The Golden Muse
By Tom ZoellnerJuly 14, 2015
The following is a feature article from the most recent edition of the LARB Quarterly Journal: Spring 2015. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books at the $15 monthly level or order a copy at amazon.com, indiebound.com, or b&n.com.
All photographs © Kevin Gass. All rights reserved.
TO GET INTO THE GOLD country of Guyana, you have to travel roads that twist through mud and clay. Most of them are navigable only by four-wheel drive, and their main traffic comes from the freelance miners of this South American nation who scratch their living from the ground.
The capital city of Georgetown might as well occupy a different nation altogether. Built mainly out of wood painted white, the low-lying city gleams like an Everglades village under the pitiless tropical sun. The older houses feature elaborate latticework and pitched roofs and widow’s walks; even the slum architecture is graceful and reminiscent of New Orleans. Freakishly large water lilies blossom inside garbage-choked canals. The habitable portions of this city are rectangles in symmetry with the furrows of the neighboring sugarcane fields: orderly shapes in defiance of the riot of jungle that lies just beyond the thin band of habitation at the southernmost edge of the Caribbean.
Near a rambling church called “House of Israel,” which looks like a stage set for a revival of Tobacco Road, an incongruent sight is tucked into the streets: a dull concrete box with tight windows and an airlock-style entrance with a metal detector. No sign advertises what the purpose of this structure might be, but virtually everyone in Georgetown knows this is the buying office for Excel Minerals, where gold trucked in from the countryside is purchased in bulk quantities.
Each weekday, a stream of battered-looking men comes through the door with ore carried in plastic bags. After they sell the metal here — sometimes at a loss — they retreat back into the interior to keep working their old claims or search for new ones. This enterprise is the heart of the Guyanese export economy.
If they distrust the prices here, miners can always walk a short distance to a competitor, El Dorado Trading, where the counters have bulletproof glass and a man stands outside with a machine gun. One of the managers, Orrin Houston, invites me into the back room for a conversation. Like many Guyanese, he has a few solid gold slabs in his mouth as replacement teeth. “Working gold is high risk,” he says. “You can die before you even see it. Or then you get it and still die. If you’re showing gold, you have money, too, and people will come after you.”
At a beer bar called Rocky’s where the miners like to congregate after making a sale, I find a crew boss and pit owner named Dwayne Grant watching a soccer game on television. He isn’t doing well. “You have to live with the price; you have to go out,” he says. “We put all kinds of holes in the ground no matter what the conditions.” Then he shows me a cell phone video panorama of his claim in the jungle somewhere south. The camera pans across a landscape of felled trees and a cut in the earth bearing striped colors of ochre, dun, and rotten egg yolk. There is mud everywhere.
Gold mines are not beautiful in any sense except in their unapologetic simplicity. The euphemism “artisanal” is often attached to freelance projects like this, but pride and craftsmanship come last. They look more like craters full of tomato soup surrounded by hoses and electric pumps and squalid miners’ tents. Ever since a company called Omai went out of business in 2005, the artisanal production has quadrupled. About 13,800 people make their living in these remote pits. Mainly men, the rest of the nation calls them “pork-knockers.” The etymology is uncertain: one version says the name comes from the salt pork meals they tote into the bush. Another points to the miners’ traditional love of prostitutes and energetic sex.
The pork-knocker occupies a role in Guyanese lore like that of the American cowboy or the Russian fur trapper — they lend a nobility and purpose to the empty quarters of the nation; they define the rough interior that lies far from the refined precincts of the capital; they epitomize man’s strength and commercial urges over the limits of nature.
If there is a persistent theme in Guyanese literature, it lies in the wonderment and dread of the jungles that lie beyond the coastal strip — today seemingly as virginal as they were when advance men from the Dutch West India Company first went down the Essequibo River in the 17th century, beheld the appalling green vacancy, and imported African slaves to populate the fields. “To feel the past, you need the emptiness of these Guianese rivers,” wrote V. S. Naipaul in 1962. “It all seems to await discovery. But the emptiness is an illusion. The river banks are dotted with small settlements and camps, of Amerindians, miners, woodcutters.”
