Virginia City: Secrets of a Western Past
Ronald M. James had a hidden agenda as he was writing his latest book. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. Almost all writers have a hidden agenda. It’s often called the “theme.”
Those hidden agendas are something I’ve been thinking about lately, so I played directly into James’ hands. While I was thinking about why some journalists misrepresent events with intent to support their masked agendas, James is considering how archaeologists and historians approach their processes differently.
What’s funny is while James didn’t specifically expose his agenda until the epilogue, he definitely steered my mind, at least on an unconscious level, toward it. His method, basically, was to show that while archeology can be boring and detail-ridden to the average reader, its necessity and expense can’t be dismissed. In fact, as I look back on the book, I notice that the very first sentence of the introduction announces his intention. It’s a quote by James Deetz: “Simply put, archaeologists are storytellers. It is our responsibility to communicate to as wide an audience as possible the results and significance of our findings.”
James is the state historic preservation officer for Nevada and chairman of the National Historic Landmarks Committee of the National Park Service. This plays into the agenda. His plan, simply put, is to combine an expository archeologist with an imaginative historian to create a work that’s accessible to the public. His agenda is to make the public and politicians understand that it’s in their best interests to fund archeological research. Simple as that. And when it’s considered that he’s the state historic preservation officer, it’s not hard to understand where he’s coming from.
I would imagine it must be frustrating to a guy like James that a book chock full of accurate historic details but enriched with fantasy, like Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, will make millions, while his own book, chock full of accurate historical details but enriched with fact-based speculation, wouldn’t fund an archeological excavation of his own basement.
In my opinion, Virginia City is successful as an archeological treatise, a history, and as literature. In my favorite parts of the book, James imagines what V.C. must have looked like 130 years ago. In most cases, his fancy comes out of historical record, like drawings or the orientation of a building’s foundations, but in others, it’s just where his mind goes. For example, there’s one place where he talks about a cat or a dog that’s installed in a building’s foundation in the Chinese area of town, and he speculates—with reason—that it was placed there to give the place luck. A simple archeologist would have noted the animal, possibly noted its chemical make up or the fact that it was under the cornerstone. It’s the historian who brings the social context to the narrative. It’s the writer who allows the mind to infuse a dead dog with life.
Virginia City is a pretty quick read—129 pages of narrative, citations, and lots of illustrations, including historic and modern photographs, historic and modern drawings (some by James himself). Each chapter focuses on a different sector of social life in the city, from the mines and the saloons to the plights of smaller segments of society—women, children, Chinese, blacks and Irish—to the sanitarium and cemeteries.
The book begins with the unearthing of the world’s oldest known bottle of Tabasco sauce under an ancient African-American bar. This broken bottle fired imaginations and headlines around the world. It’s the type of discovery that could only have happened through archeology, but the story behind its transport 2,200 miles from its point of origin took a historian. And making the find of a 14-year-old volunteer the linchpin of a literary effort took a writer.