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Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (Americans and the California Dream) [Paperback]

by Kevin Starr
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

December 4, 1986 0195042344 978-0195042344
This second volume in Kevin Starr's passionate and ambitious cultural history of the Golden State focuses on the turn-of-the-century years and the emergence of Southern California as a regional culture in its own right. "How hauntingly beautiful, how replete with lost possibilities, seems that Southern California of two and three generations ago, now that a dramatically diferent society has emerged in its place," writes Starr.

As he recreates the "lost California," Starr examines the rich variety of elements that figured in the growth of the Southern California way of life: the Spanish/Mexican roots, the fertile land, the Mediterranean-like climate, the special styles in architecture, the rise of Hollywood. He gives us a broad array of engaging (and often eccentric) characters: from Harrision Gray Otis to Helen Hunt Jackson to Cecil B. DeMille. Whether discussing the growth of winemaking or the burgeoning of reform movements, Starr keeps his central theme in sharp focus: how Californians defined their identity to themselves and to the nation.

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Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (Americans and the California Dream) + Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 + Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s (Americans & the California Dream)
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Editorial Reviews Review

California seems to have been the source of almost every cultural trend that defines modern America--often in contradictory ways. Consider the waves of conservative and progressive politics, self-love and selflessness, sushi and Big Macs, great literature, and banal films. Inventing the Dream traces this extraordinary state through the early years of the 20th century, when Americans began to flock westward and Los Angeles grew from a town of 50,000 to a large city of 320,000 in justa couple of decades. By 1926, Starr writes, Hollywood was the United States' fifth-largest industry, grossing $1.5 billion a year and accounting for 90 percent of the world's films--and, of course, changing the values of whole cultures. This is a fine work of historical reconstruction, joining Starr's other well-regarded works of Californiana.


"In this robust sequel to Americans and the California Dream (1973), Starr traces how Southern Californians 'defined their region to themselves and to others in the 1850-1920 period'....[Starr] persuasively presents the cultural ingredients that have made Southern California a symbol of America's continuing with health, the good life, youth, sexual vitality, and entrepreneurial success."--Cultural Information Service

"An achievement deserving respect and certain to give lasting value."--California History

"[Starr] once more provides intellectual exploration at its best."--Pacific Historical Review

"Starr has written the best explanation yet of why the land south of Tehachapi is now the country's model and pace-setter."--Books of the Southwest

"A delightful and extremely thorough chronicle of a state that is almost a mythical kingdom. Nobody who is interested in any of the intellectual currents of American history, or of the roots of twentieth (perhaps even twenty-first) century thought can fail to enjoy this."--St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Having already given us Americans and the California Dream, Kevin Starr bids fair to become the foremost chronicler of that often fabulous region, imposing upon the dramatic elements of California history a novelist's imagination and a cosmopolitan and sophisticated intelligence."--Philadelphia Inquirer

"An excellent book...vividly written, thoroughly researched, rich in details and alive with interesting, and sometimes incredible people."--Los Angeles Times

"Readable and intelligent."--The New Yorker

"An impressive book...The grasp is sure, the learning awesome. The prose...has a drive that carries cities and industries and people and decades headlong toward their manifest destiny."--The New York Times

Product Details

  • Series: Americans and the California Dream
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (December 4, 1986)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195042344
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195042344
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #675,018 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Should Be Called a History of Southern California February 17, 2004
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
... Not that I have a problem with that. This is the second volume in Starr's definitive six volume history of California. Starr writes history that combines straight forward "who, what, when" facts with digressions into literary criticism and pyschologlogical speculation. This is a blend that is quite apt for California, and I have found volume one and two to be rewarding.
Starr (who is also the state librarian for California) also includes excellent essays on his sources for each chapter, which makes further reading a snap! For example, after reading his first volume "Americans and the Californian Dream", I read "The Octopus" by Frank Norris and "Two Years Before the Mast" by Dana.
This book covers roughly the same time period as the first volume, and there is some overlap. After all, there wasn't THAT much going on in California from 1850 to 1900. However, while the first volume focuses almost totally on Northern California, this volume focuses almost totally on Southern California.
And by Southern California, I mean Los Angeles, with a little bit of Riverside thrown in. As a native of San Francisco and a current resident of San Diego, I simply couldn't believe at how little San Diego county came in for mention. Again, I'm hesitant to label this as a criticism, since I did love the book, but I just wonder what San Diego did (or didn't do) to get left out.
Starr spends ample time covering pre-American Southern California history. He charts the development of California agriculture, talks about the "Craftsman" movement and, as his wont, spends entire chapters talking about the artists and boosters of the time. Personally, after reading this book I have resolved to read at least one book of Mary Austin.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Southern California through WASP eyes February 6, 2008
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I love Kevin Starr's books. His multi-volume history of California deserves a Nobel Prize (for Literature) in my opinion, but there is something unique about Kevin Starr that potential readers should know: His heart may be in California (he was born in San Francisco), but his razor sharp mind is clearly in New England (he's a Harvard Ph.D.). Dr. Starr writes California history through the eye lens of a Boston Brahmin. Just like his first book in the series, he's very much concerned with the geographic, religious and (especially) academic pedigree of the important California founders he discusses. He mentions that Charles Fletcher Lummis is a "Harvard Man" what seems like a hundred times in the text, and his very East-coast interests are revealed in the topics he concentrates on the most: the founding of cultural and academic institutions, architecture, literature, religion and geographic origin. This book, as is the case with the absolutely marvelous AMERICANS AND THE CALIFORNIA DREAM, is very much about transplantation of European civilization from East to West.

Now, if you like that sort of thing, you'll love this book. Being a transplant from the East myself, I happen to like it, and I think this book is to Los Angeles what his earlier book is to San Francisco: The story of how restless, eccentric and talented Easterners came to the harsh, beautiful West and, in the process, disrupted their European sensibilities and invented a new type of civilization. It's a fascinating story, told with brilliant insight by this remarkable historian, with a truly profound lack of political subjectivity. It's rare to find this type of history being written today.

Dr. Starr's narrative skill is unmatched. Really.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cultural History emphazing the Southland January 25, 2009
This is the second volume in Kevin Starr's ongoing cultural history of California. It focuses the ideas of California - as an Eden, a health center, a place to get rich quick and leave, and all the others - and shows how they emerged, grew, interacted with each other and with reality and how they affect us today. This volume is from the post-Gold Rush era to WWI, approximately 1870-1920.

This volume focuses heavily on Southern California, in my opinion too heavily, especially since the next volume Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s (Americans & the California Dream) is also about Southern California. The population of Northern California was significantly larger than Southern California until about 1920. Apparently the reason for this disproportion is that Starr is focusing on the 'American Dream'. Northern California had more immigrants, especially Catholic ones. Mostly white, Protestant, Americans moved to Southern California, and these are the ones that generated the 'dreams' Starr is interested in. Although Starr does look at Northern California (especially the agricultural community) it would have been more interesting to me if he had done more comparing of the two cultures. However, Starr is upfront about his focus from the beginning, although not so clear about why.

Another area Starr has difficulty with is geography and natural history. Ice plant is not native to California, The Pacific Current, coming from Alaska, is rich in nutrients but not warm, and the Pleistocene (post ice age) ecology of California evolved with humans as an integral part. Also, the second chapter is about books and paintings.
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