A brief survey of gold mining literature across the Americas reveals a similar dynamic. Peer deeper at the precious object and its human qualities become more apparent. It would be far too easy to say that gold is a heartless illusion. That’s old news. Everyone also knows it is an inanimate object not to be sought on its own terms. The story of King Midas — who wished for everything he touched to be turned to gold and then pitifully got his wish — became a part of Greek oral tradition as far back as the eighth century BCE, even before the metal first became known as a currency and as a correlative for wealth. The spiritual warnings about gold even predate its use as money.
The lessons about this metal become more slippery and uncomfortable the deeper you look. The truth lies not in a didactic fable about greed, but in what the pursuit reveals about the seeker.
The miners of Guyana and their rough lot can serve as a reminder that the United States, too, once had its own version of Guyana. It was called California.
At the time of the now-mythologized moment in January 1848, when a carpenter named James Marshall noticed a brilliant flicker in a sawmill’s race he built in the American River to the east of Sacramento, the territory of California consisted of a string of hidebound Catholic missions along the Pacific, a few rancheros down south, and a shoestring Anglo population. The population was mainly male, young, and ambitious — living off the elation and suppressed guilt of the recent conquest of such a prize from the floundering revolutionary government of Mexico, and before it, the Maidu, Modoc, Miwok, Tongva, and many other bands of Indians who called various sections their home for thousands of years.
Much like Guyana, it was a thin strip of European-style settlement along the coast held at the mercy of the shipping lanes. At its back was a roadless interior teeming with indigenous people. In 1848, San Francisco was a tent camp on the leeward side of the sand dunes with a permanent population of about 600.
The gold rush arrived during a technological and business boom for American newspapers. The invention of the telegraph made it possible to send dispatches long distances, and a curious and literate public was eager to read exotic narratives from everywhere. This was also the golden age of letter-writing, when a highly qualified postal service had outposts in tiny towns. Because so many men who were taught in rural schoolhouses were drawn west with promises of easy riches, the gold argonauts were, in the words of Robert McCrum, “the first — and the last — frontiersmen to have the education and the inclination to describe what they saw and heard.”
They were also self-consciously aware that they were actors in the creation of a new American state at the edge of a great ocean. Nothing like it had been seen on the continent before; it was the largest mass-movement of humans in North America up until that time. These immigrants were, in the slightly puffed-up words of Mark Twain, “not simpering, dainty, kid-gloved weaklings, but stalwart, muscular, dauntless young braves, brim full of push and energy […] erect, bright-eyed, quick-moving, strong-handed young giants.”
Their need for “the real” seemed to trump the urge to tell wholly made-up stories. Not only were they physically strong, they loved to read. As the historian Michael Kowalewski has observed, the real literary glory of the California gold rush was not fiction or poetry, but nonfiction: the vivid letters written back home, the highly textured journalism sent as dispatches to newspapers back East and to Europe, the hyperbolic comic sketches of camp life published in the many dozens of quarterlies that popped up around San Francisco like so many websites — journals with titles like Hombre, Overland Monthly, and Satan’s Bassoon. Within eight years of the discovery in Marshall’s millrace, the grimy port of San Francisco had more local newspapers than London, filled in significant portion with tales of sweat, dirt, hard travel, easy riches, and lost claims.
There were a few famous dissenters from this aristocracy of fact. Twain was adept at blending his journalism with sly fabrications; he first gained national fame with his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” His chief competitor, Bret Harte, served up a wagonload of Western caricature — dandyish gamblers, tender-hearted prostitutes, charming malingerers, and sun-beaten prospectors spouting rough-cut wisdom — in stories like “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” But there was no great American novel to emerge from the goldfields, perhaps because the magnitude of the new economy did not necessarily demand fictional elaboration.
The scene certainly did not lack for appropriate color and drama. The California diggings were just as haphazard and ragged as later artisanal mines would be in Guyana. An ore-bearing creek would first see most of its gravel shoveled and sifted for nuggets that had drifted downstream from an unknown vein — this was the “placer mining” that any fool could do. Once the easy money had been plucked away, it was left to those with deeper pockets to go into the veins themselves with heavy equipment, or to blast the creek sides with streams of water, breaking them into mud and clods in hopes of finding more gold hiding inside.
