Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Kevin Starr: The Examiner Years

Boom California just published a piece I wrote about Kevin Starr's work as a columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. This wasn't an easy one to write, but I think it's important. Especially if you've ever wondered why Harvey Milk's most famous speech portrayed Kevin as a bigot. Or why his eight-volume series, "Americans and the California Dream," skipped the late 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

Some of these columns may surprise Kevin's fans. The tone is quite different from what we see in his books. This by itself isn't so surprising; writing a column for a Hearst newspaper isn't the same as writing books for Oxford University Press. Nevertheless, some of Kevin's opinions from those days haven't aged well. I also chart some of his moves after leaving the Examiner: his unsuccessful bid for San Francisco supervisor, his stint at the California State Library, and his academic appointment at USC.

The whole idea here is to better understand Kevin's evolution as a writer. The Examiner material isn't Kevin at his best, but it doesn't diminish his other contributions. I also think the best way to honor writers is to take what they write seriously.

On a more personal note, I think Kevin's role at the library helped make him the ultimate cheerleader for research on California. He didn't know me from Adam, but when I had a proposal for the Carey McWilliams bio, I sent it to him blind. One day I found a telephone message from him; he had forwarded the proposal to Jim Clark, director of the University of California Press, with his recommendation. That got me a meeting with Jim, which never would have happened otherwise. He was great on that kind of thing, which endeared him to many authors and would-be authors. That was above and beyond everything he did with his own writing.

Kevin also had a good sense of humor. I gave the Bonnie Cashin lecture at UCLA one year, and I began with a dream I had while working on the McWilliams bio. I won't try to summarize the dream here, but it was pretty funny, and Kevin appeared in it. He was shouting at me from a rooftop. When the lecture appeared as a pamphlet, I learned that UCLA's librarian, Gary Strong, had persuaded Kevin to write the foreword. Kevin began several paragraphs by referring to the dream and what he was probably shouting at me. It was only later I realized how weird that was--the author of the dream series appearing in my dream and commenting on it later.

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