Blaise CendrarsThe Marvellous History of General Johann August Sutter

2.10 Blaise Cendrars, in Gold: The Marvellous History of General John August Sutter,  chapters 6, para 25, and chapters 7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16, 1925, translated from the French, L’Or, ou la merveilleuse histoire du Genéral Johann August Sutter, Edition Denoel, Paris, 1947, 1961, 2001, translation first published 1982, p. 71 – 128

a) Background

We apply in this Anthology a broader concept to observe and understand the cultural encounters and exchanges between Switzerland and the United States as regards to law by including legal culture. The life of Johann August Sutter, the Swiss emigree who had built a successful colony at the end of Mexian rule and at the beginning of the formation of the State of California is a case that merits attention. The governmental institutions and law in general were of no avail to protect his properties after the gold rush and he never obtained an indemnity from the Congress of the United States. The rise and the fall of this man of Swiss origin who named his land “New Helvetia” came to  the attention and the imagination of literary, writers and filmmakers long before the biographers, who were caught off guard after the literary and film works – and law – travelled around the world.

The reader and user interested in the American law and literature approach, which is hardly known in Switzerland, may turn to James Boyd White, The Legal Imagination, Chicago-London 1973 and to Interpreting Law and Literature, a Hermeneutic Reader, Evanston 1988. If he’s interested in the relationship between film and for instance philosophy, he may turn to Stanley Cavell, professor emeritus of aestethics and general theory of value at Harvard University in Cites of words, Harvard University press 2005. Law in the life of Johann August Sutter played a substantial role in literature and in films as well. Among the numerous films are: Days of ’49 (1924), California in ’49 (1929), The Kaiser of California (1936), Sutter’s Gold (1936), Kit Carson (1940), “The Pathfinder” (The Great Adventure, 1964), Fortune (1969), Donner Pass: The Road to Survival (1978), The Chisholms, CBS miniseries, role of Sutter played by Ben Piazza (1980), California Gold Rush (1981), Dream West (1986) and General Sutter (1999). Among those interested to make a film of the novel Gold by Blaise Cendrars, was Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian film director of world fame.

The reader and the user may also turn to the postscript to the German edition of Blaise Cendrars, of the publisher Arche, second edition 1988, by Karsten Wille.. There seems to be a reverse influence of literary and film works on the biographical and maybe some day legal work in connection with John August Sutter. It was the literary works by writers of world literature, which freely dealt with the life of the pioneer, which triggered biographical works such as J.P. Zollinger and Erwin Gustav Gudde. This is not the place to hold a seminar and law and literature and the apparently underresearched correlation between legal topics and its suitability to be treated in literary and filmic works. It is not the place either to muse about the evidence that the majority of the “crazy Swiss” emigrées to the United States the beginning in Switzerland and at the end of their life in the United States they had difficulties in living with the law.This is the case with respect to Henri Wirz, Louis Agassiz as well as Johann August Sutter.

The text at hand is a collection of chapters of the second part of the short novel Gold, The Marvellous History of General John August Sutter of Blaise Cendrars. Blaise Cendrars wrote the novel on the basis of information of a contested local Swiss historian. He found the idea together with his brother – no other than Georges Sauser – Hall, an eminent specialist in conflicts and international law, professor of law and at the University of Geneva.The coming about of the novel, is abtly described in the forword to the French edition L’or – Edition Denoel 1966, by Francoise Lacassin with the title L’aventurier tué par son rêve (the adventurer killed by his dream). Law as a motto of fact, was the key topic of the work.

