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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2002
Having lived in CA since I was 15 and not being able to imagine living somewhere else, I thought this volume is a must-read for all Californians, whether born here or "naturalized". Being specifically a San Francisco resident, this book shed more light on the history of this city's beginning and "teenage years" than any other source I have come across. Here you will not just read facts about people like Jack London, Frank Norris, John Muir, John C. Fremont and Richard Henry Dana. You will learn what they contributed to the idea of California and their influence on what this state has turned out to be, for good or bad. You will also learn of lesser-known figures such as Thomas Starr King, Thomas Jordan, Isidore Duncan all of whom were immensely powerful figures in their day, but hardly known today by the average Californian. The writing got a little ploddy at the end for me. Maybe I was just tired. Until I got to the last two chapters, I would have given it a 5 score, mostly on the criteria of how much I learned from it. I look forward to reading the next few volumes.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 13, 2004
As a native Californian (San Francisco) I read this book after seeing it cited again and again as an excellent entry point for a study of California history.
I was not disappointed. I believe this book is widely acknowledged as a classic in the field of California history, and I certainly wouldn't disagree with that judgment.
Prof. Starr attempts to illuminate the psychology of early California by providing mini-biographies of important California residents. These biographies are linked together by several recurrent themes. It is these themes that provide the thesis (theses?) of the book.
The themes are: The dark side of the optomism which characterizes the "California" personality; the harsh conflict in early times which affected the development of a Californian "civilisation" and the melding of cultures (Mexican and Californian, Northern and Southern) that produced Californian culture.
Starr focuses more on cultural rather then economic or political figures. Starr also shows a fondness for somewhat Freudian explanations for behavior (repressive parents, absent parents, neglectful parents). Given the age of the book (1975) it's hard to quibble with the inclusion of a perspective tilted towards psychological explanation.
On the whole it was a worthwhile read, and not too dense either. Recommended for those interested in the history of California and it's culture.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on November 15, 2002
Kevin Starr has written a fantastic book. In Americans and the California Dream the reader is introduced to the giants of the age--Herbert Hoover, Leland Stanford, David Star Jordan, John Muir, John C. Fremont, etc. I also loved the fact that he included the lessor known personalities as well. Mr. Star clearly relates the truth behind all the myth and romance with regards to the Gold Rush. While Bret Harte is thorougly debunked, Starr acknowledges that the Gold Rush continues to hold the lure and romance that it always possessed. Anyone who wishes to be introduced to the wonderful history of California must read this. I will immediately purchase the second book of the series.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 22, 2004
Starr's cultural history of California is more institutional history than anything else, which is not a bad thing if you like foundation studies. At the core of the book is the story of how enterprising and eccentric New Englanders attempted to tranfer their native civilization, with all its European imagery, to a new "city on the hill" at San Francisco. It's full of dates and events surrounding the history of colleges and churches and the people who founded them. One can easily sense Starr's interest in intellectual history as reflected in architecture, education and organized religion which, ironically, is a very East-coast way of looking at West-coast culture. Starr's book is excellent if you like that sort of thing, but it's not as tempting a study for those more fascinated with flesh and bone than brick and stone. Some could claim that it misses the fundamental essense of California culture altogether; a "new" civilization unencombered by pedigree and moulded by a beautiful and oppressive geography. This first book of the series is heavily centered around San Francisco and its related institutions.

Criticism aside, Dr. Starr's skill as a narrative historian is remarkable, and he should be considered in the same company as Henry Adams and Daniel Boorstin.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
There are two good places to start if you want to know the history of California: the work of Carey McWilliams and this book. Starr really did his homework, and the range of detail is amazing. Like McWilliams, he knows how to tell a story, and he usually has the back-stage lore on whatever public events he describes in his lucid and very readable prose. That a fact or two occasionally get out of place (the San Diego Mission was not founded by Father Altimiri but by Junipero Serra; and San Antonio de Padua is actually in Monterey County) does not diminish the power or scope of this worthy book.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2014
I have read so far only the first five chapters so my review may change after I get to the end. My disappointment is basically that this book does not tell me what happened, in what order things happened, or even who made things happen. Instead it goes into detail about what people thought about what was happening. I wanted to learn about the Mexican establishment of the missions, how and why Americans occupied and conquered the territory, and settlement. Starr often refers to the "conquest", but never says anything as to how it took place, where and by whom.
This is not to say that Starr has written a poor book. It's just more of a touchy-feely recitation of memoirs that are rather boring and not of much interest to me.
Subjects are in vaguely chronological order, though its not unusual to jump around by twenty or thirty years.
It is not a general comprehensive history of the state during the years 1850-1915. After five chapters I still don't know anything about the "conquest", nor do I know when California became a state. Instead the author refers to these things as having happened, in passing.
I would think the book would be valuable to readers wanting to gain insight into the sociological and even emotional status of early residents. Those readers will perhaps have more patience than I did wading through a fair amount of psychobabble.
August 2014: Now that I have finished the book my opinion has not improved. I really had to drive myself to finish reading all of it. There is a good long chapter on the founding of Stanford University, but little on Stanford himself. Another chapter devoted to Gertrude Atherton, novelist and a chapter on Jack London. There is a fair amount on architecture of the period.
The book comes across as a collection of essays on subjects that the author took an interest in over a long period of time. There is little attempt to tie it all together other than putting the essays between the covers of one book.
The amount of research Starr did is obviously extensive, but the product is very unsatisfying. I have read two other books in this series from which I learned a lot of California history, so I know Starr can write a good history. Since this is one of his earliest writings (1973) I have the feeling that he was just learning to write.
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on January 7, 2009
Like all Keven Starr's books on California history and culture, this one is first rate and is helps to sort out the reality of that unique mixture of hope, seductive reality and occasional disappointment that characterize the California experience.
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on September 27, 2015
Dense, plodding, but informative. A nice volume for picking and choosing topics of interest as table of contents has all laid out.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 3, 2013
Fantastic book, required reading for anyone interested in California history thru its inspired literature. Any author that can blast Jack London and Gertrude Atherton in the same book, has to be read.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 4, 2015
a great history of california
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