The Dream Endures

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Kevin Starr is the author of Americans and the California Dream (1973), Inventing the Dream (1985), Material Dreams (1990), and Endangered Dreams (1996). His latest work in this series is graced with his customary command of social and cultural history, but the subtitle is slightly misleading. Except for his chapter on the European émigrés who came to Los Angeles in the 1930’s, there is little sense of the state actually entering the 1940’s. Rather, each chapter backs up the book to (usually) the turn of the century and shows how California turned itself into a modern state. The material is engrossing. Starr maintains reader interest by studding his narrative with many mini-biographies, showing how individual careers dovetail into the dream of California as not only a land of individual promise but also a site of scholarly, intellectual, scientific, and artistic creativity.

It might seem like carping to quarrel with a book that offers so much material in pleasantly digested form. Yet it has to be noted that there is a “canned” quality, a scissors-and-paste approach, to Starr’s method. He relies almost entirely on secondary sources—which means, in effect, he has mined a great many books but done little primary research in archives. Thus, in his last chapter on the émigrés he relies on American essayist Susan Sontag’s dubious account of her encounter with German writer Thomas Mann. Her “reminiscence,” which reads suspiciously like a short story, fits well into Starr’s portrait of how the émigrés adjusted (and failed to adjust) to Southern California, but as evidence, such an account is problematic and says more about Sontag than it does about California—other than replicating what Starr deplores in other parts of his book: a vision of California as a cultural wasteland. His whole book gives the lie to Sontag on that score.

If Starr favors potted history too much, it must also be said that, like a good librarian (he is State Librarian of California), he directs the reader to a cornucopia of wonderful reading on every aspect of California in its first four decades. His system of notation is admirable. He footnotes every quotation, but then he supplements each chapter with a bibliographical essay, a superb way to show how each chapter derives from Starr’s sources while affording the interested reader opportunities for further reading.

The Dream Endures contains thirteen large chapters, with each one getting a succinct summary in Starr’s table of contents. The first chapter explores coastal California, the development of Palm Springs as a resort, Berkeley as a major intellectual capital that rivals Harvard and the University of Chicago, and Carmel, where the poet Robinson Jeffers lived and where a community strove to maintain itself as an enclave in the midst of explosive economic growth. Starr has a knack for presenting the human element. He never allows history to dominate, in the sense that what he presents appears inevitable or bigger than the individuals who become identified with a certain style or period. Sometimes the weather, the landscape, the sheer openness were what attracted talents from the East and Midwest, but just as often it was Californians whose dreams transformed the environment into a manifestation of their dreams. They became the forerunners of American popular culture, with their barbecues, swimming pools, surfing, and leisure wear. Even in the Depression-era 1930’s, the middle class was beginning to acquire what had once seemed only requisites of the rich. Architects, for example, provided spacious, attractive, and yet low-cost housing. Palm Springs, the playground of the rich, nevertheless marketed itself to attract weekend trippers from the cities.

One of the more startling chapters is on Pasadena and the development of astronomy. This nineteenth century agricultural area, developed into a resort at the turn of the century, became a major site for modern science through the efforts of George Ellery Hale and the Mount Wilson Observatory. Hale’s work made possible institutions such as the California Institute of Technology. By 1931, Albert Einstein was considering Pasadena as his new home, where he could apply the recent findings of astronomy to his work in physics.

Starr’s chapter on San Diego explores its evolution as a naval center and its struggle with the direction of modern economic development. Was it to become another Los Angeles, sprawling and industrialized, or more like nineteenth century visions of a garden city? Its emphasis on its port and harbor facilities, which attracted major funding during the...

(The entire section is 1908 words.)