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

Golden State in Danger                                            Julie Oh


Kevin Starr is California's foremost historian. His acclaimed multi-volume Americans and the California Dream is an unparalleled work of cultural history up through 1950, Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California being the fourth volume. Starr is State Librarian of California, contributing editor of the Los Angeles Times, a member of the faculty at the University of Southern California, and the Chairman of the California Sesquicentennial Commission.



The 1930s in the United States was characterized by a dramatic, world-wide economic downturn- the Great Depression. This decade of high unemployment, poverty, and political and social turmoil affected the nation like no other time. Even in the Golden State, the 1930s was a perilous and prodigal time. Kevin Starr¡¦s Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California captures the epic story of this struggle and recovery of California during the 1930s.

            Beginning the book by describing the radical traditions present in California before the Great Depression, Starr establishes the presence of a distinctive Marxist Left, or the radicals, and an equally assertive fascist Right, or the conservatives, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Starr starts the first chapter by declaring that ¡§radicalism-as a program, a style, a mode of fiery rhetoric and symbolic gesture-had deep, very deep, roots on the West Coast.¡¨1 He describes the rise of organized labor in San Francisco by depicting the Gold Rush and its effects on diversity and distribution of wealth in California. During this time, workers had the right to organize and express their needs through general strikes. However, conservative elements soon lashed back as Starr illustrates in chapter two. Passing the Criminal Syndicalism Act of 1919, the California oligarchy broke up active radical organizations. Starr gives detailed and vivid images of the battle between the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the law. He also gives many other examples, such as the Market Street bombing and the Sacco and Vanzetti Trial, to show that the 1910s and early 1920s witnessed the surfacing of extreme political spectrums in California.

            By the 1930s, with the stress of the Great Depression exacerbating the conflicts, California faced an even more intense political conflict. Starr states, in his third chapter, that California in the 1930s ¡§functioned as a testing ground for the viability of both the fascist and the Communist options.¡¨2 In the first half of the decade, the revolutionary impulse dominated the nation. Ethnic diversity, discrimination, and large numbers of migrant farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl created cultural rivalries. These migrants challenged the oligarchy, leading to strikes in the fields and canneries. Starr focuses on the rise and fall of the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU). In 1933, the CAWIU led most of the cannery strikes and was at the left extreme of the political scale in that the Communist Party sent their most talented and committed organizers directly into their fields. Starr points out that the CAWIU introduced the idea that the lowest workers and farmers could still do something about their situation. Moreover, in his fifth chapter, Starr highlights socialist Upton Sinclair¡¦s campaign for Governor of California to show the Left on the brink of its triumph with his promise to End Poverty in California (EPIC). Although Sinclair lost, he showed great signs of winning and thus convinced a large minority that utopian socialism was a viable option for Californians. Then, Starr talks about the second half of the decade, when a resurgent Right dominated the nation in search of a fascist alternative. The turning point came in 1934 when both workers and soldiers occupied the streets for fist fights, gunfire, and blood during the San Francisco water front and general strikes. Starr takes a close look at the personalities and events that led to violence during this time. Using anti-communist propaganda for public support, and creating the Associated Farmers of California, which provided food for soldiers and strike-breakers, conservatives gained power. The California Right employed techniques such as manipulation of the criminal justice system, spies, political trials, convictions, imprisonment, and executions to successfully dissolve the CAWIU. Starr gives the Sacramento trial as an example. In the end, however, he argues that California was in no real danger of a fascist takeover during these years, saying that the state was only testing the conservative alternative just as Upton Sinclair and the EPIC campaign had explored the California¡¦s liberal possibilities.

            In the third part of the book, the author illustrates the effort at recovery from the Great Depression. Starr begins this section by explaining how the New Deal almost came to California. A newly emergent Democratic California helped elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, and its members expected his New Deal to help the state to recover. However, for the rest of the decade, the conservative resistance to the New Deal and the Democrats prevented the election of a Democratic governor in California until 1939, when it was too late. In 1938, Governor-elect Democratic Culbert Olson, after meeting with President Roosevelt, had promised to bring the New Deal to the Golden State. However, the reforms that Olson achieved were mainly in prisons and health care, constituting more of the Progressive agenda than New Deal legislature. Also, the Pension Plan Association, or Ham and Eggs, had become a statewide phenomenon in 1937, outshining the New Deal. In addition, Starr profiles the individual who had enough political power to prevent the New Deal from reaching California: Artie Samish. According to Starr, while California accepted ¡§the national will and largesse in this regard¡K [they] remained resistant to the spirit and intelligence behind the New Deal.¡¨3 Then, the author illustrates other Californian efforts to recover from the Great Depression, including soup kitchens, migrant camps, and relief efforts. With the Dust Bowl, the sudden arrival of more than three hundred thousand migrants within a few years led to a disaster in housing and healthcare in California. At this time, helpers of the migrants, mainly progressive New Dealers such as Simon Julius Lubin, Paul Taylor, and Thomas Collins, established a medical plan, pension program, credit union, migrant camps, and daycare centers to aid those in poverty. In this section, Starr also includes the development of documentary art during the Depression. Specifically analyzing John Steinbeck¡¦s Grapes of Wrath, and Dorothea Lange¡¦s Migrant Mother, Starr believes that the Depression greatly raised the level of imaginative expression.

