Resource Management

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Bret Harte (1836–1902) did not, by himself, invent local color or regionalist fiction. However, his California gold rush tales did garner an immense amount of international acclaim, an acclaim that clearly testifies to Harte's status as a leading contributor to post–Civil War efforts to develop a literary form supple enough to render the unique qualities by which regions are constituted or understood. Moreover, Harte's fame affirms the importance to regionalist fiction of the American West and, more broadly, of rural and frontier literature.

Not coincidentally, as Harte was helping to turn western topics into vital elements of regional literature, so too were western American natural resources (gold and silver, water, lumber, and eventually oil) contributing significantly to the United States' phenomenal postbellum growth. Which is to say that such tales as "The Luck of Roaring Camp" (1869) helped to set the stage for literary productions that were, at the very least, responsive to the predominant economic engines of a great many American locales. So much of what concerns regional writing—the interaction of people with place and nature, the promise (or threat) of population diversification through immigration, the stability of gender categories, and the relationship of any given region to the nation as a whole—may be found in the literary record of those regions, western or otherwise, where the earth's raw materials provided the bases for economic, social, and cultural development. The phrase "resource management" euphemistically describes the practice of exploiting found objects for material and economic gain. In a more figurative sense, it also provides a framework for understanding the efforts of a number of significant late-nineteenth-century artists to represent their regions. That is, the representation of natural resources and their attendant industries offered the literary regionalist a useful means of taking the measure of, responding to, and even shaping the nation's increasing pace of industrial and territorial expansion.


By 1859, when a not-yet-famous Bret Harte was working as a printer's devil in a remote area to the north of San Francisco, the initial California boom had calmed considerably and opportunities for individuals to locate and acquire wealth were greatly diminished. Thus it was that new discoveries in the territories of Nevada and Colorado touched off the next wave of rushes for silver and gold, the cultural effects of which are very much part of American culture to the early twenty-first century. For one, in the frenzied development of a mining industry in a silver-bearing region along Nevada's sagebrush desert known as the Comstock Lode, a style of literary humor emerged that paralleled Harte's early satirical tendencies and, more importantly, allowed for the first-ever appearance in print of the byline "Mark Twain." Having come West in large part to avoid the Civil War, an aspiring miner and writer named Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835–1910) cut his teeth as a reporter for the Virginia City Daily Territorial Enterprise. Given a tremendous amount of freedom by his editor Joseph T. Goodman and working with a talented group of writers and newspapermen that included William Wright, Rollin Daggett, and Alf Doten, Clemens rapidly developed into a devastatingly insightful satirist. And while there is still some disagreement about the true origin of Clemens's famous pseudonym, Mark Twain, most scholars now generally agree that the saloon culture of Virginia City, Nevada, probably played a significant role in its creation. What is less in doubt is the extent to which this rowdy but humor-rich milieu aided in the creation of Twain's early persona, the foolhardy naïf of Roughing It (1872), whose adventures provide trenchant insight into the prides and prejudices of both locals and strangers. Twain may be known as a southern writer, but his career-long skepticism about the accuracy of representations received a significant boost in western mining towns, where speculative fortunes could be gained or lost literally overnight, usually on the evidence of dubious or downright fraudulent claims.

Chief among Twain's mentors in Virginia City was William Wright (1829–1898), who under the pseudonym "Dan De Quille" published scores of sketches, satires, and hoaxes. When asked about his talented stable of writers, Joe Goodman recalled that in 1863 he would have chosen De Quille, not Twain, as the writer who would become nationally known for his humor and literary talent. Less inclined than his fellow pseudonymous journalist to seek self-promotion, De Quille spent his career almost exclusively in the Virginia City area. His sketches and stories, however, were routinely picked up by newspapers and magazines throughout the West, some even as far away as Europe. De Quille specialized in what he called "quaints," literary hoaxes designed to draw in readers whose level of credulity about what they assumed to be the American West's uniqueness could easily be stretched. For instance, his 1874 report on "solar armor," about a refrigerated rubber suit that protects against desert heat but which, unfortunately, leads to its inventor's freezing to death on a summer day in Death Valley (where temperatures rarely dip below 100°F), was picked up by the London Daily Telegraph and noted in Scientific American. When asked about the credibility of this report, De Quille published a clarification that provided even more detail. Earlier, in 1865, De Quille had published a quaint inspired by Twain's 1862 "petrified man" hoax, pointing out that underground conditions are much more favorable to petrifaction via pure silver rather than via limestone sediment. This technique of clarifying an implausible scenario by "correcting" it with an ostensibly more authoritative detail is one that De Quille used repeatedly with great success, and it is a technique that anticipates the manner in which Twain's Huckleberry Finn repeatedly confesses to his own lies with newer falsehoods that have a tone of confession about them.

