Kevin Starr: The Country Has Been California-ized

Historians in the News

Daniel B. Wood, in th LAT (Oct. 27, 2004):

A five-minute conversation with California historian Kevin Starr is likely to include references to ancient Egypt, baseball, jazz, cuisine - and, of course, America's end-of-the-rainbow state, which he now sees as a lab experiment in "global ecumenical civilization."

Philosopher, political scientist, literature professor, theologian - and author of a six-volume series entitled "Americans and the California Dream" - Mr. Starr has long been the go-to grandfather figure for anyone trying to make sense of the country's most populous state.

Now, 30 years after laser focusing his wide-ranging mind to examine California - and the country through its prism - Mr. Starr has concluded a seventh volume, on the state from 1990 to 2003.

About the state and nation he is disturbed yet hopeful. As the Golden State has gone - through the turmoil of suburban sprawl, illegal immigration, social challenges, and environmental stress - so has America. The middle-class dream of worldly wealth, individual pursuit, contentment is by no means dead. But its achievement, as seen here at least, is increasingly a struggle. Like a come-of-age teenager whose years of parental-cocoon entitlement are over, the American dream in California is not attainable simply for the asking, or simple showing up, he says. It must be achieved the old-fashioned way....

California still wields enormous clout and its trendsetting may not be over. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, may offer a model for reviving a politics that bridges deep divides.

Yet Starr now sees two reasons why post-millennial California does not play as pivotal a trend-setting role that it once did. One is a burgeoning US monoculture. The other is the rising sophistication of other American regions from the South to the Midwest. "Whatever California has contributed to other American regions in ideas and styles - from the environment, to fashion, to cuisine - it has done," says Starr. "In a very big sense, the battle is over. The country has been California-ized."...

With a Harvard doctorate in philosophy, Starr decided in the late 1960s to chronicle California as "an essential and compelling component of the larger American experience." After writing six books on the state through 1950, in 1991 he was commissioned by Alfred Knopf editor Bruce Harris to fast-forward to write on the 1990s. Soon Starr was also state librarian, appointed for a decade by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994.

"Mr. Harris used to come out and watch the sunset over boats at Marina Del Ray, or the smoky mountains in Santa Barbara, the fog over the Golden Gate Bridge, or groves of Redwoods," recalls Starr. "So I think he wanted a Sunset Magazine view of the state. But when I started writing, I came up with fires, floods, earthquakes, riots, gang warfare ... when I finished I told him this may not be book you commissioned, but it is the only one I could have written."

Indeed, as early as 1989 (Newsweek) and 1991 (Time), magazines did cover stories on the California dream-become-nightmare. They detailed disillusionment regarding sprawl, budget deficits, crime, smog, and traffic. And that was before widespread drought, two major earthquakes, and racial strife after the Rodney King beating and O.J. Simpson murder trial.

"I was beginning to wonder whether I had chosen a dead end," he writes in his just released, "Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge 1990-2003." "Was California an aberration, a sideshow, or worse, a case study in how things could go wrong for the United States?"

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