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Dreams That Became California : Historian Weaves Fascinating Picture of the Southland

Times Staff Writer

From the days of the 18th-Century Spanish explorations to man’s ventures into space in the 20th Century, dreams are what have made California.

And, according to San Francisco author Kevin Starr, those dreams have been invented, largely out of the unfettered imaginations of the kind of human innovators California has lured.

Starr explores that premise in “Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era,” a fascinating if not totally accurate book that explains today’s Southern California through the sum of its historical parts.

“Inventing the Dream” is the second book in what Starr projects as a five-volume series. It began in 1973 with the publication of his “Americans and the California Dream.” Whereas Starr’s first book dealt primarily with Northern California in the formative years from 1850 to 1915, “Inventing the Dream” focuses largely on Southern California from the Spanish period through the Hollywood of the ‘20s.

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In it Starr deals with the dreams of the californios for independence from Mexico and of the subsequent American takeover, of the American entrepreneurs who early on saw that fortunes could be made in California, of the health seekers who came to die and lived to develop California’s culture and economy. He explores the beginnings of art and literature, agriculture as it evolved from cattle ranching to citrus groves, the boosterism and land booms, the power of the railroad barons, the Progressive movement and the reshaping of politics.

Starr, 45 and a San Francisco native, sees California today--especially Southern California--as the sum total of these parts, with emphasis on “the twin principles of nature and technology.”

“Those who came to California found natural phenomena, fertility, beauty,” he said during a Los Angeles visit. “Yet there was a certain rejection of the natural world. . . . Our concerns for natural living, holistic health, fitness, those kinds of things, exist along with the capacity for high technology, such as aerospace and the Silicon Valley.”

The California dream was rooted in lack of authority and lack of superego, Starr said, adding that those who came to California in its early days found an unstructured freedom that permitted experimentation and encouraged imagination.

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“It is not accidental that San Francisco had a high level of spiritualists. There is something in the condition out here that is open to spiritual values, a special sensitivity to spiritual values. The building blocks were the evangelical Protestant culture and the desert mystical thing--Robinson Jeffers contemplating nature, for instance.”

The California pioneer iconoclasm led to an early feminism in the state, with women prominent in literature, education and professions such as medicine and law, he said. Staunchly encouraging women’s achievements by publishing their writings in the magazines The Land of Sunshine/Out West was Charles Fletcher Lummis, whom Starr credits lavishly as an intellectual leader and literary pioneer, albeit as well as a debaucher and womanizer.

Lummis, who walked into Los Angeles in December of 1885 from Cincinnati to become city editor of the Los Angeles Times, brought with him a Harvard background and a sense of the past, Starr said.

A ‘Core Sample’

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“Lummis was eccentric, flamboyant, a poseur,” he said, “but if you are looking for a person (in Southern California’s formation) who was a core sample, it was Lummis.

“He was no ‘Crazy Charlie.’ His work, ‘The Spanish Pioneers, ' was important. He was Los Angeles city librarian for six years. He espoused the new architecture, the new garden design in Southern California. He advanced the careers of writers such as Mary Austin, Nora May French, Helen Hunt Jackson and Maynard Dixon.

“As a popularizer of culture through The Land of Sunshine he wrote about the citrus industry, tracing oranges back to Arabia and the Middle East. He was very informed.”

More Early Thinkers

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Starr mentioned other extraordinary early Los Angeles literati and thinkers--Judge Isaac Hayes, Horace Bell, Dr. Joseph Pomeroy Widney (an early president of USC to whom God had spoken in the desert, Widney claimed), Abbot Kinney (founder of Venice), Gaylord Wilshire, George Wharton James, Margaret Collier Graham, Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

“I didn’t invent these people,” Starr said. “I discovered them from (a book by) Franklin Walker--but they were here.”

In its early days, Starr said, Southern California “was a more Southwestern kind of place . . . Sun Belt-y.” Its image was the romanticized one painted by Helen Hunt Jackson in her novel, “Ramona.” Then, in 1884, came the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, a fare war with the Southern Pacific and an influx of settlers that led first to a land boom, then to an economic bust--at least temporarily. Financial power remained in San Francisco until about World War II.

“Roughly around 1909, 63% of California’s population was in the Bay Area,” Starr said. “Now it is the opposite. San Francisco was capable through the ‘30s of maintaining financial authority, vital as a financial capital. The real shifts came in the Depression or right after.”

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Starr, a University of San Francisco communications professor who refers to his work as “literary narrative history” or “imaginative history,” weaves a fascinating picture of Southern California’s development through its various stages--cattle ranching, then sheep, agricultural crops (especially citrus), land booms, oil, aviation and aerospace, the movies--to its eclectic but financially powerful present.

“The whole question of design of living--landscape, furniture, cuisine, what life’s about . . . California has a lot to tell the rest of the country. The cliches of California are woefully out of date,” he said.

Interesting as “Inventing the Dream” is, the book is troubling because of certain factual problems.

Starr, for example, refers to the streets of Los Angeles as being paved by the 1870s; other highly reputable histories place the paving of streets here in the mid-to-late ‘80s. In checking his original sources Starr surmised that his information might have been based on promotional pamphlets prepared for Eastern distribution.

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He was, however, “absolutely chagrined” at the book’s consistent references to the founders of Hollywood as Horace and Daeida Wilcot . “I can only figure that, since I write in longhand, the typist read my writing as Wilcot rather than Wilcox, " Starr said. “The name appears with an x in my earliest source, 1905, yet is consistently wrong in the book. We will have to correct that.”

Still, Starr’s book offers interesting insights into the way we were, who we were and how we got to be what we are and what we will be, which Starr thinks will influence, if not show the way to, the future of the nation as trade with Asia--those countries that share what Starr calls America’s “sundown sea"--moves into increasing prominence in American life.


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