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Carey McWilliams (journalist)

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Carey McWilliams (journalist)

Carey McWilliams
Born (1905-12-13)December 13, 1905
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Died June 27, 1980(1980-06-27) (aged 74)
New York City, New Work
Occupation Investigative journalist, author, editor
Alma mater University of Southern California, School of Law

Carey McWilliams (December 13, 1905 – June 27, 1980) was an American author, editor, and lawyer. He is best known for his writings about social issues in California, including the condition of migrant farm workers and the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II. For twenty years he was the editor of The Nation magazine, during which time he was the first American journalist to reveal that the United States government was training guerrillas in preparation for the Bay of Pigs Invasion in April 1961.


  • Biography 1
    • Early years 1.1
    • Political activity 1.2
    • McCarthy period 1.3
    • McWilliams and the Bay of Pigs story 1.4
    • Death and legacy 1.5
  • Works 2
  • References 3
  • Further reading 4
  • External links 5


Early years

Carey McWilliams was born December 13, 1905 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. McWilliams first came to California in 1922 following a collapse in the cattle market that ruined his father's health and his family's finances.

McWilliams attended the University of Southern California, from which he obtained a law degree in 1927.[1]

From 1927 until 1938, McWilliams practiced law in Los Angeles[1] at Black, Hammack, and Black; taking on cases that prefigured some of the main issues of his writing career, including famously defending the rights of striking Mexican citrus laborers.

During the 1920s and early 1930s, McWilliams joined a loose network of mostly Southern California writers that included Robinson Jeffers, John Fante, Louis Adamic, and Upton Sinclair. His literary career also benefited greatly from his relationships with Mary Austin and H.L. Mencken. Mencken provided an outlet for McWilliams's early journalism and floated the idea for his first book, a 1929 biography of popular writer and sometime Californian Ambrose Bierce.

Political activity

The National Labor Relations Board.

His first bestseller, Factories in the Field, appeared in 1939 and ranks among his most enduring works. Published within months of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, it examines the lives of migrant farm workers in California and condemns the politics and consequences of large-scale agribusiness. Shortly before its publication, McWilliams accepted an offer from incoming governor Culbert Olson to head California's Division of Immigration and Housing. Over his four-year term, he focused on improving agricultural working conditions and wages, but his hopes for major reform deteriorated with the advent of World War II.

During the 1940s, McWilliams lived in Echo Park, California, a neighborhood[2] of Los Angeles city. He owned his home at 2041 Alvarado Street until the 1970s, well after he moved to New York in 1951.[3]

McWilliams left his government post in 1942, when incoming governor Earl Warren promised campaign audiences that his first official act would be to fire McWilliams. He was a sharp critic of Warren, whom he described as "the personification of Smart Reaction", but he became an enthusiastic admirer after Warren joined the U.S. Supreme Court the following decade. No such conversion occurred in his attitude toward another California politician, Richard Nixon, whom McWilliams described in 1950 as "a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice".

After leaving state government, McWilliams continued to write prolifically. He turned his attention to issues of racial and ethnic equality, writing a series of important books (including Brothers Under the Skin, Prejudice, North from Mexico, and A Mask for Privilege) that dealt with the treatment of immigrant and minority groups. He also produced two regional portraits, Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (1946, American Folkways series) and California: The Great Exception (1949), which many aficionados still regard as the finest interpretive histories of those areas. Decades after its publication, Southern California Country inspired Robert Towne's Oscar-winning original screenplay for Chinatown (1974).

McCarthy period

Witch Hunt (1950) was an early attempt to combat McCarthyism, which McWilliams considered a grave threat to civil liberties and healthy politics. Although he was never a member of the Communist Party, he was a frequent target of anti-Communist attacks. In the 1940s, he was called before the Committee on Un-American Activities in California, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover placed him on the Custodial Detention List, making him a candidate for detention in case of national emergency—even though McWilliams was serving in state government at the time.

McWilliams's activism took many forms. In the early 1940s, he helped overturn the convictions of mostly Latino youths following the so-called Sleepy Lagoon murder trial. He also helped cool the city's temperature during the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, when scuffles between servicemen and Latino youths spun out of control. Once out of government, he became an outspoken critic of the removal and internment of Japanese American citizens, and almost immediately began writing an exposé on the topic. Published in 1944, Prejudice: Japanese-Americans: Symbol of Race Hatred was cited repeatedly in the sole dissenting opinion in Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion.[4] Several years later, a group of Los Angeles screenwriters, directors, and producers known as the Hollywood Ten were cited for contempt of Congress after refusing to answer a House committee's questions about Communist Party membership. McWilliams drafted a Supreme Court amicus brief for two of them, John Howard Lawson and Dalton Trumbo. (The Court declined to hear their appeal.)

Though by 1951 a committed Californian, McWilliams moved to New York City to work at The Nation under then editor Freda Kirchwey. For the next decade, he helped shepherd the magazine through its most difficult period. Taking over as editor in 1955, he stayed through 1975 and is credited with strengthening the magazine's investigative reporting and helping to introduce the ideas of the New Left to more mainstream audiences. He also published the early work of Ralph Nader, Howard Zinn, Theodore Roszak, and Hunter S. Thompson, who credited McWilliams with the idea for his first bestselling book, Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1966).

