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Reviewed by Preston Jones

A California State of Mind

The dreams and follies of the nation, writ large.

Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915, the first volume in Kevin Starr's series on the union's most populous state, appeared in 1973, eight years after the Mamas and the Papas delivered "California Dreamin'," the now cringe-inducing tune that evokes an epoch when one could tag Los Angeles as "safe." The latest installment, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963, has just been published by Oxford University Press. Starr's magnum opus—eight volumes to date, and still not complete— will endure the test of years, not least for its heft and its dogged ambition. Students of California history—of the history of the American West generally—have no choice but to confront this impressive oeuvre penned over decades by the State Librarian of California Emeritus, now a professor at the University of Southern California. Even if these works were awful, one would have to be a little dazzled by their vastness. They are far from awful.

Inevitably, yes, there are low moments. The lowest comes in 2002's Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950, in the chapter on California-Japan relations before World War II. One gets the sense that Starr had little understanding, as he wrote, of events in the Pacific in the decades before the war. It also seems obvious that his commitment to mistaking the label "racist" for historical explanation controlled what sources he focused on and how he read them. Starr himself refers to items that counter his own account, but he puts them aside in service to the problematic thesis that anti-Japanese feeling among laborers in California was responsible for the war in the Pacific. Starr briefly tries to say that this is not his argument, but one need only read the relevant pages to see that it really is. And while Starr does fleetingly allude to Japanese depredations against the Chinese, he paints the Japanese—as he often paints non-Caucasians—as morally superior victims whose violence was unwillingly extracted from them by a wicked "White California." Had the Japanese bombed the California coast, Starr writes, it "might be considered a justifiable act of revenge for fifty years of insults." One wonders what the Koreans and Chinese, who by 1941 had suffered so much at the feet of Nippon, would say.

But if Starr's work sometimes lurks in the depths, it more often excels and sometimes soars. His account of church efforts in earliest American California rises to the level of literature. Here we read of California perceived as a "precious gift," an Eden to be nurtured and preserved. It's a theme that runs through Starr's narrative, from the first volume in the series through Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003, published in 2004. (Starr broke the chronological sequence for that volume.)

Early in Golden Dreams, Starr (citing another author) nicely summarizes California's history to about 1950. From wilderness, he writes, the territory of California passed

to native American settlement, to Spanish exploration, to subdivision as land grant ranchos in the Mexican era, to the ensuing American ranch (cattle and sheep), wheat, and orchard era, to the foundation of townships by pioneering developers in the early 1900s, followed by the long and languorous decades that ended abruptly with the post-World War II suburbanization.

So far so good for the Golden State. One imagines, for instance, a small group of protected buffalo grazing on fenced pastures east of Riverside. One saw them en route from Southern California's Inland Empire to Newport Beach or Disneyland (in Anaheim).

But on that trek one could also see what was coming—what the future of such open spaces would be. Already by 1960, Starr writes, California's San Fernando Valley hosted some 840,000 people—more than the current individual populations of North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Alaska, or Wyoming. Today, at about 37 million, California's population is roughly four million greater than Canada's and nearly twice that of Australia. It seems like too many people live in California, particularly when one considers that many of them inhabit earthquake-prone deserts.

As Starr's titles suggest, many have gone to California in pursuit of dreams. Where else, I asked as a Californian teenager, could one have breakfast at a ski resort in the mountains, lunch at the beach, and dinner in the desert—say, in Palm Springs? But eventide visions run into trouble upon the relative clarity of wakefulness. One finds it impossible to resist the cliché about dreams morphing into nightmares.

"If California's problems weren't so serious," a recent USA Today editorial says, "it might be amusing for outsiders to watch the state's tragicomic descent into financial chaos." The editorial continues with a string of indictments: "dysfunctional political system"; "government by ballot initiatives is a disaster"; "[a] something for nothing culture is no way to run a state." Compared to California's managers, we're advised, "the Marx Brothers look competent."

