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¡§When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

Promulgating a Progressive Pantheon      Patrick Mickelson


Kevin Starr is a USC Professor of History and an accomplished writer. His landmark series on California has received much critical praise and popularity in recent years. He graduated from Harvard with a PhD of English and American Literature in 1969. As a professor, he researches California history and a history of American culture, as well as the developments of urban societies. He is also a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times.



            From the tribes of the sands of early California to Cecil B. De Mille and his Ten Commandments, California has embodied the drive of a society moving towards a zenith. In Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era, Kevin Starr tracks the history of Southern California beginning with the primordial days of old and majestically sweeping into the period of early Hollywood all the while setting the stage for the progression of Southern California into a suburban empire. By playing the contrast of ¡§the California of fact and the California of imagination¡¨, Starr shows the interplay between dream and reality, focusing on the California pictured in the eyes of those who built it and analyzing the path by which those dreams modulated into imperfect being, but stepping stones towards the California of present nonetheless. 1

            Starr begins his analysis cleverly guised as narrative by describing the geography of California at a time where man¡¦s impact was miniscule and irrelevant. The uniqueness of the coastal regions of California from the distinctive inland valleys and deserts played a key role in the establishment of civilization and the migration of peoples here, with Starr essentially arguing geographic determinism in the cultural roots of California. After native culture established firm settlements three thousand years ago, the Spanish arrived in 1535 and created settlements from the south and going north to the last mission in San Francisco in 1823. In what would eventually become cities, rancheros aggregated large expanses of land into single pieces of property¡Xa distinctly Californian system. As California moved into the 1880s, previously established Latin roots faded slowly and characters like Edward Beale handled business centered around these systems, largely because they were appropriate to the region. Until the 1890s Starr describes California as a ¡§literary wasteland¡¨ with the exception of the post-Civil war San Francisco literary movement which included the great Mark Twain.2 Towards the turn of the century however, words extended through all mediums, from novels to news publications, with everything of importance being recorded. It was during this period that the great mythos of California romanticism was born, epitomized by Helen Hunt Jackson¡¦s Ramona which Starr portrays as the pre-eminent California novel and references throughout the course of the book as a sort of reference point. Even as early as this, the regional distinctions that diversify and enrich California presented and developed within their own circles more or less independent of the other regions except for the key points of population influx.

            By the third chapter, the dream becomes more artistic than developmental, and in many ways is described as less Californian than simply an amalgamation of the cultures that contribute to California. Before 1890, California grew steadily but gradually until that point when it skyrocketed geometrically until California, and particularly Southern California boomed with prosperity. Southern California¡¦s minds stood out as a regional oddity; Charles Lummis, a man Starr relentlessly mentions to be a Harvard man (a position Starr himself admires), was an eastern Yankee turned Vaquero author and literary great. He wrote poetry and sent his books to the likes of Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, empathizing with other writers of the eastern United States consciousness. However, despite the high-mindedness of the art and the rhetoric, places like Los Angeles were defined by money more than mythos; business was key in the sustenance of the city of the Angels as were the eastern intellectuals who created prosperous business ventures there. Starr explains the reason for the immigration of the Yankees as ¡§thousands of health-seekers pouring into Southern California¡¨, whether it be the weather or the perceived quality of nature of the region.3 Chapter four explains the first outgrowths of Protestant Pasadena in the Hispanic-Catholic southern California as the New England community rather than the predominant heritage of the region. Men like George S. Patton who led the United States to victory in the pacific were spawned in white Pasadena, the town of the upper class, high society folk. The southern California economy was founded primarily on the export of its produce: orange¡Xrendering the term ¡§citrus culture¡¨. Once again, the idea of geographic determinism supports that notion, as the culture revolved around its economy, determined largely by the arid climate which allowed for the growth of California Oranges¡Xthe namesake for Orange County.

            The most significant section of the book is devoted to the Progressive movement in California. If the dream of perfection that guided so many incredible individuals was the fuel, the era of Progressivism was the engine that made ethereality into reality. The beginnings of the progressive movement lay embedded in the revolutionary architecture of Arthur Page Brown who coasted on the cutting edge of San Francisco structure and was commissioned for hundreds of projects that contributed largely to the economic and intellectual prosperity of San Francisco. Many of these projects were transportation based and helped accommodate the growth of the city with ferry ports to ease access to bay transport. The progressive elements of chapter seven center around reversing the notion that California was ruled ¡§by an omnipotent oligarchy and governed by the corrupt party machines which the oligarchy subsidized¡¨.4 While Progressivism may have been the American answer to socialism, a small communist community did exist in Southern California run by Patrick Calhoun and Abe Reef. The disparity between socialist reform and the current state of affairs was essentially bridged by this reform and led to the advancements of women, labor, and so forth. Another important group Starr brings attention to is the Lincoln-Roosevelt League which actually won many political positions and helped launch key progressive governor Hiram Johnson into office (who had at the time had strong links with the Teamsters union). Of most of the reforms, Starr focuses on the goals of the Johnson California to reform the government linkage and monopoly of the Southern Pacific railroad company by reigning in some of the delegated powers it had received through the bedding of business and bureaucracy.  With the movement in its final days, progressivism began to burn out during the 1910s and between women¡¦s suffrage and the First World War, was wrapped up for good by 1920.

