Book Excerpt: American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams

BY PETER RICHARDSON

Published October 26, 2005

Carey McWilliams is probably the most important American writer you've never heard of - especially if you were born after 1960. True, some aficionados know that he wrote many excellent books on labor, racial and ethnic prejudice, civil rights and McCarthyism; that he worked prodigiously for social, political and legal causes; and that he edited The Nation from 1955 to 1975. A few old timers still recall his keen insights, including his 1950 assessment of Congressman Richard Nixon, "a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice." But almost no one remembers that his book, "Prejudice," was cited repeatedly in a dissenting opinion to the Supreme Court ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the Japanese-American internment. And even many film historians are unaware that his 1946 book on Southern California inspired Robert Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay for "Chinatown" (1974), perhaps the most widely admired Hollywood film of its generation. - Peter Richardson

Academics and journalists agree that McWilliams has been woefully neglected. But a thorough assessment of his work leads to a more surprising conclusion: that McWilliams was one of the most versatile, productive, and consequential American public intellectuals of the twentieth century.

McWilliams was an astonishingly productive writer. His first book, a biography of Ambrose Bierce, appeared when he was 24 and a full-time attorney. He composed his first bestseller, "Factories in the Field," between court dates and by writing nights, weekends, and holidays. He produced seven books in the 1940s alone, two while heading California's Division of Immigration and Housing (DIH). Half of his books are still in print, and most continue to attract the highest critical praise. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., no friend of McWilliams, conceded that four of his books were first-rate. "California: The Great Exception" (1949) is considered a minor classic, and "Southern California Country: An Island on the Land" (1946) is still regarded as the best interpretive history of the Los Angeles area.

McWilliams was as influential as he was productive. Cesar ChA