Kevin Starr, 76, the historian of California

kevin-starr-sf-chronicle.jpgSan Francisco Chronicle photo of Starr in 2010 by Michael Macor.

Kevin Starr, the author of extensive histories of California who is the top contender for the title of preeminent observer of our state, died Saturday night in a San Francisco hospital after suffering a heart attack. He was 76 years old.

Gov. Jerry Brown's office posted a statement on Twitter early Sunday night.

I think of Starr as a San Franciscan first, but in recent years the former California State Librarian has been a professor of history at USC. The current state librarian, Greg Lucas, said in the Sacramento Bee that "no other historian has been able to capture California’s exceptionalism, its vitality and its promise in such detail and yet invest it with the immediacy and excitement of a page-turner novel.

“His love for California and his breadth of knowledge about the Golden State’s magic and unique diversity was obvious not just in his speeches and lectures as a professor but also in casual conversation.”

Starr was named the state librarian in 1994, during the tenure of Gov. Pete Wilson, and served until 2004 under governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Starr worked with Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver to open the California Museum in Sacramento. Born in San Francisco, he was that city's librarian as well and a longtime observer of the city, via newspaper columns and a stint as a mayoral adviser in city hall.

California poet laureate Dana Gioia, also a USC professor, was a longtime friend. "Kevin is the preeminent historian of California,” Gioia said. “There have been many people over the last 150 years who have written histories of California, but no one has ever discussed California as comprehensively or masterfully as Starr. What Starr did was to write about California not only as its own place, but as a symbol of the animating idea of America, and to show how California’s rise exemplified the American dream just as the problems of California displayed the difficult issues of the nation.”

His signature series of very readable and thorough California histories includes “Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915,” “Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era,” “Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s,” “Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California,” “The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s,” “Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950,” “Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge,” “Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963.” Starr wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner at different times and for op-ed pages here and elsewhere.
Starr’s latest book, “Continental Ambitions,” published in November, chronicles Roman Catholic settlement in North America. Of course California is central to the story.

Los Angeles Times book editor Carolyn Kellogg writes that Starr's remarkable California series can be read in any order.

The agricultural development of the Imperial Valley should be dry as dust, but in Kevin Starr’s hands, it was a riveting tale of politics and personalities, environment and ambition and commerce, echoing so many themes of California as a whole. I remember exactly where I was when I read it: in my yard in Echo Park, sitting on the damp green grass.

That’s what the best writing does: It reaches out to freeze you, the place and the ideas in a moment in time. That Starr did this with histories, of all things, was nothing short of remarkable. He chronicled California’s past from its early days and the ugly colonial period up through the mid-20th century in a series of massive books that were transformative.

Starr, who died Saturday at age 76, was a public intellectual in a class of his own. He had been an avuncular, high-profile California state librarian. When you met him in person, it was as if the entire state library had come to life. A side benefit of any encounter with him was walking away with a new list of books to read. In conversation, he made electrifying connections that were possible only with decades of study and a brilliant mind.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Starr as a California reporter, blogger and researcher of Los Angeles history and he was always helpful and enlightening. No time was more pleasurable for me than the afternoon I was listening to him lecture as the invited speaker at a Cal State Northridge book event and he started describing a book he had just read on the past of the San Fernando Valley. It was my new work and I was thrilled to hear Starr say "Just a superb book—this is history the way I like it."

Some tweets on Sunday.

More by Kevin Roderick:
'In on merit' at USC
Read the memo: LA Times hires again
Read the memo: LA Times losing big on search traffic
Google taking over LA's deadest shopping mall
Gustavo Arellano, many others join LA Times staff
Recent Obituaries stories on LA Observed:
Doug Jeffe: a remembrance
Jonathan Gold, LA's preeminent food writer, has died at 57
Harlan Ellison, dangerous visionary
Murray Fromson, a fighter to the end
Cory Iverson, 32, California firefighter dies on Thomas Fire
Bruce Brown, surfing filmmaker of 'The Endless Summer,' dies at 80
A salute to Anacleto Rapping, photographer
LA Observed Notes: Photos of the homeless, photos that found homes