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UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library teams up with Wells Fargo Bank to produce California history tapes
28 Nov 2000

By Kathleen McClay, Media Relations

Listen to excerpts from the Bancroft tapes | Read press release in Spanish

Berkeley - Californians soon will have easy access to expertise about Hispanic California and its missions, the Gold Rush era and Mark Twain in the West, thanks to a project by the Wells Fargo Foundation and The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

Through a $100,000 project underwritten by Wells Fargo, audiocassette tapes about these topics will be distributed free or at low cost to California's nearly 1,100 public libraries, to state officials, including the governor, and to every county supervisor in the state. Wells Fargo is working on translating the tape on California's missions into Spanish and providing it along with a lesson plan to fourth grade classes in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where Latino students comprise 60 percent of the classroom population.

"If people are interested in California or Western history, then Bancroft is the place they have to come to," said Charles Faulhaber, director of The Bancroft Library. "We realize there's a lot of public interest in what we do, and this gives the public access even if they can't come to the campus."

UC Berkeley purchased the book and manuscript collections of historian Hubert Howe Bancroft in 1905, and his collections form the core of The Bancroft Library. Today, the institution concentrates its holdings on California and the West, Mexico and Central America, the history of the University of California, science and technology history, oral histories and the Mark Twain Papers.

"Wells (Fargo) is an institution that has a strong and long history in California, like Bancroft," said Bob Chlebowski, executive vice president at Wells Fargo and a member of Bancroft's Council of Friends. The tapes will promote understanding of California history and the library's rich collection, he said.

The project has produced two 45-minute tapes on each of the three topics designated so far, with the library helping to select experts and arrange recordings.

"These are the sorts of tapes that one would listen to while commuting," Faulhaber said. "They're not dry, scholarly lectures."

Sharing expertise on the tapes are:

* James J. Rawls, an authority on California history, a professor and author.

* J.S. Holliday, former assistant director of The Bancroft Library, director emeritus of the California Historical Society and award-winning author of "Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California" (University of California Press, 1999).

* Robert H. Hirst, principal editor of the Mark Twain Project at The Bancroft Library.

Each choice was easy, Faulhaber said. "Rawls is wonderful at presenting California Western history for the general public," he said. Hirst is well known for his work with the Mark Twain Project, said Faulhaber, " and Holliday is the author of two classic books on the Gold Rush and is a wonderful speaker."

Rawls received his PhD in California history from UC Berkeley and is known in the San Francisco Bay Area as "Dr. History (The Man Who Makes History Fun)" for his lead role in a "history for the masses" radio show from 1990 to 1995. He has written numerous books on California history, is a history instructor at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, Calif., and has taught at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. Rawls also has updated the classic college text, "California: An Interpretive History," by the late UC Berkeley history professor Walton Bean of the College of Letters & Science.

Rawls describes the "essence of the California experience" as unchanged since the state's earliest days. Sunshine, health and freedom, along with a geographical and psychological "edge," have combined to lure people since the start, he said.

The region originally boasted more Native Americans, in terms of numbers and varieties of cultures, than any area of comparable size in the nation, he said. Recent census data revealed that minorities are now the majority of the more than 33 million people who call themselves Californians. "That's news, but it's also part of a long continuity," Rawls said.

His tape takes listeners through the "Hispanicization" of California from 1769 to 1846, as representatives of Spain and Mexico took up residency and exerted influence throughout the state, leaving their imprint in terms of culture, language and place names still much in evidence today.

Rawls also offers a fresh perspective on the symbolism and mythology surrounding California missions in the 200 years since their establishment. Rawls said missions have met with varying degrees of support or opposition, depending on the political and moral imperatives of the times and the latest newcomers trying to forge their way.

Throughout his recording, Rawls said, "I keep coming back to social history and within that, the ethnic diversity of California. My paradigm for understanding our diversity is the dream, that terribly attractive power of California."

By the start of the Gold Rush in 1848, "I'm suggesting the world had already rushed in," he said, referring to Holliday's book, "The World Rushed In."

Expanding on the Gold Rush, Holliday's tape emphasizes that the Gold Rush has been misunderstood as a finite period of time. Instead, he said, it really created a long-lasting mentality of risk-taking, experimentation, inventiveness, optimism and freedom from old rules that continues to shape California's character and public appeal even today. That period shaped the state's business environment, along with its social and economic forces that continue to lure people to the West Coast 150 years later, he said.

"It was the Gold Rush decades that created the image of California as 'America, only more so,'" Holliday said.

Counter to common depiction of the Gold Rush era as one of woebegone days of loss and despair, he also said "there was far more success than traditionally presented."

Hirst, at the Mark Twain Project, also wants to shed new light on California history as it pertains to Twain.

"My general strategy is to tell the story of Mark Twain's time in the West - how he got here, how long he expected to stay, how long he did stay, why and what he did," said Hirst. "At the same time, I also introduce folks to this unfamiliar body of Mark Twain's work."

"I branch out from there to stories and anecdotes used in his late works - books, like "A Tramp Abroad" and "Huckleberry Finn" - in which the folklore and stories he heard in the West are remembered and transmuted into something written, and made in that sense permanent," Hirst said. "Twain's Western experience carried forward into books we all know, books that would have been very different without such experience."

Twain's time in the West is one of the most undocumented periods of his career, said Hirst. That's mainly because of the loss of the Virginia City "Territorial Enterprise" newspaper files, the last of which were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

"Twain worked for several papers in the West, but longest and best for this one," he said.

Hirst said Twain's sense of humor was a bonus of sorts during the recording session. "It's a little like being a standup comedian with jokes that are 100 to 140 years old!" he said. "Fact is, I never have to worry about whether they'll work - they always work, if read competently."

One of the joys of the tape project for Hirst is reading Twain aloud, the way the author wanted to be read. Twain was a consummate lecturer, with a keen ear for the rhythms of American speech. Hirst also finds satisfaction in exposing more and more people to Mark Twain, or to Twain materials most people have never read or seen before.

"Let's face it," Hirst said, "no one knows when someone as good as Mark Twain will come along again. Geniuses like him don't cross our path every day, or even every century."

Such tapes on California's early history also are rare, but Faulhaber said he hopes funding can be found to continue the series with other topics on the history of California or the West.

###

Listen to clips from the Bancroft tapes:
(Audio files require Real Player)

Audio file   Mark Twain
(192K)
  Robert H. Hirst, a principal editor of The Mark Twain Papers and Project at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, reads an excerpt from what he says is the most important letter Samuel Clemens ever wrote. This letter to his older brother Orion and Orion's wife, Mollie, was written on Oct. 19 and 20 of 1865, just before Clemens turned 30. He talks about his "two powerful ambitions" in life.
Audio file   Hispanic California
(256K)
  In this excerpt, California history authority James J. Rawls quotes an observer to "the atrocious system of human slavery" witnessed in the 1820s at Mission San Francisco.
Audio file   Gold Rush
(192K)
  Historian J.S. Holliday notes a striking feature of the Gold Rush: its male-dominated population and a glaring absence of "the moral authority of women."

Read press release in Spanish

NOTE: The three tapes will be available on the shelves of California public libraries after the holidays. They are available for purchase for $20 for the set by contacting Audiotapes, The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000.

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