Archive

Archive for November 20, 2014

How gold caused his ruin

November 20, 2014 20 comments

Sutter’s Gold by Blaise Cendrars (1925) French title: L’or.

CendrarsI started L’or by Blaise Cendrars because I wanted to read it before seeing its theatre version. More about that later. As the English title suggests, Cendrars’s famous novel is about the rise and fall of Johann August Suter. (1803-1880). I suppose American readers all know about him. Other readers may not.

Suter was German, living near the Swiss border. In 1834, indebted, he left his wife and children behind and ran away from home to America. He boarded on a ship that led him to New York, spent time in Saint-Louis and then reached Fort Vancouver via the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail.

He wanted to go to California but couldn’t go straight away. He first boarded a boat headed to Honolulu and another one going back to Yerba Buena, now San Francisco. California belonged to Mexico then and Suter managed to secure the property of land in Northern California. He got 48 827 acres on the banks of the Sacramento River. His dream was to be a rich landowner. He started building an estate named the New Helvetia and founded Fort Suter where Sacramento will be. His estate was growing and money was coming in. Everything looked good and he was on the verge of fulfilling his dream when one of his employees, James W Marshall discovered gold on the property in 1848.

The Gold Rush started there and then and thousands of gold diggers swooped down on New Helvetia like a swarm of locusts on an African field. Suter was ruined. He later on initiated a law suit to regain the property of his estate and be compensated for his losses. In vain.

The novel relates his story but also the history of California and they are closely linked. It explains the politics there, the growth of San Francisco after the Gold Rush and the madness of the Gold Rush. It pictures the Wild West as we imagine it, full of reckless people and where only the law of the strongest was enforced. The pictures are vivid and we need to remember that Cendrars wrote only 45 years after Suter died.

Cendrars writes about Suter in a series of short vignettes and chapters, describing the extraordinary destiny of this man. Not all the details are historically correct but it was well done. He spoke English, Spanish, French and German. He was adventurous. He left his home country, wasn’t afraid to die during the journey to California. He was driven, ambitious and a bit reckless. He was brilliant, dedicated and a hard worker. You needed guts and faith in yourself to be a pioneer in California in the 1840s. He also lived in troubled times: he had three different nationalities, German, Spanish and then American. He saw big and wasn’t afraid to go after what he wanted. Absolutely fascinating. And yet, something surprised me.

In a sense, Suter is a traditional man, almost a man of the past. For him, being successful and wealthy meant owning a large estate and farms. His ambition was to be like the aristocracy in Europe. He had the intelligence to run a large estate and build a rich farm out of the land he got from the Mexican governor. He had all the skills to succeed in this field but totally failed to adjust to the Gold Rush. He could have turned into a mine owner or exploit the gold vein on his property. He could have created retail stores to meet the needs of the gold diggers. They needed everything, he would have been successful. He could have founded a bank to trade and keep all that gold safe. But no, he was a peasant-soul and he couldn’t let go of his dream, of his image of success. And that was being the landlord of a large farm, have people working on his land and grow cereals, produce wine and own herds.

Keep that in mind for my next billet about Run River by Joan Didion, set on a ranch on the Sacramento River less than a hundred years after the foundation of the New Helvetia.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this billet, I saw a theatre version of the novel and it was extremely well done. The text was close to the book and Cendrars words were there on stage, not a rewriting of the novel. An actor was relating Suter’s story while a musician provided musical bridges between scenes/chapters. He only had a harmonica and played traditional cowboy tunes to let our imagination carry us to this place in California. Powerful. The narrator was excellent, living the text on scene, almost chanting some parts. It sounded like traditional stories told by the fire.

%d bloggers like this: