“After the Goldrush”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to write about here until Monday night, when I sat down with my wife to watch American Experience on PBS. The episode was focused on the San Francisco gold rush of 1849, told through the words of those who lived it. One story in particular, that of Hiram Pierce and his family, struck me as preternaturally relevant to the trials I’ve been going through with my own life and career.
Narrator: In the industrial city of Troy, New York, Hiram Pierce, a 38-year-old blacksmith, and his wife Sara talked long into the night, weighing the pros and cons of California. If Hiram went to the gold fields, he would leave behind not only his successful business, but also his responsibilities as church elder, city alderman, and president of the local fire department. Sara would have to look after their seven children alone.
Brian Roberts, Historian: Hiram Pierce was clearly very well connected in his community and very well established. He’s not the kind of person you would expect to join the Gold Rush. There was probably a lot of stress on Hiram, especially in thinking about what the future was for blacksmithing. And of course with seven children, he felt, I think, certain pressures to do more for his family.
Richard White, Historian: The United States is moving away from a society in which most people were independent producers, and it’s moving towards a wage labor society. This means for a lot of people, the future does not appear as bright to them as it should be. The Gold Rush gives them a chance to erase all that.
Narrator: But first, the Pierces and others would have to address crucial questions: Where would the money for the journey come from? How would the farm or the family business stay afloat? And how long, exactly, was this absence to last?
Richard White, Historian: The Gold Rush ends up being a series of negotiations. They reach a deal. I will go, but only for a limited amount of time. I will send money back. If I don’t succeed in such-and-such a time, I will be back.
Narrator: In the end, the Pierces decided to gamble their future. Just after dawn on March 6, 1849, Hiram said goodbye to his wife and children, and boarded a train bound for New York City. From there, he would set sail for California.
Malcolm Rohrbough, Historian: Sara Pierce and women like her would have regarded the departure as a kind of watershed in the history of the family. Nothing like this would have happened before. Nothing would have prepared them for the departure of members of the family, particularly for long periods at such a long distance. It would have been devastating.
Reading, Sara Pierce: When I think of the responsible place I occupy, my heart almost fails me – I was so near destructed when you left that I did not know half the time what I was about – it seems like an ugly dream.
The similarities between this gold rush story and my own life as an aspiring writer are resounding. No, I never left my family to seek fortune in some far off land, not physically anyway. But in another, very real way, I’ve been gone for a long time. It all started right after I graduated from college in 2002. I’d won a handful of awards for my writing while in school, was one of the first to graduate with a degree in the creative writing program, and had landed a grant to attend the highly lauded Skidmore Writers Institute in upstate New York, a program established by William Kennedy and Joyce Carol Oates. The two weeks I spent in Saratoga Springs were intoxicating…literally (we’re writers, we drink!)…and through more lofty avenues, as well. I spent my days sleeping late (a real treasure when you’re used to waking at 6 a.m. every morning to the sound of screaming children), then ambling down to the mess hall for grub with hundreds of other aspiring writers just like me (though obviously less talented :)). I spent my afternoons attending writing workshops with critically acclaimed, published writers. I spent my nights attending readings by emissaries of letters such as Rick Moody, Anne Beatty, Jay McInerney, Russell Banks, and yes, William Kennedy and Joyce Carol Oates. After each of these readings the authors would meet with all writers who were so inclined (and we all were) for free drinks and casual conversation.
At the insistence of a new friend I met there, one Brandon Stickney, I began writing what would become FUTUREPROOF. Then, two weeks later, it was back home to my wife and children, where I was to begin construction work on my way to graduate school. I figured I would spend the day at hard labor, my evenings with my family, and my nights working diligently on bringing my artistic vision to life.
Things don’t always turn out the way we plan.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: Rose early and walked to the diggings. Made a small show. All of us got much less than an ounce. It is very much like work.
Brian Roberts, Historian: As soon as he arrived, Hiram discovered, like virtually all forty-niners did, that gold mining was enormously hard work. They had envisioned just picking up gold, and here they were literally turning the landscape inside out.
