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

By Brian Roberts | Go to book overview

Six
California Is a Humbug

As they passed through the “Golden Gate” and entered the harbor of San Francisco, many northeastern forty-niners reached a high point of anticipation. Here at last was their sacred arena, their virgin land that for so long had awaited their embrace. “Fair California!” argonaut turned historian Hubert Howe Bancroft described it, “voluptuous in thy half-tropic bed, … redolent with wild flowers, and billowy with undulating parks and smooth corrugated mounds and swelling heights, … captivating the mind, and ravishing the senses with thy bewitching charms, … thy blushing beauty veiled in misty gauze that rises fresh and glistening from the sun beaten ocean.” 1 A landscape of equal parts maternal nurture and erotic charm, this feminized environment would become a stage for the playing out of pent-up exuberance, for exotic cultural exchange and masculine self-enrichment. San Francisco's port was filled with ships “from every quarter of the globe”; its streets teemed with “denizens of every clime,” Australians, Mexicans, Kanakas, Peruvians, Chileans, and Europeans. “Money, wines, and liquor flowed like water … pistols and revolvers, fired in recklessness or fun sometimes, made the air musical with loud reports.” Here was manhood on display: “and verily to coin a suitable word, we were in the Cosmopolis of the world.”

Within about a year, longer for some forty-niners, shorter for others, much of this sense of drama, expectation, and carnival enjoyment of heterogeneity would disappear. For within this time, Eldorado's utopias would be debunked, its false promises exposed, and California would become little more than a “humbug.” Its landscapes, once soft and voluptuous, would be hardened by competition, its thrilling scenes of “Cosmopolis” displaced by unmarked graves and weeping forty-niners. 2

-143-

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • American Alchemy *
  • Introduction 1
  • One - California Gold and Filthy Lucre 17
  • Two - Gold Fever as a Cure 43
  • Three - Husbands and Wives 69
  • Four - Numberless Highways to Fairy Grottos 93
  • Five - A Great and Perverse Paradise 119
  • Six - California Is a Humbug 143
  • Seven - Widows and Helpmates 169
  • Eight - A Wild, Free, Disorderly, Grotesque Society 197
  • Nine - The Prude Fails 221
  • Ten - The End of the Flush Times 243
  • Conclusion 269
  • Notes 277
  • Index 321
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