Printer Friendly

America's Golden Dream - Historian H.W. Brands' vigorous narrative history of the gold rush as a defining American event is an interpretive tour de force.

Kevin Starr is the state librarian of California and history professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. His most recent book, Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace: 1940--1950, is the sixth volume in his ongoing Americans and the California Dream series.
The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream
New York: Doubleday, 2002
549 pp., $29.95

As important as it was, the California gold rush has, strangely enough, remained outside the national experience as far as the writing of American history is concerned. Now, thanks to this extensively researched, vigorously narrated, and interpretively ambitious history by the highly regarded historian H.W. Brands, the gold rush has been once and for all woven into the larger tapestry of American history.

Some reviewers (in fact, most of them belonging to the baby-boomer generation of revisionist historians who have rewritten the history of the Far West over the past thirty years) have criticized Brands for stretching the significance of the gold rush by claiming that it left the United States a vastly different place. By and large oriented toward an interpretation of western history as a headlong exploitation of land and peoples, especially Native Americans, the "new historians," as they are called, have--correctly, I believe--seen in the gold rush a heedless, no-holds-barred orgy of greed and destructiveness. The gold rush, they point out, reduced the Native American population by more than one hundred thousand in what can only be described as a genocidal assault. It also destroyed the mountains and rivers of Northern California for two generations. As the famed journalist Bayard Taylor, author of the gold rush classic El Dorado (1850), put it, California resembled a princess attacked by bandits who cut off her hands to obtain the rings on her fingers; or, as Henry David Thoreau observed, California was just one step closer to hell.

The California perspective

For California-based historians in the nineteenth century, by contrast, the gold rush represented an epic of Anglo-American achievement: a case study, as the San Francisco--based historian Hubert Howe Bancroft so often claimed, of Progress with a capital P. Between January 24, 1848, when the Wimmer nugget (named after the lady who first tested it by boiling it in a pot of lye) was discovered on the south fork of the American River by carpenter James Marshall, and the mid-1850s, when the gold rush leveled off into the industrial enterprise of hydraulic mining, the gold rush had, among other things, accelerated California into statehood; established San Francisco as a Pacific metropolis decades ahead of the advancing agricultural frontier; and finalized the continental nature and Asia/Pacific orientation of the United States. From the perspective of the nineteenth-century California historians, the gold rush accounted for all that was good in the California experience: its exuberance, resilience, capacity for development, and political intelligence. For historian Charles Howard Shinn, author of Mining Camps: A Study in American Frontier Government (1885), the gold rush had represented a near-spontaneous reassertion of Anglo-Saxon common law. Shinn's thesis, together with others that interpreted the gold rush as a successful experiment in self-government, had influence on no less a figure than Woodrow Wilson, then a fledgling academic at Bryn Mawr beginning his research in the American political tradition.

One year after the publication of Shinn's Mining Camps, however, the California-born Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce issued an early--and continuously significant--caveat regarding the gold rush. Royce's take on mining law, in fact, represented a direct critique of the Shinn thesis. The 1850--51 epidemic of lynch law in the mines, Royce argued, cannot be interpreted as a legitimate act of self-government or proof of some enduring Anglo-Saxon tradition. It was exactly the opposite: a repudiation of legitimacy and social order on behalf of a vigilantism that represented, at its base, a repudiation of law, order, and society.

The twentieth-century response

In the twentieth century, virtually all writers on the gold rush have been Californians who have fallen into, in one way or another, either the Bancroft-Shinn or the Royce camp. From this perspective, the "new historians" who have critiqued the gold rush are following in the Roycean tradition. The Bancroft-Shinn interpretation, meanwhile, has transmuted itself--in such a classic, for example, as Rodman Paul's California Gold: The Beginning of Mining in the Far West (1947)--into an approving study of the gold rush as technological and industrial achievement.

