From California to Catholicism
By Katherine Yungmee Kim
Kevin Starr is a University Professor in the history department at USC College and the California State Librarian Emeritus. He has written a seven-volume history of California, the Americans and the California Dream series, published by the Oxford University Press, and he is presently working on the last volume, dealing with California in the 1950s. His most recent book, published by Alfred A. Knopf, is Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003. Currently, he is teaching an undergraduate seminar on “Case Studies in American Catholicism” and is under contract with Alfred A. Knopf to write a cultural history of Catholic laypeople in America. It is called Lift Up your Hearts: The American Catholic Experience.
Q: You’re largely known as a California historian. What is the connection for you between Catholicism and California?
KS: I started to write about California at Harvard when I was looking for a doctoral dissertation topic. Another topic that I had put aside was the Oxford Movement in America. Had I done that, I would have pursued American Catholic cultural history: Isaac Hecker, Orestes Brownson, Washington Irving and the Spanish Catholics. I was interested in these things right from the start. So I’m catching up with another side of my intellectual interests. One of my favorite books is Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and The Life They Found and Made (1976). I would like to achieve something similar on behalf of the lay Catholic experience in America.
Q: So are you going to be teaching or writing about California anymore?
KS: Of course! I am currently involved in three California books: Coast of Dreams, which is coming out in September, a one-volume history of California for Random House, which I completed this summer, and the last of the Americans and the California Dream series, dealing with the 1950-1964 period, which, God willing, I will finish across the next two years.
Q: What do you think of the current state of Catholicism?
KS: Enough about “Cafeteria Catholicism,” where you take what you want from it. We have to restore our sense of ourselves as historic people. The Jewish community is constantly reminding itself of what it means to be a Jew, constantly sifting through questions in light of its tradition. We must do likewise.
Q: Tell me about your class on Catholicism.
KS: My undergraduate seminar is a warm-up class for me. I’d like to develop a big humanities course for General Education on Catholic classics—great classics of Catholic literature that will be seen as part of the grand tradition. Frank O’ Malley is the inspiration for this. His “Modern Catholic Writers” course at Notre Dame was the most popular undergraduate elective there for over three decades.
Q: How is your class structured?
KS: I want to keep the class humanistic and usable to people, to define their own tradition by bouncing up against great classics. It’s a small seminar.
Q: Are the students Catholic?
KS: Oh, I don’t ask them that! I would never ask them that. I suspect they are because they come to the class and they’re interested. These are all people searching for meaning within the Catholic tradition. It’s useful for undergraduates as they determine their own pathway and sort out their various traditions, whether traditions they were born into or traditions that they’re exploring.
This is not converting people. This is an academic perspective, this is a branch of either history or the humanities. It’s about defining tradition. I’m not a theologian. I’m not a proselytizer. I’m not a clergyman. I am looking at this from the point of view of literature and history.
In terms of sheer registration, USC is the largest Catholic university west of the Mississippi. One would think you could have a good humanities course dealing with the catholic tradition at this university.
Q: What is your relationship to Catholicism?
KS: I was born and raised a Catholic. My mother and father divorced when I was three and I was raised by nuns at the Albertinum in Ukiah, California. I absorbed the faith from the Dominican sisters, as they fed, clothed, educated and brought me to maturity. The Catholic perspective, based on the incarnation, regards all of material creation as simultaneously scientific and revelatory. This is a valuable perspective when studying history and literature, this duality of matter and spirit.
Q: Who do you think the next pope will be?
KS: First of all, I love this pope, so I hope he hangs on, but when his time comes, I’d like a Third World pope. I mean visibly Third World, to suggest the universality of the Church. It’s a global enterprise and the vitality and growth of Catholicism in is Third World countries.
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