Keeping up with Kevin Starr

Asking Kevin Starr a question is like turning on a fire hose. First there's a blast of erudition. Then, as his intellect gathers, information rushes out in a deluge. He's talking, but it's as if an invisible scholar inside his head is yanking books off shelves, throwing them open, checking the index, then racing off to find the next volume. On the outside, Starr is an avuncular 72-year-old, but his brain is sprinting like an Olympian.

Amazingly, it's possible to keep up.

This may be Starr's greatest gift: not just that he has amassed a phenomenal body of knowledge but that he can translate it into dynamic works of history. There are eight volumes in his seminal "Americans and the California Dream" series, from "Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915" (1973) to "Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963" (2009). It's for these books — as well as his work as California State Librarian and his stellar teaching career — that Starr will be honored with the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes on April 19.

In "Americans and the California Dream," Starr invigorates the state's history, turning the fustiest of our pursuits into art. "I tend to see myself as a nonfiction writer who writes, among other things, about history," he says. But like fiction, his work requires imagination. "I think the imagination sees patterns, coalesces narrative, looks for representative action," he continues, "but you don't make up your world. You find it."

That world, California, is one Starr was born into. A fourth-generation San Franciscan, he can cite his family tree — Collinses, Nortons, Driscolls — even though the fabric of this family was frayed. After his father lost his eyesight and his mother had a nervous breakdown, Starr and his brother were sent to an orphanage; later, his partly recovered mother retrieved them and moved to public housing.

"I did not particularly like that way of life, even though I was only 10, 11, 12," he recalls, in one of his few moments of negativity. "I more or less emancipated myself at the age of 13 or so."

Starr began delivering newspapers and saving his money. "I basically attached myself to my grandmother," he says, which leads him to reflect upon her life (born in 1888, widow of a firefighter) — connection and exposition, the historians' occupational hazard.

After graduating from the University of San Francisco, then a small Jesuit university, he served two years in the Army and went to Harvard on a fellowship. It was at Harvard, where he earned his PhD, that he began to think about the history of California, from an insider's perspective.

"The process of encountering culture and engaging that through analysis and narrative is something I do," he says. Eventually, he moved back to San Francisco, where he worked as an aide to Mayor Joseph Alioto. He went to library school, became the city librarian, then the state librarian. He taught at UC Berkeley, Santa Clara University and UC Riverside, among other institutions, before landing at USC, where he is university professor of history. He was married — it'll be 50 years in June — and raised two daughters.

And he wrote. A practicing Catholic, he covered the election of Pope John Paul, and then Pope John Paul II. He wrote for the San Francisco Examiner and for The Times. He wrote his books, both "Americans and the California Dream" and other titles. He's at work on a new history, "Continental Ambitions: Settlement of North America from Spain, France, and Recusant England, the Colonial Period."

"I'm looking at the three Catholic powers — well, two Catholic powers, Spain and France, and the remnant of the Catholic ascendants in England," he explains. "I'm looking at the processes of evangelization, successful or unsuccessful; treatment of Native Americans, successful or unsuccessful, creations of urban settlements, parishes, organizations. It's not a church history; it's how these particular cultures came into the New World during the colonial period."

That's exactly how he says it, with audible semicolons reflecting the connection between how he speaks and how he writes. "You have to verbally organize things as a continuous process," Starr insists. "That's both in speaking and in writing. I don't make a distinction between the two; writing is just talking on paper."

As anyone who has tried to put pen to paper knows, that is easier said than done.

Starr is not finished with "Americans and the California Dream"; in fact, he's started "organizing" a new volume, covering 1964-79. It's a challenge, he acknowledges, taking on such recent history: "At a certain point, I began to realize that I had met a lot of the people I'm talking about. I knew them! And I had some kind of peripheral relationship to some of this — as we all do, when we deal with our times."

And yet, perhaps a bigger challenge had been trying to frame all of California's history, all that scope and range. "Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher, says we have to have a tragic sense of life," Starr reflects. "Think of the good things we've achieved in California in terms of our architecture, our social institutions, our university system, the digital revolution, the whole creativity of our culture."

But, he continues, "if you have a tragic sense of life you also look at the complexity, the chiaroscuro, the light and the dark of the past. You've got to deal with that material in such a way that you don't focus just on it, but on the other hand, not to ignore it either.... When you're dealing with things that were lost, thing that were destroyed, people who were ruined, that's the burden of the past."

Of course, that becomes the burden of the present also, and even of the future, since Starr has no plans to retire. "I write all the time," he says. "It's my way of thinking. It's my way of dealing with day to day life. I couldn't retire — to retire from writing would be to retire from life. That certainly will come, but I'm not in any hurry to get there."

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com


Festival of Books

What: Kevin Starr in conversation with William Deverell
Where: Davidson Continuing Education Center, USC
When: Noon, Saturday, April 20.
Price: Free. Tickets will be available online starting at 9 a.m. Sunday. There is a $1 service fee applied to each ticket reserved.

More info: latimes.com/festivalofbooks

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