Fourteen years before he went on to glory and notoriety as the general who would “make Georgia howl” during the Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman took a tour of the site of Marshall’s discovery. He found “a broken country” and a stream where
men were digging and filling buckets with the finer earth and gravel, which was carried to a machine made like a baby’s cradle, open at the foot, and at the head a plate of sheet-iron or zinc, punctured full of holes. […] With this rude machine four men could earn from forty to one hundred dollars a day, averaging sixteen dollars, or a gold ounce, per man per day.
The miners were soaked in cold river water and slept on the ground, reported Sherman, but he also said nobody caught the flu or complained.
He clearly hadn’t talked to a Philadelphia schoolteacher named Daniel B. Woods, whose daily income was less than half of what Sherman reported and who wrote in a diary published in 1851 of freezing nights, blisters, disease, boredom, and loneliness. “Our feet are wet all day, while a hot sun shines down upon our heads, and the very air parches the skin like the hot air of an oven. Our drinking water comes down to us thoroughly impregnated with the mineral substances washed through the thousand cradles above us.” Simply add gasoline-powered tools and he could be describing Guyana in 2014.
Woods was merely one of the thousands who worked hard in the goldfields and found little pecuniary reward. Even the optimistic Sherman noted that miners typically spent their earnings as quickly as they emerged from the ground. As with mineral bubbles everywhere and for all time, the real winners were the freight handlers, the shovel-dealers, the saloonkeepers, the butchers, the outfitters — those who sell things to the camps at inflated prices. This ancient practice is known as “mining the miners.”
It was perhaps inevitable, then, that one of the most enduring literary subjects of the California gold rush was one of those losers, albeit one who refused to leave quietly. Joaquin Murrieta traveled north from Mexico in 1849 with his wife and a brother for the same reason that Philadelphia schoolteachers and Boston clerks were barreling into California. Except that Murrieta was intimidated off his creekside by gun-toting whites, his brother was lynched, and his wife was raped.
He turned to robbery and murder to avenge these offenses. A hapless Mexican traveler named “Joaquin” (possibly the culprit, possibly not) was hunted down and killed on the Tulare plains by the vigilante Harry Love in 1853. Shortly thereafter, a Stockton newspaper advertised a public exhibition of “THE HEAD Of the renowned Bandit! JOAQUIN!” Despite this, unsolved crimes all around the Sierras were attributed to Joaquin Murrieta for years after; he was the bloody, mischievous elf of the gold rush.
The first book about him was written a year after his death by a half-Cherokee writer named John Rollin Ridge (whose own father, a chief, had been murdered in the upheaval of Andrew Jackson’s “Indian Removal” programs). Ridge unleashed an unapologetic hagiography of a Count of Monte Cristo figure: a wronged noble with long charcoal hair, earnest black eyes, and European manners who was “full of generous utterance,” “exceedingly handsome and attractive,” and “slenderly but gracefully built, and active as a young tiger.” Murrieta’s campaign of macho vengeance was mainly justified, concluded Ridge, whose lyrical nonfiction book was the seed for a garden of paintings, poems, and cheap improvisations about the villain/victim, whose legend would be celebrated a century later by the artists and philosophers of the 1960s Chicano movement.
Nobody could agree on the facts, and the “historic Murrieta” was almost certainly responsible for a tiny fraction of the mayhem attributed to him. What is more important is that his popularity tapped into the timeless sentiment of imperial nostalgia that goes back to Homer’s Greek soldiers — the admiration for an extinguished foe that a guilty victor is permitted to feel — as well as an anxiety about “manhood” in an economy where the distribution of wealth seemed so arbitrary, and where storekeepers selling three-dollar hardtack were the clear winners over those shoveling the dirt. Silken dandies seemed to thrive where common men toiled. And everyone knew in their hearts that the most aggrieved of the conned were the Mexicans and Indians who had prior sovereignty here. “As long as Joaquin was on the loose, his opponents were able to check this discursive flow. But once the dangers of life in the diggings started to wane, and the bandit’s wicked brain appeared to be separated from his murderous and thieving hands, the floodgates opened,” writes Susan Lee Johnson in Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush (a book whose title is taken from a Bret Harte story). Bloodshed always seems far more enchanting, even heroic, when it is safely locked in the past; it is difficult to feel imperial nostalgia when it is your house being robbed and your beloved being raped by the exceedingly attractive foe.
