In essay about California is reasonable to expect that a lengthy volume devoted to the history of one state would be at least partially lacking in genuine interest. If the state is covered in any expansive way, as such length would suggest, it is likely that the reader must then be inundated with large amounts of information and history that can only be called dry. Climate, geography, shifting populations, and commerce are, in plain terms, not typically exciting reading. Then, there is the matter of author bias; when the focus is completely on a single state, it is to be expected as well that some degree of admiration will infuse the work and reduce both its credibility and appeal. None of this, remarkably, applies to Kevin Starr’s California: A History, and the reality is all the more surprising when it is seen how much research is invested in the volume.
From its first appearances in Spanish fiction to the booms of the Silicon Valley, Starr provides an extraordinary amount of fact regarding the title subject. Moreover, no element of the state’s history and existence, from rainfall levels to political conflicts and national reputation, is ignored. Nor does Starr ever veer from a balanced point of view, and his only admiration expresses the rational appreciation for the uniqueness of California. The work reads, in fact, like an exceptionally well-crafted biography, and this is no minor accomplishment. As the following will reveal through analysis of California: A History, Kevin Starr presents a rare example of a non-fiction study: a detailed and rich examination of a state that makes for compelling reading.
The reader is intrigued from the start by Starr’s introduction to his subject. Skillfully, Starr presents a vast range of statistical information without lessening the impact of his initial inquiry, which goes to the general national fascination with California itself. He immediately supports the validity of this fascination: “Never before in human history, it could be argued, had such a diverse population assembled itself so rapidly under one political system” (Starr ix). The sentence quoted is important in another way; it perfectly captures how the author combines fact, as in his previous presenting of population data, with a broader viewpoint. The introduction then briefly touches upon the many unique facets of the state itself, from its geographical position – which is itself a source of not commonly known information – to its status as simultaneously idealized and harshly criticized as a land of false promise. Starr also traces here the trajectory he will follow in detail later, in that he begins to explore the actual causes of California’s dual image: “From the beginning, American California was caught in a paradox of reverent awe and exploitative use” (xiii). In essence, this is an introduction that does not only promise interest; instead, it generates it, and through a carefully crafted and expansive presentation of all that is the ancient and modern place/state called California.
Starr then enters into the main story, and through the logical progression of the territory’s first appearances in media and subsequent discovery by the Spanish. The introduction is deceptive, however. After presenting the interesting information as to California’s initially description as a mythical land, its name itself taken from a fictive Queen named Calafia, Starr seizes this as an opportunity to – commendably – discuss the topography and climate. The connection is valid and it flows well, as the land itself has always generated “mythical” ideas of the place. Moreover, the author deftly makes this shift through the historical error made by the Spanish in 1533, who assumed they had landed on an island. It was in fact a peninsula, and Starr describes the tectonic activity so crucial to the state’s geographical properties and climate. The facts are many, but they are consistently offered in ways adding interest. For example, Starr does not merely report on the length of the California coast and assume this alone will have impact; he adds that this 1,246-mile stretch is a relatively modern development, as plate movements created in succession a number of bays by steadily transferring one land mass from the south to the north (7).
The dangers of the tectonic formations are offered beside appreciative and factual remarks on the wide varieties of mountain ranges and coastal plains created by them. This is in fact an ecosystem unto itself, as California’s borders of ocean and mountains create an “island within the land” (10), and Starr then discusses how this generates a climate unlike any other on earth. It also follows that this unique environment has hosted unusual species of animal life, and in greater numbers than seen elsewhere. Finally, the author devotes attention to the vast array of Native peoples who long settled throughout the land, and developed varied and sophisticated cultures long before Europeans ever set sail for California. It is a remarkable first chapter, simultaneously rich in detail and fact, and maintaining a broader perspective.
In the manner of a journalist, Starr then moves onto documenting the exact processes of Spanish exploration and conquest/claim. What emerges is a striking dichotomy; early explorers to the region, and most notably Cortes, encountered immense hardships in moving west from Mexico and seeking to establish settlements, and the efforts continued because the Spanish firmly believed in the mythic tales of California as being rich in gold and gems. The Spaniards were only emerging from Medieval mindsets, and the stories of, “the lands ruled by El Dorado, the Gilded man, a king who had himself coated in gold dust each morning” (21), were generally taken as accurate accounts. Through persistence and often in the face of Native attacks, likely provoked by Spanish claims to territoriality, the Spanish extended their control of “New Spain” to Alta California. Equally importantly, Starr offers further information not generally known, in regard to how England’s Drake claimed part of California by virtue of desperation, and the need to dock the Golden Hinde (25). From the mid-16th century on, then, California would become a critical object in the ongoing struggles for dominance between the great European powers. Starr reports on all of the surrounding factors involved, from the ambitions of these powers to access the Far East to persistent beliefs in vast gold reserves within the land. What emerges most strongly, however, are two distinct elements: the gradual and massive displacement and exploitation of Native populations, and the pivotal importance of California in terms of geographical position and temperate conditions. As observed in the Introduction, it seems that a quality of legend has always been attached to the state, and Starr is careful to let this consistent reality largely speak for itself.
