Optimism of the Will
Biographies these days have a tendency to meander for thousands of pages and consume a generation of research; American Prophet is more economical and stays focused on the literary output. Richardson, who admits that he had never heard of McWilliams until 1999, and then was astonished to discover "one of the most versatile, productive, and consequential American public intellectuals of the twentieth century," aspires to be a "fit reader" of his books and articles in the specific historical contexts of their production. The result is a fascinating portrait of activism deepened and sustained by Herculean labors of research and investigation: As McWilliams confesses in his memoir, "the fact that all my books represent efforts to relieve my ignorance on subjects of compulsive interest often prompted me to wonder if I had selected the subjects or whether it was the other way around."
Indeed, causes always seemed to find a way to his door: Richardson, after poring over McWilliams's datebooks and diaries, is staggered by the sheer number of defense committees, solidarity campaigns, strike funds and fundraising events that he found time to organize or chair. When combined with a law practice, or later with public office and a daily writing stint of a thousand words or more, activism, whether on behalf of cotton strikers, Spanish Republicans or the Sleepy Lagoon defendants, left little time to play paterfamilias. In his memoir McWilliams devotes less than a paragraph to his adult family life: Marriages and children, he implies, are a private sphere, off-limits to public scrutiny. As a dutiful biographer, Richardson roots through McWilliams's closets but finds little evidence of anything more than a failed first marriage, too much time at the office and a penchant for occasional rowdy binges with writer friends (but Carey was always sober and hard at work the next morning).
McWilliams, as Richardson demonstrates, was a chip off the old (Scots-Irish) block, raised on a sprawling Colorado cattle ranch by busy parents who had little time for expressive affection but gave their sons early scope for responsibility and independence. Carey grew up with the hands and absorbed their egalitarian cowboy ethos of irreverence, hard work and self-reliance. In the unpredictable moral meteorology of Hollywood in the 1940s and Manhattan in the '50s, when one's closest friends and most deeply held beliefs could be forfeited in a day, McWilliams was Yosemite granite, with unwavering loyalty to old friends and youthful convictions.
By sheer coincidence, I read American Prophet in tandem with Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. McCarthy's new novel, compounded of equal portions of sentimental nostalgia and apocalyptic violence, is a lament for the loss of those chivalric qualities--honor, duty, discretion, courage and, alas, kindness--that once supposedly typified frontier knights like the novel's Sheriff Bell, now obsolete in a world of insolent punks and robotlike assassins. We tend to think of these public funerals for America's lost nobility of character--Saving Private Ryan and The Greatest Generation also come to mind--as ceremonies of the right, moral deceits to cover up actual histories of racism and carnage, but there may be other, alternative dimensions to this national nostalgia.
Carey McWilliams, I am sure, would have reminded McCarthy (or Steven Spielberg, for that matter) that the finest embodiments of moral courage in American history were the Abolitionists, the Wobblies, the Abraham Lincoln Brigades and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In the storms of the mid-twentieth century, McWilliams himself was as unbending as Wendell Phillips had been in the 1850s and '60s. Indeed, as one of his sons--the historian Wilson Carey McWilliams--points out in a beautiful foreword to a recent McWilliams reader, Fool's Paradise, he was "a sardonic Galahad, constant to the democratic Grail." Richardson also does a wonderful job of evoking McWilliams's strength of commitment, but the last word belongs to The Nation's former editor himself:
What it comes down to is that I am the rebel-radical I have always been (for reasons I have never fully understood) and that I still take a generous view of the future and remain basically an optimist despite much evidence that I could be wrong. On balance, however, my brand of indigenous radicalism and idealism has stood the test of time as well as or better than some of the apocalyptic ideologies of the Right and Left.