How gold caused his ruin

November 20, 2014 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. Tredynas Days
    November 20, 2014 at 1:20 am

    Thanks for this. I really enjoyed his Dan Yack novels, which I think are more unconventional than this one- surreal, witty. Must give Sutter a try.


    • November 20, 2014 at 10:29 pm

      This is my first book by him. I haven’t investigated his others. Will look at the Dan Yack novels.


  2. November 20, 2014 at 4:52 am

    It’s peculiar how some people missed being rich when really they should have made it. Over here there’s a lot named after him–including a large health group.


    • November 20, 2014 at 10:33 pm

      He should have made it. He just couldn’t go out of his mindset. He arrived in America at the same period as the Lehman Brothers. I saw a play about them earlier this year and it’s interesting to compare them.
      Like Suter, the Lehman Brothers started with what they knew: they owned a clothes shop. They had the intelligence to evolve from this to trading cotton to banking. Suter was set in his ways. He wanted to own and run a large ranch. He couldn’t picture anything else.


  3. November 20, 2014 at 5:20 am

    I have wondered what was in this book. Very interesting. Surprising.


    • November 20, 2014 at 10:35 pm

      It’s a great book. I don’t know why Cendrars decided to write this story. I guess it fascinated him.
      Is Suter well-known in the US (outside of Northern California)
      The theatre was full of teenagers attending with their teacher; they had studied the novel in class and were there to see its theatre version.


      • November 20, 2014 at 10:44 pm

        Not about Sutter personally, but everyone knows the California Gold Rush started at Sutter’s Mill. So his name is well known.

        By “everyone” I mean the kinds of people who have common historical knowledge. Not actually everyone. Maybe not anywhere close.


        • November 20, 2014 at 11:05 pm

          Beyond the personal story of the man, I think the legal dispute is fascinating. He had built roads, bridges, wells etc on his property and they all became property of the State of California. From what I understood, the property deeds given by the Mexican governor vanished quite conveniently when the legal battle was raging.
          It went to the US Supreme Court. He owned the land where San Francisco and Sacramento were built. He wanted a compensation for the roads, mills, bridges…taken over by the State to turn them into public property.

          In the novel (I don’t know if it’s true) Cendrars said he also sued the USA because they failed to protect his assets. The State of California and the Federal State failed their duty to protect their citizen through efficient police and justice institutions. (I’m struggling to explain this in English, I don’t know the right words)

          Title deeds of places belonging to his estate had been sold to pioneers. I’m not saying that it was right that he had such a big estate for himself, just that the legal aspect is fascinating.

          It’s also fascinating to thing that his life and his story is so linked to the construction of California.

          And I was also amazed at how far and how fast the news about the Gold Rush spread at a time where there was no railway from Est to West and you needed to go through the Cape Horn to go from East to West by boat.


  4. November 20, 2014 at 9:57 am

    It’s interesting to hear how an adventurous, driven man such as Suter couldn’t adjust to the change and opportunities offered by the Gold Rush. Sounds like a fascinating book.


    • November 20, 2014 at 10:43 pm

      The contradiction between his capacity to learn about California, the tenacity it required to go there and his incapacity to adapt is puzzling. Travelling to California at the time was hazardous. And yet he had the courage to do it.

      I suppose it’s difficult to get rid of your education : back then in Europe what probably mattered to be successful and important was to secure a vast property and have a title. That’s what “grandeur” meant to him.


  5. November 20, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    I was wondering as I read how he was ruined when gold was found on his land. My immediate thought was to provide for the prospectors – hotels, equipment stores, and perhaps try some prospecting yourself. A shame he couldn’t adapt.

    The play sounds very good.


    • November 20, 2014 at 10:47 pm

      The play is really good.

      It’s surprising isn’t it? Usually men’s greediness peaks up in such times and if they don’t prospect gold they turn the opportunity into gold. The easiest thing would have been to provide the incoming tide of people with their everyday needs. But to do that would have meant to acknowledge that the New Helvetia was over and to accept to drop farming for trade. And you know that back then in Europe, trade didn’t rate as much as owning a vast ranch.


      • November 25, 2014 at 10:28 pm

        Actually, when you talk about land versus trade suddenly I understand. Remarkable though how such concepts, such prejudices, can blind us.


        • November 25, 2014 at 10:37 pm

          It’s the old appeal of aristocracy. People were chasing titles at the time.
          When Sutter leaves Europe, it’s Balzac’s time.


  6. November 22, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    I don’t think Cendrars would have written about Suter if he had been German. He’s Swiss, just like Cendrars. It’s a very Swiss name.
    I read this twice and found it great.


    • November 23, 2014 at 10:37 am

      I think Suter used to live near Basel but not in Switzerland. You know how it is in three-borders area, people move around.

      It’s a great novel. I didn’t have much input on the construction of the book. What do you think about it? The translation from book to play was easy with all the little chapters.

      PS: I wonder how Cendrars heard about Suter and what kind of material he had access to to write his book.


      • November 24, 2014 at 8:58 am

        I’ve read it too long ago to say anything about the construction.
        As I said, I guess because they are both Swiss. Sutter is famous in Switzerland. And Cendrars who was an adventurer and traveller most have felt some kinship. I always meant to read Cendrars’ biography. I really should. I’m sure it would be extremely interesting.


  7. November 22, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    Sutter is a very Swiss name, I meant.


    • November 23, 2014 at 10:38 am

      thanks for the precision. Cendrars doesn’t sound like a germanophone Swiss name. (I don’t know if this sentence is gramatically correct.)


      • November 27, 2014 at 3:56 pm

        Looks right to me as a sentence. I think what’s bothering you is that it’s inelegant, but I can’t think of an elegant way to use the word Germanophone so I’m not sure that was avoidable.


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