Carey McWilliams

By Peter Richardson, 2011

The author of this profile, Peter Richardson, is a lecturer in the humanities department at San Francisco State University. His publications include “American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams” (2005), “A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America” (2009), and numerous articles on literature, politics, and media. He served from 1991 to 2007 as an English professor at the University of North Texas and, since 2007, has chaired the California Studies Association. He holds a doctorate in English from the University of California, Berkeley. – H.F.

Carey McWilliams was one of the most productive and versatile American public intellectuals of the twentieth century. Lawyer, activist, journalist, author, and editor of The Nation for two decades, McWilliams also may be the most important American writer most people have never heard of.

Carey McWilliams 1905-1980

McWilliams was born in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, on December 13, 1905. His father Jerry was a prominent rancher, businessman, and state legislator. But Jerry McWilliams lost everything – his fortune, his mind, and his life – just after World War I, when the United States lifted its beef embargo and thereby wiped out his cattle investments. Jerry McWilliams committed suicide in a Colorado mental hospital while his son was in high school. It was a powerful trauma for the 14-year-old Carey, who watched his family life unravel, and it shaped his personality and views. Having seen his father rave, he became almost hyper-rational, as if to protect himself against the madness that destroyed his father. Politically, too, McWilliams had a kind of choice: He could blame his father or “the system” for his family’s demise. McWilliams chose to blame the system, and for the rest of his life, he never trusted free enterprise. For him, markets weren’t mechanisms for producing wealth and distributing goods; instead, they were wild, irrational forces that tore men’s souls to pieces.

As a boy, McWilliams idolized H.L. Mencken and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and throughout the 1920s he lived out the Jazz Age as he understood it from them. But that led to some problems. He was expelled from the University of Denver during his freshman year after a raucous St. Patrick’s Day party. Broke and besmirched, he came to Los Angeles to join his mother and extended family. He found a job at the Los Angeles Times in the credit department, where he tracked down deadbeat advertisers, a job that didn’t improve his opinion of the business community. He also attended USC, where he worked on the school paper and studied law, but after a gin-fueled double date during Prohibition, he was suspended from the school.

These capers don’t amount to much by themselves, but they reflect a split in McWilliams’s personal life, a tension between a penchant for freedom and rebellion on the one hand and respectability on the other. He was attracted to mavericks and artists who lived as they chose, but on the respectability side of the ledger was a note in his father’s will – instructions from the grave, as it were – to be careful financially and “honorable in all things.”

Suspended from USC, McWilliams spent a semester at Southern Branch (later renamed UCLA) and returned to complete his law degree at USC. The law degree was for practicality’s sake and especially important given his family’s reduced circumstances. He became a proficient litigator at a downtown law firm but he never liked the work. His real goal was to become a writer – a younger, western version of Mencken. When he wasn’t working on legal cases, he wrote literary reviews for local magazines and soon became a kind of regional tastemaker. At the tender age of 23, he completed his first book, a well-received biography of Ambrose Bierce, one of Mencken’s favorites. Around that time, too, McWilliams became a junior partner in his law firm. He was laying the foundations for two careers – one legal, the other literary – that would eventually come together in his political writing and activism.

Throughout the 1920s, McWilliams was mostly apolitical, but the 1930s, the decade of the Great Depression, radicalized him, deepening his belief that market forces were irrational and dangerous, especially, but not only, for workers, immigrants, and minorities. As a lawyer, he sought out opportunities to represent these groups in and around Los Angeles, and he focused on farm labor issues. He published his first bestseller, Factories in the Field,” in 1939, the same year John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath” became a hugely successful novel. For his efforts, McWilliams was appointed chief of California’s Division of Immigration and Housing in 1939. He quickly became a high-profile target for California growers, who called him “Agricultural Pest Number One, worse than pear blight or boll weevils.” When Earl Warren ran for governor in 1942, he promised Central Valley voters that his first official act would be to fire McWilliams. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover put him on the Custodial Detention list, which meant he could be rounded up during a national emergency, even though McWilliams was serving in state government at the time. State legislators like Sam Yorty and Jack Tenney hauled him before their committees and grilled him on his political views; mostly they wanted him to confirm or deny membership in the Communist Party. He wasn’t a Party member, but he had many friends and colleagues who were, and he never hesitated to work with them when they agreed on an issue. In one closed session of the Committee on Un-American Activities in California, Senator Tenney asked McWilliams if he advocated interracial marriage, which was still illegal in California. McWilliams said he wasn’t advocating anything but saw no need for a statute against it. In the published report, Senator Tenney wrote that McWilliams’s views were identical to that of the Communist Party.