The bubble popped and the gold fever broke, but it left the makings of a powerful civilization behind in California. Many of the immigrants chose to stay rather than trudge back east defeated. Through this self-selection, the young state received an immediate windfall of healthy young men who were willing to take risks and make bold decisions. The lucky among them had dug out a total of 400 million dollars worth of gold, and a bedazzled Congress hustled the new territory into statehood within two years of Marshall’s discovery. The metallic capital helped attract the first transcontinental railroad to Northern California. The initial investors of the Central Pacific — the lucky Big Four of robber-baron fame — were Sacramento merchants, some of them surprisingly dimwitted, who made their first modest incomes “mining the miners.” The gold rush also yielded a legacy of humorous magazine sketches, balladeer poetry, vivid journalism, and the early career of Mark Twain, but few enduring novels or schools of thought. Much was at stake from a financial point of view in 1850s California, but the written payout was largely confined to straight nonfiction and half-truth.
That dynamic was reversed in the 1890s during the Klondike gold rush, which was one of the most overhyped and disappointing of mineral frenzies in an era that was already teeming with false promises. No durable mining wealth came from the litter of excavations along a remote Canadian river, and the whole thing was over within two years. But the Klondike’s lasting gift to North America lay in its literary output — specifically, in its conceptions of the natural world and its impersonal hostilities, a radical departure from the Edenic portrayals of Central California given by its first Anglo settlers, as well as the romantic exploits of Joaquin Murrieta. For the authors of the Klondike, the hardships were far tougher and more purposeless and the scene not nearly as friendly to oil paintings. The brief northern bubble added a bit of gold to the world’s permanent stockpile, but its greater contribution was to the popular body of literature around the metal. There was a flurry of published miner diaries that had been so popular after the 1850s California experience, as well as a welter of knockout journalism, but there was also a more complicated literary legacy that had as much to do with cinematic perceptions as words.
Of all the bards of this episode, none was more influential than Jack London, a rootless, hard-drinking, and passionate 21-year-old oyster poacher — missing two teeth as a memory of a brawl on the Oakland waterfront — who read the news about a ship called Excelsior docking in San Francisco carrying a load of homecoming prospectors. They told fantastic stories about gold-bearing creeks in the Yukon territory of Canada: men using spoons to dig out nuggets like plover’s eggs, gold everywhere for the taking. Within 11 days, London and his brother-in-law were sailing northward with four thousand pounds of food, tents, shovels, pans, stoves, and other kit.
They landed at Dyea, Alaska, and then began the crushing ordeal: a 17-mile hike and climb to the top of Chilkoot Pass with all the gear, a slide down to the edge of the first of a chain of lakes. They had to fell trees, make pitch, and build a boat for the passage to the upper Yukon River and toward a muddy settlement called Dawson City, full of dance halls and bars where exhausted miners paid exorbitant prices for whiskey and made outrageous wagers with the gold dust they’d panned from places like Bonanza Creek. London wrote almost nothing during his five months of unsuccessful claim-hunting, which would prove to be the most harrowing and important of his life. “I never realized a cent from any properties I had an interest in up there,” he recalled. “Still, I have managed to pan out a living ever since on the strength of the trip.”
He spent most of his time listening to strangers tell trail stories in bars and reading the books that he’d dragged along with him — works by Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, Herbert Spencer. Both of these experiences helped him forge an uncompromising style that insisted on strength as the highest virtue and pure survival as the chief end of man. Once back in Oakland, he wrote feverishly and accumulated hundreds of rejection notes until selling a few sentimental sketches to Overland Weekly, the same journal that had been so friendly to Harte and Twain. This breakthrough led to novels like The Call of the Wild and White Fang and the things he really wanted to say. “Evolution and dissolution, survival of the fittest, the supremacy of the white race, atheism, determinism, and individualism,” in the words of Charlotte Gray, the Canadian nonfiction master who stitched his story together along with five other contemporary figures in Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike. London wrote prodigiously, obsessively, and without substantial rewriting, like a man aflame, not unlike his British contemporary H. G. Wells, who had a similar yen for fantastic landscapes and little use for sentimental soft soap.
