Book review: Roaring Camp by Susan Lee Johnson

J.D. Borthwick, “Monte in the Mines” (c. 1851)

Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush by Susan Lee Johnson is an extraordinary contribution to scholarship on the California Gold Rush.  The title of the book is a play on the title of the short story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” by Bret Harte and is intended to evoke ideas of the myths tied to the Gold Rush. However, the book is anything but playful: it is an account of a period that was so full of potential for redefining ideas of class, gender, and cultural tolerance, yet the opportunity was lost. The Northern Mines of California are the site of more widely acknowledged Gold Rush narratives; Johnson, however, focuses on the Southern Mines, which were a site of conflicted gender roles due to the mixing of multiple ethnicities and glasses and are comparatively outside of the major history of the Gold Rush. A highly deserving winner of the 2001 Bancroft Prize, Johnson utilizes her position as a New Western historian to persuasively coerce the reader to rethink not only what is acknowledged about the Gold Rush, but also how ethnicity, class and gender influenced notions of social roles even before the advent of postmodernism. 

Johnson’s ultimate aim with her book is to negotiate the differences in memory and history of the Gold Rush, writing “within that tension… indulging in what two scholars call the ‘rules of recording and interpretation that… belong to historical discourse,’ now in the more ‘unreflective, erratic operations of memory’” (p. 26). Johnson opens her book with a discussion of Joseph Murrieta and his group of “bandits,” which sets the framework for how ethnicity contributed to notions of gender and power, which were thus fluidly interpreted in the Southern Mines during the Gold Rush. This leads into a chronological narrative spanning from 1848 to 1858 and recounts the cooperation and conflict of men of different ethnicities in the Southern Mines: Anglos, native Miwoks, African Americans, and migrants from Chile, China and France. These ten years “marked a time and place of tremendous contests about maleness and femaleness, about color and culture, and about wealth and power” (p. 51). Johnson argues that the initial lack of women in the Southern Mines area forced male inhabitants to prescribe gendered roles onto other men due to their class and ethnic statuses: Anglo men mapped gendered codes onto other ethnic groups, particularly the Chinese, who traditionally took on the effeminate tasks of cooking and doing laundry. Additionally, to compensate for the lack of women, Johnson claims that male miners turned to homosocial and homoerotic relationships; however, the importation of white women from the East Coast signaled an end to the highly distinctive social and cultural identity of the Southern Mines and ushered in domestication and “normal” gendered identities. Thus, the opportunities for wider tolerance of ethnicity, class, and degrees of genderedness were lost, and the story of Southern Mines became obscured by more triumphalist and idealist historical narratives that negate actual memories and events.

Johnson employs an impressive number of primary sources from a wide array of libraries, archives and museums. Her bibliography of secondary sources is admittedly longer than her primary sources, yet she masterfully demonstrates that gender notions could be highly fluid in the absence of one of the sexes. However, while Roaring Camp is an important contribution to the historical field, it is not without its flaws. The Southern Mines were clearly a site of conflicts in notions of gender, ethnicity, and class, but Johnson may have chosen a history and an area that is too marginalized from other Gold Rush areas. Furthermore, though she convincingly argues her points, some of her arguments are lacking in sufficient evidence. In her discussion of possible homosexual activity, she relies more upon the lack of reference to such activity rather than actual evidence. Indeed, she largely depends on her inferences of the historical records to back up most of her arguments regarding the social culture of the Southern Mines. Additionally, her keen understanding of gender and social theory is a critical component to her interpretation of the material, but this emphasis on theory risks alienating a portion of her audience. Indeed, her prose frequently risks reading as overly jargoned, and it is possible that many professional and non-professional historians alike could be neither familiar nor comfortable with incorporating such radical theory into their preconceived notions about the California Gold Rush.

Though Roaring Camp can be viewed as somewhat radical, it is nevertheless a refreshing analysis of the highly mythologized Gold Rush in an age of postmodern reinterpretations of domineering historical narratives. Johnson is the epitome of the New Western historian, yet she expertly takes on the Turnerian notion of the frontier as a process rather than a place while adding class and gender to the historiography of the Gold Rush. While certain members of her audience may be dissuaded from reading her very sophisticated and original work due to her gratuitous usage of theory, her book is nevertheless an important contribution to notions of social relations in both the histories of the American West and of the world at large.

Disclaimer: This is a draft of a review written for HIST 6317: Readings in the American West at CU Boulder. This post is intended to serve as a starting point for further research for interested readers, NOT as a book report to be copied. Any copying of this post is plagiarism, which is very frowned upon in academia. 

(c) Stefani at Florence and the Historian, 2012

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