Sketching California: The ethnographic work of Gold Rush literature, 1850-1870

Tara Penry, Fordham University


This study proposes reading small-press "regional" periodicals to discover a more diverse set of traditions in U.S. literary history. In particular, it compares the complex representations of western culture in the literary modes of Gold Rush California magazines with the simplified "local color" view of the west that northeastern magazines disseminated. Chapter one surveys Gold Rush demographics and the history of publishing and related institutions in California of the 1850s and '60s. In chapter two, the picturesque mode is shown to encourage immigration by portraying California as a worthy destination for people of taste. The sentimental mode (chapter 3) offers a sympathetic community of readers and writers to ease the homesickness of immigrants. Both the picturesque and sentimental discourses attest to the "civilization" and sophistication of California by importing middle-class, eastern American values to the frontier west. The parodies and satires of Sam Clemens and Bret Harte in the 1860s (chapter 4) depict versions of a "wild west." With the "manners and customs" genre and its corresponding mode of ethnographic realism (chapter 5), post-Gold Rush essayists affirm the highly-evolved status of Anglo "civilization," compared with other nations and races. The same mode, in the hands of self-conscious literary artists such as Clemens, Harte, and Louise Clappe, also provides an authenticating rhetoric which allows eastern readers to trust in the "realism" of selective western sketches. In reviews, reprints, and articles about California (chapter 6), contemporaneous Boston and New York magazines filtered California literature to the exoticizing mode of "local color"--a subset of "realism" which northeastern readers understood more in a sociological or ethnographic sense--as a "real" account of western life--than in a literary sense (as a Jamesian "illusion of life"). In the twentieth century, critical appraisals of "local color" have followed the northeastern model, evaluating early western writing as "informative" rather than artistic.

Subject Area

American literature|American studies|American history

Recommended Citation

Penry, Tara, "Sketching California: The ethnographic work of Gold Rush literature, 1850-1870" (1998). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9816352.