McWilliams was very active in the Los Angeles community, reporting on and helping to defuse the Zoot Suit Riots in the summer of 1943, when scuffles between servicemen and Latino youths spun out of control. He also chaired the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee after a biased trial sent a group of mostly Latino youths to jail following the death of another Latino youth. The convictions were overturned on appeal, and McWilliams later regarded that victory as the beginning of the Chicano movement. His work in that effort, combined with his 1949 book, North from Mexico,” led a later generation of activists to call him the Grandfather of Chicano Studies.

When incoming governor Earl Warren fired him in 1942, McWilliams turned to another issue: the evacuation and internment of Japanese-American citizens, which played out while he in state government. Although he worked behind the scenes to prevent it, he didn’t criticize it publicly, presumably because it was the creature of a Democratic president and Democratic governor. But once he was out of government, he wrote Prejudice,” a brave and disturbing book that destroyed every argument in favor of the evacuation and internment. The work came out in 1944 while the nation was still at war and the camps were still operating. The same year, Prejudice” was cited repeatedly in a Supreme Court dissenting opinion in Korematsu v. United States, which upheld the constitutionality of the internment.

If McWilliams had done nothing else during the 1940s, his would be a remarkable record. But he did much more. In addition to writing prolifically and consequentially, he was involved in yet another high-profile legal case involving the so-called Hollywood Ten, a group of film-industry leftists summoned to Washington for questioning about their political associations. After consulting with their lawyers, most of them friends of McWilliams, the Hollywood Ten decided not to offer direct answers to any questions about Communist Party membership. They were convicted of contempt of Congress (later, Dalton Trumbo admitted that he really did hold that Congress in contempt). McWilliams drafted an amicus brief for a Supreme Court hearing on their behalf, but the court decided not to hear the case, and the defendants served time in federal prison.

In 1951, McWilliams moved to New York to work for The Nation. He spent a good deal of his energy resisting McCarthyism, and his stands on civil rights and Vietnam eventually earned him a reputation for being right on the big issues. As editor of The Nation, he was also known for reactivating the American tradition of muckraking, converting what had been known as a journal of opinion into a forum for investigative reporting. Along the way, he gave many young people their start by publishing them in The Nation. That group included Ralph Nader, Howard Zinn, Derek Shearer, Peter Schrag, and Hunter S. Thompson, who got the idea for his first big book, Hell’s Angels” (1966) from McWilliams.

For all of his good work at The Nation, McWilliams’s achievements in California are the crown jewels of his career. He produced nine first-rate books in eleven years along with hundreds of articles, on top of his activism and government service. One of those books, Southern California Country,” later inspired Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown.” Two others, Factories in the Field” and North from Mexico,” provided Cesar Chavez with what he called his formal education in California agribusiness. California: The Great Exception” came out in 1949 and is a widely quoted classic. Finally, he was an early warning system on McCarthyism, and on Richard Nixon, whom he described in 1950 as “a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice.”

California, the giant adolescent, has been outgrowing its governmental clothes now, for a hundred years. The first state constitution was itself an improvisation; and from that time to the present, governmental services have lagged far behind population growth. Other states have gone through this phase too, but California has never emerged from it. It is this fact which underlies the notorious lack of social and political equilibrium in California.” – Carey McWilliams, 1949.

