Praise for Americans and the California Dream: "Monumental."
"Conceived in dazzling ambition and masterfully executed. It is, in sum, an achievement made even more remarkable by the fact that it is wonderfully readable."
-- Los Angeles Times
"An engaging, dazzling account of the emerging American Century."
--San Francisco Chronicle
About the Author
Kevin Starr is University Professor and Professor of History, University of Southern California, and State Librarian of California Emeritus. His Americans and the California Dream series has earned him the National Medal for the Humanities, the Gold Medal of the Commonwealth Club of California, and election to the Society of American Historians.
Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963 (Americans and the California Dream) Kevin Starr is himself a wondrous California resource. He seems to know all things California and this is the eighth volume in his "Americans and the California Dream" series. Opening it I felt like I was entering one of those latter-day off-beat supermarkets originating in the Golden State, encountering a cornucopia and expecting to be surprised by some of what I might find (or not). I was not disappointed.
Starr has a scholar's command of the material and a home-boy's affection for his subject. His great strength is as a compiler, distiller, and packager of the extensive historical literature on the state. This particular volume covers his own formative years (he is a San Francisco native) and it shows, favorably.
Golden Dreams is fact-jammed, but Starr renders it palatable by typically telling us just enough to humanize each of hundreds of persons whom he has selected to portray the culture, society, and politics of this period. Fortunately for both the author and his readers, California seems to have long had more than its share of memorable characters. Wisely, he does not adhere strictly to the 1950-1963 time boundaries when it is helpful to have retrospective context or to project toward later consequences.
The book includes five major sections covering suburbanization, the major cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego), politics and public works, selected aspects of culture, and what Starr calls dissenting opinions (primarily environmental and civil rights issues). The "Politics and Public Works" section, for example, ably documents how California prosperity was built on public investment, especially in the defense and aerospace industries, highways, water works, and higher education.
Certain imperfections are noticeable but tolerable in this expansive survey. Some readers may question the relative emphases Starr (or his editor) gives to certain life and culture topics. For example, there is an entire chapter on San Francisco regional literature, which in this context seems inordinately inclusive of many comparatively minor writers. So too, four pages on Tiki restaurants seem too much. On the other hand, I enjoyed his chapter on jazz (others may not, but I am a fan), and I felt it justified to balance West Coast contributions against those of New York, New Orleans, and Chicago, for instance.
As in one of the new-fangled California supermarkets, a few staples are missing. Surprisingly, Starr does not give sufficient attention to certain of the state's major industries. While he discusses the water and migrant labor politics of agriculture, we are mostly left to wonder about its variety, technologies, transformations, environmental impacts, and contribution to the state's economy. And although he identifies particular films and television shows and their stars to support various points throughout, he offers no systematic discussion of these industries as businesses during this period. Nor does he assess at any length how the advent of television viewing altered the lives of not just Californians, but Americans generally.
Starr's coverage overwhelmingly focuses on Southern California and the Bay Area, fair enough based on the population distribution. However, the counties north of Marin and Sonoma are left out altogether (except for occasional mention in relation to statewide political issues), the Central Valley receives very little attention, and Sacramento is noted only as a place where politics are done and Joan Didion grew-up.
On the whole, however, Golden Dreams is not only highly engaging, it serves as a good reminder of how much certain things changed both during the fifties and since. San Francisco, for example, was still "fundamentally conservative politically," although elements had long been "liberal in matters of private life." I had forgotten that the Republican national conventions in both 1956 and 1964 were in San Francisco (what could be more far-fetched today?).
Starr believes that "the national experience and the California experience became, increasingly, a converging phenomenon" in this period. California certainly exercised a major influence on the broader popular culture. Back then this Midwestern youth, and virtually all of my peers as I recall, thought California was the place to be. Surely, however, the state's image was idealized - it was not so golden for many groups, especially the poor.
As development has overcome parts of the state and as public investment now unravels the Golden State is less the model for dreams and emulation that it was in the fifties. Nevertheless, most readers are likely to be highly appreciative of Starr's satisfying re-creation of that time and place. I would look forward to his volume to cover the remaining period in this series, 1964 to 1989, if indeed one is forthcoming.
2.0 out of 5 starsReads like an Encyclopedia - Not a Good Thing for a Book
September 18, 2016 - Published on Amazon.com
If you enjoy reading encyclopedias, you'll enjoy this book. It's cram full of historical information, but the author barely mentions most characters before jumping to the next one and the next one and the next one, ad infinitum. If you really want to learn more about some of the people and events barely touched on in this treatise, you will have to look elsewhere. Having said that, the author does give decent coverage to California politicians, but mostly just governors.
5.0 out of 5 starsCalifornia through the 50's and 60's
December 8, 2017 - Published on Amazon.com
This is a study of California through the 50's and 60's. It was an exciting time of growth I manufacturing and housing. Mostly about the prosperity of Southern California. Kevin Starr is an excellent writer on California history. He passed away earlier this year. He will be missed.
5.0 out of 5 starsDetailed But Lyrical of The Golden Years
August 25, 2013 - Published on Amazon.com
Starr's period of review--1950 to 1963--covered California's halcyon days, and I arrived in the state in 1961 to witness the last third of that period first hand.
As a graduate Stanford student in journalism, I saw up close many of the personalities he describes, and his depiction rings true with my memory as a Baghdad by the Bay observer.
Later in life I managed government affairs in Sacramento for one of the Kaiser companies and recall the "happy warrior" Pat Brown walking the legislative hallways and greeting everyone--and Starr's Brown is described accordingly.
Starr's account allowed for me to relive those days when all Californians thought the golden sunsets beyond the Golden Gate would continue for ever.
Starr's only shortcoming--but a necessary one to be a classic historian--is that he crams every detail and name into each chapter, and that can wear the reader down.
Starr's capture what excellent historical narratives are--readable, enlivening and evocative of those times for the reader who lived then,
5.0 out of 5 starsIt describes in great detail many of the aspects of California living with ...
November 15, 2014 - Published on Amazon.com
I was born in 1950 and grew up in Ventura, California. I am thoroughly enjoying this book! It describes in great detail many of the aspects of California living with which I am familiar. In addition, Kevin Starr presents behind-the-scenes information and history that brings this fascinating period of history alive. I find his style compelling. There is a fine blend of humor, detail, and wry observation that makes the telling of history come alive.