The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1974, Volume 20, Number 1

Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1916. By Kevin Starr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Notes. 494 pages. $12.50.

Reviewed by Doyce B. Nunis, Professor of History at the University of Southern California. Dr. Nunis is editor of the Southern California Historical Quarterly, and author of numerous books and articles on California history.

Three ingredients have combined to produce a masterwork: skillful research, explosive imagination, keen perception. In the bargain, the writing betrays talent of a very high order. Kevin Starr, native San Franciscan, graduate of the University of San Francisco and doctoral graduate of Harvard University, has written a narrative which warrants the appellation, a California classic. It is a stunning book, a triumph. It is a brilliant contribution to California history and literature.

This is intellectual history in the grand tradition of Perry Miller and Howard Mumford Jones. The creative writer, be that writer poet, dramatist, essayist, historian or novelist, is the primary focus. But other creative talents are not neglected: the minister, artist, dancer, scientist, environmentalist, educator, architect, and city planner who made significant contributions are threaded through the book’s chronological web. Indeed, some of the most impressive chapters are devoted to ministers, environmentalists, and architect-city planners.

Spanning the period from statehood to the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Starr deftly analyzes the interaction between the California environment and the creative impulse in talented residents, native and immigrant, a theme which has seen prior exposition in the work of Lawrence Clark Powell. What marks Starr’s approach, however, is the myriad facets of human intellectual endeavor which he blends into his historical mosaic. His canvas is broader in scope and deeper in content, even though the geographical focus is limited to San Francisco and its immediate environs, the golden triangle of northern California stretching north to Sonoma, east to the Sierra, south to Monterey.

The question no doubt will arise: how does this book differ from Franklin Walker’s San Francisco’s Literary Frontier, published in 1939? The answer is obvious: Walker deals with literary history, not intellectual history which is concerned with ideas, their formation, propagation, and influence. However, the two books, like Powell’s California Classics (1972), share a common denominator-the pattern is primarily biographical, built on personal histories of outstanding figures. Thus Starr has chapters centered around Thomas Starr King, Henry George, Josiah Royce, John Muir, Jack London, the Monterey-Carmel group, David Starr Jordan, and Gertrude Atherton. On the other hand, Walker’s 1966 book, The Seacoast of Bohemis, An Account of Early Carmel (recently revised), finds its counterpart in Starr’s chapter on “Bohemian Shores,” which is a model of condensation of a rich variety of personalities and data, while Walker’s A Literary History of Southern California (1950) “was the occasion and guide” for another chapter, “An American Mediterranean,” Starr’s only indepth attention given to the southern part of the state.

Two of the most original contributions in the book are the opening and closing chapters.”Prophetic Patterns, 1786-1850″ details the historic roots of the “California dream,” while the concluding chapter, from which the title of the book is taken, evaluates the dream in the light of experience accumulated by 1915.

And what is the “California dream?” Walt Whitman described it in “Song of the Redwood-Tree” in 1874: “The flashing and golden pageant of California, the sudden and gorgeous drama, the sunny and ample lands… ” It is the varied landscape, the rich farming and mineral land; it is “At last the new arriving, assuming, taking posses- sion… ” It is ships and commerce of “A swarming and busy race settling and organizing everywhere… ” It is populous cities, with “the latest inventions. . . ” It is the California epic.

In recounting that epic, Starr has few peers. In the crucible of his words, the story makes for dramatic and absorbing reading. And his conclusion warrants consideration: “The dream lives on, promising so much in the matter of American living. It also threatens to become an anti-dream, an American nightmare.” By recalling the memory of the past, he argues, we can find a present healing influence, for “the recovery of the past can tramatize, it can also heal. A culture failing to internalize some understanding of its past tragedies and past ideals has no focus upon the promise and dangers of the present.”

To comprehend and appreciate that California past, this book is enthusiastically recommended. It is an intellectual history that has caught the essence of culture as experienced in the golden triangle of northern California. In that culture may well lie antidotes in our current “struggle for value and corrective action.”

Starr concludes: “Old in error, California remains an American hope.” But that point remains to be proven.