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Interpreter of Dreams: On the Passing of Kevin Starr of California

He would probably have preferred “of San Francisco,” the place he loved most for its ebullient eccentricities and its food and drink. Kevin Starr – historian, teacher, mentor, former city and state librarian, raconteur, and Catholic – was brilliant in the way that San Francisco can be. But Starr, who died at 76 on Saturday, was larger in his embrace than one memorable place in California. His affections included Los Angeles as well, although some in his immense circle of friends wondered at that disloyalty. He even included Sacramento – at least its political part – among the places where he found meaning in becoming Californian.

Our state – of mind, of landscapes, of dreams – had been his defining subject, just as the state of California itself had shaped and defined Starr, who endured abandonment and poverty in his childhood and who knew the state’s post-war efflorescence into greatness and wondered where his life had come from.

Kevin Starr in 1973
Kevin Starr in 1973. Photo courtesy of the Loyola Marymount University Archives.

In a magisterial series of narrative and interpretive histories, beginning with “Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915,” Starr found answers to his need. For us, Starr illuminated all the ways in which the Californian experience spoke to and about the whole American experiment in place making. California was exceptional for Starr, but not “the great exception,” so unique that its story, while gaudy and strange, offered nothing but ironic entertainment.

His loyalty to California as a civilization in the making has been criticized as boosterish, but that misinterprets what was essential to Starr – his faith.

It was faith in the possibility that ordinary flawed lives might assemble a community of meaning. It was faith in the possibility that popular democracy might sustain the public habits of justice, reconciliation, and mutual support. It was faith in the purpose of history telling, which Starr believed to be the formation of a moral imagination.

Starr accepted the convention that the idea of California would forever be connected to dreams, with the implication that Californian longing was merely a dream, merely desire without substance. But Starr’s use of “the dream” – as something that might be manifested by Californian desire – was his way of secularizing another aspect of his faith – his Catholic belief in the incarnation, in the mystery of the divine turned into flesh, or, as one of the titles in his California history series puts it, in the realization of “material dreams.”

The creation of California as place where longings might be assuaged and memories preserved, Starr imagined to be a kind of civil sacrament. That faith led him to constant engagement with Californians – as a teacher (most recently at USC), as an essayist in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times, and as a political advisor to three California governors.

Starr believed in California, and California tested his faith. The state he grew up in – a state of big ambitions and even bigger public works – grew less convincing as a model following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the communal violence of the 1992 Rodney King riots, and the hollowing out of the state’s industries. “California is everything and nothing at all,” Starr wrote in the Chronicle in 2003. “It is the cutting edge of the American dream – a utopia. But it could also become the paradigm of the dream lost – a nightmare dystopia.”

But in his introductory note to “Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge,” the last book (chronologically) in his California history series, published in 2004, Starr wrote that it would be “seductively easy” to “see California as one vast failed experiment. But if I succumbed to this temptation, I would not be seeing the full truth about California and its people.” Starr still believed that binding “the shattered fragments of my neglected and incoherent youth” to the character of this place, “I could find in, with, and through California some measure of meaning.”

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Without him now, we must take the meaning of California and measure our distance from the dream’s realization by reading Starr’s books, beginning with “Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915” and continuing with “Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era,” “Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s,” “Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California,” “The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s,” “Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950,” “Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963,” and ending with “Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge.”

In all, Starr published more than a dozen books, most recently “Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America: The Colonial Experience,” which he intended to be the start of a new series. Erudite, graceful, and accessible, his sentences and paragraphs took shape, he once said, as naturally as “a form of breathing.” There was spirit in that breath. There is conviction also, both political and moral, along with humor and a Shakespearean breadth of insight into the follies and grandeurs, the crimes and heroisms, of Californians. He did not think that storytelling – mere storytelling to critics more fond of theory than of lives – was work too humble for a historian.

Many years ago, Kevin Starr reviewed my work, writing in the Los Angeles Times, and was very generous. We later shared public platforms, op-ed pages, drinks, and stories. His kindnesses to me are beyond numbering. I saw him last in October, as I waited to speak to a student colloquium at USC. He was full of conversation (as he always was). It is my loss and a loss to Californians that the conversation has ended.

Kevin Starr
A portrait of Kevin Starr, courtesy of the University of Southern California.

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