The short novel created a lot of attention and protest. The reader and user interested may turn to authoratitive biography of Blaise Cendrars by his daughter Miriam Cendrars, Paris 1984 and in a German translation in Basel 1986 in the 25th chapter with the title Gold 1. Geld – 2. Die Proteste – 3. Die Erben – 4. Film – 5. Der Prozess,
Blaise Cendrars – Frédéric-Louis Sauser (September 1, 1887 – January 21, 1961, was a Swiss novelist part of world literature in the first half of the 20th century. Cendrars was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Neuchàtel, Switzerland, ran away from most schools and began to write while living in St. Petersburg, thanks to the encouragement of a librarian at the National Library of Russia. In 1907, Sauser returned to Switzerland, where he studied medicine. He had a remarkable literary career. Cendrars was the first exponent of Modernism in European poetry with his works, not only in terms of expressing the fundamental values of Modernism, but also in terms of creating the first solid poetical synthesis of modernism, in a form of a series of the poems. After a short stay in Paris, he traveled to New York, arriving on 11 December 1911. Between 6–8 April 1912, he wrote his long poem, Les Pâques à New York (Easter in New York), his first important contribution to modern literature. He signed it for the first time with the name Blaise Cendrars. In the summer of 1912, Cendrars returned to Paris, convinced that poetry was his vocation He became acquainted with the international array of artists and writers in Paris, such as Chagall, Léger, Survage, Modigliani, Csaky, Archipenko, Jean Hugo and Robert Delaunay. Most notably, he encountered Guillaume Apollinaire. The two poets influenced each other’s work. His writing career was interrupted by World War I. When it began, he joined the French Foreign Legion. He was sent to the front line in the Somme. It was during the attacks in Champagne in September 1915 that Cendrars lost his right arm and was discharged from the army. Cendrars became an important part of the artistic community in Montparnasse; his writings were considered a literary epic of the modern adventurer. After the war, Cendrars became involved in the movie industry in Italy, France, and the United States. Needing to generate more income, after 1925 he stopped publishing poetry and concentrated on novels and short stories. He stayed in Paris during World War II and the German occupation. He died in 1961. His ashes are held at Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre. As can be seen in his biography he was decorated with many honours.

b) Summary

The texts at hand are excerpts starting from 7th chapter of the novel Gold – the marvelous history of General John August Sutter by Blaise Cendrars. The chapters of the novel are extremely short. The chapters are subdivided in brief paragraphs. The majority of the chapters contain references to the legal dimensions of the battle for life of John August Sutter. The whole method of sequences is inspired by methods of sequencing and techniques of cutting developed in films.
We cite a few passages in which  law and legal culture are of key importance.

• Seventh Chapter, paragraph 27:
“Reverie. Calm. Repose.
It is Peace.
No.No.No.No.No.No.No.No.No: it is GOLD
It is gold.
The gold rush.
The road is infected with gold fever.
The great gold rush of 1848, 1849, 1850 and 1851. It will last for fifteen years.

• Eigth Chapter, paragraph 29:
“John August Sutter, not merely the first American millionaire, but the first multimillionaire in the United States is ruined by that blow of the pickaxe.
He is forty-five years old.
And after having ventured all, risked all, dared all and created for himself a way of life, he is ruined by the discovery of gold-mines on his lands.
The richest mines in the world.
The fattest nuggets.
The end of the rainbow.”

• Ninth Chapter, paragraph 37:
“Since the cession of Texas and California to the United States, the government in Washington has extended the federal laws to these two territories, but there is a earth of magistrates and, at the time of the gold rush, no authority has any hold over these cosmopolitan multitudes lusting for gold. When the Governor of Monterey sends in troops to maintain order, the soldiers lay down their arms, drop bag and baggage and desert to the mines, and if a warship, sent by the federal government to enforce respect for the law, disembarks an armed crew, they will vanish forever, drawn irresistibly to the mines. The commander cannot hold his sailors, not even with a wage of fifteen dollars a day.

The country is infested with thieves and bandits. The outlaws and the desperadoes lay down the only law – their law. It is the epic of the ‘45’ and of summary justice. In the struggle for survival, might is right. Men are hanged with lassoes or shot down with revolvers. Vigilance committees are formed to protect the slowly-reviving civic life. Those who first took possession of the land can, as a last resort, go to Monterey to seek redress and have their property claims evaluated. The Governor addresses their just claims to the proper quarter and the government appoints a Commission of Inquiry. But Washington is too far away, the official commissions travel slowly, while the immigrants pour in in evermultiply. By the time the gentlemen commissioners at the overwhelming upheaval of men and affairs, total chaos where property is concerned, and if, by an unlucky chance, they take the time to study an individual case in detail, they are sure to be overtaken by events.
Ten large cities have sprung up. Fifteen hundred villages.
Nothing can be done.
Appeal to the law.
The Law.
In September 1850, California officially enters the Confederation of the United States. It is a State at last, a fully-fledged constitutional body, endowed with officials and magistrates.
And so begins a series of prodigious, costly and futile legal actions.
The Law.
The impotent Law.
The men of law whom John August Sutter despises.”