The sense that California has gone wrong isn't new. Starr tells us that, already in the late 19th century, Californians were romanticizing a "golden memory of pastoral days." But the fruitless hope that California could somehow carry on in all its sun-soaked goldenness was dashed by the fact that people never stopped coming. The truth that Californians, from San Francisco down, have liked to groan about ceaseless growth doesn't change the reality that development has been an entrenched element of the state's identity. Street signs in East Highland have picturesque oranges painted on them in memory of the groves that were plucked for the sake of subdivisions. Post cards and railroad advertisements decorated with paintings of those vanished groves once served to lure an earlier wave of settlers. Now residents with lone, sickly citrus trees in their yards can feel like pioneers.

People kept going; they keep going. The result is that many are leaving; in my little Arkansas town, one regularly meets Golden State refugees. But California's overall numbers continue to increase. Obviously the single greatest wave of recent migrants to California has come from the Deep South. In the past few decades, Mexican immigrants, legal and not, have changed California. Starr cites observers who think of L.A. as Mexico's second-largest city. Perhaps one could say that these latest comers have, in a sense, returned California to what it was before it was lost to Mexico in a conflict that, even the fiercest Yankee patriots must admit, would have a difficult time standing up to the rigors of just war theory.

The surge of immigration to the United States since the mid-1960s has provoked an endless flow of commentary, pro and con. In his 2003 book Mexifornia: A State of Becoming, Victor Davis Hanson, a classics professor and fellow at the Hoover Institute, argues that immigration to the U.S. is a basic component of Mexican government policy, movement to the States serving as a safety valve and holding place for folks who would otherwise be a drain on the already flaccid Mexican system. Hanson complains about the mass importation of habits that have done nothing to mitigate poverty in Mexico, and he supports his case with tales of what has happened on and around his forty-acre farm in California's Central Valley. Perhaps Hanson also worries about what follows when such habits meet America's popular culture, with its fixation on violence and brainlessness. One consequence—which Starr discusses—has been the problem of mutual murder between black and Hispanic gangs, chiefly in Los Angeles and its environs, though a Catholic priest told me the other day that the same problem has arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas. It also needs to be said that the mortifying bloodshed in Tijuana, which is joined culturally and economically to the San Diego area, is tightly linked to the American demand for drugs, not to mention the weaponry that flows from north to south.

Focusing on the American side of things, Hanson worries about people living for decades in an American state and never feeling compelled to learn English. "If we were committed to metering immigration and demanding language immersion and complete assimilation of all new arrivals," he writes, "California could handle a steady stream of legal Mexican immigrants." One problem, he says, is a self-defeating American reluctance to require assimilation, based partly on doubts among Americans of influence about the merits of their own country. Thus, he suggests, "a big state with plenty of room is already too crowded for what we have become"—a society in which the wealthy of Malibu and the poor of L.A.'s barrios couldn't talk things out even if they wanted to.

I've already noted that Starr too often mistakes ponderous labeling for explanation—"[r]acist contempt," "racist abuse," "racist mythology," "lurid racism"—but the man has eyes and can see real problems. In 1997, he writes, California alone had over 40 percent of the entire country's English-limited students in its schools, and some 80 percent of these were Spanish speakers. Starr recognizes that it was never plausible, as some argued, that California's popular, bilingual-education ending Proposition 227 was driven chiefly by ethnic animus. Many immigrant voters supported the measure. But whatever anti-immigrant animus there has been in California has found sustenance in numbers like those provided by the U.S. Justice Department, which stated in 2003 that some 108,000 prisoners in California jails were illegal immigrants who had committed post-entry crimes.

At the same time, we see that the U.S. gets more than fifty percent of its fruits and vegetables from California's farms—and, thus, the nation has benefited economically from cheap immigrant labor, legal and not. Immigration is a complicated issue.

The California Dream keeps taking kicks in the slats. "Fewer and fewer people were speaking of the California dream these days," Starr writes near the end of Coast of Dreams, the volume that takes the state's story into the early 21st century. "[M]ore were talking about the challenges facing California."

Let us count the ways. As of a few years ago, seven of America's ten smoggiest cities were in California. According to a list put out by Business Week near the beginning of the current economic unpleasantness, three of America's five cities with the highest rates of foreclosure were in California—San Bernardino, Sacramento, and Stockton, the last of which also was ranked as one of the country's most violent cities. Forbes magazine produced a list of the 18 American cities with the worst traffic—half of them were in California. One is almost stunned that L.A. has not made recent lists of the country's most murderous villages, but figures published by the Los Angeles Times don't provide much comfort. In 2007, the city's authorities had identified some 720 gangs with a total of 39,000 members.

