Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
California, The Great Exception. By Carey McWilliams. Santa Barbara: Peregrine Press, 1976, (1949). 377 pages. $4.95.
Reviewed by Andrew Rolle, Cleland Professor of History at Occidental College, who is revising his own California: A History (1969).
In surveying the productive career of Carey McWilliams, the question arises: “Is it possible to overvalue a particular book?” Just as a reviewer may underestimate a body of written knowledge, so can certain works be labeled classics, perhaps too quickly. That seems to have become the case with California, The Great Exception.
The bulk of McWilliams’ books on California were written in the period before he went east to become editor of The Nation. His Factories in the Field (1939) and Southern California Country (1946) had a freshness and immediacy about them that was remarkable. McWilliams knew how to cut through the rhetoric about California, to separate cliche from reality. Those books were stronger ones than his California, The Great Exception.
Since its publication in 1949, California’s social and economic problems have become massive, indeed awesome. Brutalization of the state hardly makes it, ecologically or politically, an exception. Conditions have changed so much that California, The Great Exception is hopelessly out of date. If the publisher wished to market the book anew, it should have been thoroughly revised. Without such updating, there is little excuse for republication of this particular volume, however talented its author. The book has had its day.