The California Dream’s Great Explorer

Accompanied by state Librarian Kevin Starr, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently unveiled the state’s new commemorative quarter. It is a beautiful coin, graced by three icons of California history and culture: John Muir stands before Yosemite’s Half Dome; a California condor soars overhead.

On the same day the governor displayed the new quarter, Starr announced his retirement. It was a fitting moment to do so. Like Muir before him, Starr is utterly fascinated by California, what it means and how it has evolved. But where Muir’s fascination turned inexorably toward natural history and Earth science, Starr has plumbed California’s human and cultural past. Muir studied geological time and its patterns. Starr studies the errors and triumphs of Californians.

It began 35 years ago with a doctoral thesis in the American Civilization program at Harvard. Tutored by Alan Heimert, Harvard’s young scholar of 18th century American religion, Starr set out to write on a Great Awakening of a different sort: California’s imaginative hold on the American psyche.

The thesis became the book “Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915.” And the book, in turn, became a much, much longer intellectual expedition based on a deceptively simple, even formulaic, question: What is the meaning -- and what is the condition -- of the “California dream” through time?

Each of Starr’s half-dozen sequels has illuminated the history of California. But the whole is far more significant than its parts. Homeric in ambition, Starr’s “California dream” series is the most important scholarly investigation of California ever produced.


Each successive book has tackled a particular period in California’s past by evaluating the well-being of the dream: “Inventing the Dream”; “Material Dreams”; “Endangered Dreams”; “The Dream Endures”; “Embattled Dreams,” etc. (Starr jokes that his volume on the 1960s will be called “Smoking the Dream.”)

Incautious readers, judging from the titles, may expect this “dream” to be constant in either meaning or vitality. But that is not the case; the story, in fact, is anything but static. And in the process of telling it, Starr himself appears to have changed as well.

A redemptive California, a civilization made of the best hopes and dreams of the young nation, is shot through the first book. Californians, Starr suggests, can rise above the worst impulses of greed, violence or racism and, in so doing, render the state as “a city upon a hill” for the rest of the nation. Starr is not blind to darkness in this realm, but in his compelling telling, the California in the first two generations of statehood fairly aches with the promise of beauty, justice and inspiration. “Old in error,” he writes in concluding the volume, “California remains an American hope.”

But when the story is carried forward in the succeeding volumes, it begins to darken. Carry it through the lofty era of the optimistic but fierce race-baiting California Progressives of the 1910s. Carry the story of California promise into the harsh Central Valley fields of the 1930s. Carry the California dream into the internment camps of the 1940s and watch it wither. Bring it to the Los Angeles streets strewn with bloodied, teenage Zoot-suiters beaten up by servicemen. These are not stories about California’s inevitable promise. They are the insults and heartaches, accompaniments to the occasional triumphs, of a dream made of both hopes and lies. Something short of doubt -- call it wistfulness over promises unfulfilled -- lingers in his recent books on the 1940s and 1950s.

Starr attracts heady comparison. It is often suggested that he is a latter-day Hubert Howe Bancroft, the Bay Area historian whose busy pen and even busier employees turned out book after book on the history of California more than a century ago. But the fit isn’t right. Bancroft was not a gifted scholar and was too much the dogged seeker of wealth built of book sales. Better to compare Starr with the influential 19th century philosopher and historian Josiah Royce. Starr’s first volume is in many ways the sequel, 87 years later, to “California,” Royce’s contemplation of the state’s troubled origins out of the United States’ grim war against Mexico.

Others see Starr as the Edward Gibbon of California, writing of our own decline and fall. He does see more clearly than he perhaps once did how dark a place California can be when dreams are but dreams alone. He sees with more clarity now the brutality and violence from which California was forged and yet seems to draw its energy.

But Starr is not about to let his beloved California fall yet. There is no “The Dream Dies” volume planned to conclude the series. Yes, he has permitted California to become a landscape of regret, of lost possibilities, of dreams dashed or obscured. But the irrepressible hope that we can be better, as a people, as stewards of this landscape, as inspiration for others, thankfully remains.

Kevin Starr is nothing short of the John Muir of our times. Both men sought the essence of California: Muir in his lonely Yosemite sojourn, Starr among Californians themselves, through his sheer ubiquity as state librarian (and now as librarian emeritus). Their pursuits made them representative of California and representative Californians. We need not commemorate Starr in coinage. But we ought to honor his example of public service, his inexhaustible energy and his compulsion to study, write and talk about this place and its people.

William Deverell is associate professor of history at Caltech.