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Festival of Books offers historical perspective

University Professor Kevin Starr receives the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement. (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

At this year’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books held at USC, as many as 150,000 readers of various ages mingled with more than 500 authors. On April 20 and 21, authors, artists, chefs, musicians and celebrities converged to throw the nation’s biggest book party of its kind.

As always, the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences was in the house. Leo Braudy, University Professor and holder of the Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature, and professor of English and history, and Master of Professional Writing (MPW) program lecturer M.G. Lord participated in the “Telling Hollywood Tales” panel.

David Treuer, professor of English, was a panelist during two sessions, “Does Race Matter? Publishing as a Writer of Color” and “Writing American Identity.” MPW’s Dinah Lenney and Sandra Tsing Loh spoke during “Why Did the Writer Cross the Genre.”

Quintessential authors such as Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Fuminori Nakamura and Lemony Snicket shared their insights and writing secrets. Among them was USC’s very own literary star, University Professor Kevin Starr.

Winner of the 2012 Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement, the California librarian emeritus was interviewed by history Professor William Deverell. Both are of USC Dornsife.

Starr is best known for his eight-volume series, Americans and the California Dream (Oxford University Press).

“Has there ever been anyone who so embodies California letters as Kevin Starr?” Deverell, history department chair and director of the USC-Huntington Institute on California and the West, asked during an April 20 session held at the Davidson Continuing Education Center.

“There’s a pantheon, of course, where brilliant titans of fiction and nonfiction share collective space in the project of figuring out California. John Steinbeck is there. Frank Norris is there. Woody Guthrie is there. Joan Didion is there.

“And Kevin Starr is there and arguably has been there since the early 1970s publication of his Americans and the California Dream, the monographic ship which launched a life’s work.”

Starr’s series began with his 1969 doctoral thesis in the American Civilization program at Harvard University. Mentored by Alan Heimert, Harvard’s scholar of 18th-century American religion, Starr set out to write on a great awakening of a different sort: California’s imaginative hold on the American psyche.

The thesis became the book Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 (Oxford University Press, 1973). With it, Starr embarked on an intellectual expedition based on a deceptively simple, even formulaic, task, Deverell said. What is the meaning and health of the “California Dream” through time? The journey has produced more than another six books.

“But the whole is far more significant than its parts,” Deverell said. “Homeric in ambition, Kevin Starr’s California dream series is the most important scholarly investigation of California’s past ever produced.”

In 40-plus years, Starr has analyzed the shifting dimensions of California’s possibilities since statehood. And he has changed his own view of those possibilities.

“It is a life cycle,” Starr said. “I began writing this series as a young PhD student at Harvard, and I continue writing it now as a 72-year-old grandfather of seven. So if you haven’t changed, matured, developed and grown over that time — if you’re still back there, there’s something wrong.”

In addition, the first books were written at the pinnacle of the American century, Starr said.

“They were written at the high point of the American myth and symbol and the beginning of the American studies movement,” he said.

Starr himself had finished his Army service, which he completed pre-Vietnam War.

“So there was not the tragic dimension of having to fight in Vietnam,” he said, adding that he attended Harvard in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, “so there was a tragic dimension there.”

Starr said that as he looks back at his earlier books in the series, there are some things he would have done differently.

For instance, he said he would have written something about the campaign against the Native Americans in Northern California from 1858 to 1864. Headquartered at Fort Humboldt, the Humboldt Military District waged the ongoing Bald Wills War against the Native Americans in the Mendocino, Trinity, Humboldt, Klamath and Del Norte counties.

“So that side of things I would have done better,” Starr said.

Starr turned philosophical, saying as you grow, you learn.

“You internalize what [Miguel de] Unamuno called the Tragic Sense of Life,” he said. By the 1980s, a swarm of new historians entered the fray. “They magnificently opened up landscapes. I began to learn from the next generation.”

Starr was greatly influenced by historian and journalist Carey McWilliams JD ’27, a USC graduate whom Starr knew before McWilliams died in 1980.

“Alfred North Whitehead said that the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato,” Starr said. “You could say that all writers on California are a series of footnotes to Carey.”

After all these years, Starr still believes in California’s exceptionalism.

“California is a high instance of American civilization,” Starr said. “It wasn’t an alternative. It wasn’t an eccentricity. It wasn’t an afterthought. It wasn’t out there like a bellwether. It was an instance of American civilization. The way that New Englanders never have trouble saying New England is an instance of American civilization.

“Or Mid-Atlantics, New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, the South — especially because of the war between the states — the South has no problem seeing itself on its own terms. People from Illinois and Wisconsin. And Texans have no trouble whatsoever.”

He recalled browsing the Widener Library at Harvard as a graduate student and discovering its remarkable California collection. He felt studying California helped him to express himself as an American.

“I consider myself an Americanist working in the California field,” he said.

During the Q-and-A session, an audience member asked Starr whether books would survive.

“The book is better than ever,” he said. “What, we’re publishing 78,000 titles a year? Remember when Mark Twain said that the reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated? The book is better than ever, and it has to move over and share with other competing — well, not competing but supplemental — interactive modes of information. But the book won’t disappear.

“We have photography, but we still have painters who paint with watercolors and oil. The book will be here for years to come. The best books we publish now on good paper will be here as fresh as they were opened on the day of publication 500 years from now.”

Among many other USC Dornsife participants at the festival were Laura Pulido, professor of gender studies and ethnicity; Dana Johnson, associate professor of English; Karen Tongson, associate professor of English and gender studies; and MPW lecturer Richard Rayner, speaking in a session on “Living and Writing Los Angeles,” moderated by MPW Director Brighde Mullins. Deverell was also a panelist.

Also in attendance were panelists Sarah Banet-Weiser, professor of American studies and ethnicity, and professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism; Jack Halberstam, professor of American studies and ethnicity, gender studies and comparative literature; and Tongson.

The faculty members spoke in the session “Gender, Sex and the Politics of Pop Culture,” moderated by Tara McPherson, associate professor of gender and critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, who also teaches at USC Dornsife.

Festival of Books offers historical perspective

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