By Larry Parson
Deep in three of the best books I’ve read, I came across an accurate description of how someone like me fits into the vast story told by famed California historian Kevin Starr.
I’m what Starr calls a “native-born boomer,” someone who was born into the state’s post-World War II population explosion to parents who were also native Californians. The desire to learn more about the California in which my parents lived – both came of age in the 1930s in Southern California – prompted me to finally pick up one of nine acclaimed volumes of Starr on state history.
With an overarching metaphor of California as an alluring dream for immigrants and residents who pursue its rich and legendary opportunities, Starr’s books span the state’s pre-Columbian setting into the 21st century. His knowledge, scholarship, and exquisite writing are as breathtaking as the first sight of Yosemite Valley.
Starr’s reading was long on my back burner. When I spotted “Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California” in a library in Salinas, I wisely decided, “It’s time.”
In a single book, each of whose chapters could stand as elegant historical essays, Starr traces the long history of labor state turbulence, the birth of media campaign trails, a polarized politics more violent and eccentric than today. , and large public works projects that still serve Californians.
A few of the nuggets it contains are generous sketches of the monumental construction of the Hoover Dam, socialist author Upton Sinclair’s quixotic 1934 gubernatorial campaign, and the vigilante-fueled militia movement that violently suppressed the Salinas lettuce strike in 1936.
Another political outgrowth of difficult times in California was the quasi-socialist “Ham and Eggs” movement led by Depression-bled retirees in the late 1930s. This eerily presages the vitriol of the 1978 anti-property tax movement and the fury of Tea Party “populism” of 2010.
I quickly – as quickly as one can read some 700 more pages – consumed the next two volumes, “The Dream Endures: California Enters The 1940s” and “Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950”. We emerge amazed at the number of vital characters, colossal enterprises, resounding works of art, harrowing human migrations and social imprints that these two decades have left on California. There’s material for countless potential TV miniseries and historical novels in these pages.
With a thankfully light eye to politics as practiced in Sacramento, Starr is generous in his treatment of public and private Californians – their arts, hobbies, industries, desires, fears and racial hatreds. It delves into Hollywood’s heyday, the wartime transformations of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, and all the kinds of religious cults, political charlatans, sensational crimes, and social trends that have always made California “so California”.
Starr is a master of brevity. He can explain everything in a few pages, from the Red Scare security investigation of UC Berkeley nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, to the ins and outs of the staggering 1930s Los Angeles police corruption that fed Raymond Chandler and legions of other “black gangsters”. » writers and filmmakers.
Starr has a keen eye for detail. His stories can range from the popular, upscale Los Angeles restaurant where Cobb Salad was born to the Mendocino hamlet of Boonville, where an island community developed their own language called “Boontling.” He knows readers will enjoy learning that San Francisco’s most famous brothel owner and later Sausalito mayor, Sally Stanford, coined her professional surname from a headline about the year-old winner of the Annual Big Game between Cal and Stanford.
For Monterey County readers, there are striking sketches by Jaime de Angulo, Big Sur’s “original character,” and author Henry Miller, a Big Sur resident for 19 years. Starr places Miller’s potent 1940s brew of sexual license and disdain for mainstream America at the heart of the Californian “Berkeley-Big Sur” countercultural axis that would spawn beatniks, free-speech protests and hippies.
Starr devotes a chapter of “The Dream Endures” to Carmel photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. It offers intelligent biography and critique, while connecting their treasured images of California’s high Sierra and dramatic coastline to the spiritual power of the wilderness and nature revered by many residents and visitors.
Of all the riches, the most moving chapter comes from Starr’s striking couple, the Carmelite poet Robinson Jeffers, whose misanthropic view of humanity turned him away from the coming cataclysm of World War II, and Ishi, the last surviving member of the Yahi people, who was captured at age 50 outside Oroville in 1916.
How Ishi, the Sole Survivor of One of California’s Many Genocides Against Its Indigenous Peoples, Spent His Last Years in San Francisco While Befriending and Influencing Professors, Doctors, and Everyday People in California UC is humble and unforgettable proof of the power of shared humanity and open hearts.
I came away from these three books almost overwhelmed by the feast of information they contain about California’s not-so-distant past. Especially with the Depression volume’s gripping accounts of the state’s dismal record on agricultural working conditions and worker organization, I repeatedly asked, “How did I not know that?” I felt profoundly ignorant. Just Google “1933 cotton strike” or “Wheatland hop riot 1913”. You will see what I mean.
At the same time, Starr’s books offer a wealth of starting points for a deeper exploration of California’s history during those pivotal 20 years. Its bibliographies are comprehensive listings of books, reports and primary source documents. But each volume, especially “The Dream Endures,” contains insights into dozens of novels, films, paintings, sculptural and architectural works with crisp biographies of the Californians who produced them over those decades.
This volume, for example, examines groups of painters from the Bay Area and Southern California who brought California painting out of its provincial hinterlands to interpret how Californians actually lived in their natural surroundings and artificial. Starr singles out “Angel’s Flight,” a 1931 painting by famed Southern California artist Millard Sheets, as the defining work of the decade.
The painting shows two women on an observation deck overlooking the Angel’s Flight cable car in downtown Los Angeles – a Los Angeles landmark made famous by numerous books, movies and TV shows. Starr explains how the painting, through the women’s poses, clothing, and their dominant point of view, is a visual commentary on the growing independence of many women in California during these years.
Elsewhere, he examines the changing and more powerful roles of female stars in films. It details the role, reception, and impact of female workers in California’s aircraft factories and shipyards that fueled the U.S. military armada during World War II.
In short, these are books for all native born baby boomers and anyone looking to explore the real gold fields of California.
Do you have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.
SUPPORTING NON-PROFIT JOURNALISM
GET OUR FREE WEEKLY NEWSLETTER