to put his ‹nancial affairs in order, consolidating bank accounts and putting the house on Alvarado Street up for sale. In February, his diary noted the appearance of Kay Mills’s interview in the Los Angeles Times. In an uncharacteristic mental lapse, he recorded the same information in a separate entry that week. On St. Patrick’s Day, he cast his mind back to his youth: “And it was on St. Patrick’s Day 1922 that I set out as an outcast for Los Angeles 58 years ago!” (Mar. 17, 1980). The diary entries ceased shortly thereafter. The following month, McWilliams wrote to Casley, who had sent along his written recollections of growing up in Steamboat Springs: “It is a beautiful tribute to Jerry and Harriet; not bad about your younger brother.” He dismissed the notion that these memories might be embarrassing to him— a concern Casley wanted to clear up before distributing them to relatives. The two brothers had seen each other only ‹fteen times over the last two decades, but their quiet, mutual respect was still intact. After traveling to Minnesota to receive treatment at the Mayo Clinic, McWilliams returned

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to New York and entered the hospital for the last time. He was a terrible patient, Carey Jr. commented later, largely because he could not tolerate inactivity.14 He eventually brought in equipment to work and even managed to do some writing. Disliking the stupidity that accompanied high doses of anesthetics, he spent most of his time in pain. That pain ended on June 27, 1980, when McWilliams died at University Hospital in Manhattan.





Carey McWilliams’s legacy must confront at least one hard fact: Almost no one born after 1960 has heard of him. To be sure, McWilliams is revered by a small group of journalists, academics, and a‹cionados. This is especially true in California, where he is still cited regularly and the California Studies Association issues a Carey McWilliams Award. A certain cachet also attaches to his name at the national level. The American Political Science Association awards an annual journalism prize in his honor, and the Nation has named a senior fellowship and an internship program after him. Even so, Carey McWilliams remains a well-kept secret to general readers, not to mention the culture at large. He has never been the subject of a sustained portrait, a fact made all the more curious by the attention lavished on less consequential writers and intellectuals over the years. Under these circumstances, the task of assessing McWilliams’s in›uence requires some excavation, for the bulk of his legacy lies just below the surface of American public consciousness. It can be found in the political formation of César Chávez; behind Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown; shot through Kevin Starr’s multivolume history of California; embedded in Mike Davis’s study of Los Angeles; buried in the back matter of Otto Friedrich’s history of Hollywood in the 1940s; and scattered over countless newspapers, magazines, books, and scholarly journals on topics ranging from city planning to farm labor to witch hunts. That excavation, however, reveals many durable links between today’s headlines—about racial and ethnic inequality, immigration and border security, environmental degradation, and civil liberties—and the issues McWilliams took on decades ago. In an essay on McWilliams and his legacy, Gray Brechin offers a striking simile for this realization, which he pitches to one end of NY





the political spectrum: “For those of us who lean unapologetically to the left as it ›ows ever farther to the right, encountering the writings of Carey McWilliams is like running into an old friend in a foreign city” (Stewart and Gendar 2001, xx). Brechin’s trope of unexpected recognition captures an important aspect of McWilliams’s legacy, which we encounter only if we travel to the foreign city of the past. It also attests to McWilliams’s undervalued status in the tradition of dissent he documented, shaped, and exempli‹ed. Our visit to Brechin’s city is not a pilgrimage; we do not seek out McWilliams but rather come upon him in the course of our explorations. The encounter is unplanned, serendipitous, contingent. We easily could have missed him. If McWilliams is an old friend in Brechin’s foreign city, he is also a much older friend who arrived there long before we did. This sort of discovery can be a provocation as well as a pleasure, especially for anyone wishing to write originally about the topics that mattered to him. In one area after another, McWilliams mapped the social and political territory, raised the main issues, distilled the key facts, and proposed the most practical remedies. Unlike many authors of his generation, he offers his readers today few opportunities to condescend to outdated ideas or attitudes. Indeed, he typically relegates us to the far humbler task of testing, re‹ning, or simply appreciating his insights. His clarity and accessibility, too, leave almost no work for those who would demystify his prose. In short, McWilliams’s work raises the possibility articulated by literary critic Harold Bloom—that a dead man’s voice is outrageously more alive than our own.1 It was not always so. At the time of his death in 1980, McWilliams’s reputation was well established but not magisterial. When Ronald Reagan became president, McWilliams was known on the East Coast as a muckraking editor who had been right on the big issues, especially McCarthyism and Vietnam. In the West, he was a respectable but almost forgotten writer in exile. (In a 1978 Los Angeles Times pro‹le, for example, William Overend noted, “His name doesn’t mean much to some people, but the books he wrote about California and its people are regarded as classics.”) Since then, his status as a writer and public intellectual has risen slowly but appreciably. Indeed, Berkeley historian Kerwin Klein has observed that McWilliams’s reputation is still growing and may be stronger now than it was during his lifetime.2 That growth began in 1981, when historian Gerald Nash wrote that Cal288


ifornia: The Great Exception was, at the time of its publication, “perhaps the most provocative and stimulating work yet written about California,” adding that each of McWilliams’s other books on California represented “a strikingly original contribution” (405). Even in the mid-1980s, however, it was still possible to dismiss McWilliams and his work without much ado. In Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (1985), Donald Worster charged McWilliams with ›awed vision, confused analysis, and naïveté in his discussion of water manipulation in the West. Focusing on Factories in the Field, which is not primarily concerned with water, Worster neglected the rest of McWilliams’s vast output, including his earlier journalism on the Imperial Valley, his treatment of the Owens Valley affair in Southern California Country, and his discussion of groundwater overdrafting in California: The Great Exception. Worster’s misprision did little damage to McWilliams’s reputation, but its cavalier quality suggests that McWilliams had become important enough to target but not to read carefully. McWilliams’s critical reputation improved signi‹cantly following the 1990 publication of two works: Mike Davis’s City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles and Kevin Starr’s Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s. Although City of Quartz maintains that McWilliams left no progeny, Davis clearly regards McWilliams as a precursor. His own discovery of McWilliams was almost comically fortuitous. Having quit his job as a truck driver to enter college in his late twenties, Davis took a part-time job conducting bus tours of Hollywood. Faced with the prospect of purchasing the standard tour information from the other drivers, he decided to do his own research and came upon Southern California Country. Intrigued, he read everything by McWilliams except Prejudice, which he now regards as one of McWilliams’s major works. A member of the Communist Party in the late 1960s, Davis also learned about McWilliams from Los Angeles activist and Communist Party leader Dorothy Healey. Two years after the publication of City of Quartz, the Los Angeles riots ful‹lled Davis’s hellish prophecies, and the book became a publishing phenomenon. Davis received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1998, the same year that his apocalyptic Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster appeared. The two books established Davis as the foremost critic of Los Angeles, and his exceptionalist view of the city linked him to McWilliams. (The same year, however, Greg Conclusion 289

Critser argued in Salon that Davis’s work claimed only “the bitterest edge of the McWilliams legacy.”) In a recent interview, Davis showed less interest in his literary genealogy than in what he considered to be McWilliams’s three most signi‹cant intellectual contributions: linking California’s problems with democracy to farm labor exploitation, focusing on inequality in its various forms, and disabling the crude opposition between Southern California as either paradise or noir-in›ected dystopia. In the course of making these contributions, Davis maintained, McWilliams provided a theory of California and set it in history.3 Although Davis disquali‹es himself as McWilliams’s chief successor, he has nominated Starr, California state librarian emeritus and professor at USC, for that position. Certainly no one has done more than the indefatigable California historian to raise McWilliams’s pro‹le. Following the publication of Material Dreams in 1990, Starr featured McWilliams in three subsequent volumes, and in Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940–50 (2002), he maintains that McWilliams was both “the state’s most astute political observer” (257) and “the single ‹nest non‹ction writer on California—ever” (103). Taken together, Starr’s works establish McWilliams as an indispensable source for—and high-pro‹le commentator on—California history and politics from the 1920s to the 1950s. Adding to McWilliams’s cachet was Patricia Nelson Limerick’s 1993 tribute, which preceded her own MacArthur Fellowship by two years. In a speech to the California Studies Association that year, Limerick called McWilliams “California’s preeminent public intellectual” and one of the “truly ethical leaders of the American West.” She also noted that he “‹t all the speci‹cations that, I imagined as a child and as an adult, would characterize a real hero.” After describing her social contacts with McWilliams, which began with a fan letter in 1974, her speech went on to describe the torrent of work he produced between 1939 and 1949 as unparalleled— “nine books that made sense when they were published, and that still make sense today.” She also admitted that she had inadvertently scanted McWilliams and other important precursors in her 1987 work on the history of the West, The Legacy of Conquest. In her view, opening that book with an academic survey would have forfeited the larger readership that she wished to address, yet the urge to reach that larger audience was itself an



example of McWilliams’s in›uence on her. Later, she compensated for the slight by honoring McWilliams in a collection of essays—the ‹rst to appear under the banner of “New Western History”—that she co-edited in 1991. Trails: Toward a New Western History is dedicated “To the memory of Carey McWilliams, western public intellectual of impeccable compassion and courage.” Her 1993 speech described that dedication as a belated acknowledgment that Western historiography had “‹nally caught up to where McWilliams had been forty years before.” More recently, Limerick identi‹ed three areas in which McWilliams in›uenced her work. First, McWilliams exempli‹ed the public intellectual. Second, he stimulated her interest in the Spanish-speaking presence in the American West, a topic that had been neglected or treated dully before the publication of North from Mexico. Third, his example encouraged her to recognize and tell stories about the West that some might ‹nd unsettling. Even as his work af›icted the intellectually comfortable, however, Limerick noted that McWilliams himself remained a “gentle soul.”4 On the strength of such endorsements, McWilliams’s stock rose noticeably, especially among historians. Jules Tygiel called Southern California Country “unquestionably the most in›uential work on Los Angeles history” (Tygiel 1994, 328), and Lee Ann Meyer’s 1996 dissertation documented McWilliams’s life and work up to the publication of Factories in the Field. The Center for California Studies sponsored a plenary session that included Carey Jr., Kevin Starr, Alice McGrath, Francis Carney, Lee Ann Meyer, and state senator Bill Lockyer, who claimed that “those of us who have set the Democratic agenda in California today were nurtured directly or indirectly [by] the works of Carey McWilliams.”5 Michael Denning paid extended tribute to McWilliams in The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1996), which appeared in a series co-edited by Mike Davis. UC Berkeley historian Kerwin Klein argued that McWilliams “probably did as much as any author to shape historical discourse about California” (Klein 1997, 7), and historian Anne Loftis’s Witnesses to the Struggle: Imaging the 1930s California Labor Movement (1998) devoted a chapter to McWilliams and his work on migratory farm labor. In 1999, interest in McWilliams was such that the University of California Press reprinted both California: The Great Exception and Factories in the Field. Two years later, Donald Christopher Gantner com-

