With the publication of “Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963,” Kevin Starr -- now university professor and professor of history at USC and state librarian of California emeritus -- has completed his transformation from the state’s greatest historian to its indispensable one.
This is the concluding installment in his eight-volume series, published under the umbrella title “Americans and the California Dream"; taken together, these books constitute as comprehensive a social, political, ethnographic, cultural and philosophical history as any state is ever likely to achieve. It was conceived in dazzling ambition and masterfully executed. The author’s scholarship and erudition animate each volume without once falling into the trap of self-regard. It is, in sum, an achievement made even more remarkable by the fact that it is wonderfully readable.
“Golden Dreams” chronicles the postwar era during which the precious metal of California’s natural endowments was transmuted into an economic and cultural nation-state. (Chronologically, the series concludes in the 21st century but has been published out of temporal sequence.) Characteristically, Starr ranges across politics, economics and culture: There are terrific chapters on the development of the water and transportation systems, as well as expansive essays on Zen and jazz (what Angeleno would not warm to a cultural history that includes multiple entries on Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray?). The chapter “People of Color” performs a number of what have become Starr’s signature acts of recovery, reminding us of the heroic roles played in fighting local variations of Jim Crow by civil rights attorneys like Los Angeles’ A.L Wirin, Orange County’s David Marcus and Daniel Marshall of the Catholic Interracial Council of Los Angeles, who convinced the California Supreme Court to strike down an anti-miscegenation law. And who knew that Gen. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell was such a staunch defender of Japanese Americans’ civil rights?
As in past volumes, Starr builds his narrative around notable personalities and, thus, the chapters on Los Angeles contain portraits of the city’s postwar institutions, including The Times’ Dorothy Buffum Chandler, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, the Dodgers’ Walter O’Malley, UCLA’s Franklin Murphy and the LAPD’s Chief William Parker. (Parker’s rump defenders among the department’s remaining traditionalists will be bemused by Starr’s anecdote of future chief Daryl Gates, Parker’s onetime driver, who described his boss as a “really, really mean sonofabitch” after Parker’s problem drinking forced him to go dry -- and by Parker’s boast that, at one point, the department’s arrest rate amounted to 10% of the city’s population.)
Starr skillfully sketches in a portrait of onetime Sierra Club executive director David Brower that illuminates his and the club’s critical role in establishing environmental consciousness as a philosophical, political force and stands for the movement’s increasingly grim transformation: “By the late 1960s, by contrast, David Brower -- brooding over the damming and flooding of Glen Canyon, which he now considered the greatest mistake of his career -- was moving in a more radical direction, more Green, more intransigent. . . . In 1969, ousted from the directorship of the Sierra Club for extremism, he formed his own more militant group, Friends of the Earth. The onetime outdoorsman, so recognizable in a California context, the skilled and sensitive editor believing in the efficacy of beautiful books, had become the arch-druid, armed for battle, taking no prisoners.”
As the author points out, though, Brower’s green Manichaeism ultimately carried the day with much of the environmental movement, including the Sierra Club, which ultimately embraced the Malthusian notion of “zero population growth.” Starr correctly locates this point of view’s origins in the work of Stanford population biologist Paul Ehrlich and the essays of his faculty colleague, writer Wallace Stegner. (One of the author’s rare omissions is his neglect of the equally influential work done by Garrett Hardin at UC Santa Barbara, particularly his seminal essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.”) On the other hand, Starr gets just right the more productive influences of USC legal scholar Christopher Stone’s landmark 1972 theoretical work of environmental law, “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,” and the philosophical/spiritual implications of Theodora Kroeber’s book on the last survivor of California’s Yahi tribe, “Ishi in Two Worlds.” Starr’s own critique of environmentalism is concise and compelling:
“In short, they went Green, very Green: which is to say, they edged into an Inhumanism, a preference for place over people, that Robinson Jeffers would have understood perfectly: a preference for nature -- increasingly perceived as Planet Earth, an integrated Pangaeaic entity, alive in the totality of its processes -- over the people who were doing so much damage to this sacred place.”
There’s a withholding of judgment in that paragraph that is all the more striking for the clarity with which Starr states the moral division. That’s characteristic of this volume and one of the things that gives “Golden Dreams” a poignant sort of power. The unspoken subtext of this book is the loss inherent -- and unavoidable -- in California’s greatest era of success. Population growth, suburban expansion and unprecedented economic development did despoil many places that held a kind of sanctity for generations. One can celebrate, for example, the creative, almost Alexandrine ferment that cultural diversity has given Southern California and still (as native Californians of a certain age will) regret that our own children never will sit on their grandparents’ porch and smell the perfume of orange groves blooming around them -- or drive from Santa Barbara to San Diego passing quaint little beach towns strung like white stucco beads along strands of empty sand.
One feels the loss and yet knows, as Starr so clearly does, that, whatever it ultimately may mean, the dream of California will most surely die if it is denied to those who come after us. Aside from his official credentials, Starr also is deeply schooled in Catholic theology, with a long association with the Dominicans at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, and something of the outlook of tragic Christianity informs this final volume. In an interview about California some years ago, he invoked that viewpoint’s patron saint, the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who “called it the ‘tragic sense of life’ -- when bounty and beauty no longer come as unearned increment.” California, Starr said, “is increasingly difficult, competitive, and aware of enormous challenges that are forcing its citizens and institutions to struggle mightily. The typical American dreamer can no longer merely say, as he once did: ‘The solution is that I have come to California.’ The ante has been upped.”
With “Golden Dreams,” Starr has completed a magnificent gift to the people of his native state. No other in the union possesses so intelligent, humane and comprehensive a synoptic account of its origins and development. That’s all of a piece with the author’s convincing notion of California’s singularity. He has given his contemporaries and generations to come a story filled with heroic examples and tragic caution. Most of all, it is a series of histories that -- like any life worth dreaming of -- is worthwhile from beginning to end.