In Coast of Dreams, Starr describes how much of this developed; his chapters feature titles and subtitles like "A Rapid, Monstrous Maturity," "Homes and Happiness in Residential Subdivisions," "Freeways to the Future," "Scene of the Crime," "Illegals,"—and—in reference to Governor Schwarzenegger—"Hasta la Vista." Then there's the chapter on California's seasons, "Earthquake, Fire and Flood"—to which can be added "mudslide." Our friends at Westmont College in Santa Barbara can tell us about it.

Obviously, natural disasters happen elsewhere: a student of mine lost her home to a tornado, and we're still getting reports on post-Katrina New Orleans. But where the inhabitants of the Mardi Gras city rarely pay for their weird commitment to sub-sea-level existence, California coughs up blood every year for its habitual defiance of nature. One subdivision after another goes up in deserts and fire-prone chaparral—and then the rain and mud. "The weather was bizarre," my sister wrote to me from Loma Linda. "It rained like I've never seen it rain here and it was super cold and windy. There was a horrible flashflood and mudslide in Old Waterman Canyon and a bunch of people died, on Christmas day … isn't that sad? It was really awful!"

And so it goes. I plugged the words "water crisis California" into Google and learned that a major earthquake or flood that disrupted the flows of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers would jeopardize the water supply of over 20 million people who have decided to live in a state where drought is normal. Starr tells us that California's water infrastructure, "a wonder of the modern world," was built on the assumption that "there would always be enough water." California Dreamin'.

Some readers will be put off by the negative tone taken here, but they will need to tell us why Californians, particularly Southern Californians, who still like the place increasingly feel compelled to explain themselves. To be sure, beyond the state of Arkansas I often have to do the same thing. But the Natural State has never been cool. As H. L. Mencken put it decades ago, Arkansas "is the most shiftless and backward state in the whole galaxy." It isn't quite true—Mississippi is a tough competitor—but one needn't hang around long to see what the scribe was getting at.

We learn from Starr's volume on California's early years that that state has always had its detractors. But it's really only in recent times that the Coast of Dreams has become the stuff of widespread nose crinkling. Or perhaps this applies mostly to Los Angeles and the paved mess that surrounds it to the horizon. When people say that it would be fine with them if California broke off the continent and fell into the sea, they mean L.A. (and sometimes San Francisco). Who after all nurses a grudge against Eureka, Healdsburg, St. Helena, or Yucaipa? And while many California cities compete for the status of "armpit" (Colton and Blythe would be good nominations), other places in the state are just hip. Islands come to mind: Balboa, Coronado, Catalina. But, then, who can afford to live in those spots?

Wine country inhabitants, among others, will note that it's unfair to speak of California as a single entity. Within the state itself, L.A. is the model of urban disaster—the thing not to be. This started fairly early. Starr writes that in the decades after World War II, San Diegans wanted to avoid "Los Angelesization." But for all the loathing heaved on L.A., its manners have become the ways of the state generally. "San Diegans did not want their city to be like Los Angeles," Starr notes, "but between 1950 and 1970 the metropolitan region grew from 99 to 307 square miles, as a virtually uninterrupted urban area extended from the Mexican border to Camp Pendleton and from the coast as far inland as Escondido." The sprawl never stopped; news reports have told us about the hardness of life for people who work in San Diego and live in Hemet, about 85 miles away. And for all of Sonoma County's deep Democratic blueness, sprawl and traffic are appalling there, too, as anyone trapped on roads between Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa at rush hour will acknowledge.

So California becomes the stuff of dystopian literature, such as Marc Reisner's posthumously published A Dangerous Place: California's Unsettling Fate (2003), a weird little book that, among other things, imagines the San Francisco area in the immediate aftermath of the Big One that everyone who transits the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges contemplates. ("What if it hits right now … ") Near the end, Reisner summarizes his point:

Fate, whimsy, ignorance, sheer will—any number of things conspire to put a city where it is. Once it's there and it's big enough, it's there forever. But if it's in an earthquake zone, as populous as California is … as populous as Japan is, even more so … you've created a civilization that becomes drastically expensive to maintain.