Conclusion 291

pleted his dissertation on McWilliams, an intellectual biography covering the years 1923 to 1945, and Heyday Books published Fool’s Paradise, an anthology of McWilliams’s work, to excellent reviews. If McWilliams’s place in California studies was secured in the 1990s, his status in Chicano studies is still being negotiated. Edward J. Escobar’s Race, Police, and the Making of a Political Identity (1999), for example, reveals a deep ambivalence about McWilliams’s relation to the MexicanAmerican community in Los Angeles during the 1940s. Although Escobar praises McWilliams and the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee—indeed, he maintains that McWilliams underestimated the committee’s achievement—he faults McWilliams’s understanding of Mexican-American juvenile delinquency in Los Angeles. The cohort of liberals to which McWilliams belonged, Escobar argues, “accepted the notion that the zoot suit was synonymous with delinquency and as such constituted a grave social problem, and that the root cause of this problem was discrimination” (218). In North from Mexico, however, McWilliams mocked the local newspapers for seizing upon the zoot suit as a “badge of crime” (243). Escobar is correct, that McWilliams believed that many social problems in Los Angeles’s Mexican-American community were related to discrimination and its effects. But for Escobar, this belief counts as a “deterministic analysis” that “in fact supported law enforcement’s repressive measures” (Escobar 1999, 219)—despite McWilliams’s explicit repudiation of “a more severe police policy—in other words, repression.” Eduardo Obregón Pagán’s Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A. (2003) is similarly ambivalent about McWilliams. Like Escobar, Pagán credits McWilliams for “working tirelessly on behalf of the predominantly black and Mexican American communities” in the 1940s. Yet his portrait of McWilliams betrays an anxiety of in›uence of Bloomian proportions. This much is clear from several passages in the introductory chapter. The dominant explanation for why the trial and riot occurred draws from the basic premise argued by Carey McWilliams and Guy Endore in the 1940s, that publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst intentionally used his Los Angeles newspapers, the Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express and the Los Angeles Examiner to promote “anti-Mexican hysteria” . . . Progressive activists of the period such as Endore and McWilliams viewed the trial and riot through the lens of conspiracy and 292


corruption, discovering in the sequence of events the machinations of wealth and power unfettered. (8) Only a generation later, Pagán argues, did Chicano scholars correct the oversimpli‹cations of this leftist morality play. But rather than locate the origins of hysteria in the manipulations of corporate interests, Chicano scholars saw anti-Mexican hysteria deriving from the pathology of American society. The appeal of this interpretation was that it moved away from Guy Endore’s Hollywood view of sinister men controlling the puppet strings of society and highlighted the pervasiveness of racism and the propensity toward violence in American society. (9) Pagán’s contribution is to further debunk these simplistic accounts. Through my exploration of popular culture, I shift the origins of the trial and riot away from a monocausal explanation toward a multivalent theory that looks at competing social tensions deriving from demographic pressures, city planning, racism, segregation, and an incipient streetlevel insurgency against what Tomás Almaguer called “the master narrative of white supremacy.” (10) As these citations indicate, Pagán’s argument proceeds by folding McWilliams’s analysis into Endore’s more simplistic account and then dismissing both. It is true that McWilliams considered the role of the media in heightening the city’s racial and ethnic tensions, but he nowhere suggested that newspapers were the sole cause of the Sleepy Lagoon case or the Zoot Suit Riots. Nor did he favor a conspiracy theory. Instead, he stressed the very factors that Pagán lists as the elements of his own theory: demographic pressures, racism, segregation, and the responses to those problems by second-generation Latino youths. He also drew attention to an overwhelmingly non-Latino police force, a credulous white population, and hundreds of bored servicemen whose attitudes about Los Angeles were shaped by the city’s overheated local press. Although Pagán’s subsequent references are more attuned to the complexity of McWilliams’s analysis, his initial simpli‹cation and dismissal clear the stage for his own argument. Other recent works in a variety of ‹elds have also used McWilliams’s work as their baseline. These include, but are not limited to, William Deverell’s Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking Conclusion 293

of Its Mexican Past (2004); Jules Tygiel’s introduction to Tom Sitton and Deverell’s Metropolis in the Making: Los Angeles in the 1920s (2001); Matt Garcia’s A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900–1970 (2001); and David Vaught’s Cultivating California: Growers, Specialty Crops, and Labor, 1875–1920 (2002). Of the four books, Vaught’s is the most critical of McWilliams’s analysis. In a recent interview, Vaught maintained that McWilliams “got only half the story right” on the subject of California agribusiness; in particular, Vaught questioned the accuracy of McWilliams’s account of the 1913 Wheatland Riot. Yet Vaught was most critical of fellow historians, not McWilliams, whom he regards as a brilliant and powerful writer. “My beef isn’t with McWilliams,” Vaught said, “but with the continuing in›uence of those who have accepted uncritically every word that he ever wrote.” He also noted that in composing his own history of California agribusiness, “I had McWilliams next to me the entire time, and not only as a foil.”6 Vaught’s comments demonstrate McWilliams’s continuing power to in›uence specialized debates, but they do not fully explain his resurgence in the academy. That development can be traced to three other factors. The ‹rst is McWilliams’s style, self-presentation, and rhetorical control. Although his advocacy on behalf of labor, civil liberties, and racial equality was unswerving, most of his books resist the charms of polemic and jeremiad, and they are refreshingly free of self-righteous zeal. Indeed, McWilliams’s conceptual stand, especially in his later works, is that of the classic stylist (Thomas and Turner 1994). He assumes that the truth can be known, that readers can recognize it, that abstractions can be clear and exact, and that overshooting the mark is rarely the condition for hitting it. The lucidity, precision, and sense of proportion that follow from these assumptions enhance McWilliams’s authority even as they widen his appeal. With few exceptions, he maintains a jurist’s regard for the facts as he submits opposing accounts to cool appraisal. The effects are far from clinical, however, in part because his intellectual work is done offstage, as it were, and presented to the reader as a spontaneous and complete performance whose outcome seems inevitable. His ›uency, irony, and seemingly effortless control over the key facts exemplify a twentieth-century sprezzatura that resonates particularly well with California audiences. That this style would lead him to the editorship of the Nation is a minor regional tri-



umph; that it would attract a committed readership two generations later is a signi‹cant literary achievement. The second reason for the resurgence of McWilliams’s reputation has as much to do with today’s audiences as with his style. Since the late 1980s, there has been a growing interest in—and perceived need for—public intellectuals who can write clearly, critically, and consequentially on a range of pressing topics. As Russell Jacoby argues in The Last Intellectuals (1987), the shortage of such intellectuals can be traced to their loss of habitat. Since the 1950s, writers and thinkers have abandoned bohemia for the universities, where they are encouraged to write for other specialists, not general audiences. As a result, Jacoby maintains, intellectuals who once wrote for broader audiences have been replaced by “high-tech intellectuals, consultants, and professors—anonymous souls, who may be competent, and more than competent, but who do not enrich public life” (x). These academic intellectuals have developed a taste for theory—a predictable consequence given the university’s mission and comparative advantage. As liberal philosopher Richard Rorty has written, however, the urge to theorize politics has produced a few very good books and many thousands of bad ones. He argues that this urge now represents a form of withdrawal from political action, and his comments echo and extend Jacoby’s: “These futile attempts to philosophize one’s way into political relevance are a symptom of what happens when a Left retreats from activism and adopts a spectatorial approach to the problems of its country” (1998, 94). Rorty also argues that this retreat plays into the hands of the American right. In discussing the in›uence of French philosopher Michel Foucault, for example, Rorty sees little to celebrate. “The Foucauldian academic left in America is exactly the sort of left that the oligarchy dreams of: a Left whose members are so busy unmasking the present that they have no time to discuss what laws need to be passed in order to create a better future” (139). Whatever one thinks of Jacoby’s and Rorty’s claims, McWilliams clearly represents another kind of leftist intellectual—one who could litigate a case, serve in state government, write campaign speeches, critique ‹ction, edit a national journal of news and opinion, and reach general audiences without catering to them. In an age of increasing specialization, McWilliams’s ability to move easily between the worlds of literature, law,

Conclusion 295

journalism, politics, and academia is not lost on his newest readers. Gray Brechin puts the matter plainly: “It is as a public intellectual that I most admire McWilliams” (Stewart and Gendar 2001, xxii). A proli‹c, popular, and consequential author who was also a radical, he exempli‹es the preferred half of Rorty’s distinction between an activist left and a spectatorial one whose natural home is the university and whose chief concern is theory. He also embodies an ideal that seems increasingly remote to a younger generation of academics. The persistent urge to ful‹ll this ideal helps account for McWilliams’s rising critical fortunes over the last decade. The third reason follows closely on the second. If academic leftists have retreated from the public square, they have had plenty of company. As Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) and other works have shown, American life over the last two decades has been characterized by declining levels of social capital, political participation, and volunteerism. In recent years, many academics have studied that decline, debated its causes, and proposed various remedies. McWilliams, of course, had his own views on this topic. For him, the forms of community that had ›ourished on the political left did not die naturally; rather, they perished under the heat of McCarthyism. But however we understand those generational changes and their causes, few public ‹gures today could match McWilliams’s ubiquity during his prime. In addition to producing a torrent of books and articles in the 1940s, McWilliams seemed to be everywhere: serving in state government, debating farm labor issues on the radio, coordinating the appeal of the Sleepy Lagoon convictions, calming Los Angeles during the Zoot Suit Riots, protesting the evacuation and internment of Japanese Americans, writing Robert Kenny’s campaign speeches, crisscrossing the country on lecture tours, drafting an amicus brief for the Hollywood Ten, challenging the University of California’s loyalty oath, and serving on countless committees for the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, and other organizations. He also managed to maintain a marriage, spend time with his sons, and enjoy the company of his friends. Self-suf‹cient but by no means isolated, McWilliams personi‹es a lost ethic of civic participation to a new generation of academics. These three factors have helped consolidate McWilliams’s reputation within the academy, but they have done little to raise his pro‹le in the culture at large. Forrest G. Robinson begins a recent homage by asking, “How can it be that a historian and social critic of such distinction, who once 296


