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Posted:
October 16, 2000

Book: Gold Rush
Was A Middle Class Revolt

By 1849, America's growing middle class was anxious and uncertain, torn between respectability and the need to compete in a new industrial marketplace. For many, there seemed no way out.

Then gold called from the California hills, and middle class men by the thousands made their escape. Men with strong community ties cut loose for a new land generally seen as wild and immoral. It was one of the great cultural upheavals in American history.

So says CSUS historian Brian Roberts, who has spent years delving into the nationwide impact of the Gold Rush.

"The Gold Rush in many ways is really a revolt by middle class men against the standards of middle class life," Roberts says. "The 49ers weren't the unattached young men many people today think they were. They were very much a part of their community - they were middle class. In fact, about 30 percent of them were married."

Roberts lays out his theory in detail in a new book titled American Alchemy: The California Gold Rush and Middle-Class Culture. He takes his cues from the letters and experiences of more than 100 men and 27 women.

Published in August, American Alchemy is already a big seller in the Sacramento area. It has been reviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times and is being considered for review by the New York Times.

California's Gold Rush, Roberts says, spurred a whole new stage in American middle class life.

"The key to the Gold Rush is knowing that the middle class was trying to figure out how to maintain respect and be successful," Roberts says. "Many ended up doing it by living in two worlds - the women in the East as the respectable front for the men who were out West."

In effect, the split personality of the middle class became a real split between the East and West.

Even so, Roberts says, the men who headed West weren't simply hoping to be successful capitalists.

Many hoped that anyone who went would get rich in California, merely by gathering easy-to-find gold. In many letters, the men write of their dream of creating the American communal, democratic ideal.

Of course, that didn't happen, and it wasn't long before West Coast society came to have the same social hierarchies as East Coast society. Nevertheless, the dream had set the stage for what would become a defining feature of California life.

As Roberts points out, "California has long been a place where expectations long overran reality. There's always another Gold Rush in California, always a next big thing people are pinning their hopes on."

Roberts gained the perspective he needed to write his book by heading to Rutgers University in New Jersey for his doctoral work. The California native had previously earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees at CSUS.

But he said he gained new insight into California when he was living elsewhere.

He also discovered that the Gold Rush was seen much differently in the East than in the West, and that Western history in general was neglected by historians in the East. The same was true in reverse at CSUS, Roberts says, where he had been so influenced by Western historians such as Ken Owens and Joseph Pitti.

"When I started writing this book, I was thinking about how to talk about the two regions together," Roberts says. "There's a kind of ongoing dialogue that's always going on between the West and East that's very important. Yet few people talk about it."

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