Malcolm Rohrbough, Historian: A company of four miners, in order to achieve 20 dollars each, which was the hoped-for wage, would probably need to wash 800 buckets of dirt a day and you divide that by 10 hours, and you think about washing 80 buckets an hour. This is very, very difficult physical labor on a continuing basis.
Narrator: Worse still, everything in the gold district was wildly overpriced: one dollar for an egg, five for a pound of tea, and upwards of eight for a second-hand shovel. At his general store in Sacramento, Sam Brannan was now pulling in as much as 150,000 dollars a month.
Hiram Pierce found it difficult even to meet his daily expenses.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: My dear and faraway wife, this gold is by no means diffused over the whole country. Some get one, two, or even five hundred dollars some days. But half an ounce – about eight dollars – is the average. You see from this how grossly things have been misrepresented.
Malcolm Rohrbough, Historian: The great bonanzas of the summer and fall of 1848 were behind them. The stories of men who went out and found a couple of thousand dollars in a week at the time were true. But they were no longer true.
As a new year dawned, many wondered how gold would shape the future.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: Ten months since I left home and have not made a dollar. The Lord must open something entirely unexpected to enable me to do much of anything.
Reading, Sara Pierce: How I wish you were here. I must try to be as patient as I can, but, oh, how long time seems. How can I endure it? Do come home as soon as possible.
I quickly discovered the toll that hard labor takes not just on the body, but on the mind as well. I had worked in construction before I’d ever gone to college, yes, but I had never done it with the demands of supporting a family and writing a book on top of that. By the time I returned home from work, it was near dark and I would be exhausted, many nights unable to expend energy on a board game, much less on pulling my mental faculties together long enough to string multiple sentences coherently.
My novel was placed on the back burner.
I didn’t look at the pages I’d managed to write, or even think about them. I slowly learned the misery of a work-a-day job and wondered why I’d ever bothered to attend college. Then something happened that at first seemed devastating, but that I later looked at as Divine Providence: I injured my knee at work. The injury would require surgery. I’d be out of work on disability for the rest of the year. I would use this time to write.
And write I did. I wrote and wrote and wrote, disregarding everything else but writing as much as I could every day, then spending glorious evenings with my family when they returned from school (my wife was working on her teaching degree). By the time I finished, I had close to 150,000 words. The book was sorely in need of heavy slash-and-burn editing, but I had the frame-work and the substance of a full novel before me. All that was left now was the critical eye, which I prided myself on possessing, in my evaluation of all things art. If I could apply this same unforgiving eye to my own work, I had no question that, even in a glutted market, my work would stand out. It was not only well-written, natch, it had a message I knew would resound with a lot of readers, particularly young people hailing backgrounds disparate from the so-called American Apple Pie norm.
Narrator: How would the thousands of families torn apart by the prospect of instant wealth weather the strains of separation?
Could the opportunity that California offered be extended to all? Or would competition and greed cause the violence in the gold district to spin out of control?
And could a transient place like California, a place where the primary motive was to get rich and get out, ever truly become like the rest of America?
In the days and months to come, the quest for gold would create an entirely new society on the Pacific coast. Along the way, both California and America would be forever transformed.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: Monday, February 25, 1850. Worked hard and got nothing. My back and one leg quite lame.
Narrator: More than a year had passed since Hiram Pierce had left his family in Troy and come to California in search of gold. In that time, he’d lived in a crude log cabin that he’d built himself, slept night after night on a mattress of pine needles, and suffered everything from back aches and chills to scurvy – all in the now-fading hope that he might strike it rich.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: Friday, March 1. I feel uneasy about my back and legs. I rather fear for the future. Dug eight dollars. Thursday, March 21. Prospected and dug … and got nothing.
I started sending out query letters, as I was instructed to do by Writers Market. I took the flood of rejection slips in stride, knowing that the nasty little buggers were merely part of the process. I knew it would only take one agent with a taste for blood and a wild streak to get my book where it needed to be: in the hands of a highly successful editor at a New York publishing house. But then the rejection letters became the norm…no, not just rejection letters, but form rejection letters. I had received over 60 of them, with only three agents asking to see more of the manuscript, and of those three seemingly interested agents, not a single one ever got back to me again. I figured I was delusional and deceived. My critical eye had perhaps become disconnected when looking at my own work. My ear, which I’d known for sure was tuned to the cultural underground, had gone deaf. I contacted my brother in Atlanta and told him I’d take him up on the warehouse job he’d been offering me with his corporation for the last several months.
