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on August 29, 2009
Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963 (Americans and the California Dream)
Kevin Starr is himself a wondrous California resource. He seems to know all things California and this is the eighth volume in his "Americans and the California Dream" series. Opening it I felt like I was entering one of those latter-day off-beat supermarkets originating in the Golden State, encountering a cornucopia and expecting to be surprised by some of what I might find (or not). I was not disappointed.

Starr has a scholar's command of the material and a home-boy's affection for his subject. His great strength is as a compiler, distiller, and packager of the extensive historical literature on the state. This particular volume covers his own formative years (he is a San Francisco native) and it shows, favorably.

Golden Dreams is fact-jammed, but Starr renders it palatable by typically telling us just enough to humanize each of hundreds of persons whom he has selected to portray the culture, society, and politics of this period. Fortunately for both the author and his readers, California seems to have long had more than its share of memorable characters. Wisely, he does not adhere strictly to the 1950-1963 time boundaries when it is helpful to have retrospective context or to project toward later consequences.

The book includes five major sections covering suburbanization, the major cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego), politics and public works, selected aspects of culture, and what Starr calls dissenting opinions (primarily environmental and civil rights issues). The "Politics and Public Works" section, for example, ably documents how California prosperity was built on public investment, especially in the defense and aerospace industries, highways, water works, and higher education.

Certain imperfections are noticeable but tolerable in this expansive survey. Some readers may question the relative emphases Starr (or his editor) gives to certain life and culture topics. For example, there is an entire chapter on San Francisco regional literature, which in this context seems inordinately inclusive of many comparatively minor writers. So too, four pages on Tiki restaurants seem too much. On the other hand, I enjoyed his chapter on jazz (others may not, but I am a fan), and I felt it justified to balance West Coast contributions against those of New York, New Orleans, and Chicago, for instance.

As in one of the new-fangled California supermarkets, a few staples are missing. Surprisingly, Starr does not give sufficient attention to certain of the state's major industries. While he discusses the water and migrant labor politics of agriculture, we are mostly left to wonder about its variety, technologies, transformations, environmental impacts, and contribution to the state's economy. And although he identifies particular films and television shows and their stars to support various points throughout, he offers no systematic discussion of these industries as businesses during this period. Nor does he assess at any length how the advent of television viewing altered the lives of not just Californians, but Americans generally.

Starr's coverage overwhelmingly focuses on Southern California and the Bay Area, fair enough based on the population distribution. However, the counties north of Marin and Sonoma are left out altogether (except for occasional mention in relation to statewide political issues), the Central Valley receives very little attention, and Sacramento is noted only as a place where politics are done and Joan Didion grew-up.

On the whole, however, Golden Dreams is not only highly engaging, it serves as a good reminder of how much certain things changed both during the fifties and since. San Francisco, for example, was still "fundamentally conservative politically," although elements had long been "liberal in matters of private life." I had forgotten that the Republican national conventions in both 1956 and 1964 were in San Francisco (what could be more far-fetched today?).

Starr believes that "the national experience and the California experience became, increasingly, a converging phenomenon" in this period. California certainly exercised a major influence on the broader popular culture. Back then this Midwestern youth, and virtually all of my peers as I recall, thought California was the place to be. Surely, however, the state's image was idealized - it was not so golden for many groups, especially the poor.

As development has overcome parts of the state and as public investment now unravels the Golden State is less the model for dreams and emulation that it was in the fifties. Nevertheless, most readers are likely to be highly appreciative of Starr's satisfying re-creation of that time and place. I would look forward to his volume to cover the remaining period in this series, 1964 to 1989, if indeed one is forthcoming.
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on September 18, 2016
If you enjoy reading encyclopedias, you'll enjoy this book. It's cram full of historical information, but the author barely mentions most characters before jumping to the next one and the next one and the next one, ad infinitum. If you really want to learn more about some of the people and events barely touched on in this treatise, you will have to look elsewhere. Having said that, the author does give decent coverage to California politicians, but mostly just governors.
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on December 8, 2017
This is a study of California through the 50's and 60's. It was an exciting time of growth I manufacturing and housing. Mostly about the prosperity of Southern California. Kevin Starr is an excellent writer on California history. He passed away earlier this year. He will be missed.
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on August 25, 2013
Starr's period of review--1950 to 1963--covered California's halcyon days, and I arrived in the state in 1961 to witness the last third of that period first hand.

