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Optimism of the Will | The Nation

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Optimism of the Will

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During the 1920s McWilliams, like so many other unknown young writers in the West and South, had benefited from the editorial patronage and friendship of H.L. Mencken and his American Mercury; now he returned the favor, becoming the champion of such fresh talents as Ralph Nader, Dan Wakefield, Howard Zinn, Richard Cloward, Frances Piven and a broke and desperate soul named Hunter S. Thompson, to whom McWilliams fatefully pitched the idea of a report on California motorcycle gangs.

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Mike Davis
Mike Davis, a Nation contributing editor, teaches in the creative writing program at the University of California,...

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I thought I might find a simple meme of the Wall Street protest. What I discovered was a desert flower brought to blossom by an activist tradition, coalition-building and old-fashioned grit.

I'm not capable of accurately describing the kindness, intensity and melancholy that were alloyed in Carl's character, or the profound role he played in deepening our commitment to the anti-war movement.

He also struggled mightily against the "no intelligent life west of the Hudson" parochialism endemic to the New York scene. In addition to consistent coverage of politics on the other coast (including the many ominous facets of California conservatism), he published riveting firsthand accounts of the Southern freedom movement and annual audits of its progress by Martin Luther King Jr., as well as Robert Sherrill's acid portraits of the leading Dixiecrats. Even that perennial orphan of New York liberals, Chicago and its vast Midwestern hinterland, found occasional mention in The Nation during the McWilliams years.

The California left's one-man think tank during the New Deal era, McWilliams brought to New York a singular passion for turning journalism into sociological investigation, and vice versa. He opened the magazine's doors to the hugely influential C. Wright Mills--another outlaw from west of the Pecos--and launched a series of ambitious sociological explorations of the heartlands of Eisenhower-era conformity: corporate bureaucracies, consumer culture, suburban families, the fallout shelter hysteria and, yes, college campuses. He also kept the era's greatest foreign correspondents--Alexander Werth, Edgar Snow, Basil Davidson, Isaac Deutscher, Carleton Beals and Claude Bourdet, as well as New Left historians William Appleman Williams and Gabriel Kolko--prominently on the front cover.

McWilliams, in short, not only saved The Nation from the hellhounds of the cold war; he also made it into a bully pulpit where radical academics, muckraking journalists, independent Marxists, trade-union rebels, freedom riders, beatniks and peace protesters found a common voice after the dark age of McCarthyism. Defying the notorious "generation gap," he self-consciously tried to make the magazine an intellectual bridge between the culture of 1930s activism and the emergent New Left of the 1960s. And, perhaps most important, he kept the attention of white progressives focused on the black freedom movement and the farmworkers' revolt in California. The Education of Carey McWilliams, sadly out of print, remains the indispensable history of The Nation's most heroic years as well as a fascinating encyclopedia of its myriad contributors and characters.

But while New Yorkers reaped the benefits of McWilliams's move east, Californians, as Peter Richardson reminds us in his superb new biography of McWilliams, paid a significant price for losing their most brilliant radical critic and social documentarian to the salons of Manhattan. 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 LA 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. But thereafter his amazing literary discipline and productivity were largely diverted to editorial chores and the generous shaping of projects carried to completion by other Nation writers.

Richardson's book, with its balanced perspective on his early, middle and late years, comes at a crucial juncture when even hard-core McWilliams fans are in danger of losing sight of the whole man. On the East Coast he is largely a fond but fading memory to veterans of The Nation and its milieus, who tend to know little about his seminal California years. Conversely, although he is again a lodestone in the West, where a major McWilliams revival--thanks to the ceaseless championing of his work by historian Kevin Starr, Sacramento journalist Peter Schrag and "California Studies" instigator Jeff Lustig--has been under way since the early 1990s, contemporary California readers have little appreciation of his Nation tenure or his contributions to national progressive causes.

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