An uneven study of the California Gold Rush.
Former New York Times columnist Rosen (Cremation in America, not reviewed) argues that the Gold Rush changed American culture and character, and well as the essence of the American Dream. Before the 1848 discovery of gold in California, Americans were more apt to believe in diligence and hard work. If you did not achieve material success in this world, well, no worries: God would reward you in Heaven. Then suddenly it was possible for anyone, regardless of merit, birth or intelligence, to make big bucks. The author suggests that this get-rich-quick mentality persisted throughout the 20th century and that it explains everything from stock-market crashes to the dot.com explosion of the ’90s. Less innovatively, he argues that the Gold Rush accelerated the growth and development of America, as antebellum railroad barons fell over themselves to lay tracks across the continent. Too many shortcomings diminish the sparkle of Rosen’s argument. The prose is mediocre. Occasionally, lovely turns of phrase are greatly outnumbered by awkward clinkers straight out of a high-school term paper (“regardless of the president’s policies, what no one in the world of the 1850s disagreed with was that the president of the Untied States told the truth”). The self-indulgent autobiographical preface and epilogue are out of place and irrelevant, and Rosen never adequately explains or interprets the many long quotations from primary sources.
Fool’s gold would be too generous a description.