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The Golden Rush

Illustration by John E. Miner

In California: A History, Kevin Starr, the lumbering giant of California social history, delivers his first attempt to synthesize the state’s giant and sprawling past. It is a brave attempt, considering the restrictions placed on him by his publisher’s form: one slim volume. Fortunately, it is an attempt that often succeeds, here proffering a glint of near-archaeological detail, there shining a bright flash of insight about a state whose name originated in a 16th-century novel and that now seems to rewrite its own destiny every few years — almost at will.

The book, one of the Modern Library series, courses along all of the traditional early narrative high points, and Starr breathes life into them, from Cortés’ fateful decision in 1535 to dispatch an expedition to the north, taking one last shot at finding the elusive golden cities (having failed and been reprimanded by the crown several times), to Junipero Serra’s mission-founding Sacred Expedition of 1769 (one made possible by the improbable use of a muleteer’s poultice, which cured the little padre’s ulcerated leg and made it possible for him to forge on). The short but seductive era of the Spanish dons also comes alive, with tales of a rancho society in which, as Starr puts it, “everyone was connected by blood or baptismal relationship,” a situation not unlike vast swaths of Los Angeles today.

The Gold Rush — California’s “rapid, monstrous maturity,” as one 19th-century writer would call it — gets a major Starr remake. In a telling chapter, he sifts the nuggets of the most recent scholarship to reveal the eccentricities of this instant global event, which created not just the city of San Francisco but, he argues, a “society of sexual tension and homoeroticism” — a far cry from the traditional view of the period as one peopled with Tom Sawyers and whores with hearts of gold. The Gold Rush and its sequels, Starr argues, catapulted a freeform society where inventor, vigilante, pioneer, tall-taler and businessman simply went out and took what they wanted, making up the rules as they went. In doing so, they created a self-perpetuating ethos. “Californians were at once conceptualizing and actualizing their society,” Starr writes. “It was all happening so quickly! Not for California would there ever be, as it turned out, a deliberate process of development. California would, rather, develop impetuously through booms of people and abrupt releases of energy.”

Unlike many recent scholars of the state, Starr is inclined to view this violent dynamic tolerantly, if not benignly, as a sort of fixed cost of California exceptionalism, an essentially libertarian dream state of creative destruction. (The state motto might thus better be stated as “Eureka, I have destroyed it!”) He is, to be fair, no Sunny Jim, and he pulls no punches; all of the impetuous booms and abrupt releases have their noir side in Starr’s world, too. It’s just that Kevin Starr tends to see the state the way he sees Kevin Starr: as a work in progress.

Starr himself seems to have evolved out of two sources. Professionally, he comes from the tradition of H.H. Bancroft, the San Francisco bookseller who authored an enormous late-19th-century history of the state after amassing such a huge collection of materials that he had no choice but to write. Likewise, as the state librarian, Starr, not a professionally trained historian, stands as more of an entrepre-historian, an accidental academic who, freed from the miseries of the theorizing class, can see the trees as trees, not as stunted shrubbery in some inevitably dystopian postmodern neocolonialist forest. It’s an optimistic inclination that calls to mind Starr’s second primal spring: the 19th-century philosopher and native son Josiah Royce. Born in the Gold Rush town of Grass Valley (just down the street from Lotta Crabtree, the pre-eminent cancan queen of her day) and educated at Johns Hopkins, Royce saw in the development of California the creation of a new man, one born of a “higher provincialism” that fused individualism and loyalty to a benevolent relationship with nature. Indeed, at times, Starr seems to channel Royce. And so: Will today’s teeming California become a land of fighting tribes or what Starr calls an “ecumenopolis”? His answer is to throw in with that other native son and thinker, Richard Rodriguez: We are slowly but surely “becoming more like each other.” What about the environment? His answer is faith in the state’s own native ethos: “Nature working in tandem with technology.”

At 370 pages, California: A History is more a burp than a book for Starr, who has over the past 25 years produced seven large volumes of state history. He is the kind of writer who needs that much real estate — the open air! — in order to produce the kind of literary organ music that floats his many worthwhile big ideas. It is thus a consequence of the Modern Library format that some chapters almost seem like lists, where the author is dutifully checking off what must be done. That is especially the case with the latter sections. The ’60s, check. Silicon Valley, check. The administrations of Jerry Brown and George Deukmejian — well, perhaps the form does have its benefits.

Concluding with a wide-ranging discussion of broken Davis-Schwarzenegger–era politics (not unlike that of the late 19th century), economic challenges (not unlike that of the early 1980s) and the volatile issue of Mexican immigration (nothing like the recent Minutemen activities surrounding the border), Starr finds a Golden State where “the world was still rushing in — legally and illegally, as it turned out — but not to escape reality in California, to bask in the unearned increment, but to struggle competitively in a society that had only recently begun to internalize in its myth of itself what the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called the tragic sense of life.”

Tragedy, from California’s optimistic Clio? To paraphrase Starr, it is all happening so quickly!

CALIFORNIA: A History | By KEVIN STARR | Modern Library | 370 pages | $25 hardcover

Greg Critser is the author of Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World (2003), and Generation Rx: How Prescription Drugs Are Altering American Bodies, Minds and Lives, published this month by Houghton Mifflin.


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