Catherine Corman

California History Magazine

Teaching – and Learning from – Carey McWilliams

By CATHY CORMAN

Carey McWilliams
Carey Williams (1950-1980) at the University of California Los Angeles on January 11, 1965. Photo courtesy UCLA Photography.

It’s easy to arrive at the subject of Carey McWilliams and enter into a pure love-fest, ending with a blanket endorsement.1 Though his legacy, especially to historians of the American West, is well established, many non-Westerners and many non-historians don’t know just how to place McWilliams – or even who he is. Why teach his works? Because, as many of us already believe, McWilliams was a visionary, a person of unwavering convictions committed to civil rights and opposed to all forms of prejudice. A masterful prose stylist, a thinker often ahead of his time, Carey McWilliams was gifted with the ability to bring abstract economic ideas and political events down to concrete tales about specific people. As a lay historian, social critic, and journalist, McWilliams wrote books and articles and edited The Nation for more than a half century. There, he subtly helped to develop academic fields including ethnic and environmental studies, and served as a model to activists interested in furthering symbiotic relationships among law, politics, history, and print media. Westerners, for their part, seem interested in McWilliams only to the extent that his work engages with their own field. Here, I want to suggest at least three ways that we can extend McWilliams’s shelf life, putting his writings to good use in and beyond a variety of classroom settings.

First, a bit of background. Born in 1905 near Steamboat Springs, Colorado, McWilliams grew up on his parents’ cattle ranch in the Rocky Mountains. His father, a descendant of Scots-Irish Protestants from Northern Ireland, was a prominent, conservative, wealthy stockman who became a state senator. His mother, of French Canadian and German Catholic heritage, came to Colorado in her late twenties to teach school. “With such a comically mixed background it is not surprising that I never identified with any specific ethnic or religious group,” McWilliams concluded in his autobiography. “I am neither a WASP nor an ethnic but a hybrid, a maverick without a pedigree.”2

His idyllic pastoral upbringing ended abruptly in 1919 after the German navy lifted its World War I blockade of Argentina. Within months, the cattle market was flooded with inexpensive Argentine beef. To survive, American ranchers who had bought steers low had to sell high, shutting themselves out of a suddenly glutted market. Shattered by his sudden change in fortune, in 1921, McWilliams’s father died a broken man in the State Hospital for the Insane, leaving his family penniless. McWilliams lost his scholarship at the University of Denver after a bout of over-exuberant St. Patrick’s Day revelry. The following year, with few prospects, he joined his mother and older brother in California. An able typist, McWilliams found a job in the business office of the Los Angeles Times, where he worked for seven years while earning first a bachelor’s degree and then a law degree at the University of Southern California. In later life, he commented that this early defeat taught him “once and for all that social structures are transitory.” 3

When he had earned a law degree, in 1927 McWilliams joined the white-shoe firm of Black, Hammack & Black, where he practiced what increasingly seemed to him a bland version of the law, servicing business interests and tending to the troubles of Los Angeles’s moneyed elite. Though he married the bright, well-connected daughter of UCLA’s provost, McWilliams hobnobbed with a group of self-described bohemians drawn to the cultural criticism of H.L. Mencken and the literary feats of the Lost Generation. In his spare time, he submitted book reviews and cultural critiques to The Smart Set, American Mercury, The New Republic, and The Nation and published a book about turn-of-the-century with Ambrose Bierce.

By 1934, McWilliams had distanced himself from what he described as the “nice people” of the middle class. Following the gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair, McWilliams found himself championing the poor, the disenfranchised: Californians suffering most from the effects of the Great Depression. At about this same time, he fell in love with Esther Blaisdell, an activist from Calexico whose family held deep sympathies with farm workers. Radicalized by politics and perhaps by love, McWilliams left his marriage and rapidly became known as an outspoken advocate of the poor, a lawyer and writer serious about using his energies to combat injustice, prejudice, and inequality.4 Unlike other social and political critics who also documented America’s literary and cultural trends in the twenties and thirties, McWilliams held a particularly Western perspective of events. It was in California, not New York, that one could best observe poverty, union struggles, and ethnic tensions. “California – particularly Southern California,” he insisted, “was the place to be in the years from 1934 to 1939; in no other part of the country did so much happen so fast.”5