As a graduate Stanford student in journalism, I saw up close many of the personalities he describes, and his depiction rings true with my memory as a Baghdad by the Bay observer.

Later in life I managed government affairs in Sacramento for one of the Kaiser companies and recall the "happy warrior" Pat Brown walking the legislative hallways and greeting everyone--and Starr's Brown is described accordingly.

Starr's account allowed for me to relive those days when all Californians thought the golden sunsets beyond the Golden Gate would continue for ever.

Starr's only shortcoming--but a necessary one to be a classic historian--is that he crams every detail and name into each chapter, and that can wear the reader down.

Starr's capture what excellent historical narratives are--readable, enlivening and evocative of those times for the reader who lived then,

Timothy J. Conlon
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on November 15, 2014
I was born in 1950 and grew up in Ventura, California. I am thoroughly enjoying this book! It describes in great detail many of the aspects of California living with which I am familiar. In addition, Kevin Starr presents behind-the-scenes information and history that brings this fascinating period of history alive. I find his style compelling. There is a fine blend of humor, detail, and wry observation that makes the telling of history come alive.
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on September 15, 2009
In recent years I have read all eight of Kevin Starr's "Americans and the California dream" histories. Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance is consistent with the previous volumes and has a powerful saliency for me because it focuses on the 1950s. I grew up in Southern California during this era and I suspect that that my Diaspora generation will find this volume to have exceptional meaning. Starr defines the 1950s as 1950-1963, reasoning that that the 1950s continued culturally until the murder of JFK. Starr's chronicle has been a voyage of discovery of my roots, a journey stimulated by advancing age and curiosity about the forces that shaped my life.

Starr writes that this period "survives in popular imagination as a stable landscape resting atop tectonic plates that would soon result in earthquakes as fissures." The reviewer for the Economist quibbled that Golden Dreams does not strictly adhere to the 1950-1963 time period. Starr has never made a fetish of strictly adhering to any era that was the focus of his previous volumes. There are instances where understanding an era requires background about an earlier period, and occasionally it makes sense to foreshadow future events or trends whose roots are in the era of immediate focus. A discussion of the importance of Big Sur to California literature in the 1950s demanded more than simply discussing Henry Miller. The prior residences of Robinson Jeffers and Jack London made Big Sur attractive to Miller and much of local resident John Steinbeck's work was written before the 1950s.

Starr's approach avoids the lazy stereotypes that have often made the 1950s a convenient scapegoat. Golden Dreams is neither an indictment nor an unqualified celebration of this period. He describes the surface conformity of Californians yet shows the inner rebellions and unfinished business that will eventually be confronted -- whether civil rights or the consequences of a population growth from 10.5 million (1950) to 20 million (1970). The dreams, frustrations and ambiguities of California are mirrored in the nation at large. California has captured the American imagination since the nineteenth century, but perhaps never more so than during this era. As a university student in England in the late 1960s I told friends that I thought of myself as a Californian, not an American. Forty years later and after residences in three other states this notion does not cross my mind.

Starr begins with an account of the suburbanization of the San Fernando Valley, which serves as a case study of the growth of suburbs throughout the state that were needed to house the expanding population. I was raised in that valley and Starr's narrative rings true with a wealth of often nostalgic detail -- the opening of the Ventura freeway (1960) within sight of my boyhood home, the uprooting of walnut and orange groves for tract homes, the buffoon of a mayor Sam Yorty, cultural fads such as `coon skin caps. Look Magazine (1962) stated that each day 375 acres of farmland were being converted to suburbs. No wonder the fields near my home where my pals and I did our biological exploring disappeared before our eyes. I had no idea as a youth of the relative affluence of the working and middle-classes there. In 1959 wages in San Fernando Valley were higher than the total wages of 18 states.

