cover image THE AGE OF GOLD: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream

THE AGE OF GOLD: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream

H. W. Brands, . . Doubleday, $29.95 (560pp) ISBN 978-0-385-50216-0

The gold rush of 1848, says Brands, was a watershed in American history, helping mold the country into its modern shape, transforming the wilderness and pushing the country into civil war. Noted biographer Brands (his life of Benjamin Franklin, The First American, was a Pulitzer finalist) makes good use of a sparkling cast of characters: George Hearst, Leland Stanford, Levi Strauss, even William "War Is Hell" Sherman, all raced to California to make their fortunes. For most of the hundreds of thousands who flocked to California, though, life in the mines of the Sierras was hard and rarely paid off. Yet the hopeful kept coming—not only from the East but from around the world, with profound implications for California and the rest of the country. The question of statehood—would California be a slave state or free?— accelerated the onset of the Civil War, says Brands. He believes the gold rush changed the national psyche, pulling the country away from a Puritan ethic of "steadiness and frugality" and toward a new American dream of "instant wealth," the fruits of "boldness and luck." With solid research and a sprightly narrative, Brands's portrait of the gold rush is an enlightening analysis of a transformative period for California and America. Agent, Jim Hornfischer.(On sale Aug. 20)

Forecast:Brands deserves a place alongside Stephen Ambrose as a popular historian. The First American made bestseller lists; this vivid narrative could do so, too.