Dropping the guise of disinterested, bohemian cultural critic, McWilliams immersed himself in politics. A mounting number of disgruntled workers were filing labor suits in southern California. The courts needed attorneys to try the cases. Despite his lack of experience in employment law, McWilliams took advantage of the trend and embarked on what he considered a decidedly more interesting legal career, representing unions and employees in civil court. In 1935, he accepted work as a trial examiner for the southern California branch of the National Labor Relations Board. When more than fifty thousand farm workers initiated a rash of violent agricultural strikes that summer, McWilliams undertook a twelve-day road trip to learn what had sparked the trouble. His observations became the seed that would bear fruit in the form of a series of gripping articles and a book, Factories in the Field.6

Published in July 1939, Factories in the Field unintentionally followed closely on the heels of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. While Grapes of Wrath dramatized the plight of one Anglo Dust Bowl family (the Joads), Factories documented the economic and social trends which established huge land holdings in California and created a constant demand for cheap migrant labor. Using his keen powers of analysis, McWilliams concluded that the Okie “Exodusters” were only the most recent group to be exploited by absentee owners of California’s first industry. Previous groups had included Native Americans and migrants from China, Japan, India, Armenia, Mexico, and the Philippines. Together, the two books enraged the Associated Farmers, the conservative growers’ group that dominated California agriculture. The public’s response to the books was so tremendous that growers were convinced Steinbeck and McWilliams had conspired to ruin agriculturalists’ good names. On the contrary, the two writers never met and had not coordinated the release of their books in any way.7

Because he had published Factories in the Field, McWilliams stood out as a likely candidate for inclusion in the LaFollette (Senate) Committee, which late in 1939 and early in 1940 conducted public hearings up and down the coast to receive testimony from more than four hundred labor organizers, growers, and farm workers. McWilliams ghost wrote the committee’s report, a stern indictment of California’s agricultural factory system. The committee did not present its findings to Congress until October 1942. “By then,” McWilliams wrote, “no one was listening and no one cared, for we were at war.”8 McWilliams believed that the overseas conflict enabled growers and state officials to avoid much-needed reform that they would otherwise have been forced to implement. The whole country, McWilliams concluded in retrospect, went to sleep until the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955.9

McWilliams, not surprisingly, did not go to sleep. Awakened for life to the noisy chaos of political, social, and economic injustices, McWilliams quickly published a series of books and articles documenting American ills. By 1949, the list of those books had grown to include III Fares the Land (a sequel to Factories), Prejudice: Japanese Americans, Symbol of Racial Intolerance (a chronicle of Japanese internment during World War II), Brothers Under the Skin (an exploration of racism in America), Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (a biting look at southern California culture), A Mask for Privilege: Anti-Semitism in America (an expansion of an article he wrote describing attitudes towards Jews in Minneapolis-St. Paul), California: The Great Exception (a radical interpretation of California’s history), and North From Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States (the first comprehensive history of Mexican Americans). Shortly after the publication of the last in this river of books, in 1951, McWilliams accepted Freda Kerchway’s offer to serve as managing editor of The Nation. This took place when Kerchway, The Nation’s sitting editor, recruited McWilliams as a West Coast correspondent and lured him to New York for what was supposed to have been a brief sojourn as he assembled a special civil rights issue for the magazine. What was to be a temporary arrangement turned into a twenty-five-year institution.

McWilliams’s last book before he became editor-in-chief at The Nation was Witch-Hunt: The Revival of Heresy. Released just as Joseph McCarthy began his campaign to smoke out supposed Communists, Witch-Hunt was McWilliams’s exploration of Americans’ fear of the Soviet Union. He did not write another book until 1979, when he published his autobiography, The Education of Carey McWilliams. During the intervening years, McWilliams led The Nation on an unswerving crusade against McCarthyism and the federal government’s Cold War policies. Ever unwilling to accept the necessity of red-baiting or blacklisting, McWilliams steadfastly defended Americans’ rights to choose their own political affiliations. He died in June 1980, barely a year after the publication of his autobiography, and just five years after the conclusion of his twenty-five-year stint at The Nation.

How best to introduce students, history aficionados, and others interested in the course of American intellectual thought to McWilliams’s remarkable life and work? What follows are three suggestions.

