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Lot 121

“His attitude toward the California gold-rush is as pragmatic as [William James’] attitude toward life and human motivation”

121. ROYCE, Josiah. California from the Conquest in 1846 to the Second Vigilance Committee in San Francisco: A Study of American Character. By Josiah Royce. Assistant Professor of Philosophy in Harvard College. Boston and New York: [The Riverside Press, Cambridge; Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Co., for] Houghton, Mifflin and Company, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1886. [2], xv [1, blank], 513 [1, blank], [12] (ads) pp., machine-printed double-page color map. 12mo, original gilt-lettered dark olive pebbled cloth, t.e.g. Light outer wear, otherwise fine, with 1943 leaflet from Allen Press re Royce-Bidwell letter laid in. Bookplate of Henria P. Compton at front and that of Ken and Anna Belle Sexton at back.

     First edition. American Commonwealths series, edited by Horace E. Scudder. Cowan I, p. 196: “Entirely free from the complexities of thought and style that too frequently attend a work of this kind. This study by Mr. Royce has long since become a pleasing classic and an authority of value upon the history of this state.” Cowan II, p. 545. Holliday 996. Howell 50, California 774. Howes R487. Huntington Library, Zamorano 80...Exhibition of Famous and Notorious California Classics 66. Libros Californianos, pp. 52-53 (Powell commentary): “Royce was a colleague of William James, and his attitude toward the California gold-rush is as pragmatic as the noted psychologist’s attitude toward life and human motivation. Royce adopted an objective and clinical position toward California”; pp. 69-70 (Hanna list): “The outside viewpoint of the American conquest and the gold rush—critical, discursive, and complete as only a Harvard philosopher’s composition could be.” Norris 3323. Rocq 11196. Wheat, Books of the California Gold Rush 171. Zamorano 80 #66.

Kurutz in the Volkmann Zamorano 80 catalogue:

Josiah Royce’s history, written as part of Houghton Mifflin’s American Commonwealths series, stands as the most important analysis and distillation of California during that crucial time period of 1846 to 1856. Those ten years, more than any other, shaped California’s character and destiny. The values he expressed in the 1880s are more akin to those of the present day, and consequently, his book continues to receive high praise for its astute interpretation of an all-too-imperfect past. Royce’s study smashed the mythology of the conquering hero in the persona of John C. Frémont and the red-shirted Argonaut.

      Born in Grass Valley, the son of poor forty-niner parents, Royce achieved uncommon academic distinction earning a doctorate from Johns Hopkins and becoming a professor of philosophy at Harvard. When Houghton Mifflin commissioned him to write the history of his home state, this native son brought a unique perspective. In researching his history, he made trips back home to use the rich resources of Bancroft’s Library in San Francisco, the Mercantile Library, and the collection of the Society of California Pioneers, and like Shinn, he contacted many of the principal figures including John and Jessie Frémont. He also had the advantage of Harvard’s extensive collection of Californiana that included pioneer newspapers. Rather than writing the entire history, he selected instead to focus on a ten-year span. He saw this period of tumult as a revelation of the national character. As he intoned, “This is the period of excitement, of trial, and of rapid transformation. Everything that has since happened in California, or that will ever happen there, so long as men dwell in the land, must be deeply affected by the forces of local life and society that then took their origin.”

      Royce first turned his attention to the Bear Flag Revolt and American conquest of Alta California and the role of the “Pathfinder” Frémont. The philosopher-historian concluded that the United States had engaged in a morally and politically indefensible act with Frémont leading the way. Royce next studied the effect of the gold discovery not only on California but also on the morals of the people who rushed in. He was the first to articulate a harsh, realistic picture of socially irresponsible California in contradistinction to the heroic, dreamlike society portrayed in the fiction of Bret Harte. In essence, the abundance of gold was a two-edged sword bringing opportunity for good and for “brutal passion.” He wrote of a “California that was to be morally and socially tried as no other American community ever has been tried.” His history, then, was not going to be one of a triumphant march to greatness but an investigation into true human behavior. “Whoever wants merely a eulogistic story of the glories of the pioneer life of California must not look for it in history,” he philosophized. Naturally, Royce’s judgmental eye zeroed in on the shameful treatment of foreigners as exemplified by the lynching of Juanita at Downieville. His discussion of the Land Act of 1851 and the injustice of the Californios having to defend title to their ranchos further reinforced his view of racism. In fashioning this complex narrative, the Harvard professor included a chapter entitled the “Social Evolution of California” that covered such topics as the two vigilance committees, the “Moral Insanities of the Golden Days,” and development of solid stabilizing institutions such as the family, church, and school.

      When Houghton Mifflin published Royce’s moralistic history, it did not receive the applause the author expected. San Franciscans and those who enshrined the romance of the golden era did not much appreciate his frank appraisal. The Overland Monthly ran an unsigned review that excoriated his book while others simply ignored the work. Royce, however, did receive high praise from Henry L. Oak, the principal author of Bancroft’s History of California. Despite the book’s poor initial reception, it has long been recognized as seminal work, a work that awakened California to its true history.


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