INVENTING THE DREAM: California Through the Progressive Era by Kevin Starr
Kirkus Star

INVENTING THE DREAM: California Through the Progressive Era

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

The author of Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 (1973) has now produced a second stellar volume, centering on Southern California and continuing through the rise of Hollywood: an exercise in symbolic interpretation--California's meaning in the American imagination--grounded (as he writes of Sunset magazine) in ""fact and imaginative perception,"" as well as a spirited, personalized narrative history. Start can be faulted perhaps for a surfeit of personal detail (unhappy childhoods, likings for ""the ladies""); but he does weave together his disparate political, economic, social, and cultural strands with finesse. Here is the dispossession of the Spanish-speaking Californians--and, subtly, the displacement of the ""semi-tropical"" image by ""the more civilized Mediterranean comparison,"" rich in nature and history. (The middle-class Southern Californian horticulturalist--often living in a colony--had time and means for finer things.) Here inescapably is Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona--in which ""a representative Protestant sensibility. . . feels the comforts of a local Catholic tradition."" Here are the distinct Bohemian modes of genteel Pasadena and the Arroyo, with marvelous cameos of Mary Austin and Charles Fletcher Lummis. Here is agriculture: the wheat industry founded on the infrastructure of mining; a luminous evocation of citrus culture at its peak; the contrast between the orange-crate-label idyll and monopoly land ownership; Paul Masson as ""the living embodiment of California wine as a total way of life."" (Starr is outstanding on agriculture.) Another major emphasis is Progressive political reform--uniting the upper-class socialist left and civic-minded right--and reforming impulses: in the kindergarten movement (a fine appreciation of Kate Douglas Wiggin) and the Bank of America (""As A.P. Giannini saw it, a good bank is simply a communal agency through which society maximizes the uses and effects of its available cash. . .""). Even on Hollywood, Starr is multidimensional, unclich‚d--describing D.W. Griffith, for instance, using ""the details of Mission San Gabriel--the walls, altar, belfry, and garden--on a shot-by-shot, detail-by-detail basis so as to integrate architecture and setting into the symbolic center of his story. The Thread of Destiny proved that film was capable of narrative by means of symbol and association. . ."" (An 18th-century mission was reenergized by an early-20th-century mission myth to demonstrate the possibilities of a new art medium.) Invigorating--just what so many symbolic explorations aren't.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1985
ISBN: 0195042344
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press