Saturday, September 02, 2006

R.I.P Jim Holliday

Jim Holliday, one of the best historians of California, died Aug. 31 in his home in Carmel at the age of 82.

I still remember reading The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience, Holliday’s opus on the California Gold Rush. It was history like no other history I had ever read.

The book is centered on the diaries of William Swain, a 28-year old man from Youngstown, New York, who traveled overland to California in 1849. Holliday uses Swain’s experiences to exemplify what happened when hundreds of thousands of people rushed into virgin territory and ripped out its insides. Holliday’s use of a personal narrative to describe a major social movement created a readable and accessible book of history. It’s a common technique now, but wasn’t as a popular in the 1980s.

J. S. Holliday stumbled on Swain’s journals shortly after he graduate from Yale in 1948. He met Edward Eberstadt, a New York rare book and manuscript dealer, who had Swain’s letters and journals from his daughter, Sara Sabrina Swain. Eberstadt had intended to publish the journals, but was prevented from doing so because of poor health and pressing business concerns. Holliday agreed to take over the project, little realizing it would take him 30 years to write The World Rushed In. But when the book was published in 1981 it became a best-seller and went through 13 printings.

I have just been using one of Holliday’s other books, Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California, as source material for my own book. It’s an illustrated sort of coffee-table format book on California. It won the Los Angeles Times prize for best book on non-fiction in 2000.

Some of Holliday’s lectures are archived on the Bancroft Library site.

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