Since 1973 Kevin Starr has been writing a monumental, multi-volume history of California: Americans and the California Dream. Embattled Dreams, the sixth book in this work, covers only a decade, the war years and their aftermath, but this period was unquestionably the most transformative in the state's history, because it was then that California emerged as an industrial and financial colossus and as the nation's dominant social and cultural force. As in his other volumes, the scope of Starr's scholarship is breathtaking; this is a social, economic, political, and cultural history that covers such disparate subjects as popular San Francisco restaurants, shipbuilding, changes in domestic architecture, Raymond Chandler's fiction, the roots of anti-Japanese sentiment, baseball's Pacific Coast League, and the rise of Richard Nixon. Starr takes the long view; throughout his books he stresses continuities, rather than abrupt change. But World War II—more specifically, the federal spending that accompanied it—is the driving, almost deterministic, force in this installment. The U.S. government's largesse utterly, permanently transformed California's economy, and thus the nation's—and the world's. By far the most complex and compelling tale in this volume is how wartime spending essentially created the aeronautical industry, with California at its heart, and in the process enabled capitalism to give rise to perhaps the closest approximation of a workers' paradise that has ever existed. (Starr argues convincingly that companies such as Douglas, Lockheed, and Northrop engendered "in terms of employee relations and benefits ... a planned social democratic utopia.") Defense jobs all but instantly assimilated and made prosperous the state's more than a million Okies—a group that, one would have assumed from reading The Grapes of Wrath, written just before the war, would compose California's permanent underclass. And although the Golden State's war economy took off suddenly in 1940-1941, thanks to the Cold War it lasted half a century—a run that sustained a staggeringly large middle-class working class and that made California the high-tech center of the world, a status it holds to this day.
Academic historians tend to pooh-pooh Starr as a booster and a mere "storyteller." Certainly, compared with the trendy Mike Davis's unrelievedly dark vision of the state's history in City of Quartz, Starr's view is a bit rah-rah. (He devotes plenty of space to the internment of Japanese-Americans and to the L.A. Police Department's rather tawdry record on minority relations, but one senses that these sections of Starr's history, which detail well-known events, are perfunctorily PC.) As for the second indictment, Starr's is hardly the most analytical approach, but he tells his stories so intelligently and cleanly that readers who care to can make the connections and draw the conclusions that elude him in his more exuberant moments.