Inventing the Dream

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

How did Los Angeles come to be one of America’s two cultural capitals? Most Americans can point to an event that made them aware of the Southern California challenge to New York: For some, it was Hollywood’s supplanting Broadway as the destination of choice for young actors and actresses; for others, it was the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn; while for the television generation, it was Johnny Carson leaving Rockefeller Center for Burbank. Kevin Starr set himself the task of uncovering the story behind Southern California’s rise to cultural importance in Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era, which seems destined to be a multivolume history of California.

This book and his earlier 1973 work, Americans and the California Dream, start from the premise that a combination of climate and ideas came together between the Civil War and World War I to produce a new vision of the good life in America. This approach to California’s and America’s history is firmly set in the intellectual approach known as American Studies—which is an amalgam of literary criticism and narrative history that takes as a given the notion that a distinct American civilization exists and therefore deserves scholarly investigation. Inventing the Dream highlights the strengths of this discipline through brilliant character sketches and readings of overlooked texts, while largely avoiding the weaknesses of the American Studies approach—namely, the too-convenient assumption that American culture comes from the top down and can be understood through the lives of writers and artists. Starr carefully sets his work in a larger material setting and acknowledges outside influences from the wider nation and the world.

“Dream” appears in the title of this book, and 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 dream capable of becoming a transforming ideal outside of California. After the twentieth century, however, the new motion-picture industry settled in Southern California and transmitted the California Dream to the rest of the nation. This occurrence guaranteed California’s place in the sun. Starr offers here an exciting interpretation that goes far toward explaining Southern California’s emergence as a shaper of American culture. What became the California Dream was part of a similar transformation within the United States from a producer culture stressing work, denial, independence, and thrift to a consumer culture of leisure and consumption during the same years. In effect, Starr is writing as history part of the same story that Thorstein Veblen studied as a social scientist at the time: how consumption and the style of consumption could define a culture.

Who were the early inventors of the California Dream? The author gives his readers a delightful parade of obscure literati, shrewd peasants turned into wealthy vintners, bourgeois matrons, and some genuine California flakes and cranks. Starr begins this survey with Helen Hunt Jackson and a deft explication of her book Ramona (1884). That novel, by an author better known for her nonfiction defense of Indian rights and culture, created an idealized and wistful version of California’s Spanish past that became incorporated in the new dream. More than any other locale in what Starr calls the Southland (Los Angeles and its environs), Pasadena and neighboring San Marino carried on in the 1890’s and after the turn of the century something of the spirit of Ramona. The chapter on Pasadena and the Arroyo culture shows how Midwest expatriates, retirees, and Huntington money helped make a successful California bohemia.

Perhaps the most engaging part of the book is Starr’s account of the life stories of California orange growers and winegrowers, especially the delightful sketch of Paul Masson. Here, he shows how California agriculturalists picked up the theme of healthy living in the dry air and sunshine and convinced Americans nationwide that eating oranges and sipping wine could literally put taste into an otherwise humdrum life. To his credit, in the discussion of California agriculture, Starr confronts what to the historian is one of the central features of California food...

(The entire section is 1835 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

California Magazine. X, March, 1985, p. 47.

Choice. XXIII, September, 1985, p. 194.

Journal of American History. LXXII, September, 1985, p. 433.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, February 1, 1985, p. 137.

Library Journal. CX, May 1, 1985, p. 60.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 25, 1985, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, February 24, 1985, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXI, August 12, 1985, p. 82.

Newsweek. CV, May 27, 1985, p. 81.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, February 1, 1985, p. 356.