This land is his land: a 2004 profile of historian Kevin Starr

Editor’s note: This 2004 profile about California historian Kevin Starr was published in The Times’ Calendar section. Starr died Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, at 76.

Kevin Starr's series of books on the history of California, "Americans and the California Dream," weighs in at 29 pounds, 10 ounces. The almost 10,000 pages in the seven books begin in 1850 and end with Starr's latest volume, "Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003." There's just one thing missing from what Atlantic Monthly and others have called the "breathtaking scope" of the books: the author himself.

Like most historians, Starr doesn't believe in the first person. "That doesn't mean I'm not an egomaniac or that it doesn't take a certain amount of ego to write," he explains, sitting in his modest corner office in the social sciences building at USC, where he has been teaching for the last two years.

First person or not, future historians of the state most likely will include Starr in their works: for his role as state librarian from 1994 to 2003; for his efforts to fund and found the Institute for Researching California and the West (a joint project of USC and the Huntington Library); for his support of Proposition 14, garnering $350 million for libraries throughout California; for his role as author, teacher and all-around public believer in California. He has, in effect, written himself into our history. Who is he? What will he look like on the page?

One hundred years ago, in a small Western town, Starr would have been the man to go to with land-use problems involving a neighbor. He's calm and trustworthy. He respects privacy and likes facts. With his fancy education (which includes a master's from UC Berkeley and a doctorate from Harvard), it is also easy to imagine him coming west with Clarence King or John Muir to survey the Sierra.

With his round, jovial manner, he could have been a newspaperman in San Francisco, circa 1873, or, in the pinstriped double-breasted suit and wine-colored cravat he wears on this sparkling September day, a railroad speculator in the style of Mr. Huntington. He could, in other words, be slipped into any one of those sepia-toned photos of early California history and fit right in.

"This book was a living experience," says Starr of the final volume. "I had to live the book and write it at the same time. It was almost like a diary-memoir that took about 13 years to write and to live."

This volume, perhaps more than any other, can make a reader feel as though he or she is strapped to the wings of some giant prehistoric bird flying back and forth across the state, swooping down to examine corners of Malibu and the Silicon Valley, flying up to survey the entire landscape as it is shaken by earthquakes.

It reminds a reader of Borges' famous story, "The Aleph," in which an observer is given access to a tiny hole in a wall through which he can view everything in the world all at once. Water, oil, wine, drugs; the death of bohemia in San Francisco, gang violence in Los Angeles, Tibetan Buddhism; Willie Brown, Richard Diebenkorn, Frank Gehry; the gubernatorial recall -- it all flies by, propelled by Starr's unique brand of cinematic history and his lightning-quick sense of understated humor ("The LAPD was not amused," begins one chapter).

But where Starr really shines is in his use of individual histories to illustrate the larger forces of history at work. Take Veronic Kay, a junior at Newport Harbor High and a crackerjack surfer who manages to pull herself up after her parents divorce and her mother and two siblings are left impoverished. These are the Californians you want to read about, and they are the people Starr loves.

"Historians who write across a period of time are, in a number of ways, trying to hold the world together," Starr says. But he is wary of using what he refers to briefly in the preface to the current volume as his "neglected and incoherent youth" as any kind of explanation for his life as it has been lived these 64 years, or to explain why he chose to spend 30 years of that life writing this series.

Starr spent four of the best years of his life in the Albertina Orphanage in Ukiah under the watchful, kind care of the Dominican sisters. At 6, he and his younger brother were sent there after his parents divorced and his mother suffered a nervous breakdown. Starr's father "was not part of our support system," he says.

When his brother was asked to leave because of behavior problems, Starr's mother brought them back to live in the Portrero Hill housing project in San Francisco and the family went on relief. The check, Starr remembers without missing a beat, was $130 a month.

Does this life qualify as a version of the California Dream?

In a scenario like this, the historian postulates, children either go bad or they grow up fast. "I emancipated myself in those years with two paper routes. I had to consolidate my own identity, my own narrative, a narrative that I assembled."

Starr went to St. Boniface School in the Tenderloin district. His routes, A7 and A11, which he still remembers block for block, took him all over San Francisco. "The city was instructing me," he says of the business offices and stores he passed every day. "I benefited from the superb educational tradition of the Catholic school system.

"I've never been analyzed and I don't want to be. It takes a certain kind of engagement with life to want to write. And writing," he says, "is part of my mental hygiene."

Indeed, there are very few victims in Starr's version of California history, as he teaches it in History 458. Not the Mexicans, not the Native Americans, nor even most of the Chinese laborers. With the exception of horrific historical events like the lynchings of some Chinese workers in the early 1870s, Starr's focus in class is on the dignity and contributions of each addition to the dream.

