SEPTEMBER 19, 2015
MALCOLM MARGOLIN ranks among the California icons. If not a patron saint (a controversial one of those is being canonized by Pope Francis later this week), he’s at least a patron of the arts who has made Californians far richer than they’d be without him. This book tells the story.
It’s a “damn good” story, as the subtitle suggests. Indicating as much in 2012, the National Endowment for the Humanities recognized Margolin as a “national treasure.” He and the contributors to this volume make no effort to perpetuate the mythologization, however. Instead they address a question many have had: who is this eccentric figure, this California character, this bearded wanderer? Now we have a book-length answer.
The book comes together under the skillful editorial hands of Kim Bancroft, the great-great-granddaughter of Hubert Howe Bancroft, the historian whose personal library became the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. In this book, she assembles a tapestry of stories from Margolin and those who know him well. The contributors recount their relationship with Margolin, how they met him, and what he has meant to California. After introducing each new contributor to the volume, along with their relationship to the man and how they fit into the Heyday mosaic, the stories freely fly. They’re quite fun.
Kim Bancroft collects interviews, short essays, and excerpts to tell the full story of California’s quintessential publishing house. The stories come together, spinning Margolin’s life and Heyday together into one narrative. The stories come from Margolin, current and former Heyday employees, various donors and stakeholders, and Heyday readers. They’re all far too honest to make this book any kind of hagiography. It comes off instead as something of a communal autobiography, telling how he grew up, how he came to California, what he did when he got here, and what his presence brought to this place.
None of his accomplishments happened without the people he worked with, and these pages show, with playfulness and beauty, how other lives mapped onto his and were simultaneously shaped by Margolin’s. His story is told through the lenses of these colleagues, friends, and significant California figures, in what effectively amounts to a creative digest accounting for Margolin’s life, times, and work. The book is quite the Heyday quilt.
Early in the book, Margolin tells his own version, quickly dispatching his upbringing. Graduating Harvard, with brief stints in Puerto Rico and New York, he leaves the East with his wife Rina to head West and create things. He arrived in California in early 1968, never again to know sedentary existence. The Bostonian turned Californian (not the first of those) bounced between jobs, moving from place to place, and immediately understood this land and its ways. And he fit in, perhaps because he embodies an older, stranger ideal of what it means to make a better life in California. He ultimately set out to make a better life for others, another distinctive California ideal, and something the stories of this book highlight as his true legacy. He came not to chase any so-called dream for himself, but for everyone else, and the other writers in this volume display how he’s profoundly enabled theirs.
After traveling some of the wider West upon arrival (from Portland to Mexico), he took a job as groundsman at the East Bay Regional Parks from 1970 to 1972, settling in Berkeley. This later yielded the books that made him famous, East Bay Out (1974) and The Earth Manual (Houghton Mifflin, 1975). The first one he published himself, effectively founding Heyday, the landmark press that would become California’s publisher.
Many small publishers emerged at this time, especially in Berkeley. They’ve faded while Heyday has remained. Margolin threw himself into the work: not as a type-A businessperson might, but as an advisor, the man behind the curtain, and for the love of it. He published California because he loved it, embodied it. He remained here, committed. And California embraced him back.
As a naturalist he knew the place — the flora and the fauna — like an expert. His concern was not only with nature, but also with the people of the land, especially Native Californians. His first concern was for the preservation of their languages (over a hundred of them), reflecting over five hundred different tribes in their manifold complexities — Margolin’s idea of paradise! His passion to preserve these languages was one of the many ways he sought to tell the truth about California, not in the big themes, but by understanding “the tonalities, the rhythms,” he says.
In 1987, he and the now-late Vera-Mae Fredrickson created the magazine News from Native California, in part out of respect for the ways of California’s past, helping spur a revival of interest in Native Indian culture. In Malcolm’s words: “We came to deliver a eulogy to California Indian culture, and we ended up witnessing a rebirth.”
Margolin’s work in this area didn’t come without criticism, especially for his 1978 book, The Ohlone Way, which described early pre-colonial Indian culture in the wider Bay Area. “This guy’s not Indian!” people complained (though unlike some cases in recent media, like that of Rachel Dolezal claiming to be black, Margolin wasn’t claiming to be Indian). Administrator of the Traditional Folk Arts Program for the California Arts Council and Heyday board member Theresa Harlan declared, “he was genuine.” Unlike most, he really cared. He gave a damn, and never pretended to be something he was not, making no presumptions. Increasingly, Californian Indians grew to respect him, befriending him. He began to publish their stories, not from the anthropologists’ accounts, but in their very own words, breathing life into their communities.