One of the best-known of these historians, J.S. Holliday--author of the perennially best-selling The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience (1981) and the more recent Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California (1999)--has achieved a synthesis of all positions. On the one hand, Holliday admires the gold rush as an explosion of human energy, putting hundreds of thousands of gold seekers into, as he puts it, hormonal overdrive. Like Bancroft, Holliday admires the progress brought to an undeveloped Mexican province by the forty-niners. Like Shinn, Holliday admires their capacity for self-government. But as a Californian, Holliday is acutely aware of the environmental damage wrought by mining. The horror of the genocide of Native Americans, while present in Holliday's work, is offset by his overall approval of the gold rush as an explosion of human energy and creative purpose.

The gold rush and the national experience

In 1997, historian Malcolm Rohrbough, a midwesterner, inaugurated a new emphasis on the national significance of the gold rush experience-- which Brands, writing from Texas A&M University, has continued in The Age of Gold. Novelty is not so simple, however, especially in the writing of gold rush history, for Shinn was looking to a national audience in 1885 and in 1886 Royce subtitled his book A Study of American Character. Rohrbough, in any event, effectively asked the question: What American institutions and concerns were brought to California during the gold rush, and how did they fare? In raising these questions, Rohrbough reoriented the gold rush to the national experience.

American historians--meaning historians based elsewhere than California--were curiously reluctant to graft the gold rush onto the rootstock of American history. From one perspective, this was part of a larger problem: the perception of the history of California and the Far West as being of a lesser order of magnitude than the history of older American regions, especially the Atlantic seaboard. Speaking before the American Historical Association at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, the Wisconsin historian Frederick Jackson Turner claimed that the frontier was the determinant element in the American experience; for a while, most historians were willing to pay at least lip service to this notion. It virtually disappeared, however, starting in the 1920s, as three or four generations of accomplished historians sought the national experience in New England, the Middle Atlantic states, the South, and--in deference to Abraham Lincoln--Illinois. The predominate thesis of American history since the 1920s, in short, has viewed the Far West, California included, not as a determinant element in the national experience but as a vast colony of the older regions, with California--because of its population, vitality, and strategic position--accorded the slightly higher status of province.

Then came Rohrbough; now, with even greater claims for the gold rush as a determining element in the national experience, comes Brands in this brilliantly managed book. The gold rush, Brands tells us, was a defining American event. Like the Revolutionary War, the Civil War (in the genesis of which it played an important role), World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, the gold rush, he argues, constituted a titanic social experience that left the United States a different place.

In 2000 Susan Lee Johnson, a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder, published Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush, which supplemented Rohrbough's institutional emphasis with a rich array of social, cultural, even anthropological perspectives. Johnson emphasized how the miners actually lived in their hastily assembled environments, to include the delicate and ever- intriguing issue of sexual experience, whether real or subliminal. More than any previous historian, Johnson captured the interiority of the gold rush--the gold rush, that is, as psychological event, as well as its social structures. Taken together, Holliday, Rohrbough, Johnson, and now Brands have completed a four-part epic history of the gold rush that will most likely prevail for the next fifty years. The fact that each of these books has appeared within a year or so of each other, moreover, testifies to the ceremonial nature of time as far as scholarship is concerned; for each of these books was prompted, in one way or another, by the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold and the rush that followed.

Already a number of "New Historians"--Stanford professor Richard White, especially, writing in the Los Angeles Times--have chided Brands for overstating his case. Yet even if this is true (and I am not so certain that it is), he can be forgiven. For like Bernard De Voto in his trilogy The Year of Decision: 1846 (1943), Across the Wide Missouri (1947), and The Course of Empire (1952), Brands is a master of what might be called collective or communal narrative. He has the ability to weave together a multiplicity of individual experiences--picking them up, returning to them later, updating them yet again--in a force field of social event and cultural transformation.

