Optimism of the Will

Optimism of the Will

The rich legacy of former Nation editor and activist Carey McWilliams is on full display in three books.


In the spring of 1951 The Nation, the octogenarian flagship of independent radical opinion, was almost on the ropes. The refusal of its doughty publisher-editor Freda Kirchwey (1937-55) to enlist the magazine in the ranks of cold war liberalism had made it the special target of media inquisitors and anticommunist intellectuals. While Joe McCarthy hunted subversion on the banks of the Potomac, Congress for Cultural Freedom types–including Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Sidney Hook, Elliot Cohen and Irving Kristol–circled around The Nation like so many hungry sharks. In a typical attack, Harvard historian Schlesinger accused Kirchwey of “betraying [the magazine’s] finest traditions” by publishing “week after week, these wretched apologies for Soviet despotism.”

A mere subscription to The Nation raised suspicion of being “soft on communism,” and in at least one case, buying the magazine was enough to get you blacklisted. The magazine was banned from New York City schools, fundraising appeals brought dismal results, longtime donors refused to return Kirchwey’s phone calls, veteran contributing editors deserted the masthead and its former art critic, Clement Greenberg, viciously libeled its foreign editor, Spanish Republican exile Julio Álvarez del Vayo, as a Stalinist agent. Sensing The Nation‘s vulnerability, the magazine’s arch-foes, Commentary and Encounter (the beneficiary of covert CIA funding) moved in for the kill with sustained campaigns of innuendo and allegations of disloyalty.

Besieged and nearly bankrupt, Kirchwey asked the magazine’s West Coast contributing editor, Carey McWilliams, to come to New York for a few weeks to edit an emergency civil liberties issue and to help her with fundraising. McWilliams–who had previously urged Kirchwey to move The Nation to California, away from the toxic atmosphere of the New York intelligentsia–agreed to come for a month. He stayed for more than twenty-five years.

The Los Angeles author, lawyer and progressive activist, whose celebrated 1939 book, Factories in the Field, was the nonfiction counterpart to The Grapes of Wrath, brought a tough Western grit to the ideological battlefields of Manhattan. Although several of his closest friends, including the Marxist literary scholar F.O. Matthiessen and immigrant writer Louis Adamic, were driven to suicide by McCarthyism, McWilliams was unflinching under attack: Indeed, he relished political combat, even on the most unequal terrains. In California he had long brawled with such powerful semi- fascist groups as the Associated Farmers and the Native Sons of the Golden West. During his term (1939-42) as director of immigration and housing for the New Deal administration of Governor Culbert Olson, the big growers had labeled him as “Agricultural Pest No. 1, worse than pear blight or the boll weevil,” and Republican Earl Warren campaigned for governor in 1942 with the promise that firing McWilliams would be his first act of office (McWilliams resigned first).

In accepting Kirchwey’s invitation, he warned of his notoriety: “I consider myself a radical democrat who might better be called a socialist, with both ‘democrat’ and ‘socialist’ being written without caps.” Freda replied that she was also a “Socialist of sorts”–who hadn’t been a decade earlier?

As Kirchwey’s right hand–then after 1955 as her successor–McWilliams worked ceaselessly to replenish The Nation‘s finances and to parry attacks from the redbaiting literati. The job was grueling: In his memoir, The Education of Carey McWilliams (1978), he writes, “I kept thinking that the crisis at the magazine, which reflected mounting tensions in the Cold War, would soon pass, but it got steadily worse. There was no time to think of anything else.”

In any event, McWilliams both substantially reinvented the internal culture of The Nation and almost single-handedly revived the muckraking tradition in American journalism. Like a good military strategist, he believed that it was essential to move from defense to offense as quickly as possible, and to this end he brought in crack investigative reporters like Fred Cook, Gene Gleason, B.J. Widick and Matthew Josephson to write famous exposés of the Alger Hiss prosecution, the FBI, CIA-funded intellectuals, the military-industrial complex, consumer culture and much else.

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.

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.

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.

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