California inspires people to think big, and to write big books. Take, for example, Kevin Starr. As a graduate student at Harvard in the 1960s, Starr decided to write a history of California, his home state, organized around an idea: the dream of a good life for ordinary people. Now, thirty-five years later, he is publishing the seventh volume in this series. How many historians have conceived of–much less written–a seven-volume history of anything? Gibbon did the decline of Rome in six. Schlesinger did the Age of Roosevelt in three.
Unabashedly cheerful and sunny, Starr’s work has invited unfavorable comparisons with Mike Davis’s more alluring California noir. The criticism has stung Starr, who acknowledges in the preface to Coast of Dreams that “it would be seductively easy to join the naysayers…. do this, and I would be considered a deep thinker.” California in recent years–“a case study in how things could go wrong”–has sorely tested his famous optimism, what with the LA riots (1992); the Northridge earthquake (1994); massive wildfires (1991, 1993 and 2003); disastrous flooding (1992, 1995 and 1998); an epidemic of gang homicides in LA; statewide power blackouts (2001); and the recall of the governor (2003). The first page of Coast of Dreams finds Starr wondering whether he has “made a terrible mistake” in committing himself to this “California dream” project, whether the “radiant golden vision” of California as a paradise for ordinary people is “still worth the living, the writing, the struggle”–as if a story that isn’t happy isn’t worth telling.
But Starr hasn’t quite given up on the dream. Defying those who have criticized his work as too rosy, he opens his book under the California sky with a chapter on surfing, unashamedly described as “a primary emblem” of “California identity.” (To underscore the point, Starr put surfers on the jacket.) His strategy here is to open with a sunny picture and then bring in the threatening darkness. That worked beautifully in his last book, Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950, whose first chapter provided an unforgettably poignant picture of Californians at play during the summer of 1940, as the rest of the world sank into war–the Iowan migrant picnic in Long Beach, spring break in Santa Monica, the season at the Hollywood Bowl. In that chapter he asked, “Was this a delusional response–or a brave and defiant celebration of life over death?” Here the conceit seems thin, since it hinges on what’s been a cliché of California life since Gidget.
After surfing comes a report on the state of religion in the 1990s, and here again, Starr seems to be goading his critics–all the religions of California, from Eastern Orthodoxy to Hinduism, were thriving; no shadows here. The Catholics were bringing together blacks and Latinos; not a word about priests’ sexual abuse of children, which has left the Church in California facing 400 victims seeking damages totaling $160 million. Starr’s Jews were flocking to museums, operas and the symphony, as well as to “delicatessens and other eateries”; not a word about the deep divisions among Jews over Israel. Buddhism gets eight happy paragraphs, but Islam gets only one sentence–and not until 600 pages later does Starr discuss the unprecedented legal harassment and public hostility Muslims have faced since 9/11.