H.W. Brand discusses The Age of Gold
Bold Type: What
prompted you to take up the story of the California gold rush?
H.W. Brands: It was really a subject I returned to. I grew up on the West Coast in Portland, Oregon and had learned about the gold rush when I was in school. It may get more attention in schools on the West Coast than in the East, or at least it did when I was growing up. Now I see history textbooks where the whole period gets one paragraph. Later when I was living in California I would go out on weekends to visit the gold rush country. I'm a twentieth century historian who has written a lot about the 18th century. Another of the reasons I wanted to write about the 19th century was that it's familiar even though it's not. A lot of the institutions and actors are known to the readers: the Congress, the debate over slavery, the Indian wars and the railroad. Unlike in earlier books, I don't have to spend a lot of backstory on British court politics, for example.
BT: Your earlier book The First American used the life of Benjamin Franklin to trace the birth and growth of a distinct American identity. The evolution of that identity is also a theme in The Age of Gold, but the means by which you tell the story are much different.
H.W. Brands: The slice of history in a biography is very long where the history in The Age of Gold is very wide. The period of the gold rush only covers a few years but includes the stories of a huge variety of characters. With a biography of someone like Franklin the story plays out over the span of a long life of over eighty years, but there's only one single character which creates the narrative arc so the story is inevitably much more narrow.
BT: Were you prompted to write this book by the parallels which you allude to toward the end of the book to recent events in silicon valley and the dot-com mania?
H.W. Brands: The parallels came out of my research, rather than prompting me to go into it. I try to avoid theory and explanation until I've grounded myself as much as possible in the story.
BT: It seems like the gold rush was unprecedented in that where prior mass social movements in American history had been centered on religion or politics, this was simply a naked pursuit of wealth.
H.W. Brands: This does mark sort of the decline of the long Puritan hangover. There had always been entrepreneurs in the American past, but the idea had always been that you worked steadily and accumulated wealth which was in turn a sign that your actions met with God's favor. The real American dream was to make a better life for yourself here on earth and that was what sent people west to try their luck in California.
BT: Besides examining the political and cultural significance of the gold rush, you've packed a lot of adventure stories in the book. For example, where did you come across the story of Lewis Manly's journey west from Wisconsin and his mad boat trip down the Green River?
H.W. Brands: Because the trip to the gold fields was an adventure that most people expected to last for a fairly short time, a lot of them were very good about keeping journals. It was a lot like men going off to war and wanting to write down all of their experiences so they could share them with their families and friends later on. As a result, historians now have an embarrassment of riches to draw on for recreating what the trip was like.
BT: The existence of so many first-person accounts creates quite a payoff for your readers as well. You leave readers with very lasting memories of the characters.
H.W. Brands: The reader is likely to be engaged if he can hear the words of the participants, rather than getting it second-hand from a historian. The journals also give readers a chance to meet a lot of people like Sarah Royce who would otherwise remain anonymous.
BT: But there are also some remarkable high-profile figures like William Walker who tried to expand slavery into Central America and conquer Nicaragua for himself. John and Jessie Fremont were people who flouted custom and authority and still attained social and political prominence. Their restless ambition and unconventional natures seem very much in tune with the ethos of modern California. Any idea why they've faded into obscurity rather than being remembered fondly?
H.W. Brands: Fremont is still remembered somewhat in the west. In Portland, for example, I lived on Fremont street. But John Fremont lost his bid for the presidency and losers are not generally remembered. Most of his success was through acts of dumb luck like when he was swindled into taking title to the Mariposa gold field which turned out to be worth millions. And as a soldier, he was of the same generation as Grant, Sherman and Lee, a group he didn't really measure up with.
BT: A lot of the other names from this period are still pretty familiar, even to the point of trickling down into popular culture. Possibly your readers may have stayed at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, or perhaps recall Hal Holbrook lecturing Dirty Harry on the historical legacy of the Vigilance Committee. Despite the familiar ground, though, your readers may be quite surprised by some things. What was your biggest surprise in researching the book?
H.W. Brands: Two things really surprised me. The first was that the gold rush was much more of a world-wide phenomenon than has ever been understood. Previous history has focused on it as an American event, but the emigration of people from all over the world to California was probably the greatest global migration of people up to that point. The United States was about the most geographically remote place from California, but for people coming from places like Australia, China, Chile, Russia and even most of Europe it was relatively easy to get to California and I spend a lot of time in the book telling the stories of the people who came from these places. We tend to think of New York as the front door of America, but in the 1850s, New York was still a fairly provincial place while San Francisco was probably the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Another surprise was that the common thinking about the frontier got a lot of things wrong. Instead of a sparsely settled frontier filling up slowly with farms and homesteads, the west in this period was very much an urban frontier. There were all the frontier problems that grow from a lack of pre-existing social ties or institutions but they were compounded by the fact that thousands of people were living right on top of each other bound by nothing but a universal desire to get rich. Even when rural areas were populated, the settlements often disappeared as soon as the mines played out and everybody moved on. Today you can go to the site of Marshall's mill at Coloma and it looks a lot like it must have in 1848 when the first gold was found.
BT: Even though the gold rush was really a world event, could it have happened anywhere else but California?
H.W. Brands: There were gold rushes elsewhere, in Australia, in Siberia, in South Africa, in Canada . Some of them started when people took what they learned about hunting for gold in California , went back where they came from and started looking closer to home. But these developed in different ways than in California. The American idea of public ownership of land meant that if a person found gold in most of California, he could keep it, rather than give it to the king like in France, or to a private landowner like in upstate New York. That's a crucial difference.
BT: So what are you working on next?
H.W. Brands: The history of the Texas revolution. If you've spent any time in Texas, you'll understand that this means one hot-button issue after another. For instance, you can get into plenty of arguments about whether Davy Crockett died on the ramparts of the Alamo or as a prisoner at the end of the battle. The challenge is to tell the story as objectively as possible, but also to engage this passionate interest in the subject. It's daunting, but it's also very attractive.
Interview by John D. Sparks.
Reproduced at BookBrowse with the permission of Random House.
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