McWilliams’s literary output and intense civic engagement have made him a very attractive figure to a new generation of academics. Much of that appreciation began in the 1990s, when Kevin Starr sang his praises, Patricia Limerick dubbed him California’s preeminent public intellectual, and Mike Davis portrayed him as “the Walter Prescott Webb of California, if not its Fernand Braudel.” But even these compliments risk underestimating McWilliams by focusing on his regional importance. He’s probably the most versatile American public intellectual of the twentieth century. Imagine Cornel West writing a Supreme Court brief, Alan Dershowitz critiquing Yeats’s poetry, Noam Chomsky editing a weekly magazine, or Gore Vidal running a state agency, and you’ll begin to appreciate McWilliams’s most extraordinary gift.

If McWilliams’s achievement is so monumental, why isn’t he on the radar screen of every literate American? First, he was a radical. In 1939, he called for the collectivization of farmland, an idea that sprang from his desire for a rational (that is, a planned) economy. Over time, he became a different sort of radical, something closer to the etymology of that word; instead of calling for a reorganization of the economy, which he didn’t know that much about, he called America back to its root political and moral values of fairness, civil liberties, and the rule of law.

Another reason we don’t hear much about McWilliams now is that the political culture that created him wilted under the white heat of McCarthyism. The Popular Front groups of the 1930s – the meetings, organizing, committees, activism, and so on – shrank as the wages of dissent increased. And when the left reconstituted itself in the 1960s, it was more interested in Che Guevara and the Black Panthers than in Old Left figures like McWilliams. Even though the country would eventually come around to his positions on the big issues, the overall political tide was pulling in a more conservative direction, and the left was looking for a different kind of hero – more revolutionary, more dangerous, someone who could make what literary critic Robert Langbaum once called an erotic appeal to the masses.

There are other reasons McWilliams isn’t a household name. He stopped writing books when he started at The Nation. For his California readership, he became a writer in exile, and his New York fans knew almost nothing about his previous work. He wasn’t a self-promoter or a media darling, and he had health problems, especially in the 1970s.

A less obvious reason we don’t hear much about McWilliams today has to do with his style. Not his wardrobe, though it’s true that his younger colleagues at The Nation made fun of his shoes, just as the style-conscious cowhands on his family’s Colorado ranch made fun of his father’s boots and hat, which made him look like a Mormon bishop. The natty downtown lawyer eventually became a bit dowdy. His workplace, too, was a blast from the past. During the 1960s, journalist Jack Newfield recalled that leaving his office at The Village Voice, with its pot smoke and rock music, to visit The Nation’s dusty offices, with its creaky elevator and old-fashioned switchboard, was like entering a time machine. Never especially flashy, McWilliams lost contact with the residual glamour and bohemianism that went along with his life in Los Angeles—tippling with William Faulkner, house parties at Orson Welles’s, hanging out with Richard Neutra, running around with John Fante, and so on.

But the style that matters most to an author is his writing style. McWilliams had the rare ability to write for general audiences without catering to them. The arguments are forceful but rarely polemical, especially after Factories in the Field,” and there’s no self-righteous zeal whatsoever. He could slice and dice when he wanted to, but you don’t read him for pyrotechnics. The pleasures he offers readers come from his range, clarity, and sanity. He almost never strains an idea or forces an argument. Renaissance Italians had a word for this kind of easy mastery: sprezzatura, or studied nonchalance, and this quality, which is so highly valued in California, was an important part of McWilliams’s authority. Like Joe DiMaggio, McWilliams made it look easy, and over the years, that ability has earned him many appreciative fans, many of whom have also written about ideas for a living.

It’s worth comparing McWilliams’s stylistic choices to those of his younger colleagues. During the 1960s, people like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe were pushing the boundaries of journalism, incorporating techniques from fiction to supercharge their stories. There was a change in political styles, too. Young leftists began to favor the politics of self-expression, using issues and movements as platforms for self-fashioning. But as the drama – sometimes the melodrama – of the 1960s unfolded, McWilliams continued to produce cool, measured analyses of America’s political scene. There would be no Gonzo journalism or political theater from McWilliams. When others were letting it all hang out, he was probably hoping they would tuck it all back in and organize a caucus.