"Give California nationhood," Reisner continues. "Saw it off from the rest of the United States. That's what they might be thinking in Oneonta, New York, where blizzards are the worst things to come around."

It wasn't always so. Empires coveted California. The British and Russians made faltering claims that couldn't be acted on. The Spaniards did act and held the ground till Mexico extracted its independence. Within less than three decades the Americans took the turf, and thus ended what Starr seems to see as an idyllic era.

Of course, Americans first went to California in large numbers for gold, a mass migration that has been the subject of many works. H.W. Brands tells the story engagingly in The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream (2002): Indian tribes, then Spaniards, then Mexicans, and then the manifestly-destined Americans who, with the help of Australians, Irish, and Chinese, made San Francisco a rollicking, boundary-pushing place. Brands sees that California has always been a melting pot of melting pots.

Brand comments on some of the many things that made early American California significant:

The Industrial Revolution had begun in America before [the gold rush], but the new wealth of the new West accelerated the revolution. The gold of California … poured liquidity east, lubricating the gears of the nation's industrial machinery (and in the process underwriting the Union's victory in the Civil War). More important, California demanded, and received, a transcontinental railroad.

What would America be without California? Brand tells us that it's where Levi Strauss first sold the "distinctive canvas pants" that now enrobe everybody. Starr tells us that California's where McDonald's began. Obviously, California hosts Hollywood and all that means. From what I gather, the waves of Hawaii are better (or bigger) than the Golden State's, but the quintessential American surfer is Californian. The L.A. Lakers are the stuff of basketball epic. And distinctive California ways of speaking have, like, done way so much to shape casual American speech. (Much less known is the endearing though now all but gone slang dialect Boontling, once spoken in Mendocino County.)

California is important simply because nearly one in eight Americans lives there. California has more than 50 members in the House of Representatives. (Texas has about 20 fewer.) By itself, California's economy is the eighth largest in the world. Americans who feel that they'd rather live in a country without California are in a position a little like Canadians who, fed up with Quebec's nationalism, would be glad to see the French province go. But if Quebec really were to go, Canada itself would be radically altered. Canada—its history and ways of being—is intimately tied to troublesome Quebec.

For good and bad, California and the other 49 states are family. "Lest anyone feel smug about California's plight," the USA Today piece already cited continues, "it's useful to remember that the state's woes are a scaled-down version of the entire nation's." The thoughtlessness that has so significantly damaged California is most pronounced there, but it's not uniquely Californian. The point is made by Alaskan family members and acquaintances who grieve over the traffic jams and box store ugliness that infest their state's largest city and who now speak of life in "Los Anchorage."

California is a compendium of sermon illustrations. Jesus was making a spiritual point when he advised against building houses on sand, but obviously there's a practical point there too—a point lost on the mayors, city councilors, and other bureaucrats who have approved one development after another in one of the world's great desert earthquake zones.

Again, Jesus was raising a spiritual point when he asked us to count the cost of discipleship. But an analogy is worth noticing. Jesus talked about a man who began building a tower but lacked the wherewithal to finish it. It's the problem of not thinking ahead, of taking up some project that isn't sustainable. This phenomenon seems to account for much of California's history since at least the mid-20th century.

In recent years the California legislature and local jurisdictions have begun to act in the interests of urban and suburban sustainability, but not long ago the California Department of Finance projected the state's population would grow from some 37 million to 60 million by 2050. My best friend since pre-school, a California probation officer, hears the news, expends a balloon-full of air and says, "Man, that's crazy."

What California has become, and the question marks that hang over its future like scimitars, remind us that humans have an ingrained desire for Eden—but, once there, they find a way to wreck it. The clever snake never stops talking; the forbidden but glimmering fruit never stops looking good. The earliest biblical story involving people shows us that the human capacity for self-deception is entrenched profoundly.

There are many places in the world where one can observe this on a grand scale. California is one of them.

Preston Jones, a contributing editor to Books & Culture, teaches at John Brown University in Arkansas. His recent academic work has focused on early 20th-century Alaska within the context of the U.S. Empire.

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