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In Thought and Action: The Enigmatic Life of S. I. Hayakawa by Gerald W. Haslam (review)

From: Western American Literature
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 415-416 | 10.1353/wal.2013.0021

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Gerald Haslam is entering his fifth decade of publishing novels, essays, stories, monographs, and anthologies as the primary interpreter of California in the context of the American West. In book-length studies and collections like Workin’ Man Blues: Country Music in California (1999) and Haslam’s Valley (2005), he has brought to national awareness the distinctiveness of California’s Great Central Valley as “California’s Heartland” and “The Other California.” These designations are embedded in two of his titles, California’s Great Central Valley: California’s Heartland (1993)—still after twenty years the best photographic chronicle of the Central Valley—and The Other California: The Great Central Valley in Life and Letters (1990, expanded 1994)—a book like no other in its definition of California’s western rural and small-town experience and literature, works I would nominate as required reading for anyone aspiring to membership in the Western Literature Association.

Readers of this journal may recall a few years ago how twenty scholars and writers of western literature were called upon to address the question, “Is California Part of the West?” Properly asked to provide the definitive overview was the acknowledged expert about California in relation to the West, fiction writer and scholar Haslam, who, with his wife, Janice Haslam, wrote the introductory essay to that special issue. Now this former WLA president and recipient of the association’s Distinguished Achievement Award, again with his wife, has moved into the genre of biography with In Thought and Action: The Enigmatic Life of S. I. Hayakawa, the birth-to-death chronicle of a controversial California public figure.

Named after Samuel Johnson, England’s eighteenth-century lexicographer and behemoth man of letters, Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa was born a Canadian Nisei in a Vancouver ghetto and grew up, racially but not culturally Japanese, in Calgary and Winnipeg. In Haslam’s words, Hayakawa was “a typical boy of the Canadian prairie,” and, in Hayakawa’s own words, he was “already determined to be a writer,” although he pursued a PhD in English, “in case,” he said, “I couldn’t make a living as a poet” (18, 29, 37). As a grad student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Hayakawa published verse in Poetry and scholarship in PMLA, sparked his future wife with a lecture on “The Waste Land,” founded a university literary magazine, and staged the first American production of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. As a young instructor, in response to the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, he grew interested in general semantics as a way of understanding how language works in spawning propaganda and racial hatred. In 1939, he wrote his own mimeographed, spiral-bound freshman English textbook as (in his words) “a political act, asserting my belief in a rational society as opposed to a Nazi society where people go crazy over slogans, incantation, and torchlight marches” (117). Used by other young instructors at Wisconsin, including the burgeoning western novelist Wallace Stegner, this work in progress became a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, titled in later revised editions Language in Thought and Action (1949), a best-selling textbook that put Hayakawa’s face on the cover of magazines and launched him onto the lecture circuit as a popular speaker.

African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks said, “S. I. Hayakawa was a great liberal,” and, indeed, he was, until he changed (364). A battler for civil rights and the equality of minorities, a longtime columnist for the important African American newspaper The Chicago Defender, a leftist maverick in the co-op movement, “interested,” he said, “in reforming the capitalist system,” a de facto socialist who empathized with Watts rioters and claimed that the civil rights revolution wasn’t a Communist plot but contrarily “the result of a capitalist plot on the part of General Motors, General Electric, and General Foods, aimed at all of us,” Hayakawa is best remembered as the reactionary acting president of San Francisco State College, who, in 1968, during the five-month student strike, climbed aboard a sound truck in his trademark plaid tam-o’-shanter and ripped out the truck’s loudspeaker wires (144, 266). Whether he was violating the students’ First...

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