The first month in Atlanta sparked new life in my quest for publication, brought mainly by the confluence of two specific occurrences. The first was that I met James Frey at a reading in Atlanta. Frey had just released a new book, and I was eager to meet the man who’d had a good amount of success writing in basically the same genre that my novel occupied. I wanted to ask him if he had any advice to offer on writing a good query letter. He one-upped that request by telling me to send him my book. I did; he told me he liked it. I realized that there might be something to completely foregoing the traditional routes of publishing and simply blazing my own trail through mining the connections I already had with many established authors, as well as taking my book directly to readers. This was the second prong of my new attack on publication. I would go to the internet, using its many resources to find readers that I knew would appreciate a book like FUTUREPROOF. I contacted reviewers on Amazon who had favorably reviewed books and authors that I held in high regard and offered to send them the first 100 pages of my book for their free perusal. Many accepted my offer. Within a few short months I had a virtual army behind me, damn-near begging to read the rest of the book. I decided that I would accommodate this clamor by self-publishing through one of the many print-on-demand companies now online, which made it possible to get your book listed on Amazon for very little investment cash, as well as allowing the author to retain rights to the work, should he ever have the opportunity to sell it to a regular publishing house. Then the word-of-mouth would take off, the publishing houses would take note, and it would be mere months before a “respectable” house came calling. Maybe more than one”¦.Maybe a bidding war!
But despite the great word-of-mouth and the long list of writers I had proclaiming my book’s worthiness, every editor and agent I came into contact with was condescending and arrogant. To a one, they all wanted me to fundamentally change the book, despite its successes as it was already constructed. I decided I couldn’t, in good faith to my nearly 1,000 current readers, make such sweeping changes (Have the entire thing take place in high school! Eliminate all but four characters!). And so, despite making it into Entertainment Weekly (something that 99% of “properly” published books can’t claim), I was once again left holding my dick in my hand, wondering how I could have done so many things right, only to have the end result be so wrong. I watched my children play in my yard and wondered how I could have been so stupid to have assumed that things were going to be just fine if I decided to press on full steam ahead with writing, of all things, as a career. My wife was now the breadwinner and I was just some hack chasing a pipedream.
Richard White, Historian: The Gold Rush really seems to offer this chance for independence. American miners really believe any man who’s willing to labor will be equal to other men, and will be able to get large rewards for their labor. But gold quite simply is in some places and not in other places. So men can be 20 yards away from each other, working just as hard, one man strikes gold and the other one doesn’t. One man makes his fortune, the other one doesn’t. So as miners begin to see it, it’s not just labor they’re talking about now. This is about luck.
Narrator: Hiram had given mining his all. He’d toiled from sunup to sundown, day after day. But time and time again, in his letters home to Sara, he had been forced to admit defeat.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: I feel most deeply to regret that I have earned nothing to enable me to make any remittance. I am sorry I cannot fix things up as usual or better for you.
Brian Roberts, Historian: Sara really counted on the gold to come at a certain time as her family’s needs became pressing. When she received the news that Hiram was not going to be able to send any money back home, it was extremely disappointing, but you get the feeling that Sara immediately started to kind of adjust to that reality.
Narrator: Sara learned to fend for herself. She borrowed money from family members, called in debts owed to Hiram, and rented out his blacksmith shop.
Reading, Sara Pierce: I guess you will begin to think I am getting to be quite a business character. You would laugh to see me at work. I am my own tinker, have set nine fruit trees, mended my own stove grate in the oven, moved the front-room stove out alone, in fact, I am kept very busy here.
Still, I pressed forward. I’d had ideas about writers uniting and forming powerful collectives that would make them more visible and more vocal among a field of thousands of cluttered voices. I spent hours every day on Myspace, sending out bulletins and posting blogs and commenting on blogs and commiserating with readers and other writers. Meanwhile my wife continued working, raising our children, for all intents and purposes a widow to my obsessions; not only with getting published, but making a lasting mark in my field. She, too, is a writer, and had actually won a writing contest held by my friend Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s memoirist collective. But she couldn’t take any time to actually follow through on her win because she was working a full-time job teaching sixth graders (and if you’ve ever been a teacher you know that the job doesn’t end when you walk out the doors of the school). My own collective, RiotLit, got up and running, right around the same time that my book appeared in Entertainment Weekly. The promises of hard work, I could tell, were about to pay off.
Then I went on my first, self-funded, book tour.
Brian Roberts, Historian:As Hiram’s absence continued, you can see Sara becoming more confident with her abilities. Women were not supposed to engage in public business, and yet here is Sara, thriving in the business world. It became, I think, an enormous source of pride to be able to do Hiram’s work plus her own.
Narrator: But when Hiram’s stay in California stretched into a second year, Sara began to grow impatient.
Reading, Sara Pierce:My dear husband, if I can get you back, I should be willing to live on very small fare. Your presence here is better far than gold. All there is would not tempt me to endure half the anxiety of the past year.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: I am more anxious to get home than you are to have me come. I saw a man picking up a piece of gold near our house worth one hundred dollars. Such seems to be the luck of some. It may not be my fortune to get much, but I shall make an honest effort.
Malcolm Rohrbough, Historian: The more difficult it was in the gold fields and the fewer the returns, the longer they saw themselves as having to stay in California. They were engaged in what they themselves saw as a lottery. And whatever the odds, if you had a ticket in the lottery, you might win. If you weren’t digging in the mines, you didn’t have a ticket.
H.W. Brands, Historian: You could try and fail, try and fail, try and fail, do it ten times, do it twenty times. But if you kept at it, you might finally strike it rich. And that would pay for all of your failures in the past. Now, this is quite different than the attitude that most people had back in the East, where failure in business was connected to a sense of moral failure. Virtue as a basis of success in California was almost beside the point.
Narrator: Desperate to turn a profit, Hiram Pierce threw in his lot with a group of miners and headed north – to a steep canyon along the Merced River, inhabited mainly by rattlesnakes and grizzly bears. The plan was to stake a claim there, and try out a costly new technique known as river mining.
Malcolm Rohrbough, Historian: What had been kind of a day-to-day harvesting of gold is now deferred to the end of the mining season, when they have mined the river bottom. Thus it raises the stakes and it raises the dangers of failure.
Narrator: Pierce had risked his last dollar investing in the scheme. Now, there was nothing to do but pray that it worked.
Richard White, Historian:The hardest thing for most people to do is to go back and admit failure. They’ve committed themselves – both in their own eyes and, remember, the eyes of people they left behind – to be a success. California is a very hard place to get out of. And one of the things that keeps you from getting out is your own pride, your own sense of disappointed ambitions.
Narrator: When Hiram Pierce first arrived in California in 1849, it was with the idea of filling his pockets with gold and making a speedy return to the East. But more than a year had passed, and so far nothing had gone according to plan.
Now, he had invested everything in one last-ditch effort. He and his mining partners had spent the past six weeks digging a canal – a trough some 700 feet long and 16 feet wide. The next step was to divert the river and mine the riverbed.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: We have expended about 3,000 dollars in time and money – 12 of us – and I am afraid it will not pay. It is going to be a difficult job to get the water out.
Narrator: For several weeks, Pierce and the others worked the riverbed furiously. But instead of a vein of gold, they found only an impenetrable mass of rocks and boulders.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: It is impossible with our tools to get down to the ledge. We concluded to abandon it and give it up as a total loss.
I was out of options. The great shamrock in the sky had failed to rain down its green blessings upon my head. It appeared I was not going to sell my book. I came home from my tour a shell of the man I’d been when I left, both as a writer and a husband & father. I was, for all intents and purposes, demoralized, defeated. I would log in to my Myspace page and marvel at the sheer number of other struggling writers and artists trying to do the same thing I’d had the audacity to relentlessly chase…with the main difference being that I was one of the few without an alternative source of income and a family depending on me for my time, attention and income potential.
I had one final option. I decided to play my hand.
