I read Kevin Starr’s Americans and the California Dream very slowly, in small passages and with no sense of pressure over a period of 8 months.
It’s not a chronology of large happenings, but rather a record and Starr’s literary cultural analysis of what others thought and wrote in and about the California of 1850-1915. Starr had, as his vantage point, substantial historical knowledge and a native son’s heart for ferreting out the antecedents of subsequent events and dynamic on-going consequences intended and otherwise.
In Starr’s words from the last page, he selected "acts of definition, moments when vision and event betrayed their interchange, and the aesthetic pattern and moral meaning of social experience became clear. History grants few such occasions.” (P. 444)
I construct a timeline for myself as I read any history. As much information as I am able to retain, dates often escape me. Starr presents his narrative as an ”act of memory” rather than a classic or linear analysis. It might help some readers to read the final page reflections in conjunction with the introduction to avoid what some reviews express as frustration with and disappointment in this approach to history.
Any study of people, time and place is best done through the politics, history and literature of the period. Starr’s book is best read as an adjunct to both linear historical documentations and first hand accounts, journals and essays of the time. I have read many of the accounts to which Starr refers with some notable exceptions. I have never been able to read Gertrude Atherton and Starr’s assessment of her outlook helped me understand more clearly why I have resisted both her “history” and her novels. “For the sake of the establishment myth, and for the sake of her own role as a writer in that establishment, Gertrude Atherton did her best to sustain an illusion…”
And then there is a book to which Starr has alerted me that I plan to seek out. California Coastal Trails, a Horseback Ride from Mexico to Oregon, by J. Smeaton Chase, was published in 1913. Mr. Starr says that past, present and future converge in this elegant narrative and he likens it to an elegy and yet Chase shares his hope. In Starr’s words, “In 1913 California-as-nature yet seemed capable of coping with California-as-history.”( P. 438)
Kevin Starr researched and wrote with hope himself and his work is testament to his belief that commitment to California does not preclude scrutiny, nor does admiration always blind one to her faults. Americans and the California Dream is work to read, but it is a worthwhile work.