The World may have rushed in, but Holliday took his time

James S. Holliday spent 30 years writing ''The World Rushed In'' (Simon & Schuster: New York. $16.95) from the diary and letters of William Swain, a '49er in the gold rush. The reason it took him so long, Holliday says, was that ''he's a prig. I didn't like him.''

Not that he doesn't like Swain's diary. Holliday says it's one of the best from that time. William Swain wrote in his diary every day. He wrote to his family faithfully. Even better, the family answered; and Holliday got Swain's surviving daughter, Sara Sabrina Swain, to give him those letters. This is one of the best-documented trips west there is, showing the relationship between the miner and his family, which Holliday thinks is one of the great untold stories of the gold rush. But the reason the book took so long was that there were so many things William Swain chose not to mention, and Holliday just wasn't satisfied with the Swain version of the world. And besides, ''He has no sense of humor. None At All,'' Holliday says.

Which, it turns out, is a good thing. Because he was impatient with Swain's blinkered, Victorian view of his trip, Holliday read ''miles of microfilm,'' bales of old letters, newspapers, and diaries, and came up with information from other miners-to-be who traveled the same road as Swain at the same time.

The book centers on William Swain and his experience and his anxious entreaties to his wife, Sabrina, to ''Kiss little Cub for me'' (his name for his daughter who had just been born when he left). But it has, in brackets, descriptions by others that tell other things. Reading Swain's diary, you are offered a view of a pilgrim walking through a landscape, holding his ideals and his virtues close to him, surrounded by rowdies having a good time on the all-male, jackpot-seeking hustle westward.

Holliday says that for the '49ers, the trek to California was more like going to war than pioneering. They had promised to come back with ''a pocketful of rocks,'' an expression everyone uses in this book. They weren't going to settle there, but to come back richer. They were all bound back home, but more than most, Swain kept in touch. ''He never wanted to give George (his brother) or his mother or Sabrina the slightest cause to think he deviated from the teachings of home,'' Holliday says. ''Swain carried home with him. He never left home.''

In the brackets, we hear from the miners who were all too glad to drop hometown decorum in the scramble west, and in his book Holliday has managed to assemble a record that makes you aware of both points of view. The author does this so naturally that reading it is like watching a movie.

For example, the Fourth of July in Wyoming was quite a free-for-all, Holliday notes in the beginning of one chapter. The miners made ice cream and mint juleps out of the high-altitude snow, and there were speeches and moonlight dancing. ''Heavily armed and without Indian dangers to justify their armaments, many companies found in the Fourth an excuse for firing their rifles and pistols,'' Holliday writes, and quotes another diarist: ''One company 'fired a gun for every state in the Union and a volley for California and for the gold diggings. In this salute one of the Rovers got a thumb shot off. The firing kept up until a late hour. . . .' ''

With guns no doubt going off all around him, William Swain wrote, ''Dear Sabrina, I have just left the celebration dinner table, where the company are now drinking toasts to everything and everybody and cheering at no small rate. I enjoy myself better in conversing with you through the medium of the pen.''

Much to Holliday's dismay. ''I knew very well what he was doing and what he was seeing. I'd read all these other (diaries). (Swain) wouldn't tell me what I wanted him to tell me. I used to make lists of things that he should be saying. Then, from these lists, I'd have to go find something. Swain, if you'd said this , I wouldn't have to have spent six years looking for it from someone else!''

Holliday is the sort of person who might have been firing off his pistol on the trail. He has immense energy seemingly undimmed after 30 years of searching for other accounts, compiling, and rewriting, not to mention holding jobs on the side. He was director of the Oakland Museum, director of the California State Historical Society, and assistant director of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

He would have gotten along much better with Swain's older brother, the bachelor George. ''Swain never wrote about San Francisco,'' Holliday says exasperatedly. ''He didn't write one sentence about San Francisco, and there he spent three days in San Francisco! The gaudy things going on there, now why didn't he!?

