Kevin Starr is regarded as the living archive of California. The historian was born in San Francisco in 1940. He studied History there before enlisting in a tank battalion in Mannheim, where he was stationed for two years. Back in the United States, he studied American Literature at Harvard, where he became an assistant, later associate, professor. In 1973 he returned to California, where he has lived and worked ever since. He received a Master’s in Library Theory at Berkeley and worked as a librarian for the city of San Francisco, as well acting as assistant to the Mayor. Starr combined his administrative and academic activities with journalistic work. He was a daily columnist for the ‘San Francisco Examiner’ and wrote for other papers including: ‘The Los Angeles Times’, of which he was also a contributing editor. In 1994 he was named the State Librarian for California.
Above all Starr is known for his monumental history of California which comprises seven volumes so far. This work scholastically defines the singularity of California within the context of the Golden State’s role in relation to the rest of the United States. Whether as precursor, utopia, experimental laboratory or cartoonlike effigy, of one thing he is certain: “If America didn’t have California, its psychological life would be very different. Its fantasy life would be hampered. An enormous amount of American creativity would be lost.” Starr unfurls a broad cultural panorama which extends from California’s Gold Rush via Hollywood and the Great Depression to the unprecedented numbers in currents of migration, right up until the present time. The most recent book in this series, ‘Coast of Dreams. California on the Edge, 1990-2003’ (2004), is a kaleidoscope of Californian diversity. It combines chapters on surfing with depictions of violence by young gangs, racial tension, as well as the rise and fall of Silicone Valley, and concludes with the inauguration of the new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Using significant events as a point of departure, Starr traces an epic flow, aligning animated and intoxicating vectors of development with short portraits of stock characters, and at times startling personalities, such as O.J. Simpson.
Starr has been awarded many honours. He was a fellow of the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and of the Society of American Historians, and has received four honorary doctorates and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the PEN Center USA. In 2004 he was named State Librarian Emeritus and in 2006 he was awarded the “National Humanities Medal”. He teaches at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and works at present on the next volume of his Californian history, under the title ‘Finding the Dream. California 1951–1963’. In 2005 Starr’s one-volume ‘California: A History’ was published.
The author died on January 14, 2017.
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