Horatio Alger found the California gold rush irresistible. Indeed, for him it seemed a perfect vehicle for another in his line of rags-to-riches stories, another example of the democratic possibilities inherent in the American marketplace. In 1891, not surprisingly, he published Digging for Gold: A Story of California. The typical stuff of Algeresque dreams, his narrative begins, of course, with a young man. His name is not important. What is important is that he is a go-getter, a decent fellow whose reasons for joining the rush would place him somewhere above the common stew of “pukes” and prospectors. His motives for going west, in other words, had to be eminently respectable. And so he goes to California not out of greed or any lower motive, but to make a liberating competency: to free himself from an evil and scheming stepfather, to free his long-suffering and patient mother from an unhappy marriage. Through luck and pluck he prevails. Good fortune smiles upon him in the form of Alger's stock characters, what today would be suspiciously friendly older men; one gives him a pair of new undershorts, another a gold mine. He has the backbone to stay at the diggings until he has unearthed and washed $10,000 in dust and nuggets. With this sum, he returns to save his mother, expose the machinations of his stepfather, and to have the remains of his treasure made into the ultimate symbol of bourgeois attainment and status: a shiny gold pocket watch. 1
By the 1890s this little trophy represented a happy ending. Yet few writers or thinkers in antebellum America would have missed some rather disturbing contradictions in what Alger's young protagonist flashes as a single and unified sign of success.
Gold, after all, was the “root of evil.” As an element it was mired in the muck of an occult past. Welling up from the very “bowels” of the