            The last section of the book shows the complete recovery of California through public works. The federal government first initiated these works to counter unemployment. Soon, without significant federal involvement, Californians applied this therapy not only to recover from the Great Depression, but also to enhance their environment and conditions of life. For example, parkways, tunnels, and bridges solved the question of automobile traffic. Starr states that ¡§these public works, in turn¡K met practical needs of long standing.¡¨4 He then explains how each of the great projects was accomplished and how it affected the state. Starr especially focuses on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, the largest bridge in the world, and the Golden Gate Bridge, the most beautiful and the most intelligent. Meanwhile, Starr also proposed that public works projects on a lesser scale, such as schools, libraries, post offices, hospitals, airports, armories, recreational parks, and other facilities, improved the quality of life and enlarged shared public identities. By 1940, California had unified through public works and completed its recovery.

            Kevin Starr¡¦s Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California centers on the social, cultural, and political struggles in California during the Great Depression. Starr states, ¡§The inner landscape of California¡K especially in its political dimension, showed constant signs of stress as the Right battled in a struggle that acted out on behalf of the rest of the nation a scenario of possible fascism and communism in the United States.¡¨5 He argues that California, during these hard times, was a battlefield between the extreme Leftists and Rightists. Starr proves his point by telling the stories of California¡¦s industrial labor movement, communist-led agricultural strikes in the Imperial Valley, Sinclair¡¦s uproarious EPIC movements, fascist state and local law enforcement, the press and the judiciary, and the great public works projects of the era. Throughout the book, Starr illustrates how one side would rise to power and how the other side would soon fight back, establishing an equilibrium. He shows how California was almost communist or fascist when one side suppressed the other at certain times. However, the author also points out that actually having communism or fascism in California was unrealistic because both sides were equally powerful. In the end, through public works projects, California developed a sense of unity and recovered from the Depression.

             Kevin Starr¡¦s six-book series of California¡¦s dream shows his in-depth knowledge about his state. In all his books, Starr always depicts California as a place where the hopes and fears of the American dream have played out in a bigger and bolder way. In Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, he shows the extremes of politics during the Depression era that separated California from the rest of the nation. Starr¡¦s work includes both progressive and consensus historiography. As progressive historians, Starr stresses the conflict between competing groups. His book embraces clash between labor and big business, democracy and oligarchy, and liberalism and conservatism. Although Starr believes in progress, he is not fully a progressive historian because he does not conclude that the solution to every problem is democracy, but rather the compromise between radical and conservative. Starr does not show bias in the book. After making an argument, he draws upon large amounts of evidence to prove his point. However, with his broad views, Starr always presents the opposing side of his argument as well. In showing out the battle between the Left and Right, Starr does not lean toward either one side but instead acknowledges their equal power. Starr is partly consensus historian because he believes that Californians¡¦ disputes had never approached the intensity of Europeans¡¦. While talking about how California was testing the extremes of the political scale, Starr also states that ¡§in comparison to Europe, fascism in California remained embryonic.¡¨6 He believes Californians possessed narrower range of extremes compared with other peoples of the world. However, he is not fully a consensus historian because unlike them, Starr does believe that some role of individuals, such as Upton Sinclair and his EPIC campaign, have shaped the history.

            Starr¡¦s book received widespread praise. It was one of the Los Angeles Times¡¦s ten best books of 1996 and also a San Francisco Review of Books¡¦s Critic¡¦s Choice for 1995-1996. William H. Chafe of the New York Times praised Starr¡¦s work for ¡§depicting in colorful prose and vivid details the political conflicts and physical transformations that engulfed California during the Great Depression.¡¨7 He also commended Starr¡¦s powerful personal portraits, which made the book ¡§a giant movie screen on which the dramas of the rest of the nation were acted out as public spectacle.¡¨8 On the other hand, Chafe stated that the very drama of Starr¡¦s presentation created problems as well. Starr¡¦s contending forces are written so large that Chafe feels ¡§as if every significant figure carried the burden of representing Good against Evil.¡¨9 Also, Chafe criticized Starr for oversimplifying history and not defining ¡§oligarchy¡¨ fully. Nonetheless, he applauded Starr for his ¡§brilliant job exploring other sides of California experiences,¡¨ such as the lives of migrant workers. 10 T.H. Watkins from the Los Angeles Times described the book as ¡§the defining portrait of a state in which the bravery, cowardice, nobility and greed of hard times mixed in a brew of unmatched power.¡¨11 Watkins praised Starr for ¡§seizing the threads of history with such whole-souled fervor.¡¨12