First, teachers and students should use McWilliams as a corrective in relationship to the “New Western History.” Too often, I think, there is a parthenogenic quality to Western History written in the last quarter of the twentieth century.10 Scholars identify the works of William Cronon, Ramon Gutierrez, Patricia Nelson Limerick, Richard White, Donald Worster, and others as “revolutionary.”11 Without a doubt, their works reconfigured and revived the field of “Western History,” changing the ways subsequent researchers have framed questions and professors have trained graduate students. That said, the much-deserved praise heaped on these works has sometimes produced a thick fog that has obscured the brilliance of forerunners, including Carey McWilliams.12 In addition to introducing students to classics such as North from Mexico, Factories in the Field, and California: The Great Exception, we can encourage the reading of shorter works, essays such as “Myths of the West,” published in North American Review in 1931. There, McWilliams brilliantly anticipated Richard Slotkin, Limerick, and White, asking how best to “dispose of the outlandish Myth.” “It was the unknown and unpredictable character of the land that fostered the Myth,” McWilliams wrote. “The East was diligently suckled on fabulous Government reports, the swollen and embellished narratives of mendacious travelers, and the pamphlets of such saga writers as Hall J. Kelley, James O. Pattie, and John B. Wyeth.”13 Those teaching Western history might also decide to include “Look What’s Happened to California,” McWilliams’s 1949 essay in Harper’s Magazine that dealt with California’s explosive postwar population growth.14

By routinely including McWilliams’s essays and books in our syllabi, we give students a better sense of the way ideas developed. We enable them to see that the “New Western History” is new in some ways, old in others. Challenging the accepted order of things isn’t something that started in the 1960s. We can trace a tradition of Western activism and questioning back to McWilliams, and before him, among others, to Mary Austin, Charles Fletcher Lummis, Big Bill Hayward, Mother Jones, John Wesley Powell, Helen Hunt Jackson, and perhaps even to nineteenth-century public servants, reformers, and anti-removalists such as Jeremiah Evarts, Samuel Worcester, and Theodore Freylinghausen.15

The second way we can impart the value of McWilliams is by inserting his work in courses designed to introduce students to major trends in twentieth-century American thought. I’ve had some luck convincing colleagues who teach intellectual history to include McWilliams in their syllabi. “Hmmmmm,” they often say, initially. If they know who he was, they generally ask, “How does he fit?” I reply that by teaching McWilliams, professors refine students’ appreciation of American “radicalism.” His works help answer questions such as: What’s a “liberal?” A “lefty?” A “conservative?” A “centrist?” How is a “radical” different from any of these?

McWillliams’s son has written that the family’s sudden reversal of fortunes in Depression-era Colorado taught McWilliams that “with equal dignity, other inequalities may not be galling, just as without it, even material equality is likely to seem hollow.” At a formative age, McWilliams learned that no one social system would guarantee human happiness or satisfaction. Inoculating him for life against Marxism, these early experiences convinced him that no government would benefit “the masses” unless it paid heed to the universal human need for recognition.16 McWilliams credited his own “curiosity,” rather than “ideological commitment” for his involvement in labor politics and journalism. “I was interested in Marxism in the 1930s – as who wasn’t? – but I never succeeded in mastering the sacred texts.”17

In the remarks he gave at McWilliams’s memorial service, journalist and long-time contributor to The Nation Robert Sherrill identified McWilliams as a “rebel radical idealist” and “the spokesman for all outsiders.”18 Never an enthusiastic member of any existing political order – be it Communist, Democrat, or other – McWilliams sustained a lifelong critical stance, one that self-consciously put him in the good company of Ambrose Bierce, H. L. Mencken, F. O. Mathiessen, and Upton Sinclair. McWilliams defined his brand of radicalism as “the ability to step outside of society, and from its far edges describe it more clearly than can those too caught up in day-to-day politics and boosterism.”19

What, specifically, of McWilliams might intellectual historians present to their students? McWilliams, himself, reflected in The Nation’s one hundredth anniversary issue on trends he could identify in his body of work. “Somewhat in the order of their emergence, my special interests have been: organized labor and civil liberties, migratory farm labor, race relations, demagogic mass movement and, of course, all things relating to California, its history, sociology, folkways, cults, population dynamics and politics – not to mention its coast line, mountain ranges, desert areas and lush valleys.”20 In addition to these general areas, many of McWilliams’s short pieces focus on hot-button issues of their time. Want to get students thinking about the ways Americans addressed Japanese internment, the bomb, Jim Crow, migrant workers, organized labor, McCarthyism, Brown v. Board of Education, the Cold War, or Richard Nixon? Call on Carey McWilliams.

