Up The Road: Kevin Starr’s “California Dream” Series

Jan 1, 2020

The legacies of the California Gold Rush, which created American California, were good, bad, and ambiguous, according to historian Kevin Starr. (Columbia State Historic Park)
Credit David Berry

Cold days, long nights. The season for serious reading is upon us. And Up the Road has good reads to recommend for the winter reading season, books about California and books about travel.

Let’s start with historian Kevin Starr’s eight-book California cultural history, Americans and the California Dream, admittedly a hefty commitment. Not to worry. All volumes are now out in paperback, and you can buy them one at a time. Or hit the library.

Kevin Starr—not to be confused with Ken Starr, the controversial Republican investigator way back when, during the Bill Clinton presidential impeachment—was an accomplished seventh-generation Californian. Author of 14 books, California state librarian, and USC professor, Starr died quite recently, in 2017, following a heart attack.

Starr's early life was not easy. His mother had a nervous breakdown when he was six; his parents divorced; and he and his younger brother were placed in a Catholic orphanage in Ukiah. They reunited with their mother five years later, and grew up on Potrero Hill, in public housing, supported by welfare.

But there was education. Catholic school led to the Jesuits’ University of San Francisco and a degree in English, then the military, and then Harvard.

According to his obituary in The New York Times, Kevin Starr discovered his mission in life—telling the California story—while browsing the Horace Davis collection on California and the Pacific Coast at Harvard, where he earned his doctorate in English and American literature in 1969.

“All of a sudden I saw all these California books: diaries, memoirs, journals, histories, bibliographies,” he told The Boston Globe in 2003. “And a kind of enchantment overtook me, a kind of beguilement, a kind of reverie, definitely a physical reaction in the days that followed.”

He added, “As I look back on it psychologically, I see that I’d made an absolutely powerful connection between California and my interior landscape.”

Intrigued? Ready to start reading?

The first book in the series, published in 1973, may be the best. According to the literary scholar John Seelye in The New York Times Book Review, Starr's Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915, “is one devil of a fine book, a book only a native Californian could write.”

Next came Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (1985), then Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s (1990), and then Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California (1996).

Starr’s California story continued with The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s (1997); Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940–1950 (2002); Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990–2002 (2004); and ended with Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950–1963, published by Oxford University Press in 2009.

There’s one book missing, covering the years 1963 to 1990. Kevin Starr's wife Sheila Gordon told The Los Angeles Times that he “couldn’t wrap his mind around the ’60s and ’70s.”

Maybe that’s why Starr dropped California as a subject, concluding that the state had completed its work as American cultural incubator.

“In a very big sense, the battle is over,” he told The Christian Science Monitor in 2004. “The country has been California-ized.”

Maybe not quite yet. Judging from the tone and tenor of the Trump presidential impeachment hearings, much of the country still isn’t quite California. Perhaps soon.