London’s fame came at the moment when the American economy was leaning away from agriculture and frontier-breaking and toward an industrial footing that would last more than 70 years. Readers were already nostalgic for lost wilderness and for the types of rough characters like Buck the dog, the Malamute Kid, and Sitka Charley who symbolized toughness. It also did not hurt that his own biography was as compelling as any of his characters, or that he possessed smoking good looks. His adventure stories presaged the Hollywood method for telling the classic “man versus nature” story, and the many film adaptations of his novels and stories began almost immediately. The first of 12 adaptations of The Sea-Wolf in 1913 starred London himself as a nameless sailor. A biopic called Jack London was released in 1943. Most recently, Gray’s book was optioned and, not surprisingly, turned into a 2014 miniseries called Klondike for the Discovery Channel, in which a young London figures as a character. The cineplex close to the Oakland waterfront is named, in a touch of accidental perfection, the Regal Jack London Stadium 9.
Most of the movies about the Klondike reinforced London’s idea of human hardship as a constituent element of gold, mingled into the metal itself. The gold is precious because of the great sacrifice it represents, and in some sense, the misery of strangers is present in the glitter and makes the glitter more real. This is an idea reflected in one of the opening title cards to the 1925 silent film The Gold Rush starring Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp.
During the Great Gold Rush to Alaska, men in thousands came from all parts of the world. Many of them were ignorant of the hardships before them — The intense cold, the lack of food and a journey through regions of ice and snow were the problems that awaited them.
The film shows the Tramp having such camera-friendly adventures as climbing the Chilkoot Pass, trying to eat a boiled shoe, hunting a bear, and courting a dance-hall girl. Chaplin would later call this his favorite film for its perfect balance of humor, nature, and pathos.
Such a trick was also on display in the verse of one of the other noteworthy literary figures to emerge from the region, a fastidious bank clerk named Robert Service, who never hunted for gold himself and didn’t arrive in Dawson City until 1908, long after all the action collapsed. Just as the greatest (perhaps the only great) novel of the Civil War — Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage — was written by a man who never experienced battle, the best poetry of the Klondike era was produced by a man who never saw the goldfields in play.
When he was working in the town of Whitehorse, an opera house invited him to give evening readings of long ballads like “Casey at the Bat” and some of Robert Burns’s best work, which he had loved as a boy in Scotland. One night a friend told him a story about having to burn the corpse of a gold mining partner out in the wilderness, and Service, fascinated by the tale, took an all-night walk in the woods thinking about it. By the time he went to bed at dawn, he had worked out the entirety of “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” a creakily rhymed ghost story that was almost immediately memorized by thousands (and which had the power to leave me sleepless when I heard it read in firelight at an Arizona summer camp). Its opening:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
His debut collection, Songs of a Sourdough, featured this yarn, as well as “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and a cabin-full of other archetypes today commonly associated with subarctic gold: incorruptible Mounties, kindly hookers, romantic tramps, frozen lakes, unspeakable winters. Service was pilloried by critics of his day for being too proletarian, too obvious, and too concerned with surface meanings. A literature professor at Dalhousie University criticized his focus on “the sordid, the gross, the bestial” and said his meter was “imitative of Kipling’s barrack-room balladry.” Service himself acknowledged he was aiming for the kind of lines “the sweet old lady would paste in her album; something the schoolboy would spout and the fellow in the pub would quote” and that seeking literary glory was chasing “the applause of people whose esteem is often not worth the winning.”
Service’s picturesque brutality cannot be ignored in any serious assessment of gold mining literature. His narratives had the “camp sketch” aspect that had become a staple during the California rush, but he penetrated the popular consciousness with the idea that gold mining had a strong dose of misanthropy, if not outright sociopathy. The average armchair traveler sitting before the fire in New York or Virginia may have regarded the argonauts as individualist heroes — holding their headstrong greed up as a public virtue — while knowing in his heart he would never do such a thing and harboring a suspicion that there was something indefinably wrong with them. Service was ready to confirm that there were indeed “strange things done in the midnight sun,” and he reassured his readers in a later poem that it was “the quiet, steady plodding ones / who win in the lifelong race” and not those on suicidal quests for glitter.
