Monday, April 14, 2008

Writing California I attended a fascinating conference over the weekend, one that was stimulating and depressing at the same time. It was the California Studies Association conference at Berkeley City College, put together by a group of writers and academics interested California politics, culture, art, ecology, and social movements.

There were many incredible panels, including one on immigration and the border, one on the Port of Oakland, and one on how California will be affected by global warming. And Jackie Goldberg, a former state assemblywoman, gave a rousing and scary speech about the state of education. You can hear it here.

But my favorite panel, of course, had to do with books. It was called Writing California, and it examined the work of four distinguished authors: John Steinbeck, Carey McWilliams, Wallace Stegner, and Mike Davis.

Rick Wartzman, a BusinessWeek columnist and former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, talked about his upcoming book Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which will be released in September. The Grapes of Wrath is set in Bakersfield, and the town reacted badly when the book was released in 1939. Wartzman’s narrative nonfiction account explores a week where the Board of Supervisors banned the book and locals burned it. The heroine is a librarian who defends the book’s publication. The book is also an exploration of race relations in California at the time.

Phillip Fradkin, the author of a new biography about Wallace Stegner, talked about the writer and teacher. Peter Richardson, the author of a biography about the writer Carey McWilliams, talked about he was “one of the most important writers of whom we have never heard.” Richardson said McWilliams was one of the most versatile public intellectuals of the 20th century, who was alternately called “liar,” “dupe,” and “doe-faced Typhoid Mary of the left.” (The latter came from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.) He wrote about race relations in California before it was topical, and released a book Factories in the Field, about those in the agricultural industry, just two months after the publication of Grapes of Wrath.

UC Berkeley Professor Richard Walker discussed the works of Mike Davis, a prolific writer who came to great public attention with the publication of City of Quartz. It was wonderful to hear Walker’s explanation of Davis’ scholarship. Like most of the other authors discussed on the panel, Davis is a combination of investigator, academic, and activist. He has Irish working class roots, has always felt like something of an outsider, and writes convincingly about an astonishing range of subjects, from the rise of the car bomb, to the urban slums of the world, to the reason why we should let Malibu burn.

What stood about these authors is that they all wrote elegantly and prolifically about California, yet they all left the state in the latter part of their careers. It was true then (and is still true now) that real fame and glory are anointed back East, and these writers sought greater recognition by traveling to the country’s intellectual center. (Stegner didn’t actually leave California, but he did have his ashes spread over his farm in Vermont, a nod, according to Fradkin, to East Coast values that venerated history, allowed its landscape to recover, and held constant a core set of values.)

“Maybe there is no such thing as a California writer,” said Fradkin. “Either they die an unnoticed death by the Eastern literati or they go back East.”


Peter Richardson said...

So glad you were able to make it to the conference, Frances. And I'm eager to see your forthcoming book, which sounds like it's moving right along. BTW, let's visit offline sometime about a conversation I had at the conference that might interest you.

LK said...

I am really sorry I missed this (not even sure I heard about it??).

At any rate, will make a note for next year. Thanks for posting!