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Historian and Author Extraordinaire

In a series of eight books about the state of California, Kevin Starr takes readers on an unforgettable journey that reconstructs the past and sheds light on the present.


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Historian & Author Extraordinaire

Having written over 14 books, University Professor and USC Dornsife Professor of History, Kevin Starr talks about his writing process.

Video by Mira Zimet

Back in Widener Library at Harvard University during the late ’60s, an American historiographer was born. University Professor and Professor of History in USC College, Kevin Starr researched and wrote five chapters for his dissertation that would constitute a good part of his first of eight books about the state of California.

“I write all the time and language courses through me like the Niagara Falls; it’s a form of thinking, of being,” Starr said.

In fact, he gets anxious if he does not write. Unlike many writers, he does not suffer from writer’s block. He has composed toward a million words of print journalism in addition to his 14 books.


Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas (right) presents USC Professor of History and California State Librarian Emeritus Kevin Starr with a County Scroll for his many contributions and efforts to promote literacy and education. Photo credit Martin Zamora.

According to Starr, he came of age in libraries. An inveterate reader since grade school, he loves walking into libraries, which he describes as arenas for self-navigation.

While many may assume that students today use the Internet as their sole source for research, Starr explains that the Internet is only the beginning of a paper.

“At the modern university, students begin their research on the Internet, which provides an interaction to all available resources — students can dialogue with the libraries,” he said.

Starr describes writing the first draft as somewhat painful as the writer is in the process of formulating his or her thoughts. However, it is countered by the “exquisite pleasure of revision.”

As a prolific and masterful writer, Starr extols the virtues of having a great editor. He has worked with two from Oxford University Press on whom he showers great praise: Susan Ferber and Sheldon Meyer.

Known for his command of language and stylistic flourish, Starr said, “Hundreds of thousands of years have gone into the way our brains are wired; language demands clarity, precision and vividness.” And ultimately, language demands that you get to the point as clearly as possible. It does not tolerate fuzziness.

Starr tells the story of California with the very clarity, concision and color he favors. He believes that narrative is natural to human beings and that it is “essential to individual life, culture, civic existence and is anthro-politically necessary for a flourishing human culture.”

“Without the memory of the past, the present loses its vitality and the future becomes frightening or obscure,” he continued.

Teaching in a liberal arts environment is important to Starr. “Today the filmmakers, broadcasters, directors and business leaders will all be extraordinarily well educated. The successful ones will have that little extra spark, the civility — the intellect and imagination that only comes from a humanities education.”

Starr currently teaches in the College’s Master of Liberal Studies program, where students are likely to be in their 40s, 50s or 60s. “Henry James wrote his finest novels after 50,” Starr said. “As people mature, there is less emphasis on their response to the drama of youth.”


Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance 1950–1963 by Kevin Starr.

The definitive authority on California from the Gold Rush through recent times, Starr most recently published his eighth book in the Americans and the California Dream series, a Los Angeles Times best-seller titled Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance 1950–1963 (Oxford University Press, 2009).

A fourth-generation Californian, Starr is the State Librarian of California Emeritus and a 2006 National Humanities Medal winner.

Next up for Starr: A book on the Golden Gate Bridge and a fine press book, Clio on the Coast, which will focus on the writing of California history from 1848 to 1948.


Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Fall 2009/Winter 2010 issue