spoke with authority to a vast national audience on topics as pressing today as they were in 1939, can have slipped so precipitously from view?” Robinson points the ‹nger at today’s revisionist historians, arguing that “the hegemony of the so-called New Western Historians has been achieved at the price of obscuring a long and proud tradition of dissent among western writers.” In neglecting McWilliams, Robinson maintains, these historians have overlooked an important precursor whose work anticipated and surpasses their own. (Robinson’s article makes no mention of Limerick’s 1991 dedication or 1993 tribute to McWilliams.) In her recent article on teaching McWilliams, Catherine A. Corman agrees with much of Robinson’s analysis, adding that when McWilliams is recognized, the conversation tends to “enter into a pure love-fest, ending with a blanket endorsement.” Corman’s purpose, however, is not to interrupt the festivities but rather to “extend McWilliams’s shelf life” by suggesting new ways to teach his work. If implemented, Corman’s suggestions would transform McWilliams from cult hero to canonical author. Does McWilliams deserve that status? Certainly much of his prodigious output has held up well over the years. Southern California Country can still be read with pleasure, and Prejudice is a brave, commanding, and sometimes disturbing work. Although today’s readers may be reluctant to plow through a popular history written in 1949, California: The Great Exception repays that effort and deserves its status as a minor classic. Following the California gubernatorial recall and election of 2003, San Francisco journalist John King recommended the book to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as “the most perceptive book ever written about his new domain.” Factories in the Field and Brothers Under the Skin also retain their power, and North from Mexico is uneven but superb on the events McWilliams documented in Los Angeles. By McWilliams’s own admission, Witch Hunt is ›awed, but it represents an early and courageous intervention on a critical national issue, and its portrait of the red-baiter remains vivid and memorable. His other books (A Mask for Privilege, Ill Fares the Land, Louis Adamic & Shadow-America, and Ambrose Bierce) are worthy but probably less compelling to most readers today. McWilliams’s most notable achievement, however, may lie in the sheer range, quantity, and excellence of his work de‹ned more broadly. At the very least, he must be judged as one of the most versatile American public intellectuals of the twentieth century. One way to test this claim is to imagConclusion 297

ine 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. Ironically, McWilliams’s move to the national stage may have delayed this judgment. Although he never regretted his long tenure at the Nation, his most appreciative readers today wonder what he would have produced had he continued to dedicate his energies to his own writing. By devoting himself exclusively to the magazine and its affairs for twenty-‹ve years, McWilliams helped others ‹nd their voices but gradually lost his own. In this sense, the Nation’s gain was the country’s loss. Another way to assess McWilliams’s achievement is to consider the literary genealogy he composed for himself. By modeling his career on the examples of Bierce and Mencken, he also invited comparisons to them. McWilliams admired Bierce but argued that his importance lay in his in›uence on younger writers, who realized from his example that they could live in and write about the West. McWilliams also inspired younger writers to focus on the West, and he gave many others their start by publishing their work in the Nation. Although there is no McWilliams school comparable to the one he documented for Bierce and his successors, McWilliams’s in›uence has been signi‹cant and wide-ranging, and his own output has already proven more substantial and durable than Bierce’s. Mencken was by far the more direct in›uence on McWilliams, and both men focused on the American scene, mixed journalism and book writing, spent much of their time on editorial tasks, and produced large bodies of work. Like McWilliams, Mencken ranged over political and cultural topics; indeed, he supposed that his ultimate signi‹cance would be political (Teachout 2002, 341). Although many of Mencken’s views have aged poorly, others have remained remarkably resilient. Pro-German and anti–New Deal, Mencken was on the wrong side of history on the largest issues of his day, but he correctly perceived the staying power of Protestant fundamentalism when others dismissed it as a relic. Unlike Bierce, Mencken rarely took on a truly powerful adversary directly, and some observers have regarded him as a bully. Yet many of the forces he contended with were powerful enough during his day, and he had no qualms about attacking a sitting president, Franklin Roosevelt, in print. Mencken’s most lasting contribution, however, was his invigoration of American literary and cultural criticism. The Nation’s muckraking was timely and gutsy, 298


but McWilliams’s work as an editor has not received the same recognition as his hero’s. Mencken’s celebrity and in›uence were vast, his output was even more impressive than McWilliams’s, he went to greater lengths to ensure its survival, and he has been studied far more extensively. On these measures, Mencken puts McWilliams in the shade. There may be other measures to consider, however, before concluding the comparison to Mencken. McWilliams became the more perceptive observer of and active participant in American politics, especially after he shrugged off Mencken’s political views. He was a better judge of people and movements, his efforts were directed at more formidable opponents, and those efforts were immeasurably more constructive than Mencken’s. Where Bierce blasted individual public ‹gures and Mencken railed away at the middle class, fundamentalists, and FDR, McWilliams took on deep social problems and proposed speci‹c reforms to address them. Both Mencken and McWilliams had grave misgivings about many aspects of American life—indeed, McWilliams inherited many of his from Mencken—but McWilliams also believed that something could be done to improve America besides ridiculing its more preposterous qualities. Already past his prime by the 1930s and ailing by the early 1940s, Mencken had fewer opportunities to weigh in on McWilliams’s signature issues, but it is dif‹cult to imagine him using his in›uence to ‹ght exploitative farm labor practices, Jim Crow, the internment of Japanese-American citizens, or the Red Scare. When these comparisons are drawn, the scales begin to tip in McWilliams’s favor, and one is more likely to conclude that Mencken’s greater renown ›ows not from the superior substance or durability of his work but rather from its high spirits and rebellious temper—the very qualities that attracted McWilliams to Mencken in the ‹rst place. By comparison, McWilliams’s mature work is cool, insightful, pointed, but less spectacular. His star has not burned as brightly as Mencken’s, but it sheds a more even light on the American scene. In the preface to his memoir, McWilliams noted that he, like Henry Adams, felt a deep urge to “remove the tension between experience and idealism” (ECM, 14). That tension took a variety of forms throughout McWilliams’s life, most obviously in the early split between his law practice and his writing. It also produced considerable discomfort as McWilliams moved ‹tfully toward his life’s work, forfeited the material Conclusion 299

bene‹ts of his legal career, and learned the wages of dissent in American life. The ultimate product of that tension was not a con›icted or spectatorial mind but rather an alert, supple, and productive intelligence that moved easily between the world as it was and the way it might be. An idealist with few illusions, McWilliams maintained a healthy respect for facts and effective action, and he steered clear of theories that did not. Where Adams sought “to come to terms with a world whose logic escaped him,” McWilliams seemed to understand America’s cultural logic well enough, even when he did not accept it as absolute. If the tension between experience and idealism animated McWilliams’s best work, we should be thankful he never quite resolved it.





1. Although her parents were Catholic, Harriet became an Episcopalian as an adult (Wilson Carey McWilliams, personal communication). In his memoir, McWilliams is concerned to dramatize what he called his “hybrid heritage” and therefore emphasizes her Catholic roots. 2. Private collection of Wilson Carey McWilliams. Regarding this journal, see the note in the bibliography under “Archival Material.” 3. Casley McWilliams’s recollections were recorded in “Memories of My Youth,” undated, private collection of Wilson Carey McWilliams. 4. “Growing Up in Steamboat,” address delivered to The Writer and the West conference, Sun Valley Center Institute for the American West, July 8, 1978. 5. Wilson Carey McWilliams interview, May 29, 2002. 6. Wilson Carey McWilliams interview, May 29, 2002. CHAPTER 2

1. The year McWilliams arrived in Los Angeles, the colorful Chauncey C. Julian raised eleven million dollars in four months from forty thousand investors to drill for oil . After an FBI investigation of his accounting and stock practices, Julian moved to Oklahoma and then to Shanghai, where he committed suicide in 1934 (Starr 1990, 88). For more on the Julian scandal, see Tygiel 1994. 2. Jules Tygiel interview. 3. Cited in Teachout 2000, 342. 4. McWilliams assembled his USC articles and editorials in what is now Scrapbook 17 in the Carey McWilliams Collection at UCLA Library. 5. Interview notes, Dec. 18, 1979, private collection of Kay Mills. 6. H. L. Mencken Papers, New York Public Library. 7. H. L. Mencken to Carey McWilliams, May 5, 1925, Bierce Collection, no. 277, UCLA Library Special Collections. 8. Sterling’s letters to McWilliams are part of the George Sterling Collection, no. 276, UCLA Library Special Collections. They also appear in Dunbar 1967. 301

9. “California’s Lost Radiance,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 4, 1927. 10. Wilson met McWilliams while he was in Southern California researching The American Jitters (1932). In their subsequent correspondence, Wilson wrote that McWilliams had written the ‹rst article devoted to his work (Wilson 1957, 176). 11. Wilson Carey McWilliams interview, May 29, 2002. 12. This and other O’Sullivan citations are from the Vincent O’Sullivan Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Mencken had just rejected an O’Sullivan story. 13. Ambrose Bierce Collection, no. 277, UCLA, June 17, 1929. 14. McWilliams maintained a high opinion of O’Sullivan. In 1951, he wrote to the bookseller Jake Zeitlin about handling the sale of his O’Sullivan collection, which had cost him “a pretty penny.” In 1973, he offered to sell his collection of O’Sullivan’s work to Yale, but the collection ended up at Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. 15. This citation and those that follow in the text are to McWilliams’s Ambrose Bierce, A Biography (1929). 16. Gorman 1929, 5. CHAPTER 3

1. Virginia Blaisdell interview. 2. Lee Ann Meyer possesses what correspondence remains. The cited passages are from Meyer 1996. 3. Virginia Blaisdell interview. 4. The son of a successful Pasadena orange grower, Powell would make his reputation as an author, book collector, and UCLA librarian from 1944 to 1961. The undergraduate library at UCLA is named after him. 5. Ironically, economic historian Paul Rhode would later claim that McWilliams is best regarded as “a Great Intuiter rather than as a Great Thinker,” maintaining that he “cannot be counted on to provide facts or for hard analysis but rather for his acute perceptions, his ability to capture that ‘California feeling’” (2000, 891). 6. Joseph Aidlin interview, Dec. 18, 2003. 7. The dates of their correspondence quoted in this paragraph are Oct. 3, Oct. 8, and Dec. 26, 1937. 8. In 1943 testimony before California legislators, McWilliams was asked for his de‹nition of a fascist. He replied, “My de‹nition of a Fascist is Benito Mussolini.” Pressed for a more general answer, he replied, “A Fascist is a con‹rmed anti-democrat, who hates the very idea of democracy” (transcripts of the Joint Fact Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, vol. 18, 4336). For analysis of McWilliams’s antifascism and its larger discursive context, see Geary 2003. 9. The Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics was established at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1930 to promote and sup-



port agricultural research and rural development relevant to California. It was named after A. P. Giannini, president of Bank of America. 10. Francis Carney interview. 11. For more discussion of the Bioff case, see Friedrich 1986, Rappleye and Becker 1991, and Russo 2002. 12. After Lieber turned down what Fante called an “ironically proCatholic” story, Fante fumed to Mencken, “I am burning up at the thought of an agent, a mere agent, a goddamn Marxist, a goddamn dabbler in Marxism, rejecting the story because it displeased his current whim. . . . I am ‹nished with that man; moreover, I’m going to get him at the ‹rst opportunity. What do I care for Communism? They can put me against the wall and shoot me before I’ll subscribe to the parlor Marxism of a stupid gang of Harvard graduates who—because they have nothing in their hearts—must swallow and defend principles they know nothing about. Today every Bohemian and lesbian and fairy is a Communist. I am sick of them!” Mencken replied, “So far as I know, Lieber is the best agent in New York. If he fails, then all the rest are likely to fail” (Moreau 1989, 75–77). 13. Weinstein’s work has been controversial. See, for example, Navasky 1997. 14. By the time Factories in the Field appeared, McWilliams had been appointed chief of the state Division of Immigration and Housing. 15. Responding for the governor, M. Stanley Mosk replied, “We appreciate your interest in the matter but cannot agree with your point of view.” Sending a copy of his letter to McWilliams, Mosk wrote, “Congratulations, Carey, on a great work on a vital problem.” Mosk later became state attorney general and served on the California Supreme Court for thirty-seven years. 16. A private exchange between Brandt and McWilliams led to some factual corrections in subsequent printings. CHAPTER 4