Today Margolin is well known from San Diego to Monterey to Sonoma and beyond. Anyone paying attention to writing about the place knows him. But when I mention Margolin or Heyday to people in Southern California (perhaps mainly California newcomers, but also among university faculty, students, and even librarians), I usually have to do some explaining. (Sadly, and antithetical to Margolin’s remit, I fear many transplanted academics working in California remain willfully ignorant of important features of California culture, but this is another matter.) I tend to inform them about whom and what Heyday has published: poems by the current US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, the Highway 99 anthology, Gary Snyder, a Josiah Royce reprint, News from Native California, other Native Indian voices, and many other books about California’s environment, history, and cultures. Arguably, Margolin has done more toward preserving Native California Indian culture than any other living figure, testified to in the book by significant Native figures like UCLA professor of American Indian Studies Peter Nabokov, the late Darryl Wilson, Greg Sarris, Jennifer Bates, and others.
The stories here highlight Margolin (and Heyday) as a lover of other cultures, and people; he loves following others around, learning from them, participating in their worlds. As his daughter Sadie notes, he was heavily involved in passing down not his own culture, but precisely a culture not his own.
Heyday was on hand at a booth at the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, flying an advert overhead that bemused festival attendees with the proclamation: “Damn Good Books!” After collecting a few of their books with my eight-year-old daughter, I spotted Margolin walking through the crowds toward Heyday’s tent. Pointing him out to her at a distance, she quipped, “He looks like a homeless guy.” As the homeless guy floated across the USC campus amid the sea of people, I introduced her to him anyway: “Kendra, this is Malcolm; he makes the California publishing world go ’round.” They shook hands as he stooped down, looked her in the eyes and replied, “I think it’s you who make the world go ’round.” That’s Margolin, a figure who cares more about other voices than his own. This is perhaps especially true of kids, evidenced by Heyday’s commitment to regularly publishing children’s books.
Margolin’s commitment to others meant his own affairs weren’t always in order, either with his family or the company. Heyday board members were often quite worried about his well-being and the press’s. On some occasions, Heyday was doing just fine. For example, Humphrey the whale came into the Bay in 1985 and Margolin and Heyday quickly published a children’s book (written by Ernest “Chick” Callenbach, his wife Christine Leefeldt, and illustrated by Carl Buell) that within a few weeks sold 40,000 copies. That was not always the way things went, though, and Margolin typically displayed a blissful ignorance about any of Heyday’s financial problems. He reckoned there to be “a firewall between the financial problems and the work that gets done, which is pure and holy … like something on an altar.”
For his authors and employees, as this book chronicles, Heyday was a place where others could be themselves, their true selves, doing what they wanted to do, creating beautiful work in the process. Margolin ran the press the way he saw the world, with an impressive capaciousness. Kevin Starr notes him having “a demeanor like a clergyman,” and Margolin, in his man-behind-the-curtain role as publisher, offers the works of others on his altar.
The religious imagery doesn’t exactly fit, since Margolin left his Judaism behind years ago in Boston. But one might argue that religion (Native, Buddhist, Catholic, other) has been quite important to Heyday’s list, and it features far more in this book than one might suppose. Margolin has somewhere publicly stated that Heyday does not publish any ideologies. Yet religion, spirituality, and a deep attentiveness to transcendental concepts like beauty pumps through the veins of all that Heyday is.
I recently pitched a book idea to him, seeking to engage theologically with California’s leading interpreters — older ones (Royce, Jackson, McWilliams, Kerouac) and recent ones (Starr, Didion, Waldie, Snyder, Ulin). As a theologian, I work constantly with the forms of religious language California writers draw from when they really want to understand this place and its key themes. With the pitch I sent a copy of a recent co-edited book, the academic collection, Theology and California: Theological Refractions on California’s Culture (Ashgate, 2014), which has enjoyed some modest success. Margolin’s multiple attempts to read it, he wrote back, repeatedly ended in failure. To this I acknowledged the academic concerns in that volume and responded: “I’d not write a book exactly like that for Heyday!” Margolin’s lengthy and gracious letter minced no words, and he told me in no uncertain terms (in Margolin’s gracious and forthright way), that my concerns were not his concerns.
This kind of candidness demonstrates Margolin’s lucidity of thinking. Heyday editor, author, and board member Patricia Wakida also notes this as one of the highlights of working with Margolin, sharing a selection of the notes, memos, letters, and newsletters he has written over the years.
