Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California.
By Kevin Starr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index 402 pages. $30.00 Buy this book.
Reviewed by Raymond Starr, Professor of History at San Diego State University, and author of San Diego State University: A History in Word and Image (1995) and other publications on San Diego history.
Endangered Dreams is the fourth in State Librarian Kevin Starr’s multivolume history of California. As was the case with the previous volumes, there is little mention here of San Diego (beyond a brief account of the 1912 Free Speech problems); this reviewer has been assured that in the fifth volume, San Diego will figure heavily in the treatment of the 1940s and World War II. Nonetheless, Endangered Dreams does, without being a comprehensive account of the 1930s in California, certainly create a larger context within which to evaluate San Diego’s history during the period.
In this volume, Starr continues his tendency to find sweeping issues, topics, or themes as metaphors for an entire decade. He focuses primarily upon the political right-left conflicts of the era, and the huge public works projects of the 1930 to get at the essence of the period, and to see roots of a more recent California. As a result this book supports the theory that many of the roots of modern California can be found during the 1930s, rather than during World War II.
To develop this thesis, Starr dips back into the late nineteenth century to trace the origins of his coverage–the gradual emergence of radical, often working class movements, especially on the docks and in the agricultural areas; and the concurrent development of reactions by the conservatives which often veered dangerously close to fascism. He covers well San Francisco’s dockside labor history, the IWW, early agricultural worker’s efforts to organize and strike, the startling 1934 candidacy of Upton Sinclair in what is being called California’s first media-based campaign, and the numerous agricultural worker’s strikes of the mid-thirties. He also show how the immigration of the 1930s (especially “Oakies”) exacerbated the state’s problems. On the other hand, he details how agricultural owners and other business interests organized the response on the right, which utilized anti-Communist groups (such as the American Legion), most of the press, and many governmental agencies in the creation of state-based near-fascist groups to combat the labor organizers. He shows how those groups used propaganda, mob action, official arms of the government, and even lynching (two men were seized from the San Jose jail and lynched in 1934, with the warm approbation of the governor). Starr concludes that an embryonic fascism similar to that of Germany or Italy in the same era emerged in California, but the embryo did not mature into a full-fledged fascism.
Some of the reason for this arrested gestation may have been the New Deal. Although it never really came to California in political terms, it did provide some relief programs and public works projects which lessened some of the economic and social pressures in the state. The various public works projects — some funded by the national government and some by Californians — provided, according to Starr, both a sense of common connection and shared identity, and created massive re-arrangements of the state which provided the base for economic
and population growth of the post-1940 period. Starr especially focuses on Hetch Hetchy, Los Angeles and the Colorado River (including the story of the building of Boulder Dam), the Golden
Gate Bridge, and other public works projects throughout the entire state. In this section, the author returns to considerations of material culture which so enhanced other volumes of the series, making this one of the most interesting parts of the book. He concludes with San Francisco’s Golden Gate Exposition of 1939, which Starr believes symbolized a utopian view of the area, and envisioned a better future than the Depression-ridden past of the 1930s.
Although Endangered Dreams lacks some cohesiveness (the first and last parts of the book are not well connected), and reads more like a link between volumes three and five than free-standing work, it is still a provocative and informative study of some aspects of the roots of contemporary California. As is always the case with Starr’s books, it reads well, with some parts of the story as entertaining as a good novel. If you can forgive the author his near-total omission of San Diego from the California story, and if you are not expecting a comprehensive treatment of California in the 1930s, this is a highly recommended book.
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