Wednesday Book: All That Glitters Is Not Necessarily Any Good
McLynn, Frank, The Independent (London, England)
Roaring Camp: the social world of the California gold rush
by Susan Lee Johnson
(WW Norton, pounds 20)
STORIES OF gold fever suggest Bret Harte, Mark Twain and Jack London, and a new history of the Californian gold rush sounds exciting. Unfortunately, this is the worst of books about the best of subjects. It is not really about the gold rush at all, but simply an excuse for Susan Lee Johnson to ride her contemporary hobby- horses.
Those who know political correctness, US campus style, will be familiar with the litany of cliches. To amend Orwell's "four legs good, two legs bad", this is a propaganda tract in which white males are bad, while women and other "minorities" (blacks, Indians, Mexicans, Chileans, Chinese) are good. The stunningly predictable "thesis" is tricked out in a rebarbative jargon which suggests that, as always, there is direct correlation between lucidity of expression and profundity of thought (or the reverse).
Johnson begins with a 10-page preface in which, a la Gwyneth Paltrow, she gushingly thanks what appears to be half the population of the US. Does anyone really want to know this? She then tells us that she will be dealing with the southern mining area of California, around Columbia, Mariposa and Sonora. But, in more than 450 pages, we get just one page about gold mining itself.
The rest is a series of tendentious anecdotes, purporting to show how her beloved minorities, caught up in the gold rush, became the victims of that reliable villain, the "Anglo" male. We get pages and pages about "the lust, greed and cruelty of Anglo men". Women and other races presumably joined the gold rush out of altruism.
The ordinary reader might think that men went to the diggings to strike it rich, but according to Johnson, "white American-born Protestant men who aspired to middle-class status" were "anxious about issues of gender, race, culture and class". Here is glaring anachronism indeed. The dogmas of US women's studies courses are projected back in time, as if they had a solid historical reality.
Take the word "gender" out of Johnson's vocabulary, and she would be left virtually inarticulate. We encounter "gendered processes, gendered meanings" and even "gendered female" (what is an ungendered female? …