There’s a race of men that don’t fit in
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
A final literary legacy of the Klondike must be taken into account — one that probably had the most lasting effect on the lives of the “quiet, steady, plodding ones” in the lower states. This was aggressive civic propaganda on a grand scale.
There was nothing new about American cities sending out promotional literature overpraising their own virtues; railroads had been doing this for one-street cow towns since the 1830s. But Erastus Brainerd brought this art form to a new level of hyperbole and effectiveness. As the head of Seattle’s Bureau of Information, he went on a vigorous mailing campaign to make sure that his city, and not Tacoma, San Francisco, or, God forbid, Portland, should be the one to get the outfitting, shipping, and banking overspill from the miners’ cup. He sent out press releases masquerading as government bulletins and phony maps depicting every railroad line leading to Seattle (and none to its rivals). He wrote anonymous magazine articles praising the town as the “Queen City of the Northwest,” teeming with stone buildings and rich warehouses, soon to be another New York in the wilderness, and he then recycled his own hype through wire stories, so it appeared as though Harper’s had said it, not him. Seattle residents were given stacks of pre-printed letters to sign and mail to all their friends and family back East touting this cold and rainy hillside as the keyhole to Yukon gold.
Seattle still has a role as one of the chief port cities for Alaska — thanks to the fancy of gold mining literature.
What is the nature of the substance being chased? Why should people throw themselves with such suicidal vigor toward this metal?
The lust does not lie in the bloodstream. Ancient civilizations didn’t think much of gold. Though it may have been visually interesting, it was too soft for tool points. Archaeologists have discovered loads of copper and iron implements around Neolithic settlements, but gold is missing.
Only in the emergence of the Egyptian class society around 3500 BCE does gold begin to show up as a marker of status. The rich needed a way to distinguish themselves from the poor that went beyond food storage or better clothes. They also hit on the idea of using gold lumps for currency — a stand-in for actual goods — and the concept made trade possible among civilizations. The first gold coins were struck in Asia Minor by King Alyattes around 600 BCE. Abstract and convertible “money” began to supplant tangible riches like wine, corn, oil, and cattle, which could not be stuffed in a pocket. Other metals like cobalt or iron would not have worked. Gold was valuable because it was scarce and expensive to mine. It was also visually charming and mostly useless for any other purpose.
Eventually the surrogate became the end in and of itself, and hence the roots of the King Midas legend that promises ruin for those who pursue the symbol over the symbolized, or, if you prefer, surface over substance. Perhaps it was no accident that the calf the wayward Israelites worshipped was made of gold. Not everybody listens to one of the oldest moral teachings of civilization, repeated from Moses on down. “The desire for gold is the most universal and deeply rooted commercial instinct of the human race,” wrote the broker Gerald M. Loeb. For John Maynard Keynes, the gold standard was a “barbarous relic” reminiscent of false prosperity and the cruelty of the Spanish conquistadors who slaughtered in the name of it. Hernán Cortés confessed a “disease of the heart” in his desire to acquire gold as a measure of his accomplishments.
No one book could total up humanity’s experience of this substance, but Matthew Hart gives it a try in Gold: The Race for the World’s Most Seductive Metal, in which he suggests far-fetched atavistic reasons for the lust. “Africa brims with gold,” he writes. “We emerged from Africa. Maybe the idea of gold came with us.”
Hart is a Canadian business journalist who has also written a previous book about diamond mining (full disclosure: a topic I’ve covered as well), and he employs the same narrative approach here: reported set pieces from around the globe that shed light on the titular subject. He does not mention Guyana, but illegal scratch mining gets covered in South Africa with a few hours spent in the company of a corporate bone-breaker named “Bad Brad,” whose shape Hart compares to a phone booth. We stay with him for a few paragraphs as he surveys a tunnel.
This scene illustrates some of Hart’s greatest storytelling strengths and also a key weakness. He has an eye for finding a quirky anecdote and nice visual comparisons. But the story trails off into facts and assertions without a satisfying finish. Narrative threads start off promisingly and are then abandoned without comment, or worse, descend into unearned conclusions. (“It would change how the world worked.”) But Gold is still an intriguing book because of its analysis of monetary policy — a subject that quickly crosses the eyes of all but the most determined of lay readers. This book, however, makes the reader actually care about abstractions like “the London fix” and Richard Nixon’s decision to abandon the remnants of the gold standard in 1971, a temporary inflation-busting move that had the more profound effect of severing the government’s endorsement of the worthless metal that Charles de Gaulle once called “eternally and universally accepted.”