A classic stylist, McWilliams assumed that the truth can be known; that readers can recognize it when it’s laid out for them; that abstractions can be clear and exact; and that overshooting the mark is rarely the condition for hitting it. Hyperbole is useful in some situations, but McWilliams renounced it. Readers, he imagined, don’t need it, and resorting to tricks would only diminish his hard-earned credibility. His style implicitly endorses a certain kind of politics, which we might call the politics of cool. Its appeal lies in its understated but unswerving commitment to a few core principles. First, there’s very little name-calling, even though you’re being called names (liar, ass, dupe, pinko, fellow traveler, Agricultural Pest Number One, etc.). With few exceptions, McWilliams returned his readers to the key issues. The politics of cool is also committed to facts, which allows for a lot of clear, objective analysis and farsightedness, the very qualities that distinguish McWilliams’s enormous literary output.

Almost by definition, the politics of cool doesn’t come from the gut or even the heart, and it’s not especially responsive to the passions of the day. This limits its intellectual reach as well as its appeal. For all of his prescience, McWilliams sometimes missed the visceral element of American politics because he didn’t feel what other people felt. For example, he entirely missed the broad appeal of Nixon’s law-and-order message in 1968, even after he was beaten and robbed by four young men in The Nation’s elevator and his wife was held up at knifepoint near their apartment. And even though he was worried about his own son’s libertine lifestyle, McWilliams didn’t fully appreciate the appeal that politicians like Nixon and Reagan made to voters worried about permissiveness. For decades, he wondered why so many Americans had failed to take Nixon’s measure. Later he realized that Nixon hadn’t fooled anyone. Instead, a lot of Americans had decided that the times called for a bastard, and Nixon fit the specifications. That kind of thinking is still with us, and so are McWilliams’s favorite issues: immigration and border enforcement, civil liberties during wartime, the Latino experience, the corporate media’s failure to cover the issues of the day, and so on.

McWilliams’s style was built for the long run and for a specific kind of audience. A more provocative or spectacular style – think of Mencken or Hunter S. Thompson or Mike Davis, for example – would have served him better if his goal were celebrity or notoriety. But if McWilliams’s star hasn’t burned as brightly as theirs, it casts a more even light on the American scene, and that should matter for his core audience of people who care about ideas.

McWilliams retired as editor of The Nation in 1975. He continued to live in Manhattan, where he was diagnosed with cancer in 1978. After three operations, he accepted an offer to teach at UCLA and worked on his memoir, The Education of Carey McWilliams.” It was his first book-length work since Witch Hunt: The Revival of Heresy” (1950), and like that book, the memoir wasn’t especially successful. Its main problem was McWilliams’s reluctance to dramatize himself and his experience. Reviewer Alexander Saxton noted that the memoir “oversimplifies, 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.

In 1980, McWilliams returned to New York City and entered the University Hospital in Manhattan. He died on June 27, 1980.

At the time of his death, McWilliams’s critical reputation was well established but not magisterial. That began to change in 1981 when historian Gerald D. Nash wrote that California: The Great Exception” was, at the time of its publication, “perhaps the most provocative and stimulating work yet written about California.” McWilliams’s critical fortunes improved significantly following the 1990 publications of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles” and Kevin Starr’s Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s.” Over the next decade, other books, articles, and dissertations began to present McWilliams as California’s preeminent public intellectual.

In the preface to his memoir, McWilliams noted that he, like Henry Adams, felt a deep urge “remove the tension between experience and idealism.” That tension took a variety of forms throughout McWilliams’s life, most obviously the early split between his law practice and his writing. It also produced considerable discomfort as McWilliams moved fitfully toward his life’s work, forfeited the materials benefits of his legal career, and learned the wages of dissent in American life. The ultimate product of that tension was not a conflicted 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 didn’t 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. ●