By the end of 1872, the initial flurry of activity on the Comstock had tapered off, Twain had moved east for marriage and celebrity status, and De Quille had begun planning a collection of literary sketches that might advance his own reputation as an author of regional fiction. Within just a handful of years, however, both De Quille's and Virginia City's fortunes would experience tremendous changes. The discovery of a silver deposit far in excess of anything previously found on the Comstock touched off another tremendous boom period, and the local silver barons began to pressure De Quille to write not a collection of literary sketches but instead an informational guidebook to the region. At the same time, Twain wrote to his old friend suggesting he capitalize on the Comstock's renewed popularity by writing a Roughing It–style book about the new boom. Guided by Twain, with whom he stayed in Hartford, Connecticut, for several months while writing and collating his material, De Quille ultimately opted to combine the two book ideas into one, thus producing The Big Bonanza (1876). A wonderful and complex regionalist representation of the Comstock, this book mixes straightforward, statistic-laden reportage with fictions, tall tales, burlesques, and satires. One of De Quille's more notable accomplishments in The Big Bonanza is the subtle manner in which he simultaneously praises and lampoons his benefactors, the rich and powerful industrialists in whose pockets could be found the majority of Virginia City's mining operations. The final event chronicled in the book is, sadly, the destruction of the greater part of Virginia City by fire in October 1875. The city was rapidly rebuilt; however, within a year the supply of silver ore played out as quickly as it had appeared, the boom ended, and the town never again fully recovered its stature. Similarly, The Big Bonanza failed to gain a widespread audience, and De Quille continued as he had before, writing local journalism and publishing the occasional sketch or quaint but without the national prominence enjoyed by his erst-while colleague. Nevertheless, De Quille's writings collectively offer an enduring testament to a career spent both contributing to and taking advantage of, through humor, popular conceptions about the Far West.

As the Comstock had drawn immigrants to Virginia City, so did the discovery of massive silver carbonate deposits high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado attract wealth seekers to the unlikely little town of Leadville. By the summer of 1879 and in the wake of Virginia City's decline, over forty thousand immigrants contributed to the making of Leadville as the next destination of choice for laborers and literati alike. So attractive was the cachet of a trip to this encampment, almost two miles above sea level, that even Walt Whitman (1819–1892) claimed in the sketches assembled in Specimen Days and Collect (1882) that in 1879 he, too, had been to this town. In fact, Whitman had made it only as far as the first crest of the Front Range beyond Denver, a full day's trail ride and one more crest away from Leadville. Nevertheless, he included Leadville among the marvelous sights he had encountered in the West, sights which for him demonstrated that western American nature could trump the aesthetic appeal of European culture every time.

The example of Clarence King (1842–1901) is even more instructive. The author of the popular Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872) and a close friend of Henry Adams, King had passed through Virginia City in 1868 during his decade-long conduct of the U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. In his company had been one of the nation's preeminent landscape photographers, Timothy H. O'Sullivan, whose extraordinarily detailed, epic-scaled, and often sublime images from the exploration have become photographic touchstones in the history of western landscape representation. Newly appointed (in 1879) as the nation's first director of the U.S. Geological Exploration, King traveled to Leadville in the summer of 1879 to conduct a public lands inventory; while in town, he helped with his very presence to establish the distinction that Walt Whitman would seek several months later. He did so largely by becoming an honored guest in the local literary salon established in the home of a local mining engineer named Arthur Foote and his wife, Mary.