• Eleventh Chapter, paragraph 47:
“John August Sutter does not wait for a reply from the worthy old Martin Birmann, a solicitor by calling and voluntary treasurer of the community of John the Baptist in his little village of Bottmingen, in Basleland. John August Sutter begins a lawsuit. His lawsuit. A lawsuit that revolutionizes the whole of California and comes near to throwing the very existence of the new State into jeopardy. Everyone has a personal interest in the case.
Above all else, John August Sutter lays claim exclusive ownership of the territories on which towns like San Francisco, Sacramento, Fairfield and Riovista have been built. He has had these lands valued by a committee of experts and claims 200 million dollars. He issues summonses against 17.221 individuals who have settled on his plantations, demanding that they vacate their premises and pay him damages with interest, He claims 25 million dollars from the legislature of the State of California for having taken over the roads, tracks, locks, mills, canals and bridges, and the installations in the Bay, and having placed them at the disposal of the public. Also, an indemnity of 50 million dollars from the government in Washington for its failure to maintain public order at the time of the discovery of the goldmines; failure to stem the flood of the gold rush; failure to control their own Federal troops, who were sent into the area and deserted in gangs, thus becoming the principal element in the disorder and amongst the most ruthless looters; failure to take appropriate measures to reimburse both the State and Sutter personally for their share from the output of the mines. He submits, in the first instance, that he has rights to part of the gold  extracted up to the present time and asks that a commission of jurists give an immediate ruling on the amount of gold due to him out of that which will be extracted from this day forth. He does not ask for any personal sanctions against anyone at all, neither those people in authority who have failed in their duty of seeing that the law is respected, nor police officers incapable of upholding public order, nor prevaricating officials. He bears no man a grudge, but he demands justice, simple justice, and, in bringing his case to Law, he is putting all his trust in jurisprudence.

Emile has come back from University and is devoting himself exclusively to this monstrous affair. He is assisted by the four most eminent legal experts in the Union. In his offices at the corner of Commercial Street and the Plaza Mayor, in the heart of San Francisco, he is surrounded by a flock of solicitors, clerks and scribes.

The cities put up their defence. San Francisco, Sacramento, Fairfield, Riovista and even the smallest communities appoint barristers for life, solely to concern themselves with this particular case, and to oppose Sutter’s claims with all their strength and at all costs. Individuals band together, constitute defence syndicates, place their interests in the hands of the most famous lawyers, whom they bring out from the East at outrageous expense. Jurists are at a premium. Every member of the legal profession, down to the last shyster, is dragged in. In all the vast territories of the United States, one can no longer find a single barrister lacking his brief, nor a single man of law kicking his heels in a bar. Solicitors, notaries, bailiffs, articled clerks, scriblers and pen-pushers rush to California, where they swoop down like locusts amongst the cosmopolitan bordes of gold-seekers, who are still pouring in, for the rush is by no means over. This is a new rush, an unforeseen source of gold, and all these people are hoping to live off Sutter’s lawsuit. “

• Thirtheenth Chapter, paragraph 54:
“The beginning of 1855, like the end of the previous year, marks a new triumph for John Augustus Sutter. On the 15th of March, Judge Thompson, the highest magistrate in California, announces his verdict in the Sutter case.
He acknowledged Sutter’s claims as being just and well-founded, recognizes the grants made by the Mexican governors as legal and inviolable and declares that all those immense territories on which so many towns and villaged have been built are the personal, intangible and indisputable property of John Augustus Sutter.
This verdict, together with the reasons adduced, amounts to a small volume of over two hundred pages. “

• Fourteenth Chapter, paragraph 63:
“In all the vast territories of the United States, Judge Thompson alone understands and feels compassion for the plight of the General. Thompson is an enlightened man with a broad and well-balanced outlook; he fulfils his duties with the utmost integrity. Having made a thorough study of Greek in his youth, he has preserved a love for the humanities, a lofty system of reasoning and a taste for logical, unbiased deduction that he is capable of carrying to its ultimate conclusion. His mind is naturally inclined towards the contemplative mode. Thus he grasps the tragic aspect of John Augustus Sutter’s life.
What is reality? What is fiction? What was the law and the legal proceedings?, what was reality?, what was the perception of reality? How is law transformed in a work of art such as a novel or a movie? Is this part of legal culture?

c) Texts

You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here:
A_2.10_CENDRARS_Marvellous History


© Prof. Jens Drolshammer,,

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