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Going For the Gold

August 27, 2000|RICHARD WHITE | Richard White is the author of " 'It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own:' A New History of the American West." He is a professor of American history at Stanford University

With the 150th anniversary of the California Gold Rush upon us, the temptation to view history as metaphor has become almost as alluring as the gold that James Marshall first saw lying in the tail race of John Sutter's Mill on the American River that spring morning in 1848. There have been exhibitions at the Oakland Museum and at the Huntington Museum (for which I was one of the advisors), and there have been a number of new books published on those fateful years. But as abundant as the metaphors are--in both the exhibitions and the publications--they are less useful for what they tell us about the Gold Rush itself than for what they say about our material dreams today.

The Gold Rush metaphor has been applied to almost every California economic bonanza--the aerospace boom in the 1960s, Hollywood for the last century, and the Silicon Valley more recently--that has been dominated primarily by men who grew very rich very fast. California has become synonymous with such moments, occasions when wealth is available to those daring, strong, clever and sometimes brutal enough to grasp it. This perception, right or wrong, has helped give entrepreneurial risk-taking a patina of respect and honor, for Californians and Americans alike.

Between 1848 and 1852, more than 100,000 people flocked to California in pursuit of wealth in its simplest and most elemental form--gold. Their success and the gold's abundance helped create the metaphor, but it was inherently flawed. Obtaining gold was a different kind of work than the work involved in more recent California bonanzas. You locate and mine gold. You invent and make software and movies. Gold was, in the early years, available to anyone with a pick and pan. The unskilled workers who flocked to the gold mines would be janitors in today's Silicon Valley.

It is all the more regrettable, then, that Gold Rush metaphors tend to equate people's daily experience--their work, their search for wealth--with national progress and national destiny. It may be tempting to believe that selfish interests yield the national good, but such is seldom the case. The society that saw the Gold Rush was a society of extraordinary greed, extraordinary suffering and extraordinary good fortune. The Gold Rush was a remarkably complicated episode that involved a great deal of unpleasantness that metaphorical comparisons can only serve to obscure or distort. We are not what we are because of the Gold Rush, but the Gold Rush can still focus attention on what we have become.

The problem, of course, is that we disagree on what we have become and should become. The Gold Rush metaphor conjures up the kind of place my nephew, Alexander, imagined and desired when he was 4 years old: a house with no rules. As a libertarian boy's club--a place with few women and little government--Gold Rush California still has a visceral appeal to those with social imaginations frozen at about age 4. Many of them currently live in the Silicon Valley. A house with no rules does not have the same appeal for people who think of themselves or their ancestors or the environment as the victims of those who roared through California in pursuit of wealth. All of this complicates the Gold Rush as a metaphor for our time, particularly when our time still resonates so closely with the best and worse qualities of the Gold Rush. It is not surprising therefore that California's commemoration of the sesquicentennial has been subdued. We are not sure what memories it should evoke.

More than any other author, J.S. Holliday has tried to recognize the messiness of the Gold Rush while still seeing it as an occasion for celebration. Beautifully illustrated, clearly and engagingly written, his "Rush for Riches," which served as the catalog for the Oakland Museum exhibit, is the product of years of reading and thinking about the event. The book is a stunning synthesis that struggles, usually but not always successfully, against the gravity of entrepreneurial metaphors. Holliday acknowledges the displacement, the injustice, the brutality and the damage the Gold Rush involved, but he pushes them aside to emphasize its energy and opportunity. Holliday's Gold Rush is like a host who heartily greets all guests at the door, but only those dressed to suit its theme make it to the heart of the party. The theme of this party is California as a place where the impossible is possible.

This is a respectable premise but, partial. It focuses attention on Anglo American miners and entrepreneurs who loaded the deck in their own favor when it came to opportunity. Although Holliday covers Chileans, Australians, Mexicans, Californios, French, Hawaiian, Chinese and more (by 1870, after all, 39% of California's non-Indian population was foreign-born), they serve largely as a backdrop to miners from the United States.

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