Much of this book is playful and lighthearted as various writers reflect on Margolin and Heyday, but the book isn’t all play. In fact, the final chapter is markedly personal, reflective, and unnerving at points. Margolin has fired people. He has rejected ideas and many manuscripts. He works with something he calls Anxiety Deficit Disorder. In another California life it might have made him a good gangster or a drug dealer, cool and collected about everything in order to get jobs done.
In one of his stories in the last chapter of the book, Margolin divulges that his first rule of publishing is to deal only with people he likes; second, anything that gets one out of the office is good. Reading this, though, made me wonder, of course, why he ever left the East Bay Regional Parks at all. I can only assume that he did it, and built this publishing house, for others, because he loves Californians, and is deeply loyal to them. He claims to have never sacrificed a damn thing, including becoming a great writer himself, or cultivating a career outdoors. But I reckon he actually did, and did so for us.
Some months later, I re-pitched to Margolin a book engaging California and its leading interpreters in interdisciplinary theological fashion (still a bit of a crazy idea to Margolin’s sensibilities), with a more playful and personal narrative in the telling. In person, with a smile, and in his own encouraging way he stated, “If I’m still here, I’m open.” And then he invited me and my family to a party that evening …
I knew Heyday well, but by reading The Heyday of Malcolm Margolin, I’ve been given a much better, deeper understanding of who Margolin is, what Heyday publishes, and what it doesn’t. I previously found it strange that numerous leading figures writing about California have never published with Heyday. They instead publish with academic presses, or other mainstream houses — the big ones. Perhaps they will as Heyday expands, as evidenced by the recent move to set up a presence in Southern California while maintaining the Berkeley office where Heyday has had its Northern California base. This will help the quintessential California publisher to service a wider spectrum of Californians, to tell more of the stories of this remarkable place, to make more beauty, and more beautiful books. Perhaps this will help us make a much better, even gentler, California for future residents, and for the rest of the watching world, which eventually comes to California somehow or other, either in reality or in their minds. Perhaps some of this will be the result of Heyday books, all of which bear something of the touch of Margolin’s gentle ways.
Kim Bancroft has done a remarkable job with this volume, something that may seem to many as near impossible — tying down the vagabond. Jon Christensen did some of the same in his recent BOOM interview with Margolin, providing additional morsels from Margolin’s life and work, even if something of a distillation of what Bancroft did in this exquisite volume.
Beyond the insight into Margolin and Heyday, and the many relationships formed with so many special people, this book invites readers in, making them proud that we’ve been graced by such a figure, summoning readers of all kinds to participate in the work Margolin and Heyday have done and continue to do. It’s the beautiful work of integrating and cultivating meaningful relationships, and meaningful stories, that in turn foster a beautiful insight into California.
Thousands could have written something of Margolin’s life. He’s far too busy to write a book about himself, and likely wouldn’t want to do more than he has here. He’s too busy doing things for others, publishing their books, shaping their ideas, attending parties, celebrating them. The past is also something he doesn’t seem interested in holding onto tightly, evidenced in the purging of the Heyday archives when they expanded in the old Koerber Building in Berkeley. Patricia Wakida recounts how, when she asked casually how his weekend went at the time of the move, his response was, “Oh, I just threw out all my shit.”
As in the case of the binning of the early archives, the book shows how loosely Margolin holds it all, and with continued delight and astonishment. In fact, nearly all the voices in this book seem to be just as astonished at what happened with Margolin and Heyday. It worked, and worked well. And this book shows how this important figure did it. Current and aspiring California writers will especially enjoy it, particularly those dreaming of publishing with California’s foremost publisher, or who want to understand California better, and what makes an important part of the California publishing world go ’round.
In the final chapter of the book, “The Journey Ahead,” Margolin admits that his Parkinson’s is “the elephant in the room.” It is a disease he finds totally uninteresting, but it makes him and those close to him acutely aware that he won’t be here forever. It also makes him acutely aware of Heyday’s future horizon. Meanwhile Margolin keeps running hard, especially now, with the expansion of Heyday into Los Angeles, and the recent publication LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas, even as Berkeley grows somewhat sleepy of late. I reckon Margolin’s bridge-building will continue to do much for Heyday’s future, beyond his involvement.
Heyday so far has had a damn good run indeed. This book celebrates that beautifully in what may turn out to be simply Heyday’s opening chapter. We look forward to the rest of Heyday’s story bringing in a damn good future, reviving even more untold California stories, and helping build a future in this beautiful place. Margolin and Heyday have given so much to California, and to so many Californians, and in this book, Kim Bancroft has given Margolin and Heyday to us.