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

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

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

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


California during the gold rush was a place of disputed claims, shoot-outs, gambling halls, and prostitution; a place populated by that rough and rebellious figure, the forty-niner; in short, a place that seems utterly unconnected to middle-class culture. In ###American Alchemy#, however, Brian Roberts offers a surprising challenge to this assumption.

Roberts points to a long-neglected truth of the gold rush: many of the northeastern forty-niners who ventured westward were in fact middle-class in origin, status, and values. Tracing the experiences and adventures both of these men and of the "unseen" forty-niners -- women who stayed back East while their husbands went out West -- he shows that, whatever else the gold seekers abandoned on the road to California, they did not simply turn their backs on middle-class culture.

Ultimately, Roberts argues, the story told here reveals an overlooked chapter in the history of the formation of the middle class. While the acquisition of respectability reflects one stage in this history, he says, the gold rush constitutes a second stage -- a rebellion against standards of respectability.


If there is one work that best sets the context for the northeastern experience of the California gold rush, it is undoubtedly Herman Melville's “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Melville first published this story in 1853; yet its main characters, the isolated slave to the inkstand and the plodding white-collar gentleman, had been around for some years. The story's setting is the quintessential New York City clerk's office, described as a “snug retreat” by the narrator, nightmarishly dreary to the reader, a dusty second-floor chamber surrounded by the taller buildings of Wall Street, a space of hard wood surfaces, screens, and partitions. Two windows merely add to its aura of claustrophobia: one opens to an interior air shaft, the other frames a wall across the alley, a square of brick “black by age and everlasting shade.” Within this melancholy space, a gentleman lawyer, the story's narrator, works with two scriveners who spend their days engaged in the dry task of copying legal documents. Pressed by business, the lawyer hires a third copyist. This is Bartleby, a clean, polite, and quiet individual, a mild man whose complete lack of spark matches the requirements of the position. At first, the newcomer seems the perfect clerk: unquestioning and diligent, fastidious in appearance and penmanship. Soon the narrator finds that there is something seriously wrong with this fellow.

For Bartleby suffers from a strange and “incurable disorder,” an illness not of body but of soul. From the first, there are small signs of this illness. Each time he is asked to perform any office task aside from mere copying, he responds with a polite but firm refusal, saying only “I would prefer not to.” Disarmed by his clerk's otherwise mild character, the narrator seems incapable of doing anything about this strange behavior. Eventually the scrivener's preferences expand: he would “prefer not” to perform any editing of documents. He would . . .

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