            The final section of Starr¡¦s progressive narrative is the rise of Hollywood as the greatest asset to not only Southern California, but also to the world as well. While Hollywood began as Pasadena did¡Xa small protestant community¡Xit quickly rose to the top of the economic echelon after Thomas Edison¡¦s invention of moving pictures. Once the process simplified and movies could be made by small teams, the possibilities grew endless; soon, filmmakers D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. De Mille revolutionized simple moving pictures by creating modern film. Whether it be ¡§Biographs¡¨ by Griffith (or his racist opus The Birth of a Nation) or De Mille¡¦s sexual comedies, Hollywood existed by cutting the edge of the social frontier; Starr quotes Lenin by saying that ¡§the cinema...must and shall become the foremost cultural weapon of the proletariat¡¨, thus attributing Hollywood the honor of being the nation¡¦s voice.5 Taking precedence, California represented the dreams of ordinary people. People could come from the east out to the edge of the frontier and create their lives anew. Business grew from the sown seeds of the orange fields and grape vineyards. Ordinary men became extraordinary in the world viewed through a lens and soon enraptured the whole country¡Xmaking Hollywood the fifth largest US industry by 1926. With the rise of Hollywood, a great deal of anti-Semitism revealed as resistance to the fact that many of the investors of film (especially before 1915) were either eastern banks or Jews starting movie studios. The dream was never more embodied than by the glamour of Hollywood, which seemed that even if not everyone could have the dream, it could be captured forever in their imagination for the price of an admission ticket.

            Starr¡¦s thesis presents simply that the two Californias, one of fact and the other of dream, ¡§shape and reshape each other¡¨ the same way Protestant high-mindedness coincided with the region¡¦s Catholic traditions.6 Because these elements both complemented and tugged at each other, they created a natural forward evolution for the state. The concept of actually progressing forward, Starr argues, is a byproduct of the personal goals of the great individuals of California who¡Xmore than movements¡Xcontributed to the growth of cities and regions. They sought to build lives for themselves and in the process created the world around them. With the ending of the Southern Pacific Railroad monopoly, not only were other railroads allowed to prosper, but also those who utilized railroads had greater freedom in choosing who transported their goods and for what price.

            Starr in many ways writes on the conservative side of history; his devotion to the power of the individual, relative focus on New Englanders, and generally romantic tone all point his book away from the more New Left perspective of his peers. By focusing less on the movements of women and minorities and more on the development of the upper classes, the works of the Harvard alumni in southern California, and the patronage of the extremely wealthy for the development of the arts, Starr leans towards the conflict-less unity of consensus historioragraphy. Ultimately being a New Englander himself contributed to Starr¡¦s focus on the ¡§protestant high-mindedness¡¨ of the Southern California he pictures¡Xhe identifies with it. On the other hand, he addresses the siege of California by corporations, noting that by 1870 ¡§much of the land of California had fallen into the hands of a few individuals or corporations¡¨, thus Starr is not without gray areas in his treatise.7

            While Starr is popular with consumer historians, literary critics certainly find numerous grounds on which to lend their words. In a review by Raymond Starr of The Journal of San Diego History, Kevin Starr¡¦s examination of California and depth of knowledge allows for praise while his neglect of key issues presents itself at the forefront. Raymond Starr argues that ¡§one gets the feeling that the labor struggle is not Starr¡¦s favorite subject¡¨ as Starr never mentions the great involvement of the Industrial Workers of the World and their actions in the 1912 free speech movement.8 Many of the topics concerning California¡¦s development had been covered in Starr¡¦s previous book and thus, for one not reading the series as a whole, the development of California¡¦s irrigation system and the general movement of water is shortchanged considering its magnitude on the events and development of the state that is not naturally blessed with water. Raymond Starr does, however, recognize the skill by which Starr shows that the ¡§dream¡¨ of California becomes sidelined by the ambitions of profiteers and is a byproduct of the search for economic fulfillment rather than the progress of all. In short, Starr¡¦s history is good, but his narrative has some plot holes.

            Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times had a less favorable review for Starr. She states that Starr ¡§never quite pulls off the ambitious task that he has set himself¡¨ and that instead of presenting a narrative that illuminates the dream the California represents, Starr fumbles through disorganization.9 The chapter on Arthur Page Brown and San Francisco architecture certainly was a departure from the Southern California focus that the book was described as and simply should have been in the first novel that encompassed more of Northern California. Ultimately, she claims, the book is a cameo of ideas and characters that never culminates in a cohesive vision and thus Starr set a goalpost he could not conceive in actuality.

            For the most part Starr creates his vision but in many regards, does so haphazardly. The chapters and overall flow of the book read disjointedly, at times sacrificing flow for atmosphere and the addition of another anecdotal rags-to-riches story to emphasize the mythos Starr himself enjoys. Also key is Starr¡¦s predilection for the New England-intellectual sentiment. At times, the addendum of another ¡§Harvard man¡¨ description of Charles Lummis seemed at times superfluous and a less-than-subtle hint at a bias.10 However, this lean works two-fold; firstly, it hints at bias. Second, it presents a key notion to Starr¡¦s thesis: that California¡¦s dream was forged by eastern individuals. The saying ¡§it takes one to know one¡¨ applies very much here and aptly describes some of the more intentional slants that present themselves throughout the book. In general, Starr creates a thorough vision but steers clear of controversy and more risk-taking analyses of history, instead favoring the road more traveled¡Xa sure fire, accessible historical effort.

            For the most part, California seemed to be a world unto itself and never dealt much with the events on the east coast. Starr avoids delving into California¡¦s involvement in the Civil War and the First World War, focusing on its independent development. The sparks of California literature, however, are attributed to post war movement west as Starr describes how ¡§for a brief period after the Civil War, San Francisco was the literary capital of the nation¡¨.11 Instead of war and post-war evolutions, Starr focuses on California¡¦s distinctness from the rest of the country in that it was an amalgamation of ideas and traditions into a macro-culture. The synthesis of Hispanic Catholicism and Anglo-Protestantism were good bedfellows in the cultural bedrocks of the land, allowing for business with a certain ease. The flow of California seemed to work the same way the Spanish conquered it¡Xbottom to top, with Southern California often times leading the social revolutions of the state and in the case of Hollywood, creating an economic titan.

            Starr describes California as the ¡§¡¥magic lantern screen¡¦ onto which [Americans¡¦] national fantasies are projected¡¨.12 In this way, Starr portrays California as the tangible final frontier, the land of milk and honey that people ventured to, beginning their lives anew in search of health, wealth, and general prosperity. With California to the west, Americans had that hope of a future and life ahead of them. Hollywood gave visions and dreams to the people, especially in times of doubt and helped make the 20s roaring. Because of the magnitude of the California experience, it was on the frontline of social revolution and led the way for the rest of the country. Starr¡¦s ultimate argument summates as the ¡§city upon a hill¡¨ notion of California¡Xone that has since become shopping malls and suburbia.

            Regardless of the problems with disorganization or other trifles, one can fault neither Starr¡¦s dedication nor his passion for the subject. To him, California embodies the dream he writes about. If New Englanders are the descendants of the stiff-upper lip traditions of old Europe, California was the fire and passion that gave the United States contrast, if not only because it enigma was enshrouded by the vast expanses that make California more analogous to a country than a state. The people who came to California came out of a faith in the notion of the ¡§search for a better life¡¨ and while many suffered the same socio-economic adversity found around the country, others found the glory and satisfaction of an individual success¡Xthe foundations of what progressed and expanded the idea of California.13 While the dream may have been lost to the reverse-subdivisions of suburbanism, Hollywood still embodies the art and creativity that makes California that center of inevitable attraction. Perhaps the journey pales to the importance of the necessity to dream it.


1. Starr, Kevin. Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Page vii

2. Starr, Kevin 31.

3. Starr, Kevin 75.

4. Starr, Kevin 199.

5. Starr, Kevin 309.

6. Starr, Kevin vii.

7. Starr, Kevin 164.

8. Starr. Raymond. "Book Reviews," The Journal of San Diego History Fall 1985. 2 Jun 2008 <http://www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/85fall/br-inventing.htm>

9. Kakutani. Michiko. "Books of the Times," The New York Times 13 Feb 1985. 2 Jun 2000. <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E04E5DC1439F930A2575 1C0A963948260&scp=1&sq=inventing+the+dream&st=nyt>

10. Starr, Kevin 76.

11. Starr, Kevin 31.

12. Kakutani, Michiko 1.

13. Starr, Kevin 339.