Up The Road: Carey McWilliams’ “California: The Great Exception”

Jan 8, 2020

According to historian and writer Carey McWilliams, California's exceptionally productive agriculture-like other exceptional traits-is rooted in California Gold Rush.
Credit Malcolm Carlaw

To honor the ideal reading weather of winter, Up the Road is suggesting some California and travel books well worth your while. This week it’s California: The Great Exception, first published in 1949, by Carey McWilliams, to commemorate the Golden State’s first 100 years of statehood.

Long-time editor of The Nation magazine, later, McWilliams was the investigative reporter who first revealed preparations for the ill-fated U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba—in 1960, during the Eisenhower administration, five months before President Kennedy pulled the trigger on that black op.

Ideas that gained widespread exposure and acceptance through Kevin Starr’s eight-volume Americans and the California Dream history series, discussed last week, showed up first in Carey McWilliams’ book—including the notion of the California dream, and the ways in which the California Gold Rush both initiated the dream and also carried it forward through time.

Kevin Starr was praised and his work warmly supported during his lifetime. Republican Governor Pete Wilson appointed him as California state librarian, which led to later support from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his then-wife Maria Shriver.

Carey McWilliams, by notable contrast, was persecuted in public, as often as not, at least during his lifetime—because he was a leftie, one radicalized by the impact of the Great Depression and the worldwide rise of fascism in the 1930s.

McWilliams definitely had a way with words. In 1950 he described up-and-coming California politician Richard Nixon as “a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice.”

Here’s another little-known fact: Carey McWilliams’ other regional history, Southern California Country: An Island on the Land, inspired Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning screenplay for the movie Chinatown.

“In California the lights went on all at once, in a blaze, and they never have dimmed,” he wrote in California: The Great Exception. To McWilliams, the state’s exceptional geography influenced its equally exceptional history, agricultural enterprise—heck, enterprise of all kinds—and political poise, if not outright presumption. Not just one story, but many interconnected ones.

McWilliams was no promoter of American exceptionalism, the notion that the U.S. is unique because of its social and political accomplishments, or business successes. And yet California, in his view, was, and continues to be, quite exceptional—a fact established by the gold rush.

What made the rush for riches different here, in California, was the fact that it was all very democratic—one man, one gold pan. Despite regular outbreaks of greed and racism, the state more or less continued in that vein as it developed.

Most of the wealth the gold rush created stayed in California, because most miners stayed. They created farms and built towns and businesses. They stayed, and made a new world here on the far side of the Western frontier—one characterized by an equality of opportunity unknown anywhere else.

McWilliams fully acknowledged the brutality that these first, surprisingly well-educated and highly motivated Californians inflicted as they solved “the Indian problem,” the water problem, and the constant need to import cheap migrant labor to create modern agribusiness.

Yet the gold rush and its democratic principles attracted people from every state in the union, and from all around the globe—an exceptional circumstance, mixing the multitudes, making Californians diverse before diversity was even devised, “more like America than America itself,” as Carey McWilliams put it.