Remembering Kevin Starr, Catholic Historian (1940-2017) by Stephen Schwartz
First Things/First Thoughts Blog January 18, 2017
The passing of Kevin Starr, the notable historian of California, is already being observed with predictable political correctness. For his series of popular surveys, beginning with the 1973 volume Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915, Starr has been noted as a paragon of the state’s presumptive, if unacknowledged, secessionism. His breadth of research and easy style made him palatable to readers of all ideological tendencies, to whom he preached a kind of “California exceptionalism.”
For most of his career, Starr viewed the California experiment benevolently, as a phenomenon balanced between utopia and reason. But he was an intense Catholic believer who seems finally to have despaired of California’s grandiloquent and heartbreaking destiny.
I became acquainted with Kevin during the 1990s, a period in San Francisco’s annals darker than most. The Democratic Left was firmly in control of local politics, media, and academia, and the gloom of intense political correctness had settled over the region. San Francisco had become a “sanctuary city” in 1989, in part to accommodate the political needs of the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran Leftists who were long established in the city’s Hispanic milieu. San Francisco’s then-archbishop John R. Quinn, who served until 1995, aligned the Church in San Francisco unequivocally with the Central American Communist forces.
I was a token neoconservative at the San Francisco Chronicle, the local sheet known for its subservience to the radical-liberal faction in the city’s elite. In that environment, Starr was something much greater than a mere contributor, following so many others, to the prevalent civic narrative on the Pacific Coast. His corpus exhibits a traditionalist attitude toward the past and a firm defense of the Catholic legacy in the city and the state. Starr had absorbed the values imparted by his difficult upbringing, which included years in a Catholic orphanage. His Catholic consciousness was reinforced by study at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution that for generations educated San Francisco’s political, judicial, and labor leadership, then mainly comprising Irish and German Catholics.
Starr embodied an alternative to the suffocating, pseudo-intellectual and pseudo-spiritual conformity imposed in the Bay Area. He was the clandestine inspirer of a revolt that remained hidden in the not-so-figurative catacombs to which religious, conservative, and patriotic citizens were banished. That this dissident movement has yet to assume a broader public shape in California does not relieve us of the need to recall the role of Starr and a few others like him, such as Thomas Sowell, in establishing its moral foundation.
Starr’s “California dream” achievement included a significant omission. He did not write on the period from the mid-1960s to the end of the 1980s. That was when California leapt out of its provincial idyll—which Starr sentimentalized—to arrive at a previously unknown global cultural standing. According to his wife, Sheila, Starr “couldn’t wrap his mind around the ’60s and ’70s.”
The New York Times added: “He eventually turned away from California as a subject.” His last published book, Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America, the Colonial Experience, was issued in 2016 by Ignatius Press, a small conservative Catholic publishing house. Therein, he seemed to give up his past attachment to California as a vessel and mirror for the aspirations of the East Coast Anglo-American, embracing an alternative historical context in which the American West appears as a Latinic civilization created by Spanish, French, and even English Catholics. This outlook is counterposed, if only implicitly, to the American public doctrine tracing our cultural identity to New England and other Protestant forerunners.
In my observation, Kevin Starr journeyed from an unfailing optimism to an unsurprising pessimism about California. But that is not how he will be memorialized, at least in the short term. As Aaron Peskin, a progressive leader of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and friend of Starr, told me, the Board will adjourn its next session, on January 24, in honor of Starr, described by Peskin as “a San Franciscan’s San Franciscan.”