''I know why he didn't. He didn't want Sabrina to know what was going on in San Francisco.'' Not, Holliday adds with a touch of disdain, that Swain was up to anything. ''William would never have done anything wrong. . . . He never swore. He's a prig. It made me wish George had gone. George is so much fun! George would have laughed and giggled and done something, gotten in a little trouble here and there. Of course he wouldn't have kept a diary, you see. These guys that kept the diaries, that's another problem. The diarists are never participants. They're observers.''

Holliday is a participant. While the rest of the country was hibernating through a winter cold snap, he was bounding about on a 17-city publicity tour. He flew into Boston during a numbing period of gray ice between two blizzards, chortling about going for walks in 25-degree-below weather in Chicago and bubbling over about what fun he'd had here when he got off his troopship after World War II. He is a tall, handsome man with a bony face and twinkling eyes. While eating a New England boiled dinner that would have saddened anybody but Holliday or a '49er living on hard tack and old bacon, he talked about the miners as if they were buddies, and the ordeal of spending so much time on one book as if it happened to someone else.Of the research he says, ''I loved it. I loved it. But the guilt and the embarrassment and the scorn and all the awful feelings because people -- I started it so long ago and (people said), 'You haven't finished anything yet?' '' He says this so sunnily, a boiled yam poised on his fork, that it is hard to believe he ever paid them any heed. Now, he says , ''people come up and have heard that I've published a book and they think it must be my second book or something!''

Nonetheless, he held out through all the scorn, putting off the publisher (he got his first contract in 1950) so often that his editor, who retired while Holliday was still looking up sources and re-forming the sprawling mass of information he had gathered, said he thought the book would probably be published posthumously.

Holliday stuck to it because ''I wanted to be satisfied with the book and I never was.''

Getting satisfaction was an arduous task. Holliday limited himself to using the accounts of people who were on the same trails as Swain at the same time, because he felt some letter written three years later, say, would not be the same as one written by the next company behind Swain's on the road. The idea for putting one man's experience into perspective against the background of other reports, diaries, letters, and newspaper articles occurred to him at the beginning, when the book dealer Edward Eberstadt pointed out the diaries in the Yale library. ''I was totally innocent, totally without any sense of history or how to write history,'' says Holliday. He evolved his ambitious plan because ''I didn't know any better'' than ''working the Swain diary in such a way as to make it work for the reader rather than let the diary remain inviolate, which has never been done before. I took sentences out and moved them around, and I would substitute part of a letter for the diary, and I admit doing it, I mean I say categorically that's what I've done, so I'm not fooling anybody.''

And so Holliday began, first reading all the diaries in the Yale collection, which made him realize the Swain diary was ''superior.'' Then he branched out and read small-town newspapers from that period, all of which had letters from the frontier. At one point he retraced Swain's route. He went to California himself, to graduate school in history at the -- University of California at Berkeley. Through and after graduate school, the research went on.

''I've looked at miles and miles of microfilm and letters, and . . . in '49, '50, '51, there isn't a newspaper printed in America (in which) you do not find letters from California. And that shows you that California belonged to America suddenly. It's not just some place that we got in the war with Mexico, it's where Uncle George is, it's where my son is.'' He got an idea of the gold rush as not the final chapter of the American pioneer movement, but ''an aberration, '' because people didn't go to California to settle down, they went to make their fortunes and come home. When whole families went to settle in Oregon (the other great westward leap around the same time), Holliday says, ''nobody cared. They just rolled off with the morning mists, said goodbye, and that was it, they're gone. But if you leave hostages at home, everybody's tied together. It's like a war.''

So Swain, with his unusually close family ties, served as more than a fuddy-duddy gold miner over whose shoulder Holliday constantly looked. He was an example with whom others could be compared, and, in a sense, a guide along the trail. Much as Holliday makes fun of him, Swain, true to his mission, formed the center of the book. At one point, Swain almost disappeared amid other more intriguing notes from the trail. That was when Holliday met