Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book Review: THE AGE OF GOLD by H. W. Brands (Anchor, 2003)

My 900th post!

"They made their fortunes by being tougher than the toughies, smarter than the smarties, shiftier than the shifties, slyer than the sly-ies, luckier than the luckies... and they made it any shape they could!"

Brands' history of the particulars and aftereffects of the famed California Gold Rush plays out on an exceptionally broad canvas, though the true extent of the canvas does not become apparent until two-thirds of the way through.  The triggering event (the discover of gold near Sutter's Fort in early 1848), the logistics of getting to the gold fields by fair means or foul, the hardships the "argonauts" endured en route, and the increasingly elaborate ways in which the miners extracted the precious ore get a generous amount of space, to be sure.  But Brands is actually after bigger game.  He argues that the race for riches (of which, of course, this was only the first and the splashiest) gave birth to a new version of the "American Dream," one in which the old, Puritan-inflected method of "pursuing happiness" was roughly elbowed aside by the aggressive drive for instant wealth.  In this new paradigm, audacity, risk-taking, and a healthy measure of luck counted for more than the inculcation of steady and sober habits.  Brands contends -- and it is difficult to disagree with him -- that the Gold Rush provided the template for numerous booms to come, up to and including the dot.com boom of the 1990s.  With boom, of course, there often comes bust, and those who came to California (or were already there, but alert for the main chance) and provided the miners with supplies, equipment, and urban amenities in such jumping-off towns as San Francisco frequently enjoyed far more financial success than the majority of orediggers, who often found easy riches harder to come by than they'd imagined.

Once the mechanics of the Gold Rush are out of the way, Brands turns to some of the more immediate social and political fallout.  The vast influx of people to California made the huge territory ready for statehood even before it had truly been organized as a territory, and the Compromise of 1850 was constructed to find a common ground between North and South when the resulting fallout over slavery threatened the Union.  The notorious Kansas-Nebraska Act, which probably did more than any other measure to make the Civil War inevitable, had its roots in the desire to facilitate travel to California by transcontinental railroad.  California itself, despite being admitted as a free state, had a number of pro-slavery settlers, some of whom wanted to see the southern portion of the state secede, or to use the wealth of the state to finance the Confederate war effort.  The importance of the railroad wound up keeping California in the Union, but it was a closer-run thing than many people might think.  The development and "civilizing" of San Francisco and other California towns, and the impact of the mass migration on native Californians and Native American tribes, also get their due amount of attention.

You'll find many well-known figures discussed in these pages, but I found the stories of the more obscure (or obscure, but soon to be famous) people to be just as interesting, if not more so.  The narrative becomes a bit diffuse in its last third, as if Brands is trying to fit in as many ramifications of the Gold Rush as he can, but the quality of the prose remains high from beginning to end.  I could also have asked for more detailed maps of the gold fields.  Still, this is a story that everyone should know -- especially since the risk-taking individual entrepreneur, without which the "American Dream" still cannot survive, is at the core of the tale.

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