1. Town Meeting: Bulletin of America’s Town Meeting of the Air, Mar. 11, 1940, 3–29. 2. Wilson Carey McWilliams interview, July 19, 2004. 3. Wilson Carey McWilliams interview, Aug. 5, 2003. 4. McWilliams requested his FBI ‹le in the 1970s. All citations are from that ‹le, which is part of the Carey McWilliams collection at UCLA Library. 5. From the transcript of the program, p. 14, in the Carey McWilliams Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. 6. Both McWilliams and Alice Green‹eld McGrath, executive secretary of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, occasionally used the word gang, sometimes in scare quotes, when referring to the defendants. Interviewed in the 1980s, McGrath explained that the term in its later sense was misleading when applied to the defendants (McGrath 1987, 123).

Notes to Pages 80–115


7. The lead defendant’s last name, Zamora, was misspelled in the of‹cial documents. 8. Portions of the Ayres Report appear in McWilliams’s North from Mexico, including this passage (1949, 234). 9. McWilliams’s remarks to the grand jury appear in Nava 1973. 10. “Zoot Suit Riots,” American Experience, PBS, amex/zoot/eng_peopleevents/p_encinas.html. Alice McGrath, who came to know the families well, has expressed grave doubts about the authenticity of this revelation. 11. McWilliams’s testimony, which is included in volume 18 of the CUAC transcripts, is restricted. In 1999, the Sacramento Superior Court ordered the State Senate Rules Committee to release transcripts of CUAC’s public hearings, but McWilliams’s testimony was given in executive session and is therefore excluded from the order. However, excerpts appear in CUAC reports, McWilliams’s FBI ‹le, and Barrett 1951, which bene‹ted from the author’s access to CUAC transcripts for several days. 12. Town Meeting: Bulletin of America’s Town Meeting of the Air, Aug. 3, 1944. 13. Town Meeting: Bulletin of America’s Town Meeting of the Air, July 15, 1943. CHAPTER 5

1. McWilliams’s diary contains his impressions of New York (Apr. 23, 1943) and Chicago (May 4, 1943). 2. Joseph Aidlin interview, Aug. 8, 2003. 3. Joyce Fante interview. 4. The syndicate included Otis’s son-in-law Harry Chandler, who succeeded him at the Times in 1914; Edwin T. Earl, publisher of the Los Angeles Express; Moses Hazeltine Sherman, who cofounded the electric Los Angeles Railway Company and sat on the Los Angeles Water Commission; Henry E. Huntington, nephew of Southern Paci‹c’s Collis P. Huntington and founder of the Paci‹c Electric Railway; Edward H. Harriman, chairman of Union Paci‹c Railroad; bankers Joseph Sartori and L. C. Brand; and lumberyard and utilities magnate William G. Kerckhoff (McDougal 2001, 37–38). 5. For recent examples of the book’s intellectual in›uence, see Deverell 2004 on the remaking of the city’s Mexican past; Sitton and Deverell 2001 on the development of Los Angeles; Garcia 2001 on labor relations in the region’s citrus industry; and Leonard 1999 on race relations. 6. “The California Derby,” Nation, Nov. 2, 1946; Joseph Aidlin interview, Aug. 8, 2003. 7. Wilson Carey McWilliams interview, May 29, 2002. 8. These works include, but are not limited to, Kevin Starr’s multivol-



ume history of California; Pitt 1968; and, indirectly, Acuña 1972. For more discussion, see Larralde and del Castillo (n.d.). 9. Fred Ross Jr. interview. 10. Wilson Carey McWilliams interview, July 19, 2004. 11. Wilson Carey McWilliams interview, May 29, 2002. 12. See, for example, Rhode 2001 as well as Rhode 2000. 13. For more discussion of the Hollywood Ten, see Navasky 1980, which McWilliams reviewed in full before its publication. 14. The four columns for the Nation were written between November 1949 and December 1950. 15. This forum is from Academic.html (accessed Feb. 24, 2004). 16. “Bungling in California,” Nation, Nov. 4, 1950.


1. Wilson Carey McWilliams interview, July 19, 2004. 2. Joseph Aidlin interview, Dec. 18, 2003. 3. Interview notes, Dec. 18, 1979, private collection of Kay Mills. 4. Schlesinger’s letter appeared in the Sept. 8, 1951 issue. 5. Wilson Carey McWilliams interview, July 19, 2004. 6. See, p. 2 (accessed Apr. 11, 2004). 7. Wilson Carey McWilliams interview, Aug. 5, 2003. 8. Twelve years after being ousted from the ACLU board of directors, Flynn was jailed for contempt after refusing to answer a prosecutor’s questions about two suspected Communists. She died in 1964 but was reinstated by the ACLU in 1976. 9. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. interview. 10. McWilliams, “Images of California Culture” seminar (Dec. 5, 1979). 11. The material in that essay also appeared in Lasch 1969. 12. John Patrick Diggins interview. 13. Ed Cray interview. 14. Gene Marine interview. 15. Howard Zinn interview. 16. Dan Wake‹eld interview. 17. Stanley Meisler interview. 18. Dan Wake‹eld interview. 19. See (accessed April 11, 2005). This Web site, entitled “The Alger Hiss Story: Search for the Truth,” is funded in part by the Alger Hiss Research and Publication Project of the Nation Institute.

Notes to Pages 158–213



1. Personal communication, Wilson Carey McWilliams, Dec. 19, 2004. 2. Robert Sherrill interview. In his review of The Education of Carey McWilliams, Sherrill noted that he had met with McWilliams on four occasions. 3. Jack New‹eld interview. 4. Dan Wake‹eld interview. 5. Dan Wake‹eld interview. 6. Stanley Meisler interview. 7. Gene Marine interview. 8. Robert Scheer interview. 9. Theodore Roszak interview. 10. Lou Cannon interview. 11. According to Cameron, “Alfred [Knopf] said to me, ‘I don’t want to know anything about your past.’” During two luncheons with Knopf’s wife, Blanche, however, she said, “I want to know everything about you” (Shanahan 2001). Hiring Cameron in 1959 was a signi‹cant gesture on the publisher’s part. “Knopf was uncharacteristically courageous about that,” former Random House editorial director Jason Epstein observed recently (Jason Epstein interview). 12. Derek Shearer interview. 13. Carey McWilliams Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. 14. Interview with Carey McWilliams, private collection of Alice McGrath. 15. According to SDS activist and sociologist Richard Flacks, the League for Industrial Democracy considered the Nation “Stalinoid” (Richard Flacks interview). 16. Todd Gitlin interview, Jan. 18, 2004; Tom Hayden, personal communication, Apr. 10, 2004. 17. Burner (1996, 219–20) draws a similar conclusion about the New Left. 18. See (viewed Oct. 4, 2004). 19. Frank and Donna Wilkinson interview. 20. Patricia Nelson Limerick interview. 21. That is, the families of Joyce and Iris. 22. Towne has recalled his introduction to the book in two slightly different versions. In a 1994 article, he noted that he saw Southern California Country in the public library of Eugene, Oregon (Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 29, 1994). In the preface to his screenplay, however, he writes, “My wife, Julie, returned to the hotel one afternoon with two quilts and a public library copy of Carey McWilliams’ Southern California Country, an Island on the Land—and with it the crime that formed the basis of Chinatown” (Ebert 2000).



23. As of this writing, Towne is preparing to release the ‹lm version, with Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, and Donald Sutherland in the leading roles. CHAPTER 8

1. Virginia Blaisdell interview. 2. Jeffrey Limerick interview. 3. Victor Navasky interview, July 24, 2004. 4. Gerald Haslam interview. 5. James Houston interview. Both Haslam and Houston would later be awarded the Carey McWilliams Award from the California Studies Association. Houston and his wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, were recognized for Farewell to Manzanar (1973), their book about the Japanese-American internment. 6. Wilson Carey McWilliams interview, July 19, 2004. 7. Victor Navasky interview, July 24, 2004. 8. Wilson Carey McWilliams interview, Mar. 1, 2004. 9. Carey McWilliams Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. 10. Jonathan Segal interview. 11. Lou Cannon interview. 12. Rene Rodriguez interview. 13. Adrian Maher interview. 14. Wilson Carey McWilliams interview, Mar. 1, 2004. CONCLUSION

1. Bloom’s theory of literary in›uence, detailed in The Anxiety of In›uence (1973) and A Map of Misreading (1975), helps explain the treatment McWilliams has received from some of his successors. A few are even conscious of that pattern; Patricia Nelson Limerick, for example, mentioned Bloom’s theory in an interview for this book. 2. Kerwin Klein, personal communication, Oct. 19, 2001. 3. Mike Davis interview. 4. Patricia Nelson Limerick interview. 5. Lockyer and Wilson Carey McWilliams became friends at Berkeley. In 1998, Lockyer became state attorney general. 6. David Vaught interview.

