Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Cover Review

Taking Off

EMBATTLED DREAMS: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950, By Kevin Starr, Oxford University Press: 386 pp., $37.50

April 21, 2002|DAVID RIEFF | David Rieff is the author of such books as "Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World," "The Exile: Cuba in the Heart of Miami" and the forthcoming "A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis." He is a contributing writer to Book Review.

For ambition, narrative drive and breadth of research across the disciplines from culture through politics and demography to agronomy and water management, no recent project of American historical writing comes close to Kevin Starr's mammoth, multi-volume "Americans and the California Dream." For three decades, Starr has been anatomizing the rise of California from marginal frontier society in the 1850s to its present economic and social centrality on the American scene. It is a magnificent accomplishment. Today, it is no more possible to think intelligently about California without having read Starr than it would have been, a generation earlier, to have done so without having read Carey McWilliams. "Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950," the latest installment of Starr's great project, is particularly resonant because the period described in these pages is the one in which the California of today was shaped.

Starr writes with extraordinary authority, and yet the definitive quality of his work paradoxically serves to conceal the eccentricity of his approach. For Starr is not writing history in the classical sense of the term. Not for him the cold distance of a great European historian like Fernand Braudel, for whom the facts were everything and whose approach was to think in centuries. Nor is Starr motivated by political commitments and social idealism, as was McWilliams. Rather, Starr is a cultural historian obsessed with one big idea: the making and remaking of California's identity. For him, material reality is principally shaped and directed by a people's and societies' deepest aspirations, rather than, as both Marxists and neo-liberal globalizers have customarily believed, the other way around. "One can follow the process of materialization," he wrote in an earlier volume of the series, "forward from vision or metaphor to physical fact or decode a physical object back to its original metaphor. In each case my emphasis remains on the social and the symbolic context of the dreams which were materialized."

The reliance here on the language of the literary critic rather than the historian is emblematic of Starr's approach. His California is a world of will and ideas, and the figures he has focused on, from Gertrude Atherton to the Hollywood Ten, really are the unacknowledged legislators of those ideas. Put another way, Starr's project all along has been at least as concerned with the California of the imagination as with the California of fact and has assumed that realities do begin in dreams. Indeed, that, for Starr, seems to be one of the principal lessons of the California experience over the last 150 years. It is less a question, as the slogan has it, of California's needing men to match its mountains and more one of the mountains' being, at least metaphorically, products of the way Californians interpreted them.

So it is no mere authorial conceit that the word "dream" appears in each of Starr's titles. Rather, the idea of the dream is the template, the master idea, into which Starr fits all his material. This is not to say that his account of California is triumphalist. To the contrary: Starr is at least as good a narrator of nightmares as he is of the beauties, successes or accomplishments of the California experience. Like McWilliams, Starr is sensitive to California's long history of race prejudice and writes about it with fierce indignation. And, long before such an observation became the conventional wisdom in California, he was insisting that the ascendancy of what he called an "Anglo-American ideology" in California from the late 19th century through the 1960s was only temporary and that other peoples, above all Mexicans and Mexican Americans, were destined to reassert themselves. Nonetheless, for Starr it is the internal visions that come first, whether for good or for ill, and implicit in his argument has been the conviction that, whatever the injustices and exclusions of the past, the golden California dream could become a reality for all races, equalizing our aspirations with those of Mexican immigrants to Okies.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|