Conversation with Malcolm Margolin

Oct 30, 2013


Malcolm Margolin was born in a Jewish neighborhood in Dorchester outside Boston in 1940. He was a dreamy child with his nose always in a book. School bored him. A piercing intelligence pushed him forward. He graduated from Harvard, married his Radcliffe girlfriend, and ultimately found himself in a VW bus he bought for $300 headed to California from his home base in New York City. After many wanderings he settled in Berkeley and began to make a living for his growing family as a writer.

Malcolm decided to write a book about California Native Americans. He thought it would be an easy, short book about a simple people about whom little was known. But months stretched into years as untapped research treasures opened before him. He finally published The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco – Monterey Bay Area. The book became a classic and continues to sell more than 35 years after its publication. A few years later, Malcolm published The Way We Lived: California Indian Stories, Songs & Reminiscences. Later still he began a quarterly magazine, News from Native California.

Malcolm did more than write about California Native Americans. He passionately pursued friendships with them across the state. Malcolm became a witness to the entire history of California Native American peoples—the 500 tribes with more than 100 languages that filled California for millennia before the arrival of the white man. He became a witness to the utter destruction of their ways of life. Even more remarkable, he witnessed the rebirth of Native American cultures built on fragments of the remains of what had not been obliterated. Malcolm carries this history as passionately as anyone else alive.

Malcolm didn’t just write books—he printed and published them. He became the publisher of Heyday Books, a renowned small press that has scraped by financially for decades while publishing an astonishing array of exquisitely beautiful volumes.

On October 8, Malcolm sat down for a New School conversation with Steve Heilig and me before a room filled to capacity with his friends and admirers. Chatting with him, I discovered the many parallels in our lives. We were both born to Jewish fathers named Max. We graduated from Harvard a year apart. We left homes in New York to drive with our partners to San Francisco. Malcolm settled in Berkeley, I settled in Bolinas. Heyday Books and Commonweal were founded within a few years of each other. We both stuck with these eccentric organizations through difficult times. We were both immersed in the counter-culture yet held ourselves separate from it. We were both driven by a boundless intellectual curiosity. We were both bore deep witness to the holocaust of natural and human life that our time has wrought. And we’re both still at work, with no intention of stopping, 40 years after our wanderings began.

Malcolm quotes the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz as saying that anthropology is “deep hanging out.” “Deep hanging out is my spiritual practice,” Malcolm says. What a practice.

The conversation with Malcolm is one of more than 150 remarkable podcasts on our beautiful new website; we invite you to look and listen. To read Malcolm’s books on California Native Americans and to hear him talk about his life work will change your understanding of California forever.

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