Notes to Pages 260–94




ECM: The Education of Carey McWilliams HAT: Honorable in All Things SCC: Southern California Country WJ: Writing Journal ARCHIVAL MATERIAL

Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley Carey McWilliams Papers Vincent O’Sullivan Collection Western Writers Congress Collection California State Archives Transcripts for the Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California California State Library Los Angeles Saturday Night Institute for Governmental Studies Library, University of California, Berkeley Testimony and memoranda from the Division of Immigration and Housing Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, New York Public Library H. L. Mencken Papers Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research Robert W. Kenny Papers Special Collections, UCLA Library Carey McWilliams Collections, Nos. 1319 and 1243 George Sterling Collection, No. 276 Ambrose Bierce Collection, No. 277 Note: The Carey McWilliams Collection (No. 1319) at UCLA’s Young Research Library is the largest collection of material on McWilliams. Unless otherwise noted, it is the source for citations throughout this volume. One of McWilliams’s early writing journals is in the private collection of Wilson Carey McWilliams; the rest are at UCLA. Feliz 1974 remains the most useful bibliography of McWilliams’s work to 1954. 309


Note: An asterisk indicates a face-to-face interview. All others were conducted by telephone. Joseph W. Aidlin, Aug. 8, 2003; Dec. 18, 2003;* Dec. 19, 2003 Ben Bagdikian, Aug. 10, 2004 Virginia Blaisdell, Dec. 18, 2003 Lou Cannon, Dec. 12, 2003* Francis Carney, Aug. 13, 2004 Victoria Fante Cohen, Aug. 25, 2003 Stephen Cooper, Oct. 18, 2002 Geoffrey Cowan, Oct. 7, 2003 Ed Cray, Aug. 21, 2003 Mike Davis, Sept. 15, 2003 William Deverell, Oct. 16, 2003 John Patrick Diggins, Aug. 29, 2003 Joyce Fante, Dec. 14, 2003* Richard Flacks, Sept. 1, 2004 Regina Freer, Sept. 20, 2004 Todd Gitlin, Jan. 18, 2004 Gerald Haslam, Feb. 9, 2004 Dorothy Healey, Apr. 9, 2004 James Houston, Feb. 11, 2004 Maurice Isserman, Sept. 17, 2004 Jeffrey Limerick, Aug. 14, 2004 Patricia Nelson Limerick, Aug. 14, 2004 Jeff Lustig, Mar. 8, 2003* Gene Marine, Sept. 10, 2003 Philip Martin, Oct. 9, 2003 Alice Green‹eld McGrath, Aug. 14, 2003; Aug. 15, 2003; Aug. 18, 2003; Aug. 25, 2003; Sept. 9, 2003; Dec. 13, 2003* Iris McWilliams, Aug. 9, 2003; July 15, 2004* Wilson Carey McWilliams, May 29, 2002; June 21, 2002; Aug. 5, 2003; Mar. 1, 2004; July 14, 2004;* July 9, 2004* Virgil Meibert, June 6, 2002 Stanley Meisler, Aug. 14, 2004 Lee Ann Meyer, Dec. 8, 2003; Dec. 15, 2003* Kay Mills, Mar. 25, 2004 Victor Navasky, Aug. 14, 2003; July 24, 2004* Jack New‹eld, Sept. 30, 2003 Roderick Richardson, Sept. 24, 2004 Rene Rodriguez, Oct. 20, 2003 Fred Ross Jr., Oct. 2, 2003 Theodore Roszak, Jan. 14, 2004 Robert Scheer, Sept. 27, 2003* 310


Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Sept. 11, 2003 Peter Schrag, Feb. 10, 2003* Jonathan Segal, Sept. 9, 2004 Derek Shearer, Aug. 21, 2004 Robert Sherrill, Dec. 2, 2003 Kevin Starr, Dec. 4, 2001 Jules Tygiel, June 18, 2004 David Vaught, Sept. 3, 2003 Dan Wake‹eld, Sept. 16, 2003 Henry Weinstein, Aug. 22, 2003 Frank and Donna Wilkinson, Aug. 19, 2004 Josephine Zeitlin, Dec. 15, 2003 Howard Zinn, Sept. 19, 2003 WORKS BY CAREY MCWILLIAMS

1980 “Resourceful California.” Westways, Mar., 24–27. 1979 Images of California Culture. Seminar, University of California, Berkeley, University of California Media Center, Dec. 5. Sound recording. “Second Thoughts.” Nation, Dec. 1, 552. The Education of Carey McWilliams. Simon & Schuster. “Second Thoughts.” Nation, June 16, 710. 1978 Honorable in All Things: The Memoirs of Carey McWilliams. Oral history transcript, interviewed by Joel Gardner, UCLA Oral History Project. “Second Thoughts.” Nation, Dec. 23, 693. “Writers of the Western Shore.” Westways, Nov., 16–20, 72–76. 1976 “The New Fundamentalists.” Nation, June 5, 686–87. “Dope & Jobs: The Border Story.” Nation, Apr. 24, 486–87. 1974 “The Education of Earl Warren.” Nation, Oct. 12, 325–26. “Poverty, Pensions, and Panaceas: California in the Thirties.” Working Papers for a New Society 2, no. 3 (fall): 36–44. 1972 “Australia: America’s New Frontier.” World, Oct. 10, 18–23. 1968 (Ed.) The California Revolution. Grossman. “Protest, Power and the Future of Politics.” Nation, Jan. 15, 71–77. Bibliography 311

1966 “How to Succeed with the Backlash.” Nation, Oct. 31, 438–42. 1964 “The New Ideology.” Nation, Aug. 24, 68–71. “High Noon in the Cow Palace.” Nation, July 27, 23–27. 1962 “Mr. Nixon and the Press.” Nation, Nov. 16, 318–19. “Has Success Spoiled Dick Nixon?” Nation, June 6, 487–93. “Time for a New Politics.” Nation, May 26, 460–66. 1960 “The Kennedy’s Take Over.” July 23, 43–45. 1958 “Landslide in a Vacuum.” Nation, Nov. 15, 351–53. 1956 “Enforce the Constitution.” Nation, July 7, 1–4. 1955 “An American Tragedy.” Review of Wexley, The Judgment of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Nation, Aug. 27, 179–80. 1954 “Gentlemen’s Agreement.” Nation, Mar. 6, 191–93. 1952 “L. B. Boudin.” Lawyers Guild Review, May 3, 110–12. “The White House Under Surveillance.” Nation, Feb. 16, 150–52. “Demagogues and Democracy.” Chicago Jewish Forum 10, no. 2 (1951–52): 135–40. 1951 “The Witch Hunt’s New Phase.” New Statesman and Nation, Oct. 27, 454–55. “Louis Adamic, American.” Nation, Sept. 22, 230–32. 1950 Witch Hunt: The Revival of Heresy. Little, Brown. “The Registration of Heretics.” Nation, Dec. 9, 526–28. “Bungling in California.” Nation, Nov. 4, 411–12. “The Berkeley Debacle.” Nation, Sept. 9, 228. “The Bridges Decision.” Nation, Apr. 15, 342–43. 1949 North from Mexico: The Spanish Speaking People of the United States J. B. Lippincott. Rev. by Matt S. Meier, Greenwood Press, 1990. 312


California: The Great Exception. Current Books. Repr., University of California Press, 1999. Introduction. In Rocky Mountain Cities, ed. Ray B. West Jr. W. W. Norton. “Hollywood Gray List.” Nation, Nov. 19, 491–92. “Mr. Tenney’s Horrible Awakening.” Nation, July 23, 80–82. “The Guy Who Gets Things Done.” Nation, July 9, 31–33. 1948 A Mask for Privilege: Anti-Semitism in America. Little, Brown. Repr., with new introduction by Wilson Carey McWilliams, Transaction, 1999. “California’s Third-Party Donnybrook.” Nation, Apr. 24, 434–36. 1947 “Wallace in the West.” Nation, July 5, 6–8. 1946 “The California Derby.” Nation, Nov. 2, 494–96. Southern California Country: An Island on the Land. Duell, Sloane & Pearce. Repr., with new introduction, Peregrine Smith, 1971. “The Lesson of California.” Nation, June 22, 742–44. 1945 “Strange Doings in California.” Nation, Feb. 10, 152–54. 1944 Prejudice: Japanese-Americans: Symbol of Racial Intolerance. Little, Brown. 1943 Brothers Under the Skin. Little, Brown. Rev. ed. 1951. Repr., with new introduction, 1964. “Warren of California.” New Republic, Oct. 18, 514–17. 1942 “Japanese Evacuation: Interim Report.” Eighth Conference of the Institute of Paci‹c Relations, American Council Paper No. 4. “Japanese Evacuation: Policy and Perspectives.” Common Ground, summer, 65–72. Ill Fares the Land: Migrants and Migratory Labor in the United States. Little, Brown. Testimony before the House Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration. Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Immigration and Housing, Mar. 7. 1941 “Racketeers and Movie Magnates.” New Republic, Oct. 27, 533–35. 1940 “La Follette Hearings: Final Sessions.” New Republic, Mar. 25, 400–403. The Liberal and the War Crisis. American Civil Liberties Union. Bibliography


1939 “What We Are Doing for the Interstate Migrant.” Address before the Western Conference on Governmental Problems, San Francisco, Oct. 27. Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California. Little, Brown. Repr., Peregrine, 1971; University of California Press, 1999. 1936 “The Writer and Civil Liberties.” Open Forum, Nov. 28 and Dec. 5. “Gunkist Oranges.” Paci‹c Weekly, July 20, 38–39. “The Strange Case of Upton Sinclair.” Paci‹c Weekly, Feb. 3, 53–55. (With Clive Belmont) “Prospects of Farm Labor Organization.” In “Factories in the Field” series, Paci‹c Weekly, May 11, 265–67 (With Clive Belmont) “Vital Periods in the Fight of California Labor.” In “Factories in the Field” series, Paci‹c Weekly, May 4, 247–49. (With Clive Belmont) “Farm Labor and the A.F. of L.” In “Factories in the Field” series, Paci‹c Weekly, Apr. 27, 231–32. (With Clive Belmont) “Farm Ownership and Control.” In “Factories in the Field” series, Paci‹c Weekly, Apr. 13, 199–201. (With Clive Belmont) “Farm Fascism.” In “Factories in the Field” series, Paci‹c Weekly, Apr. 6, 181–82. (With Clive Belmont) “Farm Labor Demands in California.” In “Factories in the Field” series, Paci‹c Weekly, Mar. 30, 165–67. 1935 Louis Adamic & Shadow-America. A. Whipple. It Can Happen Here: Active Anti-Semitism in Los Angeles. Mercury Press. “Jewish Fascism.” Paci‹c Weekly, Oct. 19, 76–78. “Leo Gallagher.” Nation, Oct. 16, 437–38. “Once Again the ‘Yellow Peril.’” Nation, June 26, 735–36. “Hollywood Plays with Fascism.” Nation, May 29, 623–24. 1934–39 “Tides West.” Westways. 1934 “High Spots in the Campaign.” New Republic, Nov. 7, 356. “The Farmers Get Tough.” American Mercury, Oct., 241–45. “Law and the Future.” Fortnightly, Oct. 15, 7–9. “Upton Sinclair and His E.P.I.C.” New Republic, Aug. 22, 39–41. “Utopia, Incorporated.” New Republic, July 18, 255–59. “Fascism in American Law.” American Mercury, June, 182–88. “Folks Who Make Westways.” Westways, Oct., 8. 1933 “California Curiosa.” Touring Topics, Aug.–Nov. “Getting Rid of the Mexican.” American Mercury, Mar., 322–29. 314


1932 “Mary Austin’s Autobiography.” Review of Earth Horizon. Los Angeles Saturday Night, Nov. 19. 1931 “Myths of the West.” North American Review, Nov., 424–32. 1930 The New Regionalism in American Literature. University of Washington Bookstore. “Young Man, Stay West.” Southwest Review 15, no. 3 (spring): 301–9. 1929 Ambrose Bierce, A Biography. A. & C. Boni. “The Bierce Myth.” Nation, June 26, 768–69. “Robinson Jeffers: An Anti-Toxin.” Los Angeles Saturday Night, Aug. 3, 5. “Ambrose Bierce.” American Mercury, Feb., 215–22. 1927 “Southern California Begins to Write VI: Upton Sinclair: Two Impressions.” Los Angeles Saturday Night, Dec. 24, 4. “Southern California Begins to Write II: Louis Adamic: Ex-Crusader.” Los Angeles Saturday Night, Oct. 22, 4. “A Splasher of Lavender.” Sports and Vanities, Sept., 9. “Los Angeles.” Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, May, 135–36. 1925 “Ambrose Bierce: Great Satirist.” Argonaut, Mar. 14, 23. REFERENCES

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Abowitz, Ellenore, 188 ABA. See American Bar Association ACCF. See American Committee for Cultural Freedom ACLU. See American Civil Liberties Union Adamic, Louis, 33–36, 44, 48, 58, 60, 64, 69–73, 80, 84, 108–9, 147, 153, 155–56, 184, 193, 194, 202, 273–74, 297; suicide of, 193, 194, 202; and Louis Adamic & Shadow-America (McWilliams), v, 60 Adamic, Stella Sanders, 48, 193 Adams, Henry, 277, 281, 299 Aidlin, Joseph, 139, 151 Aidlin, Mary, 139, 275 Aikman, Duncan, 43, 185; reviews North from Mexico, 157 Alien Registration Act (Smith Act), 96, 165–66, 175, 205 Alinsky, Saul, 157 Alvarez del Vayo, Julio. See Vayo, Julio Alvarez del American Bar Association (ABA), 64 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 25, 60, 64, 77, 81, 84, 94, 100, 103, 125, 153, 165, 187, 198–99, 200, 218, 240, 270, 296; reviews Mask for Privilege, 154 American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF), 200–203 American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, 94, 125 American Mercury (magazine), 9, 23, 27, 29, 35, 39, 47, 49, 55, 61, 73, 77, 126

Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), 152–53 anti-Semitism, 24–25, 47, 75, 153–55, 156, 206 Armitage, Merle, 34, 43 Ask the Dust (John Fante), 58, 259–60, 285 Assembly Relief Investigating Committee, anti-Communist focus of, 103, 124, 131 Associated Farmers, ix, 77, 91–96, 99–100, 149, 179; on Factories in the Field and Grapes of Wrath, 79 Austin, Mary, 31, 38–42, 55–56, 144, 184 Ayres, Edward Duran, 116–17 Baldwin, James, 223, 238–41 Baldwin, Roger, reviews A Mask for Privilege, 154–55 Bancroft, Philip, 96–97 Barrett, Edward Jr., 125 Barth, Alan, reviews Witch Hunt, 171–73 Bassett, William K., 75–76, 79 Baxter, Leone, and partner Clem Whitaker, 162–63, 186 Bay of Pigs invasion, 224, 280 Beals, Carleton, 273 Belmont, Clive. See Herbert Klein Bentley, Elizabeth, 193, 209 Bessie, Alvah, 266 Biddle, Francis, 104–5, 124 Bierce, Ambrose, vii, 8, 27–32, 38–39, 46–53, 56, 214, 255, 268–69, 275, 278, 297, 299 Bioff, Willie, 85–86, 201, 228 325

Black and White (magazine), 82 Black, Hammack & Black, 30 Black Panther Party, 238–40 Blaisdell, Esther, 63, 66–68, 84 Block, Herbert (Herblock), 226, 264 Bloom, Harold, 288, 292–93, 307 Bogart, Humphrey, 167 Bohemian Club (San Francisco), 31, 33, 35 Boudin, Kathy, 251–52 Boudin, Leonard, reviews Witch Hunt, 172, 251–52 Boudin, Louis, 185, 251 Bowron, Fletcher, 106, 122, 139 Brave One, The (‹lm), 218 Braverman, Harry, 117, 120, 157 Brechin, Gray, 142, 287–88, 296 Brecht, Bertolt, 127, 166, 168 Bridges, Harry, viii, 69, 81–82, 96–97, 140, 166, 169, 179, 192–93, 244, 266 Brinkley, Douglas, 238 Brothers Under the Skin, vii, 103, 112, 113–15, 126, 132, 152, 154, 155, 158, 201 Brown Berets, Los Angeles, 240–41 Brown, Edmund G. “Pat,” 130, 150, 216, 222–27, 228–29, 270 Brown, Jerry, viii, 272, 284 Brownell, Herbert, 194, 199, 208 Buckley, William F., 236, 250 Budenz, Louis, 131–32, 175, 193, 194, 200–201 Bundy, McGeorge, 170–71 Burroughs, John Rolfe, 2–5, 11, 13 Caldwell, Erskine, 44, 86, 140 The California Revolution (McWilliams), 236, 245–46, 264, 270 California: The Great Exception (McWilliams), 148, 159, 163–64, 264, 268, 288–89, 291, 297 California Studies Association (CSA), 290; and Carey McWilliams Award, 287 Cameron, Angus, 111–12, 137, 190, 201, 237, 306; and Alfred Kahn, 208 Cannon, Lou, 228, 230, 236 Carney, Francis, 80, 280, 291



Carrillo, Leo, 122 Carter, Jimmy, 273 Casley, Lottie, 15, 31 Casley, Vernon, 15 Catledge, Turner, 224 Caughey, John, 269, 283 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), 202–3, 214, 224, 272 Chambers, Whittaker, 86, 166, 190, 208 Chandler, Harry, 17 Chandler, Otis, 264 Chaplin, Charlie, 94, 130 Chávez, César, viii, 157–58, 230, 240, 283, 287 Chinatown (‹lm), viii, 24, 40, 144, 260–61, 287, 306, 307 Chinese, discrimination against, 87–89, 112–14, 141, 143 Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, 87–89, 113, 154, 196 Chomsky, Noam, 235, 298 CIA. See Central Intelligence Agency Clark, Blair, 275 Clark, Evans, 177, 182, 183 Clark, Tom, 106–7 Cleaver, Eldridge, 238–39 Clover, Samuel T., 42–43, 284 Cohn, Roy, 207 Cold War, v, 152, 155, 177, 183, 190–98, 203–4, 210, 216, 243, 245, 246, 280–81; and anti-Communist investigations, 165, 174; and JFK, 223, 231; and McCarthyism, 202–4 Cole, Lester, 169, 266 Combs, R. E., 125–26 Commentary (magazine), 181, 196, 202 Committee on Civil Rights, 114, 152, 154 Committee on Un-American Activities in California (CUAC), x, 124, 128–29, 130, 169, 188, 194–95, 231 Common Ground (magazine), 108, 153 Commonwealth Club, 97, 133 Communist Party (CP), x, 76–77, 79, 80, 103, 116, 118, 124–26, 128, 165–69, 173, 175–76, 188, 190–93, 199–200, 207–8, 259, 289

Community Service Organization (CSO), 157, 188 Congress for Cultural Freedom, 202–3 Connell, Will, 43 Cook, Fred, 212–14, 282 Cooper, Gary, 74, 75 Corman, Catherine, 297 Cranston, Alan, reviews Southern California County, 147 Cray, Ed, 107–8, 134, 150, 163, 171, 211 Critser, Greg, 47, 83, 290 Croly, Herbert, 72, 253 Crum, Bartley, 139–40, 166, 210 CSO. See Community Service Organization CUAC. See Committee on Un-American Activities in California Danzinger, Adolphe. See De Castro, Adolphe Davis, Mike, viii, x, 147–48, 287, 289, 290–91 De Castro, Adolphe, 47–48 Decker, Caroline, 69, 124 Dekker, Albert, 139, 194–95 del Vayo, Julio Alvarez. See Vayo, Julio Alvarez del Democratic National Convention, 216, 221–22, 249–50 de Toqueville, Alexis, 70 Deverell, William, 293–94 DeWitt, John L., 105, 134 Dies, Martin, 125, 136, 150 Diggins, John Patrick, 280–81 di Giovanni, Norman Thomas, 233 DIH. See Division of Immigration and Housing Division of Immigration and Housing (DIH), California, vii, ix, x, 87, 93, 98, 111, 117 Dixiecrats, 216 Donner, Frank, 207 Dornfeld, Iris. See McWilliams, Iris Dornfeld Douglas, Helen Gahagan, 82, 130, 175, 194, 226 Douglas, William O., 205 Downey, Sheridan, 85, 284

Downie, Leonard Jr., 185, 210–11, 214 Draper, Theodore, 203 Dreiser, Theodore, 8, 29, 82 Dubliners (James Joyce), 38, 111, 279 Dunne, John Gregory, viii, 230, 280, 283 Dmytryk, Edward, 189 ECLC. See Emergency Civil Liberties Committee ECM. See The Education of Carey McWilliams Education of Carey McWilliams, The, on birth of a son, 64; on book-writing dif‹culties, 159; on literary stirrings, 9–10; as personal, political memoir, x; shortcomings of, 282–83 Earl Warren Award for Civil Liberties (ACLU), to McWilliams, 270 Eisenhower, Dwight D., 205, 207, 216, 225, 254 Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (ECLC), 200, 251 Emerson, Thomas, 199, and ECLC, 200 Endore, Guy, 292–93 End Poverty in California (EPIC), 61–62, 76, 151, 163, 188 EPIC. See End Poverty in California Ernst, Morris, 199 Escobar, Edward J., 292 Eudley, Elizabeth, 95 Factories in the Field (McWilliams), ix, 18, 40, 59, 80, 87–88, 91–101, 115, 128, 147, 158, 234, 251, 281, 289, 291, 297, 303 Fall, Bernard, 246 Fante, John, xi, xiv, 22–23, 44, 57–58, 68, 78, 81–82, 86, 93, 96, 102, 138, 139, 159, 176, 185–89, 216–18, 258–60, 265–66, 273–74, 276–77, 285 Fante, Joyce, xiv, 102, 139, 259, 274, 277, 285, 304 fascism, 60, 73–79, 83, 92, 93, 99, 111, 155, 180, 181, 207, 240, 241 Fast, Howard, 191 Faulkner, William, 44, 139, 259

