Malcolm wrote 1997’s Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation. He is currently finishing a book about French involvement in the Gold Rush that will be called A Good Voyage, A Quick Fortune and a Prompt Return: France, the French and the California Gold Rush.
Malcolm says that when he was seven or eight years old, his family spent a summer in Leadville, Colorado. That experience left Malcolm, who grew up in Massachusetts, with a lingering interest in the American West. “Somehow, that summer always stuck with me,” he says.
Malcolm’s father grew up on a ranch in Aspen, Colorado, at the turn of the century. The stories about Aspen that Malcolm’s father told him as a child spurred Malcolm to write his 2000 book Aspen: The History of a Silver Mining Town, 1879–1893. “When I was growing up in the family, he talked about the ranch and growing up there,” Malcolm says. “That’s how I got interested in Aspen, and that’s how I ended up writing a book about it.”
There was no one else in Malcolm’s family or community who shared a similar passion for history. “I guess I was the pioneer,” he says.
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
Malcolm says that the most invigorating aspect of his work is trying to find a new perspective on historical subjects. “When I wrote about the California Gold Rush, a lot had already been written about it,” he says. “What I realized in reading a lot of stuff and thinking about it was that there were other ways of thinking about it. The other ways are what is exciting about it.”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
“The most demanding part about the work is doing it on a continual basis. I mean, I write every day. This is what you have to do over an extended period of time. You just have to discipline yourself to set up a writing schedule.”
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY
“Geography is landscape. To carry it further, it’s the impact of landscape on human occupation and vice versa. That is to say, the impact that human occupation has on the landscape, of which California is a good example.”
Malcolm admits that a lot of his research is about understanding how geography affected historical events. For instance, the winter weather in the Sierra Nevada, where the California Gold Rush occurred, temporarily halted the extraction of gold. “These landforms where mining took place turned out to have an important impact on the mining experience, because it meant that mining was something that took place eight months a year, not 12 months,” he says.
SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . HISTORIAN
Malcolm suggests learning about landscape and climate, along with history, so that you can see how those elements affect human experience in letters and diaries.
Malcolm says that PBS’s American Experience television series is “a great introduction to a great range of historical issues.”
He also recommends that families learn more about the California Gold Rush by planning a trip on California State Route 49. “It runs through all of the gold towns, and most of the towns have little museums,” he says.