(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

For his first, and still most popular, novel, Blaise Cendrars reshaped the life of an actual historical personage, the ill-fated grandfather of his friend, the Swiss sculptor August Sutter. Following his solitary emigration to the Western Hemisphere, Johann Sutter (in the French text, Cendrars persists in giving the name its original spelling, Suter) had managed to become virtual emperor of California, until the discovery of gold on his property in the Sacramento Valley precipitated an uncontrollable rush of prospectors, who ruined him. Ironically, vast deposits of the precious metal reduced the wealthiest man in North America to destitution and madness.

Sutter’s Gold begins with the appearance of a lone stranger in a remote Swiss village. Johann Sutter has come to apply for a passport, but, when the authorities refuse to provide one to the unknown thirty-one-year-old, he crosses the French border anyway, leaving behind his wife and four children. The vagabond lives by his wits, not always by the law, and manages to book passage on a ship to New York. He vows to himself to conquer the New World.

Sutter spends two years in New York before moving on to St. Louis. He becomes haunted by alluring tales of the Western frontier and is determined, despite the many hazards, to travel to California. En route, the flip of a coin assures him that he will succeed. From Vancouver, he sails to Hawaii, and, after some time in the islands, he...

(The entire section is 585 words.)