Starr loves to teach, and he's good at it. "There's something old-fashioned about me," he says, clearly puzzled by it. "One student asked if she could call me abuelo, which means grandfather in Spanish." The students today remind him of the students in the 1950s, hardworking with a very slight sense of irony.

He interrupts his lecture with anecdotes about figures like Arabella Huntington, Henry's second wife. In a period when other single or impoverished women in literature who became pregnant would drown themselves, Arabella reinvented herself and married a millionaire. It's the kind of story he loves. He paces across the front of the room, pulls out his pocket watch, rubs his forehead. He does slight, physical imitations of figures like Denis Carrey, a member of the hickory pick-ax vigilantes and a leader of working men's movements in the 1870s. He loves the ones who fade from the spotlight without a trace.

Starr is a fourth-generation San Franciscan. His paternal great-grandfather was a Protestant pharmacist with a drugstore on 3rd Street in San Francisco. His maternal great-grandfather, an Irish Catholic, had a hansom cab and stables business. His maternal grandfather was a fireman who fought the San Francisco fire after the earthquake of 1906.

His fondest memories are of his maternal grandmother, Nana, born in San Francisco in 1888, who told him stories about historic events she had lived through. "She had lots of living artifacts to illustrate her stories," Starr recalls, "like a banana plant she bought at the [1915] Pacific Panama Exposition that was still alive in the 1940s." Starr also collects artifacts.

The teaching assistant for his undergraduate class brings a picture of her father as a young boy holding a giant, fresh-caught salmon before the Friant Dam in Northern California was built. Starr brings it up close to his face: "That's exactly the way we dressed as young boys." He grins at the striped T-shirt and belt cinched high on the waist.

He has never had anyone do his research for him and shivers with horror at the trials and tribulations of authors like Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. "I examine everything myself. I never take notes without first translating them into my own language."

Until two years ago, most of his time was spent between San Francisco and his office in Sacramento. Nowadays, he spends at least part of each week in Los Angeles, around USC and in South L.A. where he and his wife of 42 years, Sheila Gordon, have an apartment.

His favorite places in California? The Eureka Public Library, the Bohemian Grove of redwoods, San Luis Obispo, Yosemite, the Russian River, Monterey, San Juan Capistrano, Orange County, Old Town in San Diego. In Los Angeles, he loves Tay's restaurant just blocks from USC, Musso & Frank, Patina, Cantor's and Chez Mimi in Santa Monica. In San Francisco, it's Sam's and Jack's, the California Club and the Olympic Club; in Sacramento, Waterby's, where you can hear the hum of state government.

In college, Starr fell in love with the great American historians like Edmund Wilson, Washington Irving, W.H. Prescott and others who practiced history as a literary art. Starr is a man who believes in institutions and speaks about them with a kind of lofty, creative reverence. The office of state librarian, for example, "expressed the dignity of the state." USC is "an ark that lifts all boats." He talks about being a citizen and about civility with the same almost innocent, 19th century passion.

He is a self-described centrist, a conservative Democrat of the old school. The current election, because it is so divisive, seems to have already slammed a door in Kevin Starr's face. "We need liberals to point out where power relationships might be going wrong and conservatives to remind us that there are cycles in history," he says. "I won't go to either camp."

A supporter of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Starr is a firm believer in the importance of business vitality. But he leans toward a liberal social democracy on issues such as day-care for children, healthcare and housing. Democracy depends, Starr warns, on a "de-escalation of the cultural agendas of both parties."

Starr's next book, which he hopes to finish in 18 months, is called "Lift Up Your Hearts" and is about the history of Catholicism in America. As a Catholic, he is extremely protective of his religious faith and "suspicious of Americans who deny each other basic rights on the basis of religion."

The abortion issue, for example, throws him into a kind of agony from which he emerges saying, "I accept my church's position on this matter." It is in this way, an observer might conclude, that institutions protect the private feelings and opinions of their members. "Civility," he reminds, "lies in not denigrating people who think differently than you do."

Starr also has a script up his sleeve, a film version of Frank Norris' 1901 classic, "The Octopus," about the birth of the Southern Pacific Railroad. There's so much life, so much texture in his historical landscape that one wonders if he has the venom necessary to create heroes and demons in a battle of good versus evil.

In his classroom, Starr leans against the blackboard, creating a white chalk outline on the back of his suit. His students range from a tattooed young man just back from Iraq to statuesque blonds with laptops. He remembers that one student has to leave early and practically shoos her out of the room for a midterm review in another class.

He shows a series of evocative slides and demands "brilliant statements" from his students at the end of the class. He makes you want to study history.

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