Mary Hallock Foote (1847–1938), in fact, did perhaps more than any other single person to put Colorado's early mining industry on the literary map. She did so in part as host of a salon that regularly welcomed the likes of not only King but also Helen Hunt Jackson, the mining financier's wife who would in a few years write Ramona (1884), the book credited with almost single-handedly inspiring an intensively regionalist nostalgia for California's Spanish past that reached its peak in the mission revival style of architecture. However, Foote's greatest contributions are as an author and illustrator in her own right. She first made a name for herself with a series of essays and stories she had written and illustrated for Scribner's Monthly on the mines around Santa Cruz, California, where she had lived prior to arriving in Leadville. By 1882 Foote began publishing in Century Magazine a serial novel called The Led-Horse Claim (1883), the first of three Leadville-inspired novels that would firmly establish her reputation as a writer about the western region. The story of star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of a mining-claim dispute, The Led-Horse Claim successfully blends realistic-seeming detail with the sort of sentimental plot that made for nineteenth-century best-sellers. Moreover, the eventual marriage of a mine superintendent to the sister of a competing mine's superintendent offers a meditation on both the consolidation of capital and the supposed "civilizing" influence of women in the West. With the publication of her first novel, Foote inaugurated a career of writing about the West's social fabric that poses crucial questions about gender relations and economic realities. She would continue to do so as she further migrated, with her husband, to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where her growing awareness of western water issues would lead to such novels as The Chosen Valley (1892), a story about the disastrous consequences of an ill-conceived irrigation project.


In 1875 an intrepid and indefatigable one-armed Civil War veteran named John Wesley Powell (1834–1902) published a government report detailing his journey by raft through the Grand Canyon, a trip which no Anglo-European had until then successfully completed. With later refinements and amplifications, the text of Powell's Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries provided both a valuable scientific survey of geology and geography and one of the first and most engaging introductions that Americans would have to the regions of the canyon. Indeed, the book's spare, present-tense, almost matter-of-fact narrative is still hailed as one of the most compelling and readable accounts of a trip down the Colorado River. After his book's publication, Powell established himself in Washington, D.C., where, through his influence and legislative connections, he succeeded in creating the U.S. Geological Exploration with his friend Clarence King as its first director (Powell himself became director in 1881 after King stepped down). As a government scientist and policy maker, Powell spent much of the remainder of his career arguing that the arid western regions, because of their resourcebased economies, required a fundamentally different approach to land ownership and use. In short, he repeatedly called for people to recognize that water would very soon supplant mineral ore as the West's most vital resource. Without water, miners could not effectively separate precious metals from the rocks in which they were embedded, farmers could not adequately irrigate their fields, and above all, cities such as Los Angeles, Denver, and Phoenix could not begin to approach the scale of urbanization they presently enjoy. Published at a time when the Comstock was still at its height, Leadville only just beginning to brew, and the rush for gold in the Klondike that would inspire Jack London still several decades off, the Exploration in its various manifestations, however, did not immediately gain recognition as a story about water.

Nevertheless, Powell's contention that water would be the defining factor in the West's regional identity did eventually prove prophetic. Mary Austin's (1868–1934) The Land of Little Rain (1903), for example, describes the Owens Valley area of eastern California as a region intimately tied, both culturally and materially, to its local water resources. More to the point, it does so at the very historical moment when the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902 began to re-create the American West as a region governed not by mining entrepreneurs or railroads but by federal water policies. In the wake of Newlands, most of the Owens Valley's sparse water reserves were redirected to the booming city of Los Angeles, leading, by some accounts, to the impoverishment of local agriculture and community. Austin spent many years fulminating against this appropriation, even when her attention shifted in the 1920s to the political battles over the allocation of the Colorado River. Another best-selling writer, however, took inspiration from the Owens Valley situation in a very different way. Harold Bell Wright (1872–1944), who in his day sold more books than almost anyone else, praised such reclamation projects as those in California's Owens and Imperial valleys for their success in promoting economic growth through resource exploitation. Wright's melodramatic western water novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911), even acknowledges the work of William Mulholland, the enterprising chief engineer who took the water from Austin's land of little rain and delivered it to the orange groves and front lawns of suburban Los Angeles. Together, these texts represent the two poles of a debate that continues into the twenty-first century about western water, and they are indicative of the extent to which, at the beginning of the twentieth century, regional sensibilities shifted toward an understanding of the West's status as a hydraulic society.


