March 9,1988, was a warm sunny day in San Marino. Oranges hung on the trees looking like a movie set. I spent a couple of hours that day walking around the gardens of the Huntington Library - the desert garden, the Japanese garden, the Shakespeare garden, and half a dozen others. I drank a cup of tea in the cafe and then I browsed in the bookstore. That's where I spotted Kevin Starr's Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1919.
I was employed by TRW then as a configuration manager and I was spending a lot of time living in the Pasadena Holiday Inn and working at the Jet Propulsion Lab trying to build software written 3,000 miles away on another computer system. But I did get a little time off, and I spent it exploring Los Angeles and environs. Hollywood, Brentwood, Santa Barbara, Anaheim, San Gabriel, the Claremont colleges, Mulholland Drive, the Getty Museum, the Gamble House. I was captivated. A book about the history of California and especially of the Southland, the part of the state south of the Tehachipies, was just what I wanted.
I read the book that winter and again the following year and I collected the other seven books in Starr's California Dream series. I've been reading my way through them over the years. And I've been re-reading them again recently.
California became a state in 1850. In part because of the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill and the ensuing Gold Rush and in part because California offers the most perfect climate in the world (if you don't worry too much about the earthquakes.) The state grew at enormous speed. It was home to the sole original American architectural development, the bungalow. Its early universities, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley, became world class within 50 years of their founding. It produced authors like Jack London and Frank Norris. And it was home to the Sierra Club and the Sierra Madre from which the organization takes its name. The Sequoias there were saplings before the time of King Tut.
Starr's social history attempts to explain the unique California ambiance and the state's mesmerizing hold on Americanos. Fascinating.