McWilliams and the Bay of Pigs story

Writing for The Nation, as the magazine's editor, McWilliams was the first American reporter to reveal that the CIA was training a group of Cuban exiles in Guatemala for the Bay of Pigs Invasion.[5] His article, titled "Are We Training Cuban Guerrillas?", was published in November 1960, five months before the invasion occurred, during the Eisenhower Administration.[6]

The story was largely ignored by major newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post.[7] Arthur Schlesinger, an aide to President John F. Kennedy, pressured The New Republic not to run a story about the guerrilla force.[8] Following the failure of the invasion, Kennedy expressed regret that more information about the invasion plan was not published, telling Times reporter Turner Catledge, “If you had printed more about the operation, you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.”[9]

Death and legacy

Carey McWilliams died in New York City on June 27, 1980, at age 74. [10] Since his death, McWilliams's critical fortunes have risen steadily. The American Political Science Association gives an annual Carey McWilliams Award "to honor a major journalistic contribution to our understanding of politics." In Embattled Dreams (2002), California historian Kevin Starr calls McWilliams "the single finest nonfiction on California--ever," and biographer Peter Richardson maintains that McWilliams might be the most versatile American public intellectual of the twentieth century.

His first son, Wilson Carey McWilliams, was a noted political scientist who taught at Rutgers University. His second son, Jerry McWilliams, was an expert on vinyl disc records preservation. McWilliams had two grandchildren: Susan McWilliams Barndt, a professor of politics at Pomona College, and Helen McWilliams, the lead singer of VAGIANT Boston.

McWilliams' papers are housed in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley and at Special Collections at the University of California, Los Angeles.


  • Ambrose Bierce: A Biography (New York: A. & C. Boni, 1929). Revised edition: Archon Books, 1967.
  • Brothers Under the Skin: African-Americans and Other Minorities. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1943.
  • California: The Great Exception (New York: Current Books, 1949).
  • (Edited by McWilliams) The California Revolution, (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1968).
  • The Education of Carey McWilliams (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979).
  • Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1939).
  • Ill Fares the Land: Migrants and Migratory Labor in the United States (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1942).
  • Louis Adamic and Shadow-America (Los Angeles: A. Whipple, 1935).
  • A Mask for Privilege: Anti-Semitism in America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1948).
  • The Mexicans in America: A Students’ Guide to Localized History (New York: Teachers College Press, 1968).
  • North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the US (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1949).
  • Politics of Personality: California, The Nation, October 27, 1962.
  • Prejudice: Japanese-Americans, Symbol of Racial Intolerance (Boston: Little, Brown, 1944).
  • Race Discrimination – and the Law (New York: National Federation for Constitutional Liberties, 1945).
  • Small Farm and Big Farm (New York: Public Affairs Committee, 1945).
  • Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (American Folkways series, New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1946). Also published as Southern California: An Island on the Land (Santa Barbara: Peregrine Smith, 1973).
  • What About Our Japanese-Americans? (New York: Public Affairs Committee, 1944).
  • Witch Hunt: The Revival of Heresy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1950).


  1. ^ a b Francis X. Gannon, Biographical Dictionary of the Left: Volume 1. Boston: Western Islands Publishers, 1969; pp. 452–454.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Richardson, Peter. "Carey McWilliams: Local Hero, American Prophet". Echo Park Historical Society. Retrieved August 27, 2015. 
  4. ^ Richardson, Peter. "Carey McWilliams". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2014-08-28. 
  5. ^ Carey McWilliams, The Education of Carey McWilliams 228 (Simon & Schuster 1978).
  6. ^ Are We Training Cuban Guerrillas?, 191 The Nation 378 (November 19, 1960).
  7. ^ Montague Kern et al., The Kennedy Crises: The Press, The Presidency and Foreign Policy 105-06 (Univ. of N.C. Press 1983).
  8. ^ Id.
  9. ^ Carey McWilliams, The Education of Carey McWilliams 229 (Simon & Schuster 1978).
  10. ^ Carey McWilliams at Find A Grave, Retrierved September 25, 2015

Further reading

  • Corman, Catherine A. "Teaching – and Learning from – Carey McWilliams," California History December 22, 2001.
  • Critser, Greg. "The Political Rebellion of Carey McWilliams," UCLA Historical Journal 4 (1983: 34–65.
  • Critser, Greg. "The Making of a Cultural Rebel: Carey McWilliams, 1924–1930," Pacific Historical Review 55 (1986): 226–55.
  • Davis, Mike. "Optimism of the Will", The Nation, September 19, 2005.
  • Geary, Daniel. "Carey McWilliams and Antifascism, 1934–1943," Journal of American History Vol. 90, No. 3, December 2003, 912–934.
  • Richardson, Peter. American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2005).
  • Richardson, Peter. "Carey McWilliams: The California Years", UCLA Library, May 2005.
  • Stewart, Dean & Jeannine Gendar (eds.). Fool's Paradise: A Carey McWilliams Reader (Santa Clara, California: Santa Clara University Press, 2001).

External links

  • Carey McWilliams Quotes
  • Co-written Letters to the Editor of the New York Review of Books entitled The "Excelsior" Affair, Ford's Better Idea, Violence in Oakland, and Protest
  • Interview of Carey McWilliams, Center for Oral History Research, UCLA Library Special Collections, University of California, Los Angeles.
  • List of winners of the APSA's Carey McWilliams award
  • NewsScan "Honorary Subscriber" Page on McWilliams
  • Guide to the Carey McWilliams Papers at The Bancroft Library
  • 1965 talk at UCLA on the anticipated impact of computers YouTube, Retrieved 30 August 2015
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