(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Embattled Dreams, Kevin Starr continues his narrative history of California, which he began in 1973 with Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915. In this, the sixth volume, Starr relates the state’s history during the 1940’s, arguably the most significant decade in California’s history not only for the transformations which occurred within the state, but also for the impact California had upon the rest of the United States.

Wars framed the decade of Embattled Dreams, beginning with the onset of one war and concluding with the start of another military conflict. Already underway abroad by 1940, World War II was arguably the single pivotal event in California’s history. At the end of the decade, America was engaged in a Cold War against communism and Soviet aggression and a “hot war” on the Korean peninsula, both consequences of World War II. Within those parameters, Starr organizes the volume on a chapter-per-year basis, an approach somewhat artificial and limiting: Events have a habit of not confining themselves to a single calendar year.

Given that Starr is primarily a narrative historian, the opening chapter strikes something of a false note in his attempt to give a metaphorical Freudian interpretation to the year 1940, a moment poised between Eros and Thanatos, or the life instinct and the death instinct. However, once past this unsatisfactory interpretative framework, Starr does what he has always done so well: filling his canvas with events and individuals.

In the initial chapter, there is a portrayal of thousands of persons and incidents, or so it seems. Included are President Franklin D. Roosevelt; aviator Charles Lindbergh; the songs “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “I’ll Never Smile Again”; musicians Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller; the films Gone with the Wind (1939), Citizen Kane (1941), and Fantasia (1940); poets Robinson Jeffers and Kenneth Rexroth; Sunset magazine; advertisements for cruises to Japan; newlyweds Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman; starlet Jane Russell; the jitterbug; spring break at Southern California’s Balboa Beach; Stanford University’s football team; University of California physicists Robert Oppenheimer and Ernest Lawrence; Velveeta cheese, Sanka coffee, Lucky Lager beer, and Christian Brothers wine; the Studebaker and Hudson automobiles; Texaco and Mohawk gasoline stations; Governor Culbert Olson; baseball player Joe DiMaggio; the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge; the Santa Fe Super Chief; Pasadena’s Rose Parade; Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel; Los Angeles nightspots such as Chasens and 21; the United Airlines DC-3 Mainliner; and much more. Out of all those specifics Starr weaves a mosaic of California’s embattled dream.

Although Starr’s technique is encompassing and inclusive, in subsequent chapters there is a central theme or event which gives focus to each chapter. The second chapter, 1941, relates the beginnings of World War II, including a discussion of the causes of the war going back to the early twentieth century and the state’s prejudiced actions against Japanese immigrants. An account of the beginning of the war from both an American and a Japanese perspective is presented: The chapter’s title, “Shelling Santa Barbara,” refers to the shelling of an oil field near Santa Barbara by a Japanese submarine, although the event itself actually occurred in February, 1942. Starr suggests that the war was a California-Japanese war, given the significance of the state and its past in causing the conflict.

By 1942, California had become, in the words of the third chapter’s title, a “Garrison State.” Major General George Patton, a native Californian from an elite Pasadena and San Marino family, trained his tank corps in the deserts near Riverside; Camp Pendleton became the major Marine Corp base on the Pacific Coast; and other military bases were established throughout the state. By the end of the year, San Francisco had become the major embarkation and supply port for the Pacific war, and Starr describes wartime San Francisco and its varied entertainments, both legal and illegal. The garrison state also refers to the incarceration of California’s Japanese community in relocation centers, or concentration camps, an action supported by California officials, including the state’s attorney general, Earl Warren.

Starr also focuses on the impact the war had on African Americans and Mexican Americans. In the zoot suit riots in Los Angeles in 1943, service men on leave stripped young Latino males of their distinctive garb before the authorities called a belated halt. Mexican American soldiers were not segregated by...

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