Mark Twain’s “The Californian’s Tale” is a story about the harsh realities that too often befell Americans who, lured by the nineteenth-century notion of Manifest Destiny, headed West to seek uncertain fortune. The journalist John O’Sullivan coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny” in 1845. As the philosophical justification for westward expansion, Manifest Destiny held that the Christian God sanctioned Americans to expand their dominion—with its twin attributes of capitalism and individualism—all the way across the frontier to the Pacific. In his story, Twain uses the California Gold Rush, which began in 1848, as the frontier setting where Manifest Destiny’s greed and individualism created not great riches, but great suffering. The story’s unnamed narrator is a gold prospector on the Stanislaus River, who recounts how the men who failed to make it rich on the Stanislaus—embodied in the story’s miners, especially Henry—degenerated into isolated, hollowed-out human beings. Manifest Destiny touted a culture of rugged individualism, which emphasized self-reliance over interdependence and prioritized self-interest over communal concerns. For those who braved the frontier, however, this romanticized notion of the individual neglected the importance of familial and social connections and offered no sympathy for those who did not get rich. Thus, when Henry fails to strike it rich and loses his wife in an attack by Native Americans, Manifest Destiny has left him (and others like him) with only the harsh realities of suffering and madness.
At the beginning of the story, Twain juxtaposes imagery from the early days of the Gold Rush with imagery from the narrator’s perspective thirty-five years later. Whereas the idea of Manifest Destiny lured people to California with the promise of finding gold, and therefore, living out the American dream, the reality for most was desolation and loneliness. Decay and solitude now mark the former “charming paradise” on the Stanislaus. A vast expanse of green turf is all that remains of a once-bustling town, and the vine-choked remains of formerly “snug and cozy” family cottages dot the surrounding countryside neighborhood. The “defeated and disappointed families” have all left the area, while those pioneers who came to California alone and built “solitary” log cabins are among the few that remain.
In stark contrast to Manifest Destiny’s promise of a wealthy American empire that stretched from East to West, the Stanislaus region is now a monument to capitalism’s destructive tendencies. Beyond the landscape itself, even the remaining pioneers exist as living reminders of Manifest Destiny’s failed promise of endless riches. A lonely pioneer still lives on the Stanislaus because “he had lost his wealth,” and, unable to bear the humiliation of failing at the American Dream, “chose to sever all communication” with his friends and relatives. Many other prospectors headed Manifest Destiny’s call, enchanted by its myth of the fearless, rugged pioneer individual who hacked through the western wilderness to pave the way for American civilization. The miners who remain, however, exist as cruel parodies of rugged individualism: beset by failure and regret, their bodies and minds grizzled, rugged individualism has relegated them to “living dead men” haunted by their “wasted lives.”
Manifest Destiny also claims the American family among its casualties. Twain often highlighted the endangered family in his writing. His own brother, Henry, was burned to death in a boiler explosion aboard a steamship in 1858, and the loss haunted Twain for the rest of his life. His writings abound with orphan children, families torn apart by internal and external conflict, and deadbeat relatives of all sorts. In “The Californian’s Tale,” Twain emphasizes early how the siren call of Manifest Destiny destroyed families on the Stanislaus. When the Gold Rush dried up, the loss of wealth created “defeated and disappointed families” who deserted their homes. As a result, the men who remain—Tom, Joe, Charley, the narrator, and especially Henry—live isolated lives without traditional family connections. They therefore compensate by acting as a surrogate family for Henry by perpetuating his delusion that his long-vanished wife will return in order to spare him from confronting the unbearable truth of her loss. Despite the men’s best efforts to find community in their shared circumstances, Twain makes clear that the men have been severely damaged by the loss of community and family that came with the area’s descent into a mining ghost town.
“The Californian’s Tale” is almost entirely devoid of the wry, cutting humor that accompanies so much of Twain’s writing. Instead, a somber feeling of loss and regret hangs over the scarred land and men who follow Manifest Destiny’s call to California but end up broke and isolated. In the 1845 editorial in which he coined the phrase, John O’Sullivan claimed that Manifest Destiny allotted for “the free development of [America’s] multiplying millions.” He predicted that rugged individuals would soon take California from Mexico and dot it with new homes “conquered from the wilderness by their own labors and genders.” As a renowned satirist and Naturalist writer who delighted in skewering cherished mythologies, Twain uses this short story to explore the potentially devastating aftermath of an American destiny that, for many prospectors, never manifested into reality. Instead of a new American civilization, the miners in “The Californian’s Tale” came to dig their own graves.
Manifest Destiny vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Manifest Destiny vs. Reality Quotes in The Californian’s Tale
It was a lovely region, woodsy, balmy, delicious, and had once been populous, long years before, but now the people had vanished and the charming paradise was a solitude. They went away when the surface diggings gave out.
In the country neighborhood thereabouts, along the dusty roads, one found at intervals the prettiest little cottage homes, snug and cozy, and so cobwebbed with vines snowed thick with roses that the doors and windows were wholly hidden from sight.
Round about California in that day were scattered a host of these living dead men—pride-smitten poor fellows, grizzled and old at forty, whose secret thoughts were made all of regrets and longings.
That was all hard, cheerless, materialistic desolation, but here was a nest which had aspects to rest the tired eye.
Never has been sane an hour since. But he only gets bad when that time of the year comes round. Then we begin to drop in here, three days before she's due, to encourage him up.