All that glitters is not necessarily any good

Roaring Camp: the social world of the California gold rush by Susan Lee Johnson (WW Norton, £20)

Stories of gold fever suggest Bret Harte, Mark Twain and Jack London, and a new history of the Californian gold rush sounds exciting. Unfortunately, this is the worst of books about the best of subjects. It is not really about the gold rush at all, but simply an excuse for Susan Lee Johnson to ride her contemporary hobby-horses.

Those who know political correctness, US campus style, will be familiar with the litany of clichés. To amend Orwell's "four legs good, two legs bad", this is a propaganda tract in which white males are bad, while women and other "minorities" (blacks, Indians, Mexicans, Chileans, Chinese) are good. The stunningly predictable "thesis" is tricked out in a rebarbative jargon which suggests that, as always, there is direct correlation between lucidity of expression and profundity of thought (or the reverse).

Johnson begins with a 10-page preface in which, à la Gwyneth Paltrow, she gushingly thanks what appears to be half the population of the US. Does anyone really want to know this? She then tells us that she will be dealing with the southern mining area of California, around Columbia, Mariposa and Sonora. But, in more than 450 pages, we get just one page about gold mining itself.

The rest is a series of tendentious anecdotes, purporting to show how her beloved minorities, caught up in the gold rush, became the victims of that reliable villain, the "Anglo" male. We get pages and pages about "the lust, greed and cruelty of Anglo men". Women and other races presumably joined the gold rush out of altruism.

The ordinary reader might think that men went to the diggings to strike it rich, but according to Johnson, "white American-born Protestant men who aspired to middle-class status" were "anxious about issues of gender, race, culture and class". Here is glaring anachronism indeed. The dogmas of US women's studies courses are projected back in time, as if they had a solid historical reality.

Take the word "gender" out of Johnson's vocabulary, and she would be left virtually inarticulate. We encounter "gendered processes, gendered meanings" and even "gendered female" (what is an ungendered female?). This is her sober judgement on the division of labour among Indian (whoops, Native American) tribes: "Indian women did most of the work while Indian men frittered away their time hunting and fishing."

We do not hear of a single praiseworthy miner who is "Anglo", nor anyone truly reprehensible who is female, Indian, black, Chinese or Latin American. Amazing, is it not, this pre-established harmony whereby the universe delivers itself up in categories compatible with the dogmas of PC? The most Johnson is able to prove is that her detested "Anglos" thought themselves superior to all other races. Shock, horror; of course they did. This was 1849, and most of the '49ers were, notoriously, the flotsam and jetsam of the eastern slums. The total lack of historical imagination, and inability to get inside the idiom of the 19th century, is staggering. Even worse, this study is professionally incompetent, for you cannot even begin to make broad-brush statements about class and race in the gold rush unless you have established, by statistical and other methods, the actual social composition of the miners. Since this would presumably take Johnson away from her diatribes, she does not attempt this basic task.

She tells us she is "foregrounding" "reproductive and domestic labour" in mining areas. But since these activities were common to women throughout the world, why "situate" them in California in 1849? What has any of this to do with the gold rush? Predictably, the writer who dealt with the mainstream of '49, Bret Harte, is the butt for her snide remarks. Unfortunately for Johnson, there is more talent in a single Harte sentence than in her entire book. Harte lived in the real world. Johnson inhabits some bizarre universe of her own imagining.

The reviewer's book, 'Villa and Zapata: a biography of the Mexican Revolution', is published in June by Cape

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence