American Alchemy: The California Gold Rush and Middle-Class Culture

By Brian Roberts | Go to book overview

Four
Numberless Highways
to Fairy Grottos

In the mid-nineteenth century the middle-class man stood on the shores of a sea of temptation. Metaphors of respectability stressed rigidity and stiffness: the good man firmed himself up to retain prescriptions against forbidden behaviors, he “steeled” himself against the ebb and flow of carnal desires. Sin, in turn, was very fluid. As the Reverend Lyman Beecher described it in 1826, intemperance threatened these shores of respectability “like a flood; and if anything shall defeat the hopes of the world, it is that river of fire.” By 1834 masturbation had become such a common indulgence that it called forth an even more alarming metaphor: in the words of one reformer, it threatened to sweep “a widespread tide of desolation, over our land and the world.” By the 1840s, it seemed to some observers that the proper Anglo-European character was about to be inundated: Americans by a “deluge” of Irish immigrants, the rest of the civilized world by a flood carrying all the dark flotsam of the orient: Hungarians, Muscovite “hordes,” “Japhetic Races,” and Panslavism. 1 Along the edges of this swirling maelstrom, the good man's goals might be summed up in three simple admonitions: stay dry, remain always on shore, do not go near the waters of temptation. In the midst of these warnings, some 40,000 northeastern forty-niners took to the ocean in pursuit of what they freely admitted was the root of evil. Many would—for a moment at least—allow themselves to be swept away by this sea.

From January 1849 through the end of the year, the emigration that would become known as the gold rush was at “swell tide.” By the end of this period, Hunt's Merchant's Magazine had counted nearly 800 ships, barks, brigs, and schooners leaving from North American ports: 214 from New York City, 151 from Boston, the rest from smaller mar

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