When I have tried to talk to students who have mostly come of age in a post-Reagan world, they have had an extremely difficult time talking openly about America’s role in shaping and ending the Cold War. Students of a somewhat conservative bent want to simplify matters by crediting Ronald Reagan and the Republicans with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Iron Curtain. They have a hard time transporting themselves back to a time or place in which communism and radical socialism held some appeal. I’ve given them several of McWilliams’s pieces, including “What Does America Fear? Is it the Nameless Name of Fear Itself?” and his prescient “Germany and the East: The Outmoded Wall.”21 Pieces such as these have invariably helped push classroom discussion to a more sophisticated, nuanced level.

Want them to think about the place of ideas in American culture? Give them “Finding a Home for Ideas.”22 How better to get students talking about if and why ideas matter than to serve up the following: “ ... [A]n idea is different. It has a life of its own. Ideas can lie dormant for years and then suddenly explode with surprising force. Ideas can travel great distances. They can leap over language barriers and penetrate alien cultures. Ideas have an inherent interest. They are often beautiful. There is a symmetry about them that opinions lack. And they are creative in the sense that they can combine with other ideas, or modify them, or lead to still more novel ideas. Ideas keep an intellectual tradition alive, viable, and relevant; they are the yeast of a culture.”23 By assigning McWilliams, those teaching courses in American intellectual history will reliably get their students thinking both about specific trends in American politics and about the place they may give ideas in their lives, in general.

A third important reason to teach McWilliams is to provide students interested in journalism and communications a great service by acquainting them with the life and work of Carey McWilliams. This means teaching students about McWilliams as well as asking them to read what he wrote; showing them, by example, how to edit, as well as teaching them about his important, largely unsung role in the development of twentieth-century journalism.

Future reporters would do well to note that as editor for nearly thirty years of an admittedly small-circulation magazine, The Nation, McWilliams grew an impressive and influential stable of cutting-edge political journalists. He gave starts to Carleton Beals, Jacob Bronowski, Fred Cook, Bernard Fall, H. Stuart Hughes, Gabriel Kolko, Christopher Lasch, Ralph Nader, Theodore Roszak, Robert Sherrill, Harvey Swados, and Hunter S. Thompson, among others.24 The magazine, writers say, was important to them not because it reached a huge audience, but because other editors read it to shape their own opinions. If you wrote for The Nation, they say, you had a great clip that would get you work at high-priced, big-circulation publications, such as Playboy or The New York Times Magazine.25

In his autobiography and in speaking with colleagues, McWilliams described himself as an editor, not as a writer or a historian. I think many would energetically disagree with him. At the same time, it’s worth trying to understand what McWilliams meant when he said this. I’ve talked with and interviewed writers who worked for McWilliams at The Nation, and to a one, they reverently recall McWilliams’s clipping system and his ability to shape stories as he assigned them, anticipating difficulties before they had a chance to arise. “Carey was a clipping fiend,” Robert Sherrill told me. “He clipped papers from all over the place. When he wanted you to do a piece, you would get through the mail a bunch of clippings to fill your own room. He did so much of your research and legwork that way.”26 Victor Navasky, The Nation’s current publisher, elaborated. “Even if you’d never met, you’d go to your mailbox, and you’d get a folder or an envelope filled with, say, clips on Neo Nazis from all over the country. These would be personally clipped .... Carey had this quality of editing in advance. In effect, you talked through what the story would be rather than editing with a blue pencil.” When The Nation dedicated a special issue to McWilliams, Bob Hatch wrote a piece he called “The Man with the Scissors.” Given the ease with which we can now gather information on the internet, this approach may seem a bit anachronistic. Tell a reporter to get online and do a Google search; who needs a man with scissors? The bigger lesson, I think, is in the way McWilliams offered writers stories and made sure they had seen and heard what he’d seen and heard. Most important of all was his intellectual curiosity and selflessness.

Victor Navasky explained that McWilliams was an editor’s editor precisely because of this generosity of spirit: “He subordinated his own ego to that of his writers. He stayed in the background. He was not a commanding national figure.” Because McWilliams was reluctant to seek the limelight, he wasn’t and isn’t as well known today as someone such as, say, I. F. Stone. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make sure students know about and appreciate his life and work. “He was never honored because he was so self-effacing,” Navasky told me. “He was genuinely gracious, unaggressive in his presentation of [The Nation] and his handling of it. He was subjected to the smears of the time. He was not Lillian Hellman. He was so unspectacular and out of sight.”27

Let us praise Carey McWilliams’s spectacular unspectacularity. Who among us can imagine such a tribute to, say, Tina Brown? Who among us would hesitate before bringing McWilliams into the classroom, let alone into our collective line of sight?