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People on Campus: Lecturer Peter Richardson

May 22, 2006

Photo of Peter RichardsonDuring the 1990s Peter Richardson was a tenured faculty member in English at University of North Texas with areas of expertise in medieval literature and "Beowulf." But the Berkeley native was homesick and sought a new intellectual challenge closer to home.

Richardson, a lecturer in humanities, had long been interested in California history and culture. After taking a job in 1999 in San Francisco as communications analyst at the Public Policy Institute of California, he asked a colleague what he should read to get up to speed. The colleague suggested the works of Carey McWilliams, who Richardson had never heard of.

Richardson found a kindred spirit in the late McWilliams, an oft-forgotten author, editor, attorney and activist who state historian Kevin Starr has called "the single finest nonfiction writer on California -- ever." Richardson brings McWilliams to light in the 2005 biography "American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams" (The University of Michigan Press), which has earned excellent reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and The Nation, of which McWilliams was editor from 1955 to 1975.

McWilliams was at the forefront of covering many societal issues, including race and ethnicity, civil liberties, immigration, and farm labor. His book "Southern California: An Island on the Land" influenced the classic Jack Nicholson film "Chinatown." McWilliams served as chief of the California Division of Immigration and Housing for several years and represented defendants in trials related to the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots.

"He might be the most versatile public observer of the 20th century," Richardson said.

As Richardson began to read McWilliams' work, he was struck by the clarity of the thought and writing. He also was shocked to learn that few people born after 1960 knew of McWilliams, thus inspiring the book. Richardson said McWilliams is largely unknown in part because he was reserved, private and not a self-promoter. His style was not sensational, but slow, calm and studied.

"He was a cool cat," Richardson said. "His writing is very cool and clean … (and has) a studied nonchalance to it."

Richardson returned to academia this semester, teaching a course on California Culture in the Humanities Department. Although he hasn't assigned any of McWilliams' work to his students, his influence has been felt. The students have watched "Chinatown" and read "Ask the Dust," a novel by McWilliams' best friend John Fante.

Saul Steier, associate professor and chair of humanities, has been impressed with Richardson. After observing Richardson's class recently, Steier came away with a highly favorable view of his teaching.

"It turned out we got a star without even knowing we had a star," Steier said. "(His) book is completely out of his (previous) academic realm. It's a labor of love and a deep commitment."

Richardson also serves as editorial director of PoliPoint Press, a Sausalito-based company that publishes books by authors with "progressive political ideas, insight and passion," according to its Web site. He has helped acquire and develop such recent titles as "The Blue Pages: A Directory of Companies Rated by Their Politics and Practices" and "In Conflict," in which author Yvonne Latty recounts first-person experiences of U.S. solders in Iraq.

"We're doing Carey McWilliams books," Richardson said. "I think that these are the kinds of books he would write now."

McWilliams has had a strong influence on Richardson in several ways. At PoliPoint Press, for example, Richardson makes a concerted effort to respond quickly to authors' submissions, as McWilliams was known to do with freelance writers at The Nation.

Richardson has also discovered a newfound appreciation for Los Angeles. McWilliams hated the City of Angels when he first encountered it, calling it vulgar, Richardson said, but later grew to like it and lived there for many years.

"When you grow up in Northern California, you're taught to have contempt for Los Angeles," said Richardson, a San Anselmo resident. "I began reconsidering L.A. through his eyes and experience."

Richardson enjoys his work and is researching his next book, about a year in Los Angeles shortly before World War II. He hopes to continue teaching, but it probably won't be in medieval literature.

"I might be done with the 'Beowulf' part of my career," he said.

-- Matt Itelson


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Last modified May 22, 2006 by University Communications