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 thousands of middle class men with strong community ties cut loose for a new land generally seen as wild and immoral.
So says California State University, Sacramento historian Brian Roberts, who has spent years delving into the nationwide impact of the Gold Rush. He lays out his theory in detail in a new book titled American Alchemy: The California Gold Rush and Middle-Class Culture.
"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."
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.
"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.
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.
"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."
More information is available by contacting CSUS public affairs at (916) 278-6156.
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