Photo by Jessica Marple
Issue: Winter 2005
California: A Historian
Although Kevin Starr has written more than a million words about the mercurial 31st state, he clearly has not lost his passion for the subject.
Starr – professor of history in USC College, state librarian emeritus
and arguably California's leading historian – has just published his
12th book about the Golden State, which he has dedicated to USC’s
Kathryn and Steven Sample. In it, he describes California in vivid
detail starting in 1533, when Spanish explorers landed on what they
mistook for an island. A few years later, they named it California
after the mythical gold- and gem-laden island Garci Ordonez de Montalvo
described in his 1510 romance bestseller, Las Sergas de Esplandian.
Starr’s one-volume history – which he calls “a 100-yard dash through
California’s history” – ends during another watershed moment for the El
Dorado state – May 2005, when Los Angeles city councilman Antonio
Villaraigosa was elected the city’s first Hispanic mayor since
Cristobal Aguilar left office in 1872.
Currently, he’s working on the last installment in his seven-volume
series “Americans and the California Dream,” published by Oxford
University Press. That one will describe the state from 1950 to 1963,
ending, Starr says, “just before the civil rights movement when the
For a history buff thirsty for knowledge, but who doesn’t want to read volumes, California: A History
is a tall glass of water – or a glass of milk and honey, if you wish.
Throughout its 342 pages, Starr doesn’t try to mask his enthusiasm.
He’s relieved, for example, when the Spanish Crown in 1765 finally
makes a decision about Alta California after mulling it over for 70
Nor does he pull punches when describing the first
Spanish settlers’ violence against the culture and human rights of the
indigenous people. He also doesn’t shy from addressing the early
Spanish soldiers’ sexual exploitation of Native American women.
“As a historian,” he says, “you have got to tell the truth.”
– Pamela Johnson