The dramatic rendition of a few days among economists at Camp David drives home Hart’s central point, as devastatingly valid on paranoid conservative talk shows today as it would have been in the freezing misery of 1890s Dawson City. “No longer hard currency, or even its relation, gold became the phantom money of the imagination — shadow money,” he writes. “The shapes projected were the shapes of our emotions.”
As a result of the Nixon Shock — or at least until a worldwide panic causes governments to flee from their paper economies — gold now has “no meaning but its price” and a certain sentimental role as a historical fortune-builder, literary symbol, and glittering deceiver of little people.
In Guyana, this is old news.
Guyana’s population clings to the coast, but its soul is in the gold-rich interior. The novel that lays the foundations for the role gold plays in the modern imagination is Palace of the Peacock, an allegorical, frustrating, nonlinear, and beguiling 1960 novel by Wilson Harris, a native of Guyana and a former surveyor who sought to tell the hidden story of his nation through words that attack the senses as much as the intellect.
Here is a summary of Palace of the Peacock, as much as it can be possibly discerned: An unnamed narrator is the brother of a conquistador figure named Donne who dies in the first scene by gunshot wound, yet sails up a river with a crew in a Kurtz-like search for a lode of riches called El Dorado (a mimic of the first European exploitations of Guyana, which means literally “land of waters”), which also might be a woman. These argonauts sail to a waterfall that conceals a room. Inside is a carpenter who is death and a woman who sheds her garment and blinds Donne. The narrator then sees giant eyes and a forehead in the cliff above. “Steps and balconies had been nailed with abandon from bottom to top making hazardous ladders against the universal walls.” And this wall is no ordinary rock face. “The wall that had divided him from his true otherness and possession was a web of dreams.” And the palace they strive to find “became a dancing hieroglyph in the illumination of endless pursuit, the subtle running depths of the sea, the depths of the green sky and the depths of the forest.”
Harris is now 94 and retired. Some have attempted to lump him in with other South American magical realists like Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges, but he has always rejected the label. His name has frequently been floated as a possible Nobel Prize contender. For sheer difficulty of sentence-by-sentence prose, he has few equals. But he is making an important point about the binary nature of colonial mineral-seeking and the fatal mistake of preserving the traditionally rigid separations between man and nature, or between the signifier and the signified.
The Guyanese jungle for Harris in his dream-state is “a vast impression and canvas of nature wherein everything looked perfect and yet at the same time unfinished and insubstantial.” Expressed in plain critical terms, the pursuit of the object — represented by the invisible Palace of the Peacock — leads to the spiritual demise of the pursuer. Gold is not mentioned in Harris’s novel, but it doesn’t need to be. Anyone in Guyana would have immediately recognized the journey upriver as a signature move of bravado and greed.
This still happens today; the Palace of the Peacock still dances out of reach. Only a few have written about it in much detail. The most recent comprehensive nonfiction treatment is by a nonnative, a Californian named Marc Herman, in a 2003 book with an elongated 19th-century-style title: Searching for El Dorado: A Journey into the South American Rainforest on the Tail of the World’s Largest Gold Rush. (I need to acknowledge a personal connection I have to this title: I befriended Herman when he was writing it, and he quoted me in one section near the end. We have stayed in touch and are currently both involved with an international journalism collective. Though the friendship may be inconvenient for the purposes of this essay, his book must be discussed. There is no better explanation of the dirty ironies of the gold business.)
Herman spent several seasons among the backcountry miners of Guyana. In his telling, they are a lusty and comic breed, “gilded paupers” with gold teeth and their bank accounts dangling visibly as thick necklaces, dealing in large amounts of raw wealth yet getting almost nothing in return except a life of hard work and occasional violence. They are also astonishingly kind and forthcoming.
