Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book: Golden Dreams by Kevin Starr

Kevin Starr, California's state historian, is up to the 1950s in his history of the state (unifying title theme: Dreams!). I don't know whether his editors have simply given up or whether he's dispensed with them due to the state budget crisis, but this volume sorely lacks someone with an eye toward honing arguments and reining in sentences. There is also an overwhelming amount of biographical detail in this volume, which covers the period from 1950-1963, from the guy who founded UCSD to the Norris clan of San Francisco authors.

The book covers the rise of suburban LA; the coalescing of San Diego into a major city; the building and formalizing of the higher education Master Plan; the immense water and freeway projects undertaken in the period; and a smattering of cultural and political movements.

Perhaps most interesting (to me, anyway) is his take on the way San Francisco was changing in the period. The time, he writes, represented a shift from what he calls "high provincial"--meaning the city as the de facto capital of a marginal area (the West Coast)--to "baghdad"--San Francisco as a culturally distinct, but no longer dominant metropolis.
The Baghdad metaphor had as its first premise a sense of enchantment, of San Francisco being an alternative to something else, to some other place, to a way of living American life.
Starr examines the way this plays out in a number of areas, from economy to government to media. He's not always convincing, but his account of the way "high provincial" San Francisco was eager to tear down the old victorians and black neighborhoods, which the "baghdaders" fought to save them. I think this is likely an oversimplification, but it does point to the difficulty in assigning the two sides the progressive/conservative labels that might tempt us.

I found the writing pretty hard to get through. Starr tends to fall back on lists, including all the department stores, bars, and lawyers of note in San Francisco, at one point, as well as a long selection of all the novels published by writers living in San Diego in the early 50s. Combined with extended biographical treatments of somewhat marginal figures, the book bogs down badly at points. What might be the biggest difficulty, however, are the length and baroqueness of many sentences. Here's a not-particularly-extreme example:
Until his final years, Lewis, a Tory Bohemian of the prewar San Francisco style, given to bow ties and good tailoring, could be found on a weekly basis in the Cartoon Room of the Bohemian Club, a pre-luncheon Manhattan at the ready, discussing books and writing in a soft and understated but pertinent way with club mates George Stewart and James D. Hart of the English department at UC Berkeley or in the evenings attending meetings of the Roxburghe Society of book collectors or merely browsing of an afternoon at Charlotte Hayes Street--a white-haired figure from another era, almost prenatural in his constant calm and good humor.

The chapters on freeways and water are certainly important, given how much both systems have shaped the state. I didn't find Starr's account of the forces behind their construction particularly convincing, and as far as the water question goes, a book (or TV series!) like Cadillac Desert does a much better job of explaining the history of water in California.

Starr's section on people of color (and yes, they do get one short chapter, and that's it) is mostly cursory. There is some interesting material about the role of Filipinos in the early farmworkers' movement, and a page or two on each ethnic or racial group, but the chapter ends with the "out of nowhere" efforts of Jesse Unruh. To reduce the growing strength of the movement for racial equality to the background of a white legislator's quest to singlehandedly legislate fair housing and employment seem to me to be a disservice to history.

Overall, I'd not recommend this book, particularly, but it's not without its interest, despite its many serious failings.

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