Part II focuses on life in the major cities. In Los Angeles, Starr focuses on the influences of Cardinal McIntyre (whose expansion of Catholic schools included Crespi High School where some of my neighbors were educated), Chief William Parker's virtual militarization of a police force in order to patrol 450 square miles, and Dorothy Buffum Chandler's work as the wife of the publisher of the Los Angeles Times to revive downtown as a cultural destination. Starr emphasizes the influence of newspaper columnist Herb Caen on the post World War II culture of the San Francisco Bay Area. Caen's Baghdad by the Bay (1949) became a self-fulfilling myth for the cultural identify and full-throated boosterism of many Bay Area residents today, long after Caen's death. Is there another city whose media so frequently and forcefully proclaim it to be the best place in the world to live? Would any self-confident city do that?

Part III (Politics and Public Works) focuses on the politicians who laid the infrastructure for an expanding California. Starr recounts the political maneuverings within the centrist Republican Party that was triggered by Eisenhower's appointment of Governor Earl Warren to the U.S. Supreme Court. Lieutenant Governor Goodwin Knight became governor and would likely have been reelected in his own right in 1958 had U.S. Senator Joseph Knowland not decided to run for governor. Knowland, an apparent dim-wit, believed that if he were governor he might become the Republican candidate for president if Eisenhower's health faded. So Knight ran for the Senate and ultimately both Knight and Knowland lost. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown and Claire Engel were elected governor and senator in 1958, no doubt with the quiet approval of Richard Nixon who immediately became the most prominent Republican in California. Pat Brown used his considerable political skills to plan for a Big Future. For better or worse, Brown deserves great credit for the implementation of statewide master plans for freeways, water development (the largest in world history) and higher education (including creating the world's first multiversity).

Throughout the series Starr focuses on the influence of arts and culture on the California dream. He acknowledges the work of Ray Bradbury, Alan Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Joan Baez, the Beach Boys, Susan Sontag and an entire(!) chapter on Dave Brubeck. I surmise Starr is a jazz afficionado. One of the delights of Starr's histories is identifying previously over-looked writers and book titles. My short list from Golden Dreams includes D.J. Waldie's Holyland: A Suburban Memoir (1996), Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968), and Gertrude Atherton's Golden Gate Country (1945).

The chapter "Largest State in the Nation" captures the unease felt by many when California became the most populous state in 1962. While Governor Brown celebrated the achievement, individuals began forming organizations to resist growth for growth's sake. As Professor Raymond Dassman of Humboldt State University asked, "Is California better for becoming so populous?" It is a question we continue to ask today.

I have some quibbles. I wish Starr had included some maps so I would not have put Golden Dreams down so often to search out a location. There are factual errors, almost typo-errors. This is perhaps inevitable in a dense 500 page volume that synthesizes so much disparate information. For those focus on the blemishes, I am reminded of the preface to R. E. Moreau's The Palearctic-African Bird Migration System (1972): "I know it is full of imperfections and inadequacies and that readers will find errors from which I cannot be absolved. They will enjoy spotting them but I know too that in not a few places in the book they will find themselves surprised and stimulated."

The surprises and stimulations in Golden Dreams are legion.
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on July 30, 2017
Superb....Starr takes you back on a day to day walk in the decade. Such a great researcher and writer.
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on February 8, 2017
Excellent book on the history of California. Highly recommended.
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on February 26, 2013
While not a readable as, say, Mike Davis, Starr is exhaustive in his telling of this period in California history. I'm probably not quite as objective about the book as some might be since I grew up in California during the era covered by the book. So for me it was a trip down memory lane. For non-Californians it provides a good insight into the politics and the players which shaped California for decades afterward. The fifties were not only a golden age (by certain narrow definitions, to be sure) in California, they also set the tone much of the rest of America in the ensuing decades. For those of you who grew up elsewhere, here's part of the reason why things were the way they were in your world, from ranch houses to TV dinners to ballot initatives. Today (2013), California is a very different place. But once we were golden.
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on July 18, 2014
Came in good condition
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