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

By Brian Roberts | Go to book overview

Nine
The Prude Fails

Toward the end of 1848, Eliza Woodson Farnham, the well-known administrator of female inmates at Sing Sing Prison and a prominent New York social reformer, learned of her husband's death in California. If the news was cause for grief, it also offered an opportunity. Long enamored of the free spaces in the West, the author of several writings with obvious affinities for the transcendental qualities of nature, Farnham welcomed the chance to go to California and take over the running of her husband's farm near Santa Cruz. As she prepared for her voyage, her plans quickly broadened. For soon enough, she discovered that events in California offered her a much wider field of action. Reports from the gold camps indicated that the region's bachelor culture was slipping into complete ethical dissolution. A controversial and frequently militant proponent of domestic feminism if not women's rights, Farnham began envisioning the possibility of putting her beliefs into action. Her trip to California, she seems to have hoped, would provide an exposure and critique of the self-destructive speculations of competitive masculinity. In doing so, it would give irrefutable proof of the redemptive power and superior nature of woman. 1

Farnham's story has usually been depicted as little more than a footnote to the gold rush, a comic tale about the fate of the prude in the Wild West. Indeed, her activities, while central to the ideology of the rush, can be characterized as marginal in terms of what actually happened in California between 1849 and 1852. If we measure her actions according to “what happened,” according to how many sun-bonneted “gentle tamers” followed her across the frontier, or how many masculine souls she saved, her public efforts to locate a woman's place in the gold rush seem futile, even desperate. Still, her well-publicized writings and experiences were significant to the development of middle

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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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