Merrill Ring

Regionalists on the Left: Radical Voices from the American West- Edited by Michael Steiner (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013)

In fall of 1948 I was a boy of 11 living on the dusty eastern plains of Colorado, coming from a family with no interesting political outlook.  One day, for no remembered reason, I biked down to the train yard to see a whistle-stop by Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate for President.  I was appalled: it wasn’t just what he said, I have no memory of that, but his entire manner, from the pin-stripe pants to the top-hat (or whatever it was called) to the fancy coat to the way he spoke.   It was so non-western, so eastern.  That day I became a liberal and a Democrat.

I sometimes have the fancy that later in that same campaign Harry Truman also made a whistle-stop in Greeley and I saw him – I suspect that he didn’t.  But Truman became for me the representative of the west – after all he was from western Kansas, a state that was so politically different in those days (that loss is what Thomas Frank is lamenting in What Ever Happened to Kansas?) But Truman’s blunt speaking, type of clothing and overall manner was so in contrast with that of Dewey, the Republican, that I was captivated.

Over the next few years I became an avid student of things western. I sent away for and read the official literature of each of the western states.  I plunged into such things as Bernard DeVoto and Zane Grey (my favorite high school English teacher warned me that he was not exactly the high point of literature – she might have known that I was becoming aware of that given that my political affection had transferred to Adlai Stevenson.)

In short, I was a westerner – and my political life began with the recognition that it was that region to which I was attached.

Those pieces of my earliest political life are why Michael Steiner’s anthology about left-wing American regionalists, studies of western radicals in the 1930’s, is so attractive to me.  They are my political kin.

Steiner discovered, while teaching on a Fulbright in Poland, that Europeans regard regionalism, the attachment to a particular place (no doubt broadly conceived), as a right-wing doctrine.  And there is something to that:  Marx, after all, thought of the working class as something that cut across international boundaries while Hitler developed national (what he called) socialism.  And even in this country there is the same tendency to identify regional solidarity with right-wing views:  the South is not exactly a hot-bed of leftist ideas.

Steiner’s book is an original attempt to set the record straight, to show that there is a strong current in American thought in which regionalism and radical political ideas go together.  The American west is where that happened, especially in the 1930’s though it ran on into the war years.  That is, the regionalism of the west was at its most powerful in the period of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

To show the depth and breadth of western radicalism in the period, Steiner has commissioned 15 American historians to write essays on 16 of the major western radicals with Steiner providing introductory essays.  He divides the essays and their subjects into groups:  the Midwest, the Great Plains and Texas, the Northern West and California.  The people discussed, as with their particular regions, are not of a piece: they come from various different backgrounds, have various different concerns and outlooks and are distinct individuals.

Some of the names of the radicals are broadly familiar:  Mari Sandoz, J. Frank Dobie, John Steinbeck, Carey McWilliams.  Others most of us will meet in this book for the first time.  I was especially impressed by D’Arcy McNickle, who is now becoming recognized as a major Native American novelist.  And Steiner’s own essay on Carey McWilliams reminded me of how important McWilliams was to both California and the country.

For those who want to become acquainted with an important radical American political tradition, pick up Steiner’s excellent book.  In these days when Wall Street is too much with us, we westerners need reminding that the struggle against it and our economic system has roots in the recent past.