Eldorado: Adventures in the Path of Empire

Eldorado: Adventures in the Path of Empire by Bayard TaylorBayard Taylor
Heyday Books ($18.95)

by Mark Terrill

Travel writing is as old as writing itself. Back in the days when travel was still seen as an adventure and not as a consumer product, it was ship's logbooks, explorer's journals, and the tales of traveling merchants that served as the eyes and ears for a less mobile population back home. From its inception, travel writing was primarily written by people with little or no literary background whatsoever, its sole purpose being one of documentation, often as a stipulation laid down by the sponsors of said journey. Only relatively recently did writers such as Bruce Chatwin, V.S. Naipul, and Paul Theroux manage to wrest travel writing from its classification as sub-genre and elevate it to that of literature. But long before Chatwin, Naipul, and Theroux, there were other travel writers toiling to combine literary skills with the immediacy of a reporter in the field. One of the more successful and enduring results is Bayard Taylor's Eldorado, Adventures in the Path of Empire.

In June of 1849, Taylor was dispatched by Horace Greely of the New York Tribune to report on the California Gold Rush. Just 24, Taylor had already published two small collections of poetry and a travel book. Later in life, while continuing to write for the Tribune and other periodicals, he would publish nine more travel books and four novels, as well as books of essays, collected correspondence, and several volumes of verse. Taylor's reports from California were originally intended to be published as a series of "Letters" to the Tribune, but when faced with the wealth of material he found waiting for him in San Francisco, Taylor promptly decided that a full-length narrative was the only method for doing it justice.

In 1849, the region of California had only recently been acquired after the defeat of Mexico and would not become a state of the Union until the following year. The as-yet-to-be-defined state was part of a larger territory which included New Mexico, Arizona and much of Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, the total of which added 1.2 million square miles to the nation's internal empire, an increase of 66 percent. With the discovery of gold in 1848, people from all over the world converged on California; more than 100,000 in 1849, and exceeding 250,000 by the end of 1852.

Using San Francisco as a base, Taylor traveled by horse, schooner, and foot to the placer mines in the Sierras, the bustling city of Sacramento, the nearly deserted lands of the Spanish missions, and attended the first constitutional convention in Monterey that set the boundaries and forged the laws for the new state. With his keen eye and penchant for details, Taylor bestowed upon these tumultuous and anarchistic times an almost cinematic quality. Writing as he traveled, he managed to combine a sense of the poetic with straightforward historical documentation, underpinned with a wry sense of humor.

Taylor stayed in California a total of four months before returning to New York via ship and a harrowing overland journey across the interior of Mexico. Eleven months after setting out from New York, his book was in the stores, which became an immediate hit in New York and London, where it was simultaneously published. Reprinted in both countries before the end of the year, it went through multiple editions in the decades that followed. Widely regarded as a classic of western literature, Taylor's lively chronicle of the birth of modern California has lost nothing in terms of its initial freshness and vitality in the interim.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002