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Carey McWilliams, California Prophet

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Endpapers from the first edition of 'Southern California Country' by Carey McWilliams | Photo: Southern California Architectural History

On March 4 at Occidental College, the discussion series Third Los Angeles will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the venerated Mike Davis book, "City of Quartz," undoubtedly the greatest historical book on Los Angeles of the last generation. This event promises to be an engrossing discussion on the past, present and future of the City of Angels. The occasion of reflecting on Mike Davis's tremendous influence is also the perfect time to look back on his precursor, the mid-20th Century historian and activist Carey McWilliams. This week L.A. Letters examines McWilliams' classic book from 1946, "Southern California Country: An Island on the Land," as well as his towering legacy as one of Southern California's most important chroniclers.

McWilliams establishes the editorial tone of "An Island on the Land" in the book's very first pages. "This volume does not follow the well-worn path of most books about Southern California," he notes in the Foreword. He continues to express that the previous tomes celebrating the romance of the Spanish past have been regurgitating the same played out rhetoric. He differs his book's intentions by writing, "I have sought to tell the story of the Missions not in the conventional manner, that is, from the point of view of the Franciscan, but from the point of view of the real parties in interest, namely, the Indians of Southern California."

Each of the book's 17 chapters pulls back the curtain to reveal what's really behind the facade. In chapters like "Water! Water! Water!," "The Sociology of the Boom," and "The Politics of Utopia," he exposes the underlying political and economic factors that shaped Southern California in the first half of the 20th Century. As noted above, this angle was revolutionary at the time because almost everything ever written about Los Angeles up until World War II was in the booster spirit, whether it lauded the Spanish past or marveled at the citrus and film industries. Perhaps only social historians like Upton Sinclair and Louis Adamic had preceded McWilliams in writing about "the under-side, of booming Los Angeles."

Carey McWilliams
Carey McWilliams

McWilliams was born in Colorado in 1905 and came to Los Angeles in 1922. He got a job at the Los Angeles Times shortly after he arrived and stayed there until he graduated from law school in 1927. As he writes in the book's Introduction, "my years at the Times constituted a marvelous introduction to Los Angeles of the 1920s." After McWilliams graduated from law school at USC, he worked for one of the city's top law firms until 1938. Neither of the senior partners of the firm he worked for liked to spend much time in court, so McWilliams earned ample experience litigating, much more than the average young attorney. During these years he became increasingly politicized. "Although I was not aware of it at the time, my experience with the firm was very much part of my initiation into the history of the region," he writes. "One can earn a lot about a community in the courts, trying cases, examining jurors, and cross-examining witnesses."

Dating back to earliest period of his law career, McWilliams began to publish short pieces on local literary figures. His first book in 1929 was a biography of the mercurial writer Ambrose Bierce. He gradually began to build his literary network, which included some of his first mentors: poet George Sterling and the famed journalist H.L Mencken. McWilliams began forming crucial intellectual friendships with figures like Louis Adamic and, a few years later, John Fante. The Slovenian born Adamic was six years older than McWilliams and lived in San Pedro. Historian Peter Richardson in his biography of McWilliams titled "American Prophet," writes that "Adamic encouraged McWilliams to spend less time thinking about Yeats and more time thinking about Los Angeles, America and politics. Over time, he switched McWilliams's sights to his own favorite topic: labor relations, race and ethnicity, and the status of immigrants." In 1935, McWilliams wrote a book about his influential friend, titled, "Louis Adamic & Shadow America." Though the book is now out of print, it can be found in libraries and is well worth hunting down.

These early experiences and friendships were critical to his development as a writer. McWilliams confessed in the book's Introduction, "If years before I wrote 'Southern California Country: An Island on the Land,' I had planned to write it, then it could be said that I picked exactly the right time to settle in the region, that my work experience was providential, and that I selected precisely the right group of friends." He spent countless hours exploring and discussing Southern California with these friends during the 1920s and '30s. In the book's Epilogue, he writes, "I think of a thousand and one afternoons and evenings spent in exploring Southern California from 'the foothills to the sea'; Bunker Hill and Central Avenue in Los Angeles through the foothill homes and gardens from Montecito to San Diego. I close my eyes and I see Olive Hill, crowned with the perennially charming house that Frank Lloyd Wright did for Aline Barnsdall."

His ample and in-depth experience exploring Southern California through these years culminated into a 380-page book that left no stone unturned. The book drew especially deep from a column he wrote for Westways, the magazine published by the Automobile Club of California. For three years during the Great Depression, McWilliams wrote about local literary personalities for the magazine, and this reservoir of knowledge set the table for the deeper analysis evident in "An Island on the Land." The book combines a detailed description of the Southern California climate and terrain with the uncensored, behind the scenes story of historical events like the Mission period, the Owens Valley water episode, and the rise of the film industry. As his biographer Richardson notes, "His pithy discussions of the region's geography, natural resources, demography, economy, sociology, urban development, architecture, politics and literature betray no conceptual strain and hold up remarkably well to repeated reading."

It is also a well-known fact by now that filmmaker Robert Towne was inspired by the book when he wrote the screenplay for the great Los Angeles film, "Chinatown." Towne won an Oscar for the script and has repeatedly lauded McWilliams' book as his primary influence. The great labor activist Cesar Chavez also cited McWilliams work for illuminating his political consciousness. Countless other important chroniclers of Los Angeles and California also cite McWilliams, including both the venerated historian and former California State Librarian, Kevin Starr, and Mike Davis. Forty years ago when Mike Davis was in graduate school at UCLA and working part time as a tour guide, he was reading heavily from the oeuvre of Carey McWilliams. Both Starr and Davis have championed McWilliams again and again in several of their books over the last three decades.

A Carey McWilliams quote can be seen at the Silver Lake branch of the L.A. Public Library | Photo: kansas_sebastian/Flickr/Creative Commons

The city of Los Angeles has also honored McWilliams by quoting one of his most famous passages as public art on a wall in Pershing Square. A curved stone wall on the southern side of Pershing Square quotes a long paragraph taken from the book's Epilogue. The quote describes his epiphany and how he came to love Los Angeles in his formative years. The wall reads:

My feeling about this weirdly inflated village in which I had come to make my home (haunted by memories of a boy-hood spent in the beautiful mountain parks, the timber-line country of northwest 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 office in a miserable state of 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 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.

Over the years McWilliams did indeed have a ringside seat at the circus. Mike Davis called McWilliams "a one-man think tank" in a 2005 article he wrote in The Nation. This was especially true between 1939 and 1949. During this ten-year span McWilliams was as prolific as any American writer over a similar period. His first bestselling book, "Factories in the Field," from 1939, was considered the nonfiction companion to Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." Davis recounted the list of titles produced by McWilliams over the ten year span: "By 1949 McWilliams had written eight books and scores of articles in a single decade, including two classic studies of farm labor ('Ill Fares the Land' and the aforementioned 'Factories in the Field'); the still-definitive introduction to the L.A. region ('Southern California Country'); a stunning, almost Braudelian interpretation of the main contours of California history ('California: The Great Exception'); the first book-length history of the Chicano experience ('North From Mexico'); and three landmark studies of racism and discrimination ('Brothers Under the Skin'; 'Prejudice: Japanese- Americans, Symbol of Racial Intolerance'; and 'A Mask for Privilege: Anti-Semitism in America'). 'Witchhunt: The Revival of Heresy' was published on the eve of his move to New York." In 2001, Heyday Books published, "Fools Paradise: A Carey McWilliams Reader," that contains the best excerpts from these volumes.

In 1951 McWilliams left Southern California and moved to New York to help edit The Nation. He ended up staying on in this role until 1975. During these years he championed writers like Howard Zinn and Ralph Nader, and also gave a young writer named Hunter S. Thompson the idea to write about the Hells Angels. McWilliams helped rebuild The Nation during the era of McCarthyism and is often credited for saving the publication from fading away during the Cold War. Nonetheless, both McWilliams' biographer Peter Richardson and Mike Davis note that McWilliams is less known for his work at The Nation and much more known for his extensive writing on Southern California.

All in all, Carey McWilliams retains his stature as one of the most influential historians of Southern California, even after passing away in 1980. As scholars celebrate the lasting influence of "City of Quartz," it is also appropriate to look back at McWilliams and great books of his like "Southern California Country: An Island on the Land." Salute to Carey McWilliams for his extensive body of work, tireless advocacy and prescient historical writing in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

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