Golden Dreams by Kevin Starr

John Timpane
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Starr writes lucid and stylish prose, and the sheer size and power of this true-life tale open the eyes wide.

Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Length: 576 pages
Author: Kevin Starr
Price: $34.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-07

To know how the United States got to be the way it is today, diamonds and garbage, sooner or later you need to track the history of California — especially the critical, glittering years from the postwar era into the mid-'60s.

Those years midwived the contemporary era, the mega-wealth that drove it, and even the politics that has convulsed the country ever since. Much of it, particularly the divisive politics and the explosion in alternative social values, got started on the West Coast and rolled cross-country.

In sweep and mastery, Golden Dreams by Kevin Starr is the ideal account of the pivotal era for the pivotal state. This, the last of a nine-volume history of California in the 20th century, titled Americans and the California Dream, was written out of order (the volume on the '90s appeared in 2004). You can see why.

So much happened, so much grew, so much was utterly re-landscaped. As a kid who moved cross-country with his family in the westward trend of the '60s, I saw much of what Starr chronicles; no writer has done it as knowingly as he has, as substantively, with such scrupulous disinterest.

That very disinterest might dismay some readers. Starr, California state historian emeritus and a history professor at the University of Southern California, makes it clear this will be no jeremiad on the decline of American values that many people trace to California, no elegy on the Hollywoodification of culture, the cheapening of taste, the triumph of kitsch.

For him, the rise of California is a success story, not a disaster. Millions migrated west to realize their hopes, and millions did, indeed, realize them. The theme of Starr's series, after all, is how people invested their "material dreams" (the title of his volume on the '20s) in the state called golden. And in the era the present book narrates, abundance was everywhere — of land, natural resources, sun, money. Starr neither approves nor deplores.

That's good. There's too much story to tell. Much is unexpected. For example, the California explosion of 1950-1963 was, as Starr shows, mediated in part by real estate agents. With foresight and ingenuity, they imagined and effected unprecedented construction that helped populate and nurture the state's major centers.

Tawdry heroism, some might say — but the title of the first chapter, "San Fernando: Homes and Happiness in Residential Subdivisions", lets you know that Starr regards it as a remarkable story. It is — no matter how crummy and ugly much of California became because of it.

Starr tells the incredible (literally) story of water, and the equally incredible story of highways. Though largely a Republican-dominated state for much of this era, California produced some of the most liberal, visionary urban planning, water-use policies, and highway-construction schemes in history. Without any one of these three linchpins, you don't have the state as it exists today.

Starr's third section, titled "Politics and Public Works", is the heart of the book. Its soul is the parallel story of the arts. Why did Los Angeles export TV and movies, while San Francisco was — all century, really — the engine of the higher arts, of the great native painters, photographers, poets, cool-jazz artists, and fiction writers? Why was L.A. Tinseltown and S.F. Baghdad-by-the-Bay? Starr tells us.

When Starr turns to politics, he shows himself to be impressively fair-minded. Before 1950, the quintessential California politician might have been Earl Warren, a moderate Republican who today strikes some as all but socialist in many of his policies and aspirations, especially when he led the Supreme Court. But Starr shows how essential Richard M. Nixon was in changing all that, in creating the hard-charging, take-no-prisoners style of political campaign that remains with us today.

Nixon wasn't alone. On the left emerged environmentalism, the student movement, and the antiwar movement, a succession of public demonstrations that began in the early '60s, much earlier than we often think. The revolution of values associated with the '60s was fueled from the West. California, as it would for the next 30 years, anticipated the social turmoil of the next generations, partly because of how the right and the left split and polarized.

I can tell that Starr laments that polarization. But he blames no one; he tells the tale. His volume ends with the execution of Caryl Chessman in 1960, whose case became a cause célèbre that fomented widespread unrest and demonstrations against capital punishment. That year, writes Starr, "possesses in retrospect prophetic suggestions of things to come."

What a cast of characters: Nixon, Warren, Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, Dave Brubeck, Herb Caen, Walter O'Malley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ray Bradbury, Dorothy Chandler, Jack Webb, Ray Kroc, Mario Savio, even the very young Joan Didion and Dianne Goldman (who would become Dianne Feinstein) — so many who shaped, or soon would shape, a nation as well as a state.

Starr writes lucid and stylish prose, and the sheer size and power of this true-life tale open the eyes wide. The density of fact, the very weight of names and titles and dates, although beautifully managed, leave the reader stunned. That seldom detracts from this masterpiece, which tells of another imaginative masterpiece that just happens to be our most populous and richest state.






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