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PATT MORRISON ASKS | KEVIN STARR

Making history

The author talks about his youth in an orphanage, his latest book on the story of California, and the state's current budget mess.

July 11, 2009|PATT MORRISON

I made the acquaintance of Kevin Starr's books long before I made the acquaintance of Kevin Starr. "Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963," the eighth volume in his serial love letter to California, is arriving in bookstores this weekend.

I have them all. When you fall in love, you try to find out all you can about the object of your affection. Once I fell for California, Starr's history books, with their cinematic and journalistic sweep, ensnared me in a way that no monograph, no memoir could do. Clear-eyed but ultimately hopeful, they've sold well, but, as he says, "People aren't going to the beach with an Oxford University Press book."

Starr and I have shared a table at a book group for about 10 years. I know that he's been the state's librarian, where he also coordinated the search for a design for this state's official two-bit coin. I know he's been a history professor for years, currently at USC. I know he's got a memory like some California-specific Google software. But not until I interviewed him did I know he lived, for a time, on welfare with his mother and brother in San Francisco's Potrero Hill housing projects -- the same place O.J. Simpson grew up. I didn't know he's trying his hand at a screen treatment. And though I know he plays pool, I didn't know he learned how in a Ukiah orphanage.

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You grew up in an orphanage?

My mother had a nervous breakdown, and my parents separated. Roman Catholic Social Services put us [Starr and his brother] in an orphanage for five years. I loved the place. It was a tremendous education, great nurturing. There was a great pool table, a great library, a camp up in the mountains. My experience was very different from some of these horror stories you hear.

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What's your personal history with history?

My great-grandfather came to San Francisco in the early 1850s. My other great-grandfather came in the early 1870s. My grandmother would tell me about going to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. She had a banana plant she bought there -- 30 years later, it [was] still growing. She told me about the [1906] fire and earthquake. So from her I absorbed this tremendous sense of the San Francisco story.

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You've said that in some ways you didn't discover California until you got to graduate school at Harvard.

This Yankee institution had a tremendous sense of the history of the West. I started to browse on the fourth floor of the Widener Library in the California section, and suddenly it dawned on me. I thought, "There's all kinds of wonderful books on California, but they don't seem to have the point of view we're encouraged to look at -- the social drama of the imagination." So I started the first volume, writing it for my thesis.

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So it was California, the untold dream?

I've always tried to write California history as American history. The paradox is that New England history is by definition national history, Mid-Atlantic history is national history. We're still suffering from that.

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Did you have a hard time initially getting others to take California seriously?

Oh, absolutely. I think we still have that.

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As a San Franciscan, did it kill you to have to say nice things about L.A.?

I came down here on vacation in the late '50s, early '60s, and I fell in love with Southern California. I think that divide has been out of date since the 1960s. A tremendous anxiety overcame San Francisco in the early 1920s when Los Angeles became the most populous city in the state. Cities tend to get twinned: Boston and New York, Kyoto and Tokyo. One is more open, assimilative, growing, exuberant; the other becomes more self-reflective. By 1855 (eight years after the city became Americanized), San Francisco is publishing "The Annals of San Francisco," an 800-page book.

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Sheila, your wife -- to whom you dedicate this book with "we met in this time and began our life together" -- has said you tell history like you're holding forth at the bar at the Bohemian Club.

I like narrative, and I ultimately am in love with the men and women I write about, most of them. My editor eliminated 350 to 400 pages. But she also suggested that narrative history takes room.

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How do you keep all your research organized?

They talk about San Francisco sourdough bread, that the yeast in the bread is alive since 1849. I started a bibliography of California that I have kept alive for over 45 years, every time I come across a reference. I'll read something by you, and that's a reference.

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It seems like you keep most of it in your head too.

The Irish didn't read and write for a couple of thousand years, and I think we developed good memories and recall. We have a sense of the revelatory detail. I look for them.

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