McWilliams, Carey

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Carey McWilliams (December 13, 1905–June 27, 1980) was a writer, lawyer, and administrator, and one of the most important leftists in Depression-era California. McWilliams was born in Colorado, but moved to southern California in 1922. Like many other intellectuals, McWilliams became attracted to left-wing ideas during the Great Depression. At the beginning of the 1930s, McWilliams worked as a lawyer at a conservative Los Angeles firm, but he wrote literary criticism in his free time. By the end of the decade, he was a prominent activist, journalist, and government official who was well known for his advocacy of civil liberties, racial equality, and labor unions.

McWilliams's involvement in California's agricultural labor conflicts transformed his life. The organization of farm workers in the state during the 1930s met with resistance so intense that McWilliams later dubbed it "farm fascism," referring to the brutal and illegal suppression of a predominantly minority workforce. In the early 1930s, under the auspices of the American Civil Liberties Union, McWilliams performed pro bono legal services for Mexican-American farm workers. In the mid-1930s, he traveled across the state reporting for magazines on the conditions of agricultural labor. In 1939, he published Factories in the Field, a best-selling history of farm labor in California. The book received widespread attention as the nation was then becoming attuned to the plight of California's Dust Bowl migrants and it was seen by many as the nonfiction counterpart of John Steinbeck's wildly popular novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which was published the same year. Yet, unlike Steinbeck, McWilliams stressed the structural and racial aspects of the exploitation of migrant farm workers.

Though best known for Factories in the Field, McWilliams's activities were not limited to his work on agricultural labor. For instance, during the 1930s, he advocated full citizenship rights for Asian immigrants, wrote a pamphlet criticizing anti-Semites in Los Angeles, helped organize the left-wing Western Writers' Congress, and worked with Hollywood's Popular Front liberals to support the antifascist side in the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, California governor Culbert Olsen appointed McWilliams chief of the Division of Immigration and Housing, a post he held until 1943. McWilliams's radicalization during the Great Depression shaped the rest of his long and important career. In the 1940s, he wrote a number of significant works on the issue of race in America, notably Brothers under the Skin (1943), and also authored two important histories of California. In 1950, McWilliams left California for New York City, where he served as editor for the liberal weekly The Nation from 1955 to 1975.



McWillams, Carey. The Education of Carey McWilliams. 1979.

McWilliams, Carey. Fool's Paradise: A Carey McWilliams Reader, edited by Dean Stewart and Jeannine Gendar. 2001.

Starr, Kevin. "Carey McWilliams's California: The Light and the Dark." In Reading California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900–2000, edited by Stephanie Barron, Sheri Bernstein, and Ilene Susan Fort. 2000.

Daniel Geary