National Humanities Medal
Kevin Starr is a fourth-generation Californian whose best known work, the multivolume America and the California Dream, chronicles the state's history from 1850 to 2003.
"The more I investigate California, the more American it seems," says Starr. "It's an intensification of the American experience, and it's also the American experience in common. California was made up of Northerners, Southerners, Midwesterners; it incorporates all those different dimensions."
The seven-book series looks beyond California's material progress to examine the state's cultural development. "The books add to California's innerhistory, the history of imagination in California," says Starr. "It adds to the cultural history of California and how California expanded itself. I looked at the moments in which personal, social, and imaginative experiences intersected in California with lasting results."
Starr's books follow the progress of the state at pivotal moments in California: the Gold Rush of the nineteenth century, the dynamic development of Los Angeles in the 1920s, the struggles during the Great Depression, and the diversification of the population today. Looking at these moments in the context of Californian culture, Starr says, helps our understanding of the state's history.
"California is a very important part of the American formula," continues Starr, who received his PhD in American literature from Harvard University. "I had been exposed to American materials at Harvard, and I wanted to see how California fit in. For the past thirty-five years, I've been trying to find out."
Starr's investigations have led him to several careers—historian, journalist, professor, and librarian. He held the title of California State Librarian between 1994 and 2004, and is currently University Professor at the University of Southern California and contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times.
After penning more than a million words about California, Starr will soon set the subject aside as he wraps up his last volume in the California Dream series. The free time, he says, will allow him to pursue topics he was interested in before the project.
"I have a number of other books I'd like to write," Starr says. "One is a book on Americans in the Asian Pacific Basin from the 1790s to Pearl Harbor. Another book I'd like to do is on the Oxford Movement in America."
Starr says the humanities have the power to pull together different human experiences into a common narrative.
"The humanities have to hold the world together," says Starr. "At a time of extraordinary technological development and at a time when the United States is becoming a diversified, global culture, the humanities help us hold together a sense of human community by striking chords of similarity amidst all the different strains."
He sees the library as a physical representation of the humanities' connective power. "A library is a physical place but the library also has an intellectual and imaginative place," says Starr. "All knowledge, ultimately, is interrelated, and we search for a kind of coherence with the help of the humanities. We don't necessarily find it all the time, but the humanities point the way."