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A historian's view of the changing 'California dream'

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A five-minute conversation with California historian Kevin Starr is likely to include references to ancient Egypt, baseball, jazz, cuisine - and, of course, America's end-of-the-rainbow state, which he now sees as a lab experiment in "global ecumenical civilization."

Philosopher, political scientist, literature professor, theologian - and author of a six-volume series entitled "Americans and the California Dream" - Mr. Starr has long been the go-to grandfather figure for anyone trying to make sense of the country's most populous state.

Now, 30 years after laser focusing his wide-ranging mind to examine California - and the country through its prism - Mr. Starr has concluded a seventh volume, on the state from 1990 to 2003.

About the state and nation he is disturbed yet hopeful. As the Golden State has gone - through the turmoil of suburban sprawl, illegal immigration, social challenges, and environmental stress - so has America. The middle-class dream of worldly wealth, individual pursuit, contentment is by no means dead. But its achievement, as seen here at least, is increasingly a struggle. Like a come-of-age teenager whose years of parental-cocoon entitlement are over, the American dream in California is not attainable simply for the asking, or simple showing up, he says. It must be achieved the old-fashioned way.

"Miguel de Unamuno called it the 'tragic sense of life' - when bounty and beauty no longer come as unearned increment," says Starr, quoting the Spanish philosopher during an interview in his corner office at the University of Southern California. With his characteristically long-range view, he likens today's hardships to those of the state's 1850s pioneers.

"The state is increasingly difficult, competitive, and aware of enormous challenges that are forcing its citizens and institutions to struggle mightily. The typical American dreamer can no longer merely say, as he once did: 'The solution is that I have come to California.' The ante has been upped."

In fashion, food, legal, social, and environmental matters, other states have followed California over the decades. The list is long, from yoga and extreme sports to populist tax rollbacks and three-strikes laws to lock up criminals.

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