The argonauts felt free to reject the tenets of bourgeois conventionality not only because of the absence of white women and churches but also because their California sojourn was temporary. ... Most of those involved understood that the day would come when they would return to their settled existence in the states. Horace Greeley thought that rural men went to cities "to balance a year's compelled decorum by a week's unrestrained debauchery." If a week on the Bowery could compensate for a year of pious and sober behavior, what would a year in California do? Balance it for a lifetime? California lived on in the memory of former miners as something close to paradise, a place that had afforded them a charmed season of youth, jolly fellowship, and few responsibilities. One forty-niner wrote of his "fascination in the memories of that time ... [and] intense longing for such days again, ... I feel a pang, almost a pain, at the thought that I shall never see their like again." Perhaps the careful gold-rush diaries that so many men kept were to help them vicariously relive their once in a lifetime adventure. For the returnees, indulging their unruly impulses during the gold rush may have helped reconcile them to their more sedate later lives in the field, workshop, and office and thus have facilitated the embrace of the values they temporarily abandoned.Indeed. In fact, the main part of the rush took place over only three years: between 1849 and 1851. By 1852, the placer gold had been removed, and individual mining was done for. But men -- especially young men -- were still coming out. It seems certain that they were looking more for the experience than for the fortune.
It is possible that the rush thus served a significant function in consolidating the transformation in male comportment that had begun earlier in the century.
All this reminds me of the atmosphere in Prague in the early nineties. I remember well a conversation I had with an acquaintance in 1990. She was a fellow creative writing student a year ahead of me in the program and getting ready to graduate the following year. I asked what she would do then and she said she was going to Prague. "That's in Czechoslovakia," she automatically elucidated. I was astonished. Less than a year after the fall of the Wall, anyplace in a Warsaw Pact country felt like falling off the edge of the Earth to me. I asked why and she explained that it was cool there. I don't remember the words she used or the images. What she conveyed, though, was excitement at something wide open, intellectually and morally. "Their president is an avant-garde playwright!" she said. "How cool is that?"
I imagine that the word-of-mouth about the gold rush probably sounded a lot like that: the stories about picking up chunks of gold from the soil was probably less about making a fortune and more about conveying excitement at something wide open. When I finally got to Prague three years later, it was probably like arriving in Calaveras County in 1852. The gold was over, but the rush wasn't. The American gold miners were so thick on the ground, you couldn't have found the "gold" even if there had been any. But it was no longer about that anyway. It was about experiencing the openness, and the "miners" had started making a business out of making life possible and easy for newbies. The American cafes and hostels I found in Prague were like the groceries and saloons and general stores of 1852 San Francisco.
Not to belabor the point, but my sojourn in Europe ended around the time the struggle between former east and west was settling down, the renovations were finishing, the rents were going up, and the openness was closing down. And my nostalgia for that time has been at times an "intense longing," and "a pang, almost a pain." I suppose everyone has nostalgia for their young adulthood, particularly when they first start to hit middle age. But I do wonder if that nostalgia is stronger when it is for a time spent on the frontier between the productive middle-class existence to which we are all doomed/destined, and the open and anarchic freedom of the unsettled territories that are left to us.
And are there any such unsettled territories left to American youth? Where would they go now? Is that the attraction of the military and of places like Iraq and Afghanistan?