California during the gold rush was a place of disputed claims,
shoot-outs, gambling halls, and prostitution; a place populated by
that rough and rebellious figure, the forty-niner; in short, a
place that seems utterly unconnected to middle-class culture. In
, however, Brian Roberts offers a surprising
challenge to this assumption.
Roberts points to a long-neglected truth of the gold rush: many of
the northeastern forty-niners who ventured westward were in fact
middle-class in origin, status, and values. Tracing the experiences
and adventures both of these men and of the "unseen"
forty-niners--women who stayed back East while their husbands went
out West--he shows that, whatever else the gold seekers abandoned
on the road to California, they did not simply turn their backs on
Ultimately, Roberts argues, the story told here reveals an
overlooked chapter in the history of the formation of the middle
class. While the acquisition of respectability reflects one stage
in this history, he says, the gold rush constitutes a second
stage--a rebellion against standards of respectability.