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American Prophet

The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams

Peter Richardson

Publication Year: 2010

A long-overdue book on the brilliant life and career of one of our greatest public intellectuals, American Prophet will introduce Carey McWilliams to a new generation of readers. Peter Richardson's absorbing and elegantly paced book reveals a figure thoroughly engaged with the issues of his time. Deftly interweaving correspondence, diary notes, published writings, and McWilliams's own and others' observations on a colorful and influential cast of characters from Hollywood, New York, Washington, DC, and the American West, Richardson maps the evolution of McWilliams's personal and professional life. Among those making an appearance are H. L. Mencken (McWilliams's mentor and role model), Louis Adamic, John Fante, Robert Towne, Richard Nixon, Studs Terkel, J. Edgar Hoover, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Joseph McCarthy. American Prophet illustrates the arc of McWilliams's life and career from his early literary journalism through his legal and political activism, his stint in state government, and his two decades as editor of the Nation. This book makes the case for McWilliams's place in the Olympian realm of our most influential and prescient political writers. Peter Richardson is the editorial director at PoliPointPress in Sausalito, California. He is the author or editor of numerous works on language, literature, and California public policy. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of California Berkeley.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Title Page and Copyright

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pp. i-iv

Contents

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pp. v-vi

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Preface

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pp. vii-xii

THIS BOOK EXAMINES the life, work, and influence of Carey McWilliams: author, attorney, activist, and editor of the Nation from 1955 to 1975. It de‹nes his work broadly to include his many books and articles; his stint in California state government; his efforts on behalf of social, political, and legal causes; and his stewardship of a national magazine. It also considers his personal and professional development, the ‹erce and sometimes...

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xiii-xiv

This book is essentially the product of two innocuous conversations. When I joined the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) in 1999, I asked author and journalist Peter Schrag, a member of PPIC’s advisory council, what I should read by way of general background on California history and politics. He recommended everything by Carey McWilliams. I had never heard of McWilliams, but what I learned of his...

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1. Colorado

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pp. 1-14

DOTTED WITH GLACIER lakes and valleys cut fifteen thousand years ago, the Flat Top Mountains in northwestern Colorado form a majestic wilderness populated by mule deer, elk, black bears, mountain lions, and golden eagles. At their highest elevations, the mountains are nearly barren cliffs and rock outcrops; farther down, the forests mix spruce, Douglas fir, aspen, and stands of Lodgepole pine. In the spring, the melting snow pack drains into small tributary creeks that flow through grasslands...

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2. Infinite Revolt

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pp. 15-53

LEAVING A BLIZZARD in Denver, McWilliams arrived in sunny Los Angeles “a drop-out, in disgrace, acutely impoverished, an inter-state migrant with dim prospects but high hopes.” He was met at the Southern Pacific station by his uncle Vernon Casley, whom McWilliams would later call “the kindest man I have ever known” (SCC 1971, viii). Uncle Vern had already led a storied life that included stints in the Klondike and China...

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3. The Political Turn

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pp. 55-92

FOLLOWING THE PUBLICATION of Ambrose Bierce, McWilliams continued to build his credentials as an attorney and writer. Only a few years out of law school, he was already a junior partner in his firm and its chief litigator. He was also writing prodigiously, mostly on California and Western writers; in 1930 alone, he published twelve more pieces, including another essay for the American Mercury. He was laying the groundwork for two...

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4. Public Service

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pp. 93-136

IN NOVEMBER 1938, nine months before Factories in the Field appeared, McWilliams, Fante, and Ross Wills had a fresh reason to celebrate at Stevens Nik-a-Bob at Ninth and Western in Los Angeles. Culbert L. Olson, a state senator from Los Angeles, had been elected governor of California, the first Democrat to hold that office in the twentieth century. The day after the inaugural ball in Sacramento, McWilliams noted in his...

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5. The Great Exception

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pp. 137-176

IN JANUARY 1945, McWilliams became the West Coast contributing editor of the Nation—“the realization of a longstanding ambition,” he recorded in his diary (Jan. 8, 1945). By his standards, the new duties were relatively light—at least one unsigned editorial per week and about one article per month—but the appearance of his name on the masthead changed his life in several ways. For one thing, he became “a target-of-opportunity...

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6. The Vile Decade

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pp. 177-219

IN 1950, THE Nation’s publisher and editor, Freda Kirchwey, found herself in a difficult spot. The magazine had always struggled financially, but its money problems were especially acute during the early years of the cold war, when its unpopular editorial stands attracted harsh criticism and scared off longtime supporters. For Kirchwey, the financial struggles also had personal, political, and moral dimensions. Having spent more than...

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7. The Age of Nixon

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pp. 221-261

IN JULY 1960 , McWilliams traveled to Los Angeles to cover the Democratic National Convention for the Nation. He had not been away from the city long, but it was still changing quickly. When Hollywood was a village and Westwood did not exist, McWilliams had plied the city’s boulevards, recording the strange mélange of images that washed over him, wondering about the locals on the trolley cars, and savoring the yellow...

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8. Moving On

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pp. 263-286

COVERING VIETNAM AND Watergate left McWilliams enervated. At their peaks, both stories unfolded swiftly, forcing him to write most of the Nation’s editorials himself, usually at the last moment, in addition to preparing the rest of the magazine for publication. “The incessant editorial grind began to get to me, but at the time there was no escape. I was a prisoner of events, of headlines” (ECM, 318). With Nixon’s resignation...

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Conclusion

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pp. 287-300

ANY ATTEMPT TO ASSESS Carey McWilliams’s legacy must confront at least one hard fact: Almost no one born after 1960 has heard of him. To be sure, McWilliams is revered by a small group of journalists, academics, and a‹cionados. This is especially true in California, where he is still cited regularly and the California Studies Association issues a Carey McWilliams Award. A certain cachet also attaches to his name at the...

Notes

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pp. 301-307

Bibliography

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pp. 309-324

Index

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pp. 325-334

Illustrations following page 146

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E-ISBN-13: 9780472026135
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472115242

Page Count: 358
Publication Year: 2010

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Subject Headings

  • McWilliams, Carey, 1905-1980.
  • Journalists -- United States -- Biography.
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