The countryside is tattooed with riverside cuts where all the trees have been cleared and the clay-sticky sands run through a series of sluice boxes. A few foreign multinationals have polluted with impunity; one of them, Omai, dug up 20 million tons of rock annually in search of gold. The sight did not inspire. A toxic waste pond full of cyanide, built to replace one that had cracked and leaked, “had a cinnamon cast like Mexican chocolate.” “El Dorado,” concludes Herman, “in the end, was real, had been discovered, and was a pile of dirt.”
The ugly pile is the inevitable end of the gold chase, and its shadow lies over the novel Black Midas by Guyanese native Jan Carew, which — though undeservedly obscure by international standards — is by far the most engaging to emerge from the South American goldfields. In its simple narrative structure, naturalistic setting, and smart moral message, it may in fact be the best novel about mining ever written — a New World competitor to Émile Zola’s Germinal. None of the hallucinatory allegories of Wilson Harris make an appearance: this is a story as easy to follow as Treasure Island and just as fun to read.
Carew’s book is the bildungsroman of a country boy nicknamed Shark because of his toothy smile. He lucks into a free education and learns how to read, but finds out later that it was paid for by a mysterious white man named Julian Beauchamp who feels guilty because Shark’s father had once worked for him in a bush mining operation and got killed when a dam burst. Beauchamp is tortured with the knowledge he was pushing the men too hard. “Gold and diamonds make monsters out of men,” he writes in a letter to Shark, “drive all decency and kindness out of their hearts, turn honest men into thieves and liars, good men into fiends.”
Of course, Shark listens to none of this and is soon chasing the easy riches himself. He travels upriver to the entrepôt town of Bartica, where a friend observes, “Shop and shopkeeper spring up like tree, the rum shop need extra police, and money does pass like fire.” The small crew goes further into the incomprehensible forest, as in Palace of the Peacock, and starts to mine the earth near the edge of a small creek. Shark reflects that he had never felt more alive; the jungle is inventing him anew. During a manic episode of digging and washing, a tree falls on one of his companions and kills him. This is a hinge moment, for Shark feels himself as morally culpable in the man’s death as the white benefactor who helped drive Shark’s father to an early grave. At about the same time, the men happen onto a rich lode of diamonds.
The wealth comes to Shark “like a tree fallen across my life,” and he moves back to the capital of Georgetown and buys a fabulous house, a car, and a suit with a top hat and diamond stick pin. Shark alienates his old friends, throws Gatsby-like parties, and falls in with la belle dame sans merci named Beryl who was “a hot-sun girl with a flyweight mind, and although she had been brought up on a diet of pretense and prudery she knew instinctively how to bargain her curves and her color.” Another new friend, a shady lawyer, advises him to invest in a sawmill that fails, leaving Shark a social outcast, deserted by his nitwit girlfriend — calling her a gold digger is just too easy — and as poor as when he had started.
“Pork-knockers were a strange race of men,” he reflects. “They took hardship for granted, made and squandered fortunes, left the forest with thousands in their pockets swearing never to return, but they always came back, sometimes with only the shirts on their backs to call their own. They changed but the dream which hounded them never did.” And sure enough, his first instinct is to go gold hunting, an endeavor that leads him to a vein of gold, but drives him to a digging frenzy inside a candlelit excavation. “Every thrust of a shape was like a clap of thunder,” Shark notes, and swears that “if God Himself blocked my way to these nuggets I’d throw Him aside,” just before the walls cave in on him and he suffers a grievous injury — a fate close to that of his father’s.
Shark is left only with a loyal companion named Pancho, who possesses a friend-name for the ages. He also has pinpoint wisdom.
“Gold is a thing they does eat like rice, and after all what is this gold? Yellow dust and yellow brick,” Pancho observes near the end. “If he had his way, it would all be left where it was — the hole in the ground demands a sacrifice.”
Here is Carew’s final image of gold: the sacrificial hole. That empty space in the ground, so much like a grave, that remains as the lasting monument to humankind’s greatest nonbiological hunger.
Tom Zoellner is the author of five nonfiction books, including Train: Riding the Rails that Created the Modern World. He is the co-author of The New York Times bestselling book An Ordinary Man, and his book Uranium won the 2011 Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, Time, Foreign Policy, Departures, The Wall Street Journal, Men’s Health, the Oxford American, and many other places. A professor of English at Chapman University, he lives in Downtown Los Angeles.
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