Philip Fradkin, Writer Who Explored Themes of the West, Dies at 77

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Philip Fradkin, a writer whose 13 books often focused on the legacy of environmental destruction in the West and who took aim at what he and others viewed as the persistent misunderstanding and simplification of the region and its culture by many in the East, died last Sunday at his home in Point Reyes Station, Calif. He was 77.

The cause was cancer, according to his wife, Dianne.

Mr. Fradkin grew up in New Jersey and moved to California while in his 20s after becoming enamored of the West during a road trip with his father when he was 14. He went on to explore many major Western themes in his books. One, "A River No More: The Colorado River and the West," detailed how water wars, dams and development devastated that river's natural course. Another, "The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself," examined the chaos and municipal ineptitude that followed the disaster.

Late in life Mr. Fradkin wrote "Wallace Stegner and the American West," a well-received biography of perhaps the region's most acclaimed writer. The book, published by Knopf in 2008, described Mr. Stegner's frustrations with how the region had often been mythologized, as well as his belief that its writers, including Mr. Stegner, had received insufficient respect from literary arbiters in the East. One target was The New York Times, which did not review Mr. Stegner's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1971 novel, "Angle of Repose."

Forrest G. Robinson, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an expert in the literature of the West, said the biography was "the best full account of Stegner's life we have."

Philip Lawrence Fradkin was born in Manhattan on Feb. 28, 1935. He grew up in Montclair, N.J., the son of Dr. Leon H. Fradkin, a dentist who had migrated from Russia, and Elvira Kush, an activist who wrote and advocated for disarmament and women's rights. Mr. Fradkin graduated from Williams College in 1957.

He soon made his way westward, working for small newspapers in California in the early 1960s before being hired by The Los Angeles Times in 1964. He shared in a Pulitzer Prize the paper received in 1966 for its coverage of the Watts riots. He later covered the Vietnam War and, in 1970, created an environmental beat at the paper. He left in 1975 -- he said his editor had told him his articles were tilting toward environmentalism -- and became an environmental policy expert in the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown.

Besides his wife, Mr. Fradkin is survived by a daughter, Cleo Cavolo, and a son, Alex.

He announced his retirement from writing after the publication, in 2011, of his biography of Everett Ruess, a young artist, writer and wanderer who became something of a mythical figure after he disappeared in the Utah canyon lands in 1934.

Writing of Mr. Ruess on his Web site, Mr. Fradkin compared him with John Muir, the revered California naturalist and preservationist.

"I don't view him as a western Thoreau or a younger Muir, as some do," Mr. Fradkin wrote. "Those two men described and thought about their respective regions. Everett described places beautifully. However, he thought primarily about himself, which is perfectly understandable given his age. I don't know in what manner he would have matured, but I do know he was exasperating at times. This quality alone made him more human and interesting, at least for me, than the patron saint of western wilderness, as he has been portrayed."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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