Jesse Benton Fremont, for example, appears as the privileged and high- spirited daughter of a powerful senator, the author of her husband's influential narratives, a courageous woman capable of negotiating the trek across the Isthmus of Panama to California virtually on her own, the social doyen of gold rush San Francisco, the wife of a U.S. senator, and a widow living out her life in twentieth-century Los Angeles. William Tecumseh Sherman, similarly, appears as a young lieutenant newly stationed in California, the first to officially observe and report on the gold discovery, an ex-Army officer turned entrepreneur and banker, and a distinguished Civil War general whose California experiences added immeasurably to his skills.

Nearly a hundred other protagonists appear and reappear in Brands' narrative. Some of them--James Marshall, for example, who discovered gold, or John Sutter, upon whose property it was discovered--were destroyed by the experience. But most found themselves becoming, by the sheer fact that they were Californians, something more than they would have been, had they remained home in the settled East. Louise Amelia Knapp, for example, a genteel doctor's wife from Amherst, Massachusetts, accompanied her husband to the mining camps and, in the course of reporting on her life for her hometown newspaper, helped found American letters in California. Leland Stanford, a Sacramento hardware retailer from upstate New York, brought Lincoln's message to California in 1860 and later organized the western half of the transcontinental railroad.

Intensification of American experience

The gold rush, Brands argues, intensified expectation not only among Americans who actually went to California but in the nation as a whole. It solidified, that is, the very psychology of American life--the sense of what an individual might become. This engendering of higher expectations, building upon earlier attitudes, helped form the national character and personality. From that point forward, Americans became-- as a matter of behavior and self-actualizing myth--a can-do people, no longer determined by the grim predestinational restraints of the nation's intensely Calvinist origins, which tended to encourage people to accept their place in life.

The gold rush, for one thing, was secular and material (although here I believe that Brands gives short shrift to the vitality of the Protestant pulpit during the gold rush, both in California and the East). It was about making it in this world: making it big, breaking through the pasteboard mask (as Herman Melville would later describe it), and finding a new and better world.

Brands contends that the gold rush gave the United States needed capital for business and infrastructure development, toned up business practices, expanded the notion of banking and credit, fixed entrepreneurship in the American identity, conferred a new and expanded scope upon the lives of women, and--ironically, because of the sheer damage it caused--laid down the premises of governmental action (eventually) in saving or reclaiming the environment. As if all this were not enough, it also helped shape the careers of a half-dozen Civil War generals.

The gold rush and the Civil War

As far as the Civil War was concerned, Brands argues that the gold rush, while it unified Americans, also demonstrated to them that there was unfinished business in the nation that just might have to be finished on the field of battle. Congress, it must be remembered, would not grant California territorial status after its conquest in 1846 precisely because of the slavery issue. The North opposed the extension of slavery into California, but the South wanted slavery at least south of the Tehachapi Mountains. Unable to act, Congress walked away from the question, leaving California to be run by the military. With the gold rush, however, California suddenly was filled by thousands of Americans demanding their traditional legal rights, unavailable under military law. The developing city of San Francisco was especially restive. Because of the gold rush, Brig. Gen. Bennet Riley, the military governor of California, called for a convention to organize California as a territory. Meeting in Monterey from September to November 1849, that convention organized California as a state instead. In September 1850 the federal government acceded to that wish. The entrance of California as a free state into the Union--however stabilized by the Missouri Compromise--disclosed the deep faultline that lay beneath a republic that had not come to an agreement on the slavery issue.

In one sense, then, The Age of Gold is a thesis-oriented book, an instance of historical argument. It is simultaneously, however, narrative history at its finest. Brands writes with a novelist's eye for detail and the narrative verve of such historians as David McCullough, Jay Wink, Douglas Brinkley, and Stephen Ambrose, who have all praised this book. Just when it seemed that the last word had been written on the gold rush, Brands has come forward with this sophisticated and rollicking book, asking us to take another look at what he considers a pivotal event in the creation of American society, character, and personality.n
COPYRIGHT 2003 News World Communications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Previous Article:Chaos and Neglect - An investigative reporter exposes dramatic pre-- and post--September 11 intelligence and oversight failures while providing...
Next Article:The City of Roads - Cultures Converge in Strasbourg.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters