In the spring of 1854, Johann August Sutter, a thirty-one-year-old bankrupt Swiss papermaker, deserted his wife and four children and set sail for America. Penniless and without prospects, his “professional contacts” were restricted to the fellow fugitives, swindlers and n’er-do-wells he was to meet on his journey. Through a combination of cunning or crooked business deals, prowess as an Indian fighter, indefatigable effort and extraordinary good luck, less than ten vears later John Augustus Sutter had become America’s first millionaire and multimillionaire, the most prosperous landowner in the United States, and the founder of a new country which he patriotically christened New Helvetia. Coming to join her husband at last, Anne Sutter hears him described by strangers: “He is a king; he is an emperor. He rides on a white horse. The saddle is made of gold, the bit is gold, the stirrups, the spurs and even the horseshoes are of gold.” By the time she arrives in Panama, one lock of her hair has turned white. John Sutter had been the poorest of men; he is now among the richest. Frau Sutter dies, of exhaustion and amazement, on her husband’s doorstep.
Well on his way to becoming “the richest man in the world”, Sutter is ruined in January 1848, when an employee, James W. Marshall, discovers gold on Sutter’s property. Within months, squatters from all over the world have come to his vast El Dorado to prospect. A few months more and New Helvetia has evaporated. Sutter’s Garden of Eden has became the City of San Francisco. His house is burned down and his lands are taken over by mud-covered men with strange accents. One of his sons is murdered, another commits suicide. A pauper, Sutter will spend the next thirty years of his life vainly trying to obtain some kind of compensation from the federal government in Washington. Irony and rage kill him on June 17, 1880 at the age of seventy- eight.
The vertiginous extremes of Sutter’s life-history place it squarely alongside a number of other “higher horror” stories: those, notably, of Job and Midas
The vertiginous extremes of Sutter’s life-history place it squarely alongside a number of other “higher horror” stories: those, notably, of Job and Midas. But his is also a quintessentially American tragedy, and Gold itself is perhaps best regarded as an American novel. No other figure of the nineteenth century – not even Lincoln – and few others in American history, can have lived the American dream more literally or incarnated it more gloriously than did Sutter. The pathfinder and the pioneer, the rugged individualist, the self-made man and the natural aristocrat all come together in the person of this insignificant Swiss immigrant.
Certain details of the story – Sutter’s Platonic self-image, his Heimweh, his demented Biblical exegeses, his membership of a wealthy communist religious sect at the end of his life – bear a superficial resemblance to the odyssey that has so often been traced by American royalty, from Jay Gatsby and Citizen Kane to Daniel K. Ludwig and Bob Dylan, whose absolute wealth and freedom have fuelled an already burning hatred of mere metaphorical existence and turned them towards religion and babyhood. Howard Hughes, subsisting at the end on a child’s diet of ice cream and biscuits; Elvis Presley, who died wearing diamonds and nappies; H. L. Hunt (the model for Dallas’s J. R.), who, padding around his office on all fours, once confided to a reporter, “I’m crazy about crawling” – each is an exemplary American career.
No one could have been better suited to tell Sutter’s story than his fellow-countryman and adventurer Blaise Cendrars
But few individuals can have lived the American nightmare more pitifully than Sutter. He was left in the cold, a moral and material wreck. He died, like all poor people, wrong in the eyes of justice. His story is thus less like that of a Ford or a Rockefeller than a Lemuel Pitkin, whose dismantling Nathanael West recounts inA Cool Million. Indeed Sutter remains a major exhibit in what West called the American Museum of Hideosities.
No one could have been better suited to tell Sutter’s story than his fellow-countryman and adventurer Blaise Cendrars, whose jeweller’s eye was finely focused on all that glisters. (One of Ccndrars’s most compelling, if elusive dreams was “de rouler en Cadillac, d’avoir des poules à perlouzes et zibeline, et de boire des scotch sans soda dans des boites de nuit à strip-tease.”) The startling incongruity of the mock-naive tone in which Cendrars recounts this long, cruel joke is supremely effective. First published in 1925, or four years before American riches to rags stories were to become commonplace, Ccndrars’s first novel remains a minor masterpiece. This fine new translation should give it its rightful place on the golden periphery of American letters.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. He has taught courses for many years at Georgetown University pertaining to propaganda and public diplomacy. He currently shares ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" to Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States. He also served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.