Kevin Starr

Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

A real hero of mine died over the weekend, Kevin Starr, writer of a multivolume history of California.  What a dapper gent!  (Also love when you read an obituary of a guy like this and on top of everything he spent two years as a tank lieutenant in West Germany). Among his books:






What great covers!  On that alone he’s a contributor and deserves his place in the California Hall Of Fame!  In this great interview with Patt Morrison, Starr says that he never got to the ’60s:

Is this the last “Dream” volume?

I don’t know. My God, I’m 68. I’ve got this [other] beautiful book about Catholic culture coming to a Protestant nation, and I’ll get criticized because I’m emphasizing how nice the Protestants were to us! Someone else will have to write the ’60s, although I can give them the title: That would be “Smoking the Dream.”

The only one of these I’ve tucked into is Coast Of Dreams:


A big, deep book, but I love how Starr includes cultural and personal details:


Johanna Boss indeed:


or this about Hmong immigrants:


Starr boiled his multivolumes down into this attractive one volume:


without losing any of the flavor:


Couple more gems from the interview:

How do you keep all your research organized?

They talk about San Francisco sourdough bread, that the yeast in the bread is alive since 1849. I started a bibliography of California that I have kept alive for over 45 years, every time I come across a reference. I’ll read something by you, and that’s a reference.

It seems like you keep most of it in your head too.

The Irish didn’t read and write for a couple of thousand years, and I think we developed good memories and recall. We have a sense of the revelatory detail. I look for them.

It’s a funny thing — when I go “blah, blah, blah” argumentatively, that’s when my editor cuts me the most. One reviewer said, “Oh, he’s got great description, great narrative, but he doesn’t give us the great explanation.” I try to let the reader get his own explanation. That becomes part of the discourse the book engenders. But if you tie yourself up with a big explanation, it’s dated in six months.

On looking at old yearbooks:

Is there a part of this book you especially liked doing?

For the chapter on my own generation, I went through hundreds and hundreds of yearbooks, from the late ’40s until ’63, ’64. It’s not scientific research; it’s very impressionistic. I always thought the women of my age group got short shrift because the women’s liberation movement came slightly after. You look at the yearbooks and you see the future homemakers of America — hurray for that — but you also see them in the engineers club. You see minority kids as student body presidents at a time when everyone was supposed to be terminally racist. Yearbooks are genres; they’re also folk art, folk documentation.


You still dress like Harvard, not Hermosa Beach.

When I was a boy, I delivered newspapers to Brooks Brothers. I looked in the windows and saw those things. At Harvard, when my professors came to class, it was showtime. So possibly that was it.


What are the canards about California that you hate most?

That everybody’s just sitting around being sloppy and a slacker.

Seventy percent of the population is between San Diego and Marin County, and 70 miles from the coast. That’s an extraordinarily prized and privileged Riviera of universities, homes, etc. It’s got its problems, and it’s not perfect; there’s lots of poverty too.

It’s highly competitive to be here. People don’t come to California to drop out anymore. It’s a very striving place.

Who should be on California’s money?:

If we had our own currency in California, whose faces should be on it?

Josiah Royce, the great Grass Valley-born philosopher who first formulated what California would be about. Isadora Duncan — her grandparents came here in a covered wagon. The young Native American woman stranded on San Nicolas Island, the “Island of the Blue Dolphins” story. Gov. [Jose] Figueroa, who died trying to redistribute land to the Native Americans. There’s all kinds of wonderful people. If we had living people, I’d put Joan Didion there.

His childhood:

You grew up in an orphanage?

My mother had a nervous breakdown, and my parents separated. Roman Catholic Social Services put us [Starr and his brother] in an orphanage for five years. I loved the place. It was a tremendous education, great nurturing. There was a great pool table, a great library, a camp up in the mountains. My experience was very different from some of these horror stories you hear.

From a 2004 profile by Susan Salter Reynolds in the LAT:

Starr is a man who believes in institutions and speaks about them with a kind of lofty, creative reverence. The office of state librarian, for example, “expressed the dignity of the state.” USC is “an ark that lifts all boats.” He talks about being a citizen and about civility with the same almost innocent, 19th century passion.

He is a self-described centrist, a conservative Democrat of the old school. The current election, because it is so divisive, seems to have already slammed a door in Kevin Starr’s face. “We need liberals to point out where power relationships might be going wrong and conservatives to remind us that there are cycles in history,” he says. “I won’t go to either camp.”

A supporter of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Starr is a firm believer in the importance of business vitality. But he leans toward a liberal social democracy on issues such as day-care for children, healthcare and housing. Democracy depends, Starr warns, on a “de-escalation of the cultural agendas of both parties.”


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