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Life on the edge


“Earth Quakey Times,” by Edward Jump, showing the October 8, 1865 earthquake. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

To the uninitiated, San Francisco in the 1860s was a strange sight. It was densely urban, yet unmistakably Western; isolated yet cosmopolitan; crude yet cultured. It belonged to America yet held itself apart, swearing its allegiance while celebrating its independence. It appeared virtually overnight in 1849, created by one of the largest mass migrations in history. People came to strike it rich, yet they also cared deeply about culture. The gold they dug from the ground didn’t just build brothels and saloons—it also built theaters, opera houses, and music halls. It financed a large publishing industry, including twelve daily newspapers and a number of literary weeklies.

The motivation for all this was simple: boredom. Stranded on the far side of the continent, thousands of miles from home, in crude camps of the kind described by “Dame Shirley” and other correspondents of the Gold Rush, early Californians lived in a cultural vacuum. After long, grueling days at the diggings, they needed some entertainment. So they told each other stories—not romantic, pietistic tales but ironic, unsentimental ones. They had been lured West by fantasies of wealth and instead found an unforgiving reality, where a handful made a fortune and the vast majority destroyed themselves with liquor or overwork. Irony became the way Californians dealt with this disenchantment: “the Western predilection to take a humorous view of any principle or sentiment,” in Bret Harte’s words. They loved hoaxes, satire, burlesques. They loved to poke fun at the saintly and the self-serious. They had lost faith in what later generations would call the American Dream—the idea that any man could become a millionaire through hard work—and this made them a uniquely skeptical and subversive bunch.