Endangered Dreams

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Kevin Starr, is State Librarian of California and a leading authority on California history. ENDANGERED DREAMS is the fourth in his multivolume chronological study entitled AMERICANS AND THE CALIFORNIA DREAM. The previous volumes were AMERICANS AND THE CALIFORNIA DREAM, 1850-1915 (1973), INVENTING THE DREAM: CALIFORNIA THROUGH THE PROGRESSIVE ERA (1985), and MATERIAL DREAMS: SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA THROUGH THE 1920’S (1990).

ENDANGERED DREAMS begins with the labor wars of the nineteenth century, when the Communist Party was active in agricultural, transportation, and industrial labor strife. It concludes with a description of the San Francisco World’s Fair and America’s entry into World War II ending the Depression.

Starr presents his history as an ongoing conflict between “the oligarchy” and the masses of Californians who all had different dreams. Retirees dreamed of peace and security in an idyllic climate. The “Okies” dreamed of owning a piece of rich farmland and putting down roots. Workers dreamed of dignity, decent wages, and humane working conditions. The lower-middle-class population dreamed of enrichment and upward social mobility in a land of opportunities. Politicians of leftist and rightist sympathies dreamed of becoming senators, governors, and presidents.

The oligarchy had grandiose dreams and the power to fulfill them in such modern wonders as Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate and Oakland-Bay bridges, the All-American Canal, the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct, Shasta Dam, Rainbow Bridge, and the network of freeways that eventually transformed California into a unique civilization dependent upon cars and trucks.

Californians’ dreams brought classes into conflict. The 1930’s California microcosm mirrored the troubled globe on the brink of war. California had its little Hitlers and Mussolinis as well as its little Lenins and Stalins.

Starr’s book contains twenty-eight pages of notes and annotated bibliography. He seems to have read everything on the subject, including massive government reports. The fact-heavy text demands patience and close attention. Nevertheless, Starr, who is also a contributing editor with the LOS ANGELES TIMES and a university professor, enlivens his narrative with anecdotes about such personalities as Tom Mooney, Upton Sinclair, Harry Bridges, Herbert Hoover, John Steinbeck, and many others.

Sources for Further Study

Bookwatch. XVII, February, 1996, p. 6.

Choice. XXXIII, May, 1996, p. 1546.

Civilization. III, January, 1996, p. 76.

Kirkus Reviews. LXIII, October 1, 1995, p. 1413.

Library Journal. CXX, October 15, 1995, p. 74.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 21, 1996, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, February 18, 1996, p. 19.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, November 20, 1995, p. 63.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, February 11, 1996, p. 6.

Endangered Dreams

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

To many Americans, the Great Depression in California is almost synonymous with John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Steinbeck had the genius to see the epic qualities in the great migration of dispossessed farmers across the plains and deserts in their overladen jalopies. He also had a passion for social justice that gave his book a strong thesis. The novel was doubly effective because it was made into a beautifully photographed, highly successful film by famous director John Ford. In Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, Kevin Starr discusses Steinbeck’s novel from the perspective of the 1990’s and makes it clear that The Grapes of Wrath, though an inspired work of fiction, told only a tiny portion of the story of California’s Depression years and a distorted one at that.

For example, Steinbeck charged that California fruit and vegetable growers were papering the Dust Bowl with handbills in order to attract more pickers than they needed, thereby forcing down wages to the near-starvation level. According to Starr, no one has ever been able to produce a single handbill of the kind Steinbeck described, although they might be valuable collectors’ items by now. Starr is persuasive when he argues that it would have been foolhardy for the big agricultural interests to attract such a potentially revolutionary army of indigents to California for a short-term windfall profit. He claims that the influx of “Okies” from Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas in some cases caused taxes to double in order to pay for such services as public health, policing, welfare, and education.

Starr’s story of the Great Depression in California is far more complicated than Steinbeck’s. Starr also tries harder to remain impartial, although his sympathies are more with the forces of free enterprise than with those of organized labor and paternalistic government. He is a member of the elitist Bohemian Club of San Francisco and has been active in the business world as both a consultant and an entrepreneur. Steinbeck’s novel had a large cast of characters and the action covered much of the state; but Starr’s history has a much larger cast of characters (the index itself runs to eighteen pages), a longer time span, and a setting that includes California’s two great metropolitan centers as well as the Central Valley.

The first two chapters of Endangered Dreams serve as a prelude to the Crash of 1929 and the pivotal decade that followed. The Communist Party USA, under the direction of the Soviet Union, was heavily involved in the radicalism of the period. This involvement had good and bad features for both labor and the monied interests Starr persistently refers to as “the oligarchy.” Communist agitators gave the labor movement direction and rhetoric but also offered the oligarchy plenty of opportunities to frighten small farmers, lower-middle class business and professional people, and California’s many conservative retirees with the specter of revolution and dictatorship.

Chapter 3 deals with strikes in rural California involving Mexican, Filipino, and Dust Bowl migrants and organized by young Communists. In 1935, however, the Communist Party USA dissolved its unions under orders from Moscow.

Chapter 4 covers the famous San Francisco Waterfront and General Strike of 1934 in which the ascetic, resourceful Australian immigrant Harry Bridges emerged as a powerful spokesman for organized labor.

Chapter 5 describes the 1934 gubernatorial campaign of eccentric, idealistic, brilliant Upton Sinclair, who might easily have become governor of California and initiated his program to End Poverty in California (EPIC) if he had not been sabotaged by the unscrupulous tactics of the oligarchy.

In chapter 6, Starr tells how the oligarchy, frightened by Sinclair’s near victory and the growing strength of organized labor, counterattacked with legal, paralegal, and strictly illegal violence in what Starr calls “the fascist alternative.”

Chapters 7 and 8 describe California’s efforts at recovery under the New Deal. Of particular interest are the Townsendites and Ham and Eggers, both of whom promised pensions for any Californian over the age of fifty. Chapter 8 discusses conditions in migrant camps. Between 1930 and 1934 some 683,000 migrants flooded California in jalopies, creating problems for federal, state, county, city, and private agencies.

In chapter 9, “Documenting the Crisis,” Starr discusses The Grapes of Wrath as one of the important works to come out of California during the Great Depression. He also recommends many other important works which are not so well known, including Factories in the Field (1939) by Carey McWilliams and An American Exodus (1939) by Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange. Starr devotes many pages to praising the artistry and dedication of photographer Dorothea Lange, whose Migrant Mother is “one of the...

(The entire section is 2053 words.)