Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era. By Kevin Starr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 380 Pages. $19.95.
Reviewed by Rickey Best, Librarian, San Diego History Center.
In Inventing the Dream, Kevin Starr continues the tracing of California’s cultural history which he began in Americans and the California Dream (1973). Beginning with an overview of Hispanic California, Starr traces the efforts of Helen Hunt Jackson, Charles Fletcher Lummis and John Steven McGroarty to accent California’s Spanish history. Their arguments for a semi-return to the days of the dons provide for the development of the Mission Revival myth which symbolized the idyllic version of California and what it used to be. McGroarty’s Mission play especially represented the transference of the Protestant work ethic onto the land of poco tiempo. The play became an advertisement for the beauty of California, promoting the concept of what California once was, and what it could be again.
Starr provides an excellent description of the ways in which the Mission Revival was used in an effort to promote California. McGroarty, as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, and Frank Miller, as an owner of the Mission Inn in Riverside, both stood to benefit from the promotion of an idealized California. McGroarty’s success in promoting California eventually led to a seat in Congress. Both McGroarty and Miller used the myth of the Mission Revival to promote growth and wealth, for themselves and for their adopted state. The myth of the mission, however, was not the only myth created to promote California. The citrus industry created a mythical image of California which to some degree still survives. Developing an appeal to eastern consumers to enjoy the products of California’s sun, the citrus industry promoted California as a land of health, and through the creative use of packing labels sought to publicize the beauty of the “Golden State.”
Of all the myths perpetuated about California, it is myths created by the movie industry which have received the widest distribution. As Starr ex-plains, the film-makers came to California for two reasons: to escape legal difficulties on the east coast for patent infringement, and to exploit California’s climate and topography. Through the use of film, California began to demonstrate to the rest of America how to properly set a table, to dress, to eat, even how to enter a room. For all of Starr’s descriptions of the contributions by the movie industry, he never explains why the industry chose the Los Angeles area as its home. Why not San Diego? Certainly that city offered a climate and scenery equal to Los Angeles, in addition to providing a quick escape route to Mexico, should process servers come around.
The movie industry is not the only area in which Starr’s explanations fall short. In describing California in the progressive era, he fails to even mention the activities of the Industrial Workers of the World and the 1912 free speech movement. One gets the feeling that the labor struggle is not Starr’s favorite subject. Other issues which seem shortchanged are water development and the women’s suffrage movement. Certainly for reform minded progressives, both of these issues would have assumed greater importance than Starr gives them in this book. A mere four pages devoted to the development controversies of Hetch Hetchy and the Owens Valley fail to highlight the importance of water to the state as a whole, and Southern California in particular. It is water that enables the myths about California to rise, and certainly water should receive more attention. Similarly, the women’s suffrage movement should be considered in context with the events in the rest of the state. Starr spends a great deal of time demonstrating the contributions of women in the arts, but fails to show us the activities of women such as Emma Goldman in struggling not only for better treatment of the workers, but of the female as well.
Part of the difficulty of covering the major events in the state’s history adequately is that Starr overwrote his preceding volume, Americans and the California Dream. The final two chapters of that book, which covered a similar time period, though dealing primarily with Northern California, contained much information which would have been better suited for inclusion in Inventing the Dream. The discussions of George Chaffey’s irrigation plans, the development of Madame Tingley’s Theosophical Society at Point Loma, and the promotional values of the international expositions at San Diego and San Francisco are all topics which share a connection with the progressive era.
None of this criticism is meant to take away from the fact that Inventing the Dream is an excellent sequel to Starr’s previous work. Both are fine efforts to examine and trace the cultural history of a somewhat enigmatic state. There is no such thing as a perfect history. However, Starr does pro-vide a starting point from which we can build a better understanding of who we are as Californians.