Kevin Starr, a former California state librarian who wrote rich cultural, economic and political histories on the birth, growth and maturation of the Golden State, died Jan. 14 at a hospital in San Francisco. He was 76.
The cause was a heart attack, said his wife, Sheila Starr.
Dr. Starr, a professor at the University of Southern California, captured the state’s rise in influence — and its singular hold on the public imagination — in his sweeping “Americans and the California Dream,” a series of books that start in the 19th century and go on to focus on the Progressive Era, the 1920s, the Great Depression and other distinct chapters of California’s past.
Throughout the series, which began rolling out in 1973, Dr. Starr showed a familiarity with a vast range of topics central to the state’s development — and its image of itself: architecture, agriculture, literature, water infrastructure and the entertainment industry, among others.
His volume “The Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003” (2004) examined among other topics the Rodney King beating, the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the growth of Silicon Valley as a cultural and technological force, the state’s budget woes, and movements such as environmental protection and New Age spirituality. Dr. Starr saw those major events and trends — in which California played a singular role — as having shaped the national dialogue for years to come.
His richly anecdotal style and descriptive powers, based on his years as a newspaper reporter, columnist and editor, brought a compelling liveliness to his books, as when he referred to a teenage female surfer at Newport Beach as “a five foot eleven sun-bleached blonde Valkyrie.”
An overriding theme among the volumes was the mythmaking and reality that shaped the state’s history, as California long epitomized the land of opportunity that drew immigrants and profit seekers to its borders. The dream machinery of Hollywood, he wrote, simply was one manifestation of that image.
The volume “Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950” (2002) not only covered the state’s booming reputation in national defense and manufacturing, but it also chronicled the cultural craze of the zoot suit and the rise of Richard M. Nixon as a ruthless young congressman.
“As in his other volumes, the scope of Starr’s scholarship is breathtaking,” Atlantic Monthly reviewer Benjamin Schwarz wrote. “This is a social, economic, political, and cultural history that covers such disparate subjects as popular San Francisco restaurants, shipbuilding, changes in domestic architecture, Raymond Chandler’s fiction, the roots of anti-Japanese sentiment, baseball’s Pacific Coast League, and the rise of Richard Nixon. Starr takes the long view; throughout his books he stresses continuities, rather than abrupt change.”
Kevin Owen Starr, a fourth-generation San Franciscan, was born on Sept. 3, 1940. At 6, he and his younger brother were sent to a Catholic orphanage in Ukiah — about 115 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 Potrero Hill housing project in San Francisco. As a teenager, Dr. Starr worked multiple newspaper delivery routes and was a janitor and painter’s helper.
For a time, he contemplated the priesthood. But after Catholic high school, he entered the University of San Francisco and found himself drawn to history and journalism. He became editor in chief of the school newspaper and was mentored by Warren Hinckle, who became the swaggering editor of Ramparts magazine, the lodestar of the 1960s New Left movement.
“He took me down to the Palace Hotel and into the Pied Piper bar, where we admired the Maxfield Parrish murals and had a drink. I was 18,” Dr. Starr told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2010. “Not only that, he introduced me to Brooks Brothers.”
Dr. Starr graduated from the University of San Francisco in 1962, and he won a fellowship that enabled him to obtain a doctorate in American literature at Harvard University, a degree he completed in 1969 after Army service.
His doctorate was on what he called regional realism, the notion of distinct regional identity that became the focus on many of his books on California.
After holding positions at several other colleges, he became a professor of urban and regional planning as well as history at USC in 1989. Over the years, he was also a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, an editor at the publication New West and a contributor to the Los Angeles Times.
In the 1970s, he also served as San Francisco city librarian (after receiving a master’s degree in library science from the University of California at Berkeley), an executive aide to San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto, and a consultant in communications, marketing and public relations.
Dr. Starr was named state librarian in 1994 and retired from the post a decade later. He was a 2006 recipient of the National Humanities Medal.
Survivors include his wife of 53 years, Sheila Gordon Starr; two daughters; and seven grandchildren.
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