Inventing the Dream Essay - Critical Essays

Kevin Starr

Inventing the Dream

Current wisdom holds that cultural trends start in California and make their way slowly to the rest of the nation. For more than a decade, Kevin Starr has been at work seeking to explain the historical origins of this phenomenon. He first took up the issue in his AMERICANS AND THE CALIFORNIA DREAM (1973) and now continues the story line in this new book.

It is no accident that the word “dream” appears in the title of both books; Starr argues that the California dream challenged and came partly to supplant the older, crasser American dream of pure-and-simple acquisition. The California version stressed refined living in a Mediterranean climate. At first, this definition of the good life attracted only Midwesterners in poor health; as such, it was not a transforming ideal outside California. After the turn of the twentieth century, however, the new motion-picture industry settled in Southern California and transmitted the California dream to the rest of the nation.

Historians write history based on evidence and documents. A history of an idea or dream must necessarily look in unusual places for evidence, and Starr excels at drawing meaning from different sources. He cites such unusual “documents” as the artwork on Riverside County orange crates and the films of D.W. Griffith. This book will pleasantly surprise those who think of American history as a march of wars, presidents, and treaties. Starr’s well-written book treats hundreds of obscure but fascinating characters, from Paul Masson to Adolph Zukor, who helped define and promote the California life.