- Historic Sites
All That Glittered
Save for the Civil War, what occurred after a carpenter glimpsed a flash of yellow 150 years ago was the biggest story of the nineteenth century. RICHARD REINHARDT examines what we think we know (and don’t) about the people who made it happen.
February/March 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 1
The brevity of his great adventure, the moisture of his nostalgia, the crudeness of his manners often made the old Argonaut, the self-styled California Pioneer, a target of ridicule. Ambrose Bierce punched holes in his pretensions. Hubert Howe Bancroft, the voluminous and respected historian of early California, criticized his greed, prevarication, and profanity. Novelists discovered him, a parvenu whose red flannel shirt was visible under his starched white collar and black dinner jacket. He appears in Joseph Conrad ( Nostromo ), Ivan Bunin ( The Gentleman From San Francisco ), Robert Louis Stevenson ( The Wrecker ), and Bronson Howard ( Aristocracy .)
But the young Argonaut, the immortal forty-niner, never grows old. Fixed forever in time and place, he pursues his endless search for gold under the blazing artificial sunset of David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West . In the libretto of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, the tenor speaks Italian, doubles as a bandit, and narrowly escapes lynching, but he wears red flannel and blue denim, his name is the impeccably Anglo-American Dick Johnson, and his heart is set on taking home his pocketful of gold.