Index 327

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), 104, 131, 167, 228, 175–76, 191, 196, 199–201, 210, 213–14, 228; and McWilliams’s ‹le, 271, 301, 303, 304, 305 Ferry, W. H. (Ping), 185 Fitzgerald, F. Scott, 9–11, 14, 16, 45, 46, 139, 257 Flags in the Sunset (McWilliams’s unpublished novel), 29, 39, 65, 67, 279 Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley, 199 Foucault, Michel, 295 Free Speech Movement (Berkeley), 229, 234 Fricke, Charles W., 116–18 Friedrich, Otto, 127, 287, 303 Fuchs, Klaus, 173 Full of Life (John Fante), as novel, 186, 189; as ‹lm, 217; as title of Fante biography, 317 Gantner, Donald Christopher, x, 95, 98, 291 Gar‹eld, John, 120, 130 George, Henry, 88 Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, 52 Ginsberg, Allen, 243–44 Gitlin, Todd, 243, 252, 266 Gold Rush, 113, 160–61, 163, 142; and Factories in the Field, 87 Goldwater, Barry, 86, 216, 227, 247 The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck), 18, 59, 87, 91–92 Greenberg, Clement, 180–82 Greenberg, David, 226 Grif‹th, Beatrice, 102, 123 Gruening, Ernest, 250 Hallinan, Vincent, 193 Hammett, Dashiell, 45, 190 Hanna, Phil Townsend, 43, 44, 58 Harper’s (magazine), 102–3, 110, 212 Haslam, Gerald, 267, 268 HAT. See Honorable in All Things Hayden, Tom, 231, 241, 251 Healey, Dorothy, 83, 95, 103, 188, 289



Hearst, William Randolph, 44, 50, 74, 75, 76, 98, 105–6, 116, 123, 149, 292 Hedrick, Dorothy, v, 45–46, 56, 64 Hedrick, Earle, 45, 107 Hell’s Angels, 237–38 Hicks, Granville, 53, 181 Hillman, Sidney, 94, 139, 187 Hiss, Alger, viii, 166, 190, 212–14, 226, 254, 266, 275 Hitler, Adolf, 82–83, 136, 207 Hoffa, Jimmy, 214, 223 Hofstadter, Richard, 155, 183 Hollywood Anti-Nazi League for the Defense of American Democracy (HANL), 82 Hollywood Hussars, 74–75 Hollywood Ten, ix, 167–69, 171, 175, 182, 189–91, 210, 217, 296 Honorable in All Things (HAT) (oral history memoirs of McWilliams), 8, 12 Horne, Lena, 120, 130 House Committee on Un-American Activity (HUAC), ix, 80, 104–6, 124, 127, 133, 136, 151, 167, 166–69, 176, 188, 190, 191, 199, 201, 231; and Richard Nixon, 175; and Ronald Reagan, 133 Houston, James, 267–68 Howe, Irving, 183, 242 HUAC. See House Committee on UnAmerican Activity Hughes, Langston, 86, 94–95, 130 Humphrey, Hubert, 152, 153, 221, 249–50 Huston, John, 130, 144, 167–68 Hutton, Bobby, 239 IATSE. See International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees Ickes, Harold L., 93 Ill Fares the Land (McWilliams), 59, 100–101, 297 ILWU. See International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union Imperial Valley, 66, 77–78, 164, 289 Institute for Governmental Studies, 267, 284

International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), 85 International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), 69, 81 International Workers of the World (IWW), 79 IWW. See International Workers of the World Jackson, Helen Hunt, 140, 142 Jacoby, Russell, 295 Japanese, viii, ix, 83, 88, 104, 107, 111, 132–36, 196, 296, 299 Jeffers, Robinson, viii, 30, 31, 34, 35, 78, 81, 146–47, 278 Jim Crow, 153–54, 215, 299 Johnson, Hiram, 105, 134, 149, 150 Johnson, Lyndon B., 221–22, 223 Jones, William Mosley, 85 Jordan-Smith, Paul, 34, 43, 47 Josephson, Matthew, 185, 187, 201, 258, 266 Joyce, James, 38, 67, 111 Julian, C. C. (Chauncey C.), 17, 284, 301 Kalisch, Margaret, 126 Katz, Charles, 118, 166, 270 Kaweah Co-operative Colony, 87, 90–91 Kaye, Danny, 130, 167 Keating, Kenneth, 223 Kelly, Gene, 120, 130, 167, 284 Kennedy, John F., 221–25 Kennedy, Robert F., 221–25, 227, 244, 246, 250, 253–54 Kenny, Robert, 223, 227, 230, 249 King, John, 297 King, Martin Luther Jr., viii, 215, 239, 248–49 King, Paul, xiii King, Rodney, 236 Kirchwey, Freda, 177, 178, 180–82, 183, 187, 201–2, 204, 208, 209, 212 Kirstein, George, 209, 211, 233, 257 Klein, Herbert, 43, 78–79, 95, 139, 266 Klein, Kerwin, 146–47, 288, 291

Ku Klux Klan, 99–100, 125 Knopf, Alfred, 137, 237, 306 Knowland, William, 149–51 Korematsu v. United States, viii, 135, 168 Kristol, Irving, 196, 200, 202 La Follette, Robert, 91, 95 Lamb, Edward, 208 Lamont, Corliss, 200 Lardner, Ring Jr., 169–70 Lasch, Christopher, 203 Lattimore, Owen, 195–97, 199, 247 Lawson, John Howard, 167–68 Lawyer’s Committee on American Policy Toward Vietnam, 247–48 League of American Writers, 82 Lewis, Sinclair, 8, 32, 75 Leyvas, Henry “Hank,” 115–20 Lieber, Maxim, 86–87, 111, 137, 190, 208, 245, 303 Limerick, Patricia Nelson, viii, 266–67, 290–91, 297 Little, Brown and Company, 80, 87, 111, 190, 208 Lockyer, Bill, 291 London, Jack, 8, 31, 39, 50 Los Angeles Daily News, 91, 130 Los Angeles Examiner, 17, 116, 292 Los Angeles Saturday Night (magazine), 34, 35, 36, 41–42, 43, 47 Los Angeles Times, xiv, 16–21, 39, 42, 98, 103, 122, 139, 143, 144, 147, 179, 234, 264, 269, 284, 285, 288 Louis Adamic & Shadow America, v, 69, 72, 147, 297 loyalty oath, 152, 169–71, 296 Lummis, Charles Fletcher, 39 Mailer, Norman, 184, 239 Maltz, Albert, 169 Margolis, Ben Jr., 118, 120, 166 Marine, Gene, 211, 234–35, 305 Marshall, Margaret, 183 Marshall, Thurgood, 137, 215 A Mask for Privilege: Anti-Semitism in America, 153–56, 297

Index 329

Matthiessen, F. O., 53, 139, 192–93 Matusow, Harvey, 208–9 Mayer, Louis, 35, 43, 86 Mayo, Morrow, 48, 144 McAdoo, Williams Gibbs, 85, 98 McCarthy, Eugene, viii, 222, 248–49 McCarthy, Joseph, v, ix, x, xi, 76, 151, 165, 171, 174, 182, 190–98, 199–204, 205–9, 223, 224, 232, 280–81, 296 McCormick, La Rue, 116, 118 McGrath, Alice Green‹eld, xiv, 119–20, 139, 281, 283–84, 291, 303 McWilliams & Burroughs, 2–4 McWilliams, Carey, and cancer, 275–77; and the Cold War, 195; and the Communist Party, 77, 79, 80, 104, 125–26, 128, 175, 176; death of, 286; depression suffered by, v, 10, 65, 138, 165; as editor, viii, 82, 169, 192–93, 211, 212, 234–38, 264–65, 280, 283; as father, 138, 158, 184–86, 231, 276; FBI surveillance of, x, 175–76, 291, 210; Guggenheim fellowship awarded to, x, 64, 73, 103–4; as head of DIH, vii, ix, x, 87, 93, 111, 117; honors and awards, 269, 270; as lawyer, 25–31, 55, 64; on marriage to Dorothy Hedrick, 56; on marriage to Iris Dornfeld, 68; as mentor, 232; moves to Los Angeles and New York City, 179; and The Nation, vii, 23, 47, 177, 179; as public intellectual, vii, x, xii, 136, 288, 290–91, 295–97; reputation of, vii, 49, 50, 190; in Steamboat Springs, 1–13, 15, 16, 57, 285, 301; at UCLA, 19, 236, 270, 277, 282, 284; at University of Denver, 13–14, 53; at USC, 19–22, 27, 58, 81, 138; on the Warren court, 205, 270; as writer and activist, 91–101, 123, 125, 139, 153, 165, 159, 177, 200 McWilliams, Casley, 3–8, 11, 13–14, 16, 19, 36, 218, 257, 270–71, 276, 283, 285, 301 McWilliams, Harriet Casley, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 13, 28, 68, 218, 285 McWilliams, Iris Dornfeld, xiv, 68, 102, 138, 156, 169, 175, 178, 179, 184–87,



192, 194, 219, 249, 256, 263, 267, 274–77, 279, 283, 285 McWilliams, Jeremiah Newby (Jerry), 2–6, 11–12, 13, 218 McWilliams, Jerry Ross, 102, 103, 138–39, 185, 178, 184, 218–19, 257, 274–77, 285 McWilliams, Nancy (Riley), 231 McWilliams, Wilson Carey (Bill Carey, Carey Jr.), 231, 257, 266, 275, 276, 279, 286, 291 MEChA (El Movimiento Estudiantíl Chicano de Aztlán, The Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán), 240–41 Meeker Massacre (1879), 1–2 Meiklejohn, Alexander, 168 Meisler, Stanley, 212, 234 Mencken, H.L., viii, v, 21, 8–9, 14, 20–24, 27, 31, 33, 35–36, 48–49, 51, 53, 57, 59, 62–64, 71, 81, 86, 144, 146, 151, 217, 234, 247, 255, 267–68, 278, 298–303 Merriam, Frank, 62–63, 66 Mexicans, discrimination against, 60–61, 84, 99, 101, 112, 116–18, 122–23, 126, 131, 142–43, 156–57, 272–73, 292–94 Meyer, Lee Ann, x, xiv, 11, 24, 25, 37, 63, 65, 66–68, 84, 291, 302 Miller, Arthur, viii, 184, 187 Miller, Henry, 40–41, 87, 89, 90–91 Miller & Lux land company, 40, 87, 89–91. See also Henry Miller Mills, Kay, 25, 284–85 Mitchell, Ruth Comfort, 59 Mooney, Tom, 93 Morse, Wayne, 221, 250 Mosk, Stanley, 139, 266, 303 Murphy, Frank, 135, 168 Musso & Frank grill, 33, 45, 259, 283 Nader, Ralph viii, 214, 264 Nash, Gerald, 288 The Nation, v, 75, 177–83, 202, 211, 237–38, 264, 276, 281 National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act), 83

National Lawyers Guild, 64, 94, 105, 118, 123, 125, 139, 141, 153, 165, 199–200, 207, 210, 248, 296 Native Sons of the Golden West, 141 Navarro, Joseph, 241 Navasky, Victor, xiv, 199–200, 208, 267, 272 Niebuhr, Reinhold, 94, 181, 200 Neutra, Richard, 43, 139, 267 New‹eld, Jack 232 New Left, vi, 158, 221, 231, 242–46, 306 Newton, Huey, 238–39 New Leader (magazine), 180–82, 202 New Regionalism in American Literature (McWilliams chapbook), 56 New Republic, 61–63, 83, 86, 178, 211, review of Factories in the Field in, 92, 99–100, 122, 149, review of Witch Hunt in, 172 New York Review of Books, 239 The New York Times, 205, 224, 256, 258, 205, 119, 281; review of Brothers Under the Skin in, 114; review of Factories in the Field in, 92; review of Ill Fares the Land, 101; review of Ambrose Bierce in, 52, 53; review of Southern California Country in, 147; review of North from Mexico in, 157, 205 Nicholson, Jack, 144, 261 Nietzsche, Friedrich, 21, 33, 81 Nixon, Richard M., vi, ix, 151, 166, 175, 190, 211, 213, 223, 225–27, 228, 229, 231, 244, 248, 250–51, 253–55, 257, 263, 272 Nossiter, Bernard 185, 211–12 Nunis, Doyce Jr., 280 North from Mexico, vii, viii, 121, 122, 155, 156, 157, 158, 159, 281, 291, 292, 297 Oakland Tribune, 98, 150 Odets, Clifford, 81 Olson, Culbert L., 87, 91, 93–95, 98–99, 103–8, 111, 125, 134, 141, 150, 162, 216 O’Sullivan, Vincent, 47–49

Otis, Harrison, 17, 143, 144 Owens Valley, 40–42, 143–44, 260, 261, 289 Paci‹c Rim, 135, 164, 245 Paci‹c Weekly, 75, 76, 79, 81, 85, 87, 95, 196 Pagán, Eduardo Obregón, 292, 293 Parker, Dorothy, 81, 130 Patterson, Ellis, 98, 128 Pegler, Westbrook, 106, 179 People of the State of California v. Zammora et al., 116 People’s World, 80; People’s Daily World, 125 Popular Front, 79, 80, 95, 126, 182 Post, A. Alan, 229 Powell, Laurence Clark, 43, 44, 68 Prejudice: Japanese-Americans: Symbol of Racial Intolerance, cited in dissent to Korematsu v. United States, viii, 132–35, 152, 289, 297 Proposition 14, and nondiscriminatory housing, 228–29 Putnam, Robert, 296 Rabinowitz, Victor, 185, 251, 275 Radin, Max, 168 Ramparts, 234–35, 238 Reagan, Ronald, viii, 151, 167, 228–29, 230, 236, 240, 273, 288 Remington, William, 193, 194, 212, 213 Resettlement, Japanese, 97, 109 Rexroth, Kenneth, 81 Rhode, Paul, 148, 302, 305 Rich, Robert. See Dalton Trumbo Ritchie, Ward, 44, 69 Robeson, Paul, and Jackie Robinson, 257; CUAC critic, 130; ‹rst to be barred from U.S. television, 190; represented by Leonard Boudin, 257 Robinson, Forrest G., scholar, 114 Rodriguez, Rene, 284 Rogers, Will Jr., U.S. Rep., 150–51, 181 Rolph, James Jr., California governor, 74 Roosevelt, Eleanor, 122, 152

Index 331

Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, 60, 83, 98, 128, 134, 152, 154, 196; internment, Japanese- Americans, 105–6, 108, 132, 134 Roosevelt, James, 174 Roosevelt, Theodore, 8 Rorty, James, 203 Rorty, Richard, 203, 295, 296 Rose, Stanley, 45, 259 Rosenberg, Julius and Ethel, 204–5, 251 Ross, Fred, 157 Roszak, Theodore, counterculture writer, viii, 235–36, 242–43, 250 Rousselot, John, ix Rovere, Richard, 202 Roybal, Edward, 157, 188 Rumford Fair Housing Act, 288 Sacramento Bee, 93, 105, 150 Salon (online magazine), 290 Samish, Arthur, 130, 162, 284 Sánchez, David, 240 San Francisco Chronicle, 81, 104, 130, 149, 256 Saroyan, William, 23, 44, 94, 259 Saxton, Alexander, reviews ECM, 282 SCC. See Southern California Country Scheer, Robert, 234–35, 306 Schiffrin, André, 235 Schindler, Rudolph, 43, 267 Schlesinger, Arthur Jr., 23, 152, 170, 174, 180–81, 199, 202–3, 224, 281–83, 305; reviews books by McWilliams, vii, 119, 203–4, 281–82 Schuck, Peter H., 280 Schulberg, Budd, 44, 139 SDS. See Students for a Democratic Society Seale, Bobby, 238 Segal, Jonathan, 278–80 Seidenbaum, Art, 264 Shearer, Derek, 224, 238, 265, 283 Sherrill, Robert, 232 Shibley, George, 118



Shirer, William, 187, 190 Shultz, Lillie, 177 Sinatra, Frank, 130, 230 Sinclair, Upton, viii, 8, 29, 31, 36, 61–62, 76–77, 81, 163, 181, 196 SLATE (Berkeley student party), 98, 230–31 Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, v, 118–21, 132, 156, 158–59, 241, 292, 293, 296, 303 Smart Set (magazine), 8, 9, 14, 21, 50, 51 Smedley, Agnes, 195–96 Smith Act. See Alien Registration Act Snow, Edgar, 185, 187, 195–96, 247 Sobell, Morton, 204–5 Southern Branch. See University of California, Los Angeles Southern California Country (SCC), 15, 17–18, 24, 29–30, 37, 40, 59, 140–41, 144, 146, 148, 156, 166, 185, 260, 289, 291, 297, 306 Soviet-Nazi Pact of 1939, 79, 82, 182 Spanish Civil War, 82, 94 Spartacus, 191, 218 Sproul, Robert Gordon, 134, 169 Stalin, Joseph, 79, 129, 174, 180–82, 198, 202–3, 281–82; and Joseph McCarthy, 76 Starr, Kevin, vii, viii, xiii, 16, 19, 34, 39, 42–44, 147–48, 165, 266, 287, 290–91 State Relief Administration, 95, 103, 124 Steffens, Lincoln, 69, 75, 76, 196 Stegner, Wallace, 139–40, 284 Sterling, George, v, 29, 31–36, 38–39, 43, 47 Stevens, Robert, 206–7 Stevenson, Adlai, 216, 221, 222 Stone, I. F., 185, 200, 223, 232, 241, 249, 251, 271, 283; reviews Factories in the Field for The Nation, 88 Stone, Irving, 81 Storrow, James J., 257, 263–64 Strong, Anna Louise, 76, 195, 196 Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), 242–43, 253, 306; Weather faction splits from, 251

Teitz, Michael, ix, xiii Tenney, Jack, v, 122, 124–31, 156, 166, 169, 172, 179, 193 Terkel, Studs, x, 249, 271, 280 This Side of Paradise (F. Scott Fitzgerald) 9–10, 14, 46 Thomas, J. Parnell, 166, 168 Thompson, Hunter S., viii, 236–38 Till, Emmet, 214–15 Tolan Committee, 95, 106–9 Touring Topics. See Westways Towne, Robert, viii, 144, 147, 260–61, 306, 307 Truman, Harry S., 114, 151–52, 166, 168, 180, 182, 196, 228, 254 trigeminal neuralgia, 263, 274, 283 Trumbo, Dalton, 94–95, 167–68, 203, 217–18 Tygiel, Jules, 291, 293–94 UCLA. See University of California, Los Angeles United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), 83–84, 95 University of California, Berkeley, xiii, 79, 168, 169, 184, 186, 219, 229, 230, 234, 265, 267, 284, 288, 291 University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), 19–20, 43, 45, 100, 107, 118, 236, 269, 270, 277, 284 University of Denver, 13, 14, 53 University of Southern California (USC), 19–20, 22–27, 34, 58, 81, 138, 145, 269, 280, 290, 301 union organizing, 77, 83, 103 Unruh, Jess, 236 Valdez, Luis, viii, 271, 284 Vale, Rena, 125, 126, 128, 176 Vaught, David, 88, 294 Vayo, Julio Alvarez del, 180–82, 184 Vidal, Gore, 223, 298 Viereck, Peter, 180–81, 202 Vietnam War, vi, ix, x, 197, 232, 234, 242, 246–53, 263, 269, 280, 288 vigilantism, 74, 88, 92

Von Hoffman, Nicholas, ix, 214 Voorhis, Jerry, 151, 226 Wagner Act. See National Labor Relations Act Wake‹eld, Dan, 211, 214–15, 232, 305, 306 Wallace, Henry, 117, 130, 139, 152, 194 War Relocation Authority (WRA), 109–10, 133 Warren, Earl, 105, 106, 111, 134, 141, 149, 161, 162–63, 174, 198, 205, 270 Washington Post, 185, 210–11, 214, 228, 230, 236, 280 Watergate, 224, 248, 263, 269 Watts rebellion, 230 Weather Underground (Weathermen), 251–52 Welch, Joseph, 207 Welles, Orson, 118, 120, 130, 139 West, Nathanael, 18, 44, 81, 146 Western Writers Congress, ix, 77, 80, 81, 82, 159 Weston, Edward, 43 Westways (auto club magazine), 4, 43, 59, 85, 140, 210, 273, 284 Wheatland Riot, 88, 294 Whitaker, Clem. See Leone Baxter Wills, Ross, 58, 93, 94, 139, 185, 194, 217, 259 Wilson, Edmund, viii, 8, 10, 45, 62, 137, 298 Wilson, Hugh, 185, 200 Winter, Ella, 69, 75–76, 167; reviews Factories in the Field, 92 Witch Hunt: The Revival of Heresy, 171, 191, 201, 297; reviews of, 172–74 WJ. See Writing Journal Wolfe Hall Military Academy, 7 Worster, Donald, 289 WRA. See War Relocation Authority Wright, Lloyd, 43 Writing Journal of Carey McWilliams (WJ), 10, 12, 19–20, 24, 29, 32, 33, 38, 41, 46, 55, 64

Index 333

Yeats, W. B., 33, 56, 69 Yorty, Sam, 103, 124, 130, 229 Zeitlin, Jake, 34, 43–44, 68–69, 78, 283 Zinn, Howard, viii, 211–12, 247, 264 Zoll, Allen A., 170



Zoot Suit (play). See also Luis Valdez Zoot Suit Riots, v, 121–22, 123, 124, 126, 128, 131, 132, 141, 149, 156, 165, 175, 241, 293, 296, 304; role of media in, 121