Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

John Augustus Sutter

John Augustus Sutter, a Swiss emigrant to America, a magnificent dreamer and methodical man of action who builds and loses an empire in California. In 1834, he is a penniless Swiss fugitive, vagabond, and swindler named Johann August Suter. He deserts his wife and four children and sails for America. His family has no news of him until he becomes famous as General John Augustus Sutter, one of the richest men in the world, the lord of a vast domain in California. Shrewd in maneuvers and a skillful diplomat, he steers a careful course and maintains good relations both with the Mexican authorities who rule California when he arrives and with the forces of American expansion, which will soon claim California as a new state. By the time of statehood, Sutter owns the largest domain in the United States. His vision realized, with his vast farms flourishing with cotton, rice, indigo, livestock, orchards, and vineyards, Sutter longs to settle back into calm and peaceful cultivation of his choice European vine-stocks. At last, he is ready to send for his wife and children, to live out the fulfillment of his grand agrarian dream of New Helvetia in the garden of America. Then gold is discovered on his land. The ensuing chaos, with the inundation of his lands by gold-mad prospectors, settlers, and squatters, shatters his dream and destroys his farms, forts, estates, and villages. The chaos decimates his family and leaves him a ruined, broken man. Aside from the character traits that mark Sutter with...

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The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Although it features a cast of thousands, Sutter’s Gold is the story of one monumentally obsessive man. Other figures, including his wife, his employees, and his advisers, put in flitting, fleeting appearances, but Sutter is the one character who dominates every sentence of the narrative.

Cendrars’ Sutter is an adventurer and a visionary, a fundamentally solitary man possessed of almost indomitable will. Once he determines to establish his empire in California, he refuses to allow any obstacle, human or natural, to stand in his way. Sutter is a European’s image of the American self-made man, the penniless immigrant who, by dint of sheer raw ambition, manages to re-create himself as lord of a vast enterprise. He is a grandiose figure, beyond good and evil, who is destroyed by the cupidity of a society that rejects his pastoral dream and by his own stubborn insistence on waging a holy war against the soldiers of gold.

Cendrars neglects and refashions complicating details from the actual life of Sutter in order to transform him into a myth rather than a fully rounded character. The fact that Sutter’s wife survived him by a year did not deter Cendrars from describing her melodramatic death at the moment of their reunion in California. In addition, though the historical Sutter died in a hotel room two days after learning that Congress had adjourned without taking action on his petition, Sutter’s Gold presents him as a Greek hero tragically collapsing at false news relayed by a juvenile messenger.

Cendrars’ Sutter is the last rugged individualist in a world tyrannized by a faceless, soulless mob. He is an adventurer at a moment when adventure ceases to be highly regarded. He is the flamboyant personality who gives Sutter’s Gold its only character.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Birkerts, Sven. “Blaise Cendrars,” in New Boston Review. V (June/July, 1980), pp. 5-8.

Bochner, Jay. Blaise Cendrars: Discovery and Re-creation, 1978.

Chefdor, Monique. Blaise Cendrars, 1980.

Kellman, Steven G. “Blaise Cendrars’s L’Or as Cinematic Novel,” in POST SCRIPT: Essays in Film and the Humanities. IV (1985), pp. 16-28.

Studies in Twentieth Century Literature. III, no. 2 (1979). Special Cendrars issue.