California’s Starr

Posted on April 27, 2011 by

Too bad California’s greatest living historian Kevin Starr is sometimes confused with Bill Clinton’s foil Ken Starr whose investigation turned oral sex into an impeachable offence. 

Because Kevin Starr teaches Californians about ourselves better than anyone else. 

Just finished his treatment on the pre-war years called The Dream Endures – California Enters the 1940s, less a political history than a rumination about culture, science and the origin of the California “life style.” 

Starr shows how California democratizes leisure, allowing Americans of various classes to pursue self-expression and personal “meaning.” 

In the chronological sequel, Embattled Dreams – California in War and Peace, 1940 – 1950, Starr focuses more on economic and racial divisions including, of course, the wartime relocation of Japanese-Americans, the Zoot Suit police riots and the intense discrimination against the growing number of black émigrés from the southeast. 

Though Starr’s approach may not always satisfy leftish readers looking for pervasive patterns of oppression, he does offer fascinating analysis of the origin of the psychedelic, gay rights and religious “new age” movements (see Golden Dreams – California in an Age of Abundance, 1950 – 1963). 

Now 70, Kevin Starr is an important historical figure in his own right for refuting the absurd notion among some “intellectuals” that California (particularly Los Angeles) cannot be taken seriously.  He should be required reading for east coast transplants compulsively attached to the idea that L.A. is not a “real” city. 

My affinity for Starr does not diminish my admiration of other California chroniclers and big thinkers, particularly the remarkably astute and scathing Mike Davis (still at it) and Carey McWilliams who died thirty years ago but whose 1946 Southern California:  An Island on the Land anticipated this region’s dominant role (for good and bad) in setting national and global trends. 

My own California “sense of place” took a while to develop. 

Growing up in Brooklyn before living in rural Vermont, adjusting to Southern California sprawl wasn’t easy (though I took to the weather right away). 

I appreciated that Starr and others could help me understand what I was doing here.

Comments (7)


  1. Irene Fertik says:

    Dear Lou, I might think Kevin, the brightly shining Starr, was paying you for these words, if I hadn’t photographed him and talked to him and heard folks talking about him,,when I worked at USC for 15 years…Yes he definitely is a booster for CA and especially LA, but also has the in depth creds to prove everything he says…Remember when he was the head California Historian for years in San Fran… He is also a very nice guy and genuine guy…

  2. Hi Lou, can you do a two-sentence summary of Starr’s “fascinating analysis of the origin of the psychedelic, gay rights and religious “new age” movements”? Is he borrowing from previous scholars, or does he provide new insights? I don’t have the book, or I’d take a quick look.


  3. John Connolly says:

    After I got over my circa 1988 New York Actor Fantasy: “Sneak Out to Hollywood; Take ALL of Their Money;
    Go Back to New York Where the Real People Live”.
    Happily I got over that nonsense and let the Labor Movement teach me what a great CITY LA often is, and always wants to be. As I grew more and more into and Angeleno, I realized I needed to actually learn something about California and Los Angeles.
    I’ve had a plan to read Carey McWilliams, and then Mike Davis, and then….evennnntually…Kevin Starr’s books.
    When I first met him at a series of conferences and events at USC a dozen years ago, I got the impression that the jolly Mr Starr was Too Much Boosterista and Not Enough Miguelista (Contreras, that is) — kind of a literary Huell Howser blithely floating on a sea of leftish intelligentsia– aka: Nice Guy but a Lightweight.
    But thank you Lou for your recommendation. As I age and become a bit less dogmatic and absolutist, I may be returning to my Catholic Liberation Theology roots — trying to emulate the kindness of Jesus more, and the rectitude of Trotsky — a little — less.
    And the cover art looks lovely.

  4. For a counter to Starr, who is boosterish and light, see the recent Dominion From Sea To Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power, and the somewhat odd From West To East: California and the Making of the American Mind by the erstwhile Trotskyist Stephen Schwartz, whose recent incarnation is a Baha’i neo-conservative, or last I heard.

    Oh, and is that the same meek and mild Jesus who predicted that once comes the end times: “the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death” among advocating other acts of senseless violence, and didn’t seem to mind that upon The Father’s return to earth all non-believers will promptly advance to the fires of Hell, wailing and gnashing of teeth for eternity? I prefer, to a point, Trotsky’s wonderful pamphlet Their Morals and Ours, as it is rooted in a concrete historical struggle of some significance. Just saying, from a non-dogmatic point of view.

  5. The author of Dominion is Bruce Cummings, historian at the University of Chicago. Writes a good deal about the Korean War and Southeast Asia in general.

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