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Kevin Starr, Revered Chronicler of California, Dies at Age 76

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Kevin Starr. (University of Southern California)

Kevin Starr, a fourth-generation San Franciscan who stood alone as an interpreter of the vivid sweep of California history and its importance to the American nation, has died at the age of 76.

The Los Angeles Times, the first to report Starr's passing, said he died Saturday after suffering a heart attack in San Francisco.

"Kevin Starr chronicled the history of California as no one else," Gov. Jerry Brown -- another native San Franciscan with deep ties to the history of the city and state -- said in a statement Sunday. "He captured the spirit of our state and brought to life the characters and personalities that made the California story. His vision, like California itself, was bigger than life."

Starr was born Sept. 3, 1940, and identified strongly with his native city. One of his great-grandfathers had arrived here during the 1850s and one of his grandfathers was a firefighter who battled the blaze that swept the city after the 1906 earthquake.

At various points, he ran, unsuccessfully, for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was an aide to Mayor Joseph Alioto, and served as the city's head librarian. He went on to become the state librarian and to hold faculty appointments at a series of California colleges. At the time of his death, Starr was a professor of history and policy, planning and development at the University of Southern California.


His biographical summary tends to bely what might describe as a turbulent childhood. From the L.A. Times obituary:

At age 6, he and his younger brother were sent to Albertina Orphanage in Ukiah, more than 100 miles north of San Francisco, after his parents divorced and his mother suffered a nervous breakdown.

His mother eventually brought her two sons back to live in the Portrero Hill housing project in San Francisco, where the family lived on a monthly welfare check of $130.

To “emancipate” himself from the hardscrabble upbringing, he worked two newspaper delivery routes. Starr also credited the Catholic Church’s strong educational mission. He attended St. Boniface School in the Tenderloin district, and later, St. Ignatius High School, before completing his high school studies at a seminary and enrolling in the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco.

Starr went on to graduate studies at Harvard, where he earned a doctorate in American literature. It was there, he said in a 2009 L.A. Times interview, he conceived the idea of his California history:

"I thought, 'There's all kinds of wonderful books on California, but they don't seem to have the point of view we're encouraged to look at -- the social drama of the imagination.' So I started the first volume, writing it for my thesis."

That work, published in 1973, was "Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915." The book, the first in an eight-volume series published over 36 years, traces how California bloomed into the national consciousness -- as a primitive Eden, as the scene of riotous Gold Rush excess, as an American society founded and focused on the new, as a place of constant contradiction.

"Americans and the California Dream" is mostly a literary history, focusing on how a wide range of witnesses -- including explorers, military, politicians, journalists, historians, poets and novelists -- responded to California and, in turn, the affect California had on them and on American life and imagination.

Here he is, for instance, on the afterlife of the Gold Rush, which he said was responsible for an enduring "accrual of psychological associations" with the state:

"Whatever else California was, good or bad, it was charged with human hope. It was linked imaginatively with the most compelling of American myths, the pursuit of happiness. ... California would never lose this symbolic connection with an intensified pursuit of happiness. As a hope in defiance of facts, as a longing which could ennoble and encourage but which could also turn and devour itself, the symbolic value of California endured -- a legacy of the Gold Rush."

By the time the final book in the series, "Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963," was published in 2009, Starr's work had achieved landmark status. An L.A. Times reviewer was almost euphoric:

"Taken together, these books constitute as comprehensive a social, political, ethnographic, cultural and philosophical history as any state is ever likely to achieve. It was conceived in dazzling ambition and masterfully executed. The author's scholarship and erudition animate each volume without once falling into the trap of self-regard. It is, in sum, an achievement made even more remarkable by the fact that it is wonderfully readable."

Some criticized Starr for presenting too sunny a picture of California's history, especially its early chapters.

In a 2013 talk at USF, Starr acknowledged the criticism and talked about the growth of his own historical understanding.

"I have tried to develop more and more what [Spanish philosopher and playwright Miguel de] Unamuno called 'the tragic sense of life' and to see the war of good and evil occurring simultaneously," Starr said.

That change might be seen his introduction to “Rooted in Barbarous Soil,” a volume of essays on the Gold Rush and its immediate aftermath, Starr addresses the “racist criminality” that characterized the era’s treatment of the native population and the denial of liberty and justice to immigrants of color.

"For some, the Gold Rush is a panorama of delusion, aggression, lies and deceit, broken promises and empty dreams," Starr wrote. "For those who think this way, those long-ago years continue today in masked but still damaging forms. ... Yet for those who believe that the California experiment, which is part of the larger American experiment, is of lasting value, the sins of the Gold Rush, while not denied or even forgiven, can be held in equipoise, in mitigating judgment, against all that the Gold Rush positively achieved. ... Such positive results do not excuse the sins of the past; yet they do provide a hope that what has been accomplished has been, on balance, worth at least some of the terrible cost."

In a widely quoted 2003 op-ed piece for the San Francisco Chronicle, Starr wrote that "California is everything and nothing at all. It is the cutting edge of the American dream -- a utopia. But it could also become the paradigm of the dream lost -- a nightmare dystopia."

He ticked off the major challenges facing the state, including mass incarceration due to the ongoing war on drugs, homelessness and declining quality of life for many in both urban and rural California, the dot-com bust, the collapse of the state's finances, and the need to find a way to accommodate a continuing influx of people.

He closed by asking whether the California of the future would be one in which the state's riches would "belong to a privileged few? Or will millions of Californians, including those of ordinary abilities, find themselves participating in what promises to be the most interesting social experiment on the planet?"

Starr was known as a dazzling conversationalist eager to take his audience along on his intellectual adventures. L.A. Times book editor Carolyn Kellogg described him in a 2013 piece:

"Asking Kevin Starr a question is like turning on a fire hose. First there's a blast of erudition. Then, as his intellect gathers, information rushes out in a deluge. He's talking, but it's as if an invisible scholar inside his head is yanking books off shelves, throwing them open, checking the index, then racing off to find the next volume. On the outside, Starr is an avuncular 72-year-old, but his brain is sprinting like an Olympian."

A couple of other Starr remembrances via the San Francisco Chronicle:

“No one else has more printed words on the formation of the Golden State, and what it means to the nation and world, than Starr,” said Mattie Taormina, who worked as Dr. Starr’s special assistant at the California State Library for more than eight years.

Taormina, who is now director of the Sutro Library — the California State Library’s San Francisco branch — said Dr. Starr’s compassion, wit and humility inspired everyone that knew him.

“He was a presence. He was the kind of force that would fill up a room whenever he came in,” Taormina said. “He was such a great mentor, and he was that way not just with me, but with everyone that worked at the library.”

... San Francisco Museum and Historical Society co-founder Charles Fracchia, who knew Dr. Starr for nearly 60 years, said his friend’s hard upbringing drove him to succeed on a “huge and broad level.”

“His books will not die; they will not go out of fashion. They will be on library shelves as works of literature,” Fracchia said.

Starr is survived by his wife, Sheila Starr of San Francisco, and daughters Jessica Starr and Marian Starr Imperatore..

“He loved life, and he lived life in a beautiful and grand way — to the fullest,” Jessica Starr told the L.A. Times. “We’re sorry he is no longer with us. He was taken too soon.”

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