American Alchemy

The California Gold Rush and Middle-Class Culture

By Brian Roberts

360 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 12 illus., notes, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4856-2
    Published: May 2000
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-6093-9
    Published: June 2003
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6998-2
    Published: June 2003

Cultural Studies of the United States

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Awards & distinctions

Runner-up 2001 Spur Award for Best Western Nonfiction: Historical, Western Writers of America, Inc.

Honor Book Citation, 2001 Caroline Bancroft History Book Award, Denver Public Library

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 American Alchemy, 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 middle-class culture.

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.

About the Author

Brian Roberts is assistant professor of history at California State University in Sacramento.
For more information about Brian Roberts, visit the Author Page.


"An important work within the context of gold rush studies."--Enterprise & Society

"A welcome addition to work on the California gold rush and on nineteenth-century white, middle-class culture. Brian Roberts provides rich literary analysis of letters and diaries. . . . [Roberts] is magnificent. No other historian has read these letters and diaries with such keen insight, nor has anyone else captured the contradictions and conceits of white middle-class culture so effectively."--Journal of American History

"Offers a fresh look at a familiar episode in U.S. history. . . . An impressive addition to scholarship on nineteenth-century American culture and class formation. [This book] demands the attention of historians in a number of fields and should influence our understanding of the Gold Rush for some time to come."--Journal of the Early Republic

"[This book] achieves a "gold standard" by making something as familiar as the Gold Rush uncomfortably new. By chipping away at an old story and rearranging the pieces into rich new narratives . . . Roberts remind[s] us how differently important big events are and that historians have a responsibility to give voice to the ways in which these stories can be remembered."--American Historical Review

"An important book, convincingly relocating the opening cultural crisis of the American middle class from the turn of the century back to the late 1840s."--Harvard Business History Review

"[A] refreshing approach to the fabled era of the California gold rush. . . . This book raises questions and provides answers."--Choice