            Starr is especially proficient at telling history through detail and vivid description of an individual or event. In particular, he describes Upton Sinclair¡¦s EPIC campaign and the San Francisco strikes of 1934 so well that they form a picture in readers¡¦ minds. This style of writing is what holds their interest. However, Starr often assumes the readers know facts that can be unfamiliar to those not living in the state. For example, in describing California¡¦s water supply and water management system, Starr does not fully illustrate the system or the place, thus challenging some readers¡¦ ability to follow along. Although Starr throws out lots of information and stories, he does this in a way that seems simple and organized. Dividing the book into four sections- radical traditions, a decade of conflict, efforts at recovery, and the therapy of public works- further orders his long story. However, one of the flaws of the book is that the transition of California from being a political battlefield to a state that is united by the end of the decade is not shown well. Starr argues that ¡§by 1940 California¡K [California] had reached a long-lasting plateau of completion.¡¨13 While Starr illustrates how public works projects were achieved, he does not really explain how these projects helped the radical and diverse Californians unify. Overall, Starr has written an interesting book with useful information that allows readers to see the big picture of California in detail.

            According to the author, although the Great Depression was a nation wide incident, California was impacted in different ways than the eastern United States. Initially, with agriculture at the base of their economy, Californians did not suffer form the same levels of visible turmoil and dislocation that hit more industrialized Eastern states. Soon, however, ¡§what California lacked in industrial suffering and strife was more than compensated for in the agricultural and cannery strikes punctuating the decade.¡¨14 More time was needed for the Great Depression to fully impact California, but when that time came, the effect was even more serious. On top of that, large numbers of farmers fleeing from Dust Bowl migrated to California, increasing the rate of unemployment even more so than in the eastern states. Also, while the eastern United States followed the lead of President Roosevelt¡¦s New Deal in recovering from the Great Depression, Californians rejected the program. As such, California developed individualist and distinctive political and social traditions.

            California¡¦s distinction from the rest of the country is also evident in the conflict between the extreme ends of the political spectrum. Starr argues that ¡§faced with a ruinous depression, Californians of the 1930s managed, amidst some social misbehavior, to accomplish one of the most creative decades in the history of any American State.¡¨15 While many other nations had fallen into Communism or fascism during these hard times, the United States, managed to overcome the exploration of both sides and stick to the American tradition of constitutional law and fair play. In this sense, the author argues that California was important to the rest of the country in exploring and overcoming these conflicts to prevent the rest of the nation from falling to communism or fascism.

            The Golden State faced just as many conflicts during the Great Depression as the rest of the United States.  California explored the extremes of politics, and the consequent political battle made this decade the most radical and dramatic years in the history of the state. Towards the end of the decade, California found unity in public works projects and successfully recovered from the Depression. Kevin Starr¡¦s Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California details the story of the labor movement, communist strikes, fascist government, and public works thoroughly with detailed and vivid description of many individuals and event. This book presents the most unstable decade, the 1930s, in California, from the first rise of the conflict to its resolution. Through this difficult decade, Californians created their own brand of lifestyle that still continues to intrigue the rest of the nation because of its resourcefulness and diversity. As Starr says, ¡§They endured, and so did the California Dream.¡¨16



1. Starr, Kevin. Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996 3.

2. Starr, Kevin 82.

3. Starr, Kevin 222.

4. Starr, Kevin 275.

5. Starr, Kevin vii.

6. Starr, Kevin 194.

7. Chafe, William H. ¡§On the Edge: Depression-era California as the scene of a grand moral battle.¡¨ New York Times Book Review. 18 Feb. 1996: 19.

8. Chafe, William H. 19.

9. Chafe, William H. 19.

10. Chafe, William H. 19.

11. Watkins, T.H. ¡§The Decade the Dream Took a Beating.¡¨ Los Angeles Times Book Review. 21 Jan. 1996: 10.

12. Watkins, T.H. 10.

13. Starr, Kevin 339.

14. Starr, Kevin vii.

15. Starr, Kevin viii.

16. Starr, Kevin viii.