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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