There is something keenly ironic in the fact that timber, the resource most materially related to literature (insofar as literature has long been published on paper products derived from harvested trees), is least represented in regional writing, western or otherwise. But this is not to say that it does not appear at all. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) bemoans the wholesale depletion of the northeastern forests in The Maine Woods (1864) when he observes that "the Anglo-American . . . ignorantly erases mythological tablets in order to print his handbills and town-meeting warrants on them" (p. 314). Similarly, in The Big Bonanza, Dan De Quille laments that "the Comstock Lode may truthfully be said to be the tomb of the forests of the Sierras" (p. 174). Referring to the mining industry's insatiable need for lumber in the fight against mine shaft cave-ins, De Quille succinctly puts his finger on the interdependence of the various resource industries. And John Muir (1838–1914) based much of his advocacy for national parks and nature preservation on the assumption that forests must be protected from human encroachment. This attitude is most evident in the dozens of articles on California's Sierra Nevada areas such as Yosemite Valley that Muir published in Scribner's and Century from the 1870s through the 1910s. In popular fiction, however, the "resource management" philosophies associated with Gifford Pinchot, appointed by Theodore Roosevelt as the nation's first chief of the Forest Service, are much more in evidence. Roosevelt's friend Owen Wister, for instance, has his title character in The Virginian (1902) retire from ranching life to become, on the last page, a lumber baron. Stewart Edward White (1873–1946), also a friend of Roosevelt and a fellow big-game hunting aficionado, first established himself as a best-selling author with the 1902 publication of The Blazed Trail, a tale about northern Michigan lumber camps and the dynamic young logger-investor who creates a successful business in the face of corporate corruption (in 1901 White had also published The Claim Jumpers, a novel about South Dakota's gold rush). White's career soon took him from Michigan to California, where he continued to publish a variety of genre-based adventure novels as well as nonfictional, regionally inflected books such as The Forest (1903) and The Cabin (1911). In these latter two publications, White deftly mixes personal memoir with naturist essays and reflections on the value of carefully husbanded forest resources. In all, the beginning of the twentieth century heralded the advent of Roosevelt's conservationist ethos, a resource-management culture in which popular fiction frequently espoused the conservationist attitude of centralized authority and profit management while nonfiction prose was generally put to the service of preservationist or environmentalist philosophies.

See alsoFrontier; The Land of Little Rain; Nature Writing


Primary Works

De Quille, Dan. The Big Bonanza: An Authentic Account of the Discovery, History, and Working of the World-Renowned Comstock Lode of Nevada. 1876. New York: Knopf, 1947.

De Quille, Dan. The Fighting Horse of the Stanislaus: Stories and Essays. Edited by Lawrence I. Berkove. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990.

Foote, Mary Hallock. The Led-Horse Claim: A Romance of a Mining Camp. Boston: Osgood, 1883.

Powell, John Wesley. Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries. 1875. Revised and reprinted as Canyons of the Colorado, 1895. Reprinted as The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Maine Woods. 1864. New York: Penguin, 1988.

White, Stewart Edward. The Blazed Trail. New York: McClure, Phillips, 1902.

Secondary Works

Berkove, Lawrence I. Dan De Quille. Western Writers Series, no. 136. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1999.

Fender, Stephen. Plotting the Golden West: American Literature and the Rhetoric of the California Trail. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Henderson, George L. California and the Fictions of Capital. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Robbins, William G. Colony and Empire: The Capitalist Transformation of the American West. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1994.

Starr, Kevin. Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Teague, David W. The Southwest in American Literature and Art: The Rise of a Desert Aesthetic. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997.

Trachtenberg, Alan. "Naming the View." In his Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans, pp. 119–165. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.

Walker, Franklin. Jack London and the Klondike. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1966.

Witschi, Nicolas S. Traces of Gold: California's Natural Resources and the Claim to Realism in Western American Literature. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

Nicolas S. Witschi

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