Carey McWilliams

Local Hero, American Prophet

By Peter Richardson

careyCarey McWilliams lived in Echo Park during the 1940s at 2041 Alvarado Street, and owned the property until the 1970s after moving to New York.

Kevin Starr has called Carey McWilliams “the single finest nonfiction writer on California—ever,” yet many readers are unfamiliar with his life and work. A Los Angeles author, attorney, and editor of The Nation from 1955 to 1975, McWilliams wrote nine first-rate books and over 200 articles between 1939 and 1950 alone. On his favorite topics—farm labor, race and ethnicity, California politics and culture, and McCarthyism—McWilliams remains unsurpassed.

His influence runs deep but is now largely invisible. Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Chinatown was inspired by a book McWilliams wrote in 1946. César Chávez said he learned most of what he knew about California agribusiness from McWilliams. Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit owes a good deal to McWilliams’s writing and advocacy. Hunter S. Thompson credited Hell’s Angels, his first bestseller, to McWilliams. Mike Davis has sung his praises, and McWilliams’s reputation among writers, journalists, and academics continues to rise over a quarter century after his death.

Born in 1905, McWilliams came to Los Angeles after his father, a prosperous Colorado rancher and state legislator, lost his fortune and committed suicide shortly after World War I. He worked at the Los Angeles Times in the credit department and attended USC, where he wrote for the school paper as well as the campus literary and humor journals. After completing a law degree, McWilliams became a proficient litigator at a downtown law firm. He also wrote literary reviews for local magazines and soon became a kind of regional tastemaker. At the tender age of 23, he completed his first book, a well-received biography of the Western journalist Ambrose Bierce.

A Radicalized McWilliams

The 1930s radicalized McWilliams. As a lawyer, he represented farm workers in and around Los Angeles, and he wrote his first bestseller, Factories in the Field, in 1939—the same year John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath became a hugely successful novel. That year, too, he was appointed chief of California’s Division of Immigration and Housing. His work there made him a high-profile target for California growers, who called him “Agricultural Pest Number One, worse than pear blight or boll weevils.” His other adversaries included Earl Warren, who promised that his first official act as governor would be to fire McWilliams; J. Edgar Hoover, who considered him for detention in case of a national emergency; and state legislators such as Jack Tenney and Sam Yorty, who grilled him about his links to the Communist Party. (He wasn’t a member of the Party, but he had many friends and colleagues who were, and he never hesitated to work with them when they agreed on an issue.)

Throughout the 1940s, McWilliams also worked on a broad range of civic issues. In 1943, scuffles in downtown Los Angeles between Latinos and sailors spun out of control and led to the Zoot Suit Riots. McWilliams covered the mayhem for various publications, called for a federal investigation of the Los Angeles Police Department, and used his influence to suggest a gubernatorial commission to calm the city. Governor Warren formed the commission, the Navy suspended shore leave, and the troubles subsided.

During this time, too, McWilliams chaired a committee to appeal the Sleepy Lagoon murder convictions, which sent a group of mostly Latino youths to San Quentin after a biased trial. Their successful appeal was widely regarded as the beginning of the Chicano movement. A few years later, McWilliams wrote North from Mexico, the first such history of the Spanish-speaking people in the Southwest. By the 1970s, some people were calling McWilliams the Grandfather of Chicano studies.

Challenging the Internment Camps

In 1944, McWilliams turned to another urgent issue—the evacuation and internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans. He wrote Prejudice, which demolished every argument for the camps. That same year, one Supreme Court justice repeatedly cited Prejudice in his dissenting opinion to the decision that upheld the constitutionality of the internment.

Several years later, McWilliams helped defend the so-called Hollywood Ten after the House Committee on Un-American Activities summoned a group of film industry leftists to Washington for questioning about their political associations. The witnesses declined to answer questions about Communist Party membership and were convicted of contempt of Congress. McWilliams drafted an amicus brief for the Supreme Court appeal, and although the Court decided not to hear the case, it later accepted the argument he offered in his brief.

In 1951, McWilliams moved to New York to edit The Nation. His stands on McCarthyism, civil rights, and Vietnam eventually earned him a reputation in progressive circles for being right on the big issues. He was also known for reactivating the American tradition of muckraking, converting what had been known as a journal of opinion into a forum for investigative reporting. Along the way, he gave many young people their start by publishing them in The Nation. That group included Ralph Nader, Howard Zinn, and Hunter S. Thompson.

In American Prophet, I argue that McWilliams was the nation’s most versatile public intellectual of the 20th century. This strong claim is easy to test. Imagine Cornel West writing a Supreme Court brief, Alan Dershowitz editing a weekly magazine, Noam Chomsky critiquing Yeats’s poetry, or Gore Vidal running a state agency, and you’ll begin to appreciate McWilliams’s most extraordinary gift.

A few years ago, author Gray Brechin described what it was like to read Carey McWilliams now: “For those of us who lean unapologetically to the left as it flows ever farther to the right, encountering the writings of Carey McWilliams is like running into an old friend in a foreign city.” It’s a fitting tribute to a major American writer and public figure.

Peter Richardson is the author of American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams (University of Michigan Press, 2005).