I approached my friend James Frey about investing in starting up an independent imprint that would publish not only my book, but also his future books, as well as other books in the same vein; a sort of 21st century version of Grove Press. I told him this would eliminate the need for him to kiss any publisher’s asses and would give other writers like us hope that they could find an avenue to publish more controversial and less linear material than what mainstream publishing is comfortable with.
He never got back to me.
A hard, fast rule in this business is that if you have money and influence, you have power. Otherwise you are seen as little more than a desperate leech. Everything looked grey – no, black. I realized that I couldn’t keep up this goose chase, in all its wildness, any longer. It was, on many levels, a failed venture, the whole fucking thing. I couldn’t, with an easy heart, continue on the same trajectory indefinitely.
“But I tried, didn’t I? Goddamnit, at least I did that.”
~Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST
Narrator: Pierce finally had had enough. A few days later, he sold his shovel for two dollars, along with some other personal effects, and headed back to San Francisco. From there, he set sail for home, not a penny richer than when he left.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: My dear but I hope not lonely wife, I have made an honest effort but the Lord has for some cause unknown to me ordered it otherwise. I will not longer sacrifice all that is dear on earth or worth living for, for the hope of gain. I have suffered voluntary banishment long enough. I cease and subscribe myself, Your Returning Prodigal.
H.W. Brands, Historian:The gold rush was all about people willing to make great gambles. California presented to people a new model for the American dream – one where the emphasis was on the ability to take risks, the willingness to gamble on the future.
Brian Roberts, Historian: Prior to the Gold Rush, you see every once in a while in newspapers talk about a transcontinental railroad. And typically, it’s seen by observers as funny. I mean, this is a wild dream. You know, why not build a railroad to the moon? After California, people don’t mock that kind of idea anymore. You could have these enormously large dreams.
Isabel Allende, Writer: It was a time when the best and the worst of people was on the surface. All lives were extreme. People were living, uh, on the edge. The gold rush created this place that we call today California, and changed thousands of people. Everything was possible. And I think that’s what the gold represented. It was a metaphor for a new life.
Narrator: Nearly two years after he had left home, Hiram Pierce was finally reunited with his family in Troy. He was so changed by the hardships he had suffered that few of his friends even recognized him.
Having found no gold to speak of, Pierce was soon back to blacksmithing, working day in and day out, just like before. But as his daughter put it: “he never got over his California fever.” More than a decade after he came home, he was still talking of the Golden State, and laying plans to return there, buy a farm, and give mining another go.
Hiram Pierce died before he could make his dream a reality. But in the years that followed, four of his seven children would leave Troy for good – and go to live in California.
We, all writers, are engaged in a similar gold rush of our own. We put ourselves out there and hope that something about our work speaks to people, that we can add something to the ancient themes that separates what we have to say from the rest of those trying to say the same things. Some of us will succeed, through a variety of means, some of us will end up packing it in for the greater good.
Me, I will continue to write, will continue, on perhaps a much smaller level than before, to network and commiserate with other writers and readers. But I’m out of this for a living. I’ll work in the factory of the warehouse or whatever the fuck I can find to supplement income. I will no longer dedicate myself to this ridiculous and ultimately humiliating chasing of a pipedream. And that’s really what all of this is. We are dreamers, every last one of us. I told everyone when I started this that the book would either succeed or fail on its merits (or lack thereof). It succeeded with the limited amount of people I was able to reach through my limited means, it failed with the powers that could have given it a broader audience.
At some point you have to realize that the dream you chase becomes a rat race that leaves all but the most stubborn and unattached a shell of what they were. This shit tears you down, the futility of it all. And the most disturbing part of all of it, for me, is that what determines who succeeds and who fails is almost 100% based on luck. I don’t give a fuck who you know or how good your writing is. We are all dependent on the good-heartedness of someone more powerful than we are. I’ve read all the guidelines to getting published and getting recognized and I’ve fulfilled every element on every one of these guidelines. But you have to have that little extra something, that chance meeting, that Dr. Dre taking his Eminem under the wing, if any of us are going to parlay our talents into something more than dreams deferred.
“I wasn’t going nowhere because ain’t nobody take me off this motherfucker till I’m ready to leave this motherfucker… Hell no. I don’t play that dying shit.”
More next time.