Successive chapters then explore the various stages of California’s evolution. At the same time, Starr comprehends that no single factor, such as the advent of the railroads or the Gold Rush, existed independently from the range of other influences and circumstances. For example, the 18th century hold on what would be Southern California by Mexico was largely unproductive, owing to Mexico’s agenda of settling the land as a series of Missions. Certain enterprising Mexicans envisioned a different use of the land, however, and the age of the land grant gathered force, essentially creating in California a variation on the American South. An elite group of Spanish/Mexican families controlled vast ranches, yet a familial and communal spirit dominated, and the land more than provided for comfortable living . Also reflective of the South, Native American labor was typically treated as a slave force: “It was a prodigal existence, generous and unheeding” (50). Following this, Starr delves into the highly complex commercial and political processes which eventually led to the United States’ claim of California. This is challenging to the lay reader; Russian fur traders, multiple explorations and claims by Americans moving west, Spanish/Mexican involvement in further trade, and military and political conflicts combine to render California in the mid-19th century as extremely volatile and fought over. By 1842, England, France, and the U.S. has large forces in the Pacific and were uniformly focusing on claiming California (59). To Starr’s credit, this extraordinary range of names and events, minor and major, may be followed by the reader. It is nonetheless a segment of the history more challenging to follow than any other, a reality virtually inevitable given the now global interest in the territory.
Far more captivating, while just as supported by detailed fact, is Starr’s account of the Gold Rush that would literally transform California in the 19th century. The simplicity of the trajectory is, in a word, fascinating. A Captain John Sutter, committed to establishing a town which would become Sacramento, commissioned the help of a New Jersey carpenter, James Marshall. Inspecting a mill site at the river in early 1848, Marshall discovered nuggets of what appeared to be gold. These nuggets were tested by him, his wife, and his Mormon helpers, and the identification of them as gold generated a response unlike anything yet seen in the nation. This was, as Starr’s documentation of the events and facts supports, a defining moment in the history of the U.S. As the name of Gold Rush implies, it triggered: “A mass migration, of mainly younger men…from all corners of the earth…who ventured everything on the gamble that they could strike it rich” (81). The gamble was risky in more than one way; one in 12 adventurers would die in the pursuit (81). Nonetheless, the identity of California as a land of unparalleled opportunity was forged. As Starr insightfully notes, the myths once prompting the Spaniards were very much still in place, and now translated into a global frenzy for gold. Then, and going to the inherently exponential development of the state, the Gold Rush was responsible for the vast commercial entities springing up to facilitate travel and accommodations.
This entire period of the state’s existence is given extensive coverage by Starr, and for the logical reason that it underscores the evolution of modern California. He then reports on the many and complicated political machinations going to the state’s joining the Union, and the detail is nothing short of comprehensive and exacting. At the same time, there is a narrative course that consistently sustains interest. There is in fact no portion of the book in which Starr does not succeed in presenting fact with underlying meaning, and adding weight and perspective to the focus on the state itself. For example, the impact of the Depression on the nation alters when California is considered. On one level, this devastation to American life “came late” to the state, and because the state economy itself was so diversified. As an agricultural, industrial, and entertainment region, variety lessened the effects (191). On another, the actual issues created by the Depression helped California to consolidate and develop its infrastructure, in terms of new and united efforts to create assistance programs (181). Here, as elsewhere, the unique shaping of the state is made more evident through the expanded perspective. Then, California’s identity as the foremost entertainment production center of the nation, if not the world, is both factually presented and augmented by realities clearly enhancing the status. In plain terms, and by the 1920s, the remarkably temperate climate combined with real estate as yet affordable to promote the state as the mecca of industrial movie production (275). This, and in a manner echoing the frenzy of the Gold Rush, once again generated a massive migration to the state, which in turn fostered the industries necessary to sustain the exploding populations.
Nor does Starr ignore more modern elements of California. There is a considerable examination of how and why the universities of the 1960s became the centers for student uprisings and social activism that would sweep the nation, which in turn is linked to the remarkably rapid development of California from an agricultural base to a more urban environment. It is suggested, and with reason, that the state provides a microcosm of American social evolution, and in a particularly accelerated way. The rise of the great California cities such as Los Angeles came quickly, and generations of Americans, only recently migrated, were suddenly faced with urban issues, which in turn were fueled by the extraordinary range of cultures coming together in the cities (275). Starr responsibly reports on the circumstances going to the urban riots, yet he does so with a sociologist’s approach; the turmoil of the cities, as is true of virtually all other aspects of the state, is powerfully linked to all the forces generating the state’s presence. As multiculturalism has enabled the “free thinking” for which California is famous, so too has it led to intense conflicts. As California today celebrates and seeks to preserve its natural environment and legacies, this same ideology attracts the innovators in technology.
Nonetheless, it must be reiterated that Starr never sacrifices rational assessment for admiration. His reporting on the state is consistently tempered by appreciation, not awe or undue regard, and appreciation for the unique history and place he documents. Moreover, no analysis of Starr’s book is compete without an emphasis on how effectively the author writes in general. His tone is completely based on authority and confidence, yet it always engages the reader through what must be called an elegant and appealing style. For example, while providing important information on the Mexican possession of California, he observes important and external factors, and in this way: “Something was in the air – an attitude, an expectation, a gathering focus – on the part of Americans…regarding Mexican California” (63). This style is very much in keeping with, or reliant upon, the sense of perspective always in place.
Arguably, fewer ambitions in non-fiction writing are more challenging than that of documenting the entire history of a single state. Massive amounts of information are inevitably required, and this alone may easily present work that is accurate but of minimal interest. There is as well the risk of “obsessive” interest on the author’s part, in terms of exalting the subject, and by virtue of the focus. Kevin Starr remarkably meets these challenges. He offers an extraordinary amount of information, yet he does so in a way generating great interest and sustaining narrative flow. Ultimately, Kevin Starr’s California: A History stands as a rare example of a non-fiction work: a detailed, highly informative, and rich examination of a state that makes for compelling reading.
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