A kind of yahrzeit candle, somewhat changed from the original essay, published at KCET.org on January 16, 2017 shortly after Starr’s sudden death.
He would probably have preferred the honorific “Kevin Starr of San Francisco,” the city he loved most for its ebullient eccentricities and its food and drink. Kevin Starr – historian, teacher, mentor, former city and state librarian, raconteur, and Catholic – was brilliant in the way that San Francisco can be brilliant. But Starr, who died at 76 on Saturday, was larger in his embrace than one iconic Californian city. His affections included Los Angeles as well, although some in his immense circle of San Franciscan friends wondered at that disloyalty. He even included Sacramento – at least, its political part – among the places where he found that becoming Californian could have a transcendent meaning.
Our state – of mind, of landscapes, of dreams – had been his defining subject, just as the state of California itself had shaped and defined Starr, who endured abandonment and poverty in his childhood and who knew the state’s post-war efflorescence into greatness and who wondered where this life of his had come from and to what purpose.
In a magisterial series of narrative histories, beginning with Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915, Starr found answers to his need to know what, in becoming Californian, he had gained and lost.
For us, Starr illuminated all the ways in which the Californian experience spoke to – and about – the American experiment in place making. California was exceptional for Starr, but not “the great exception,” so unique that its story, gaudy and strange, offered nothing but ironic entertainment. California was not, for Starr, an island off the coast of American history.
His loyalty to California as a civilization in the making has been criticized as boosterish, but that misinterprets what was essential to Starr – his faith.
It was faith in the possibility that ordinary, flawed lives might assemble a community of worth. It was faith in the possibility that popular democracy might sustain public habits of justice, reconciliation, and mutual support. It was equally faith in history telling, whose purpose Starr believed to be the formation of a moral imagination.
Starr accepted the convention that the idea of California would forever be connected to dreams, along with the implication that Californian longing was merely a dream, merely desire for meaning without substance or consequence. But Starr’s use of “the dream” – as something that might be manifested by Californian desire – was his way of secularizing another aspect of his faith – his belief in the Incarnation, in the mystery of the divine turned into flesh, or, as one of his titles puts it, in the incarnation of “material dreams.”
The maintenance of California as place where longings might be assuaged and memories preserved, Starr imagined to be a kind of civil sacrament. That faith led him to constant engagement with Californians – as a teacher (most recently at USC), as an essayist in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times, as the State Librarian, and as a political advisor to three California governors.
Starr believed in a California that was equally promise, commonwealth, and redemption, but California tested his faith. The state he grew up in – a state of big ambitions and even bigger public works – grew less convincing as a model following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the communal violence of the 1992 Rodney King riots, the hollowing out of the state’s blue-collar industries, and the coarsening of political discourse. “California is everything and nothing at all,” Starr wrote in the Chronicle in 2003. “It is the cutting edge of the American dream – a utopia. But it could also become the paradigm of the dream lost – a nightmare dystopia.” Starr knew that nightmares have always accompanied dreamers.
But in his introductory note to Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, the last book (chronologically) in his California history series, published in 2004, Starr wrote that it would be “seductively easy” to “see California as one vast failed experiment. But if I succumbed to this temptation, I would not be seeing the full truth about California and its people.” Starr still believed that binding “the shattered fragments of my neglected and incoherent youth” to the character of this place, “I could find in, with, and through California, some measure of meaning.”
That balanced “some measure” characterized Starr, whose affection for California was tempered by his knowledge of the tragedies of becoming Californian. Yet he still saw in the habits of Californians meaning that was worth conserving and memories – both painful and bright – that Californians should not forget.
Without Kevin Starr now, we must consider the meaning of California and measure our distance from the dream’s realization by reading Starr’s books, beginning with Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 and continuing with Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era, Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s, Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s, Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963, and ending with Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge.
In all, Starr published more than a dozen books, most recently Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America: The Colonial Experience, which he intended to be the start of a new series. Erudite, graceful, and accessible, his paragraphs took shape, he once said, as naturally as “a form of breathing.” There was spirit in that breath. There is conviction also, both political and moral, along with humor and a Shakespearean insight into the follies and grandeurs, the crimes and heroisms, of exemplary Californians. He did not think that storytelling – mere storytelling to critics fonder of historical theory than of lives – was work too humble for a historian.
Many years ago, Kevin Starr reviewed my own attempt at telling the stories of my place in California. He was very generous. We later shared public platforms, op-ed pages, drinks, and more stories. His kindnesses to me are beyond numbering. I saw him last in October 2016, as I waited to speak to a student colloquium at USC. He was full of conversation (as he always was). It is my loss and a loss to Californians that the conversation ended too soon.