Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Seasons Creatings: Carey McWilliams

As a fanatic of Peter Richardson’s “Stray Thoughts on California Culture” blog, I have been intrigued, but not surprised, by the promotion of Carey McWilliams’ books by Gustavo Arellano and D.J. Waldie. McWilliams influenced the careers of many writers and academics, as Peter has said—particularly those in Chicana/o Studies. Brown University historian Matt Garcia (and Claremont Graduate School classmate), for example, wrote his dissertation and first book on the Padua Players of Claremont. McWilliams first wrote on the Padua Institute that sponsored the Players within North From Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States (1948). In fact, the title of Matt’s 2001 book (A World of Its Own) is taken from McWilliams’ discussion of the Southern California citrus belt within Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946). I also suspect that McWilliams’ “The Forty Blonde Babies” within North From Mexico inspired Linda Gordon to write The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (1999). In my own work, I have tentatively titled my manuscript A Curious Union in reference to McWilliams’ observation within North From Mexico regarding how unique it was for sugar refining magnates to partner with family owned farms to advance the growing of sugar beets in the West. This, in fact, was one “curious union” among many that took place in the Southern California coastal city of Oxnard which my manuscript centers. First, the city was founded by the New York Oxnard brothers who owned the American Beet Sugar Company and recruited local landowners to grow sugar beets. Second, the Oxnard Plain was a site where Japanese and Mexican betabeleros (sugar beet workers) and labor contractors curiously united in 1903 to combat a fifty percent wage cut at the hands of the Western Agricultural Contracting Company. And third, many cross-cultural alliances developed in relation to leisure, labor, and community during the first-half of the twentieth century, one involving Cesar Chavez. Hence, I find it fitting that the concept of “curious unions” be the thesis of my book. Will see.

To further ground my obra within the existing body of scholarly literature on the region, I have been studying Kevin Starr’s magisterial Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s. Today I read on the importance of the Automobile Club of Southern California in relation to its publication of Touring Topics beginning in 1909 and renamed in 1934 Westways. Starr states that Touring Topics was “a serious, well-edited journal of travel, history, cultural commentary, and informed promotionalism. Touring Topics was the Overland Monthly, the Atlantic Monthly even of Southern California. . . .” And low and behold, as a 24 year member of the Automobile Club I found in my mail this very day the Special Centennial Edition of Westways. Within in it, Kevin Starr writes a tribute to Carey McWilliams as McWilliams authored a monthly column for the Automobile Clup magazine titled “Tides West” from 1934 to 1939. In this piece, Starr credits McWilliams as “the finest nonfiction writer California has ever produced, and the leading interpreter of the state up to the mid-20th century.” I am left wondering, however, who Starr recognizes as the leading interpreter of the region since the 1950s, especially with McWilliams varied credentials as a journalist, historian, civil rights activist, and cultural critic. None come readily to mind, as Peter Richardson has pondered.

In closing, there is no one book of Carey McWilliams that I would suggest for you to purchase. They are all great, so just pick one depending on your current interest and need. But I am confident in saying that you will mostly likely find three books within arms reach of many scholars of Chicana/o history and they are: Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers, depending on her or his baptismal year into Chicana/o Studies an edition of Rudy Acuña’s Occupied America, and McWilliams’ North from Mexico.

Happy holidays,

1 comment:

Peter Richardson said...

Yes, I'm not sure whom Kevin would anoint as the great observer of California in the second half of the twentieth century. He's too modest to nominate himself, but he'd have to be the favorite. Kevin's observations, always historical in nature, are different from McWilliams's, who also commented on current affairs and was, of course, more radical in his views. As for recommending a single book by McWilliams, I think *Southern California* is a good place to start. In addition to being a minor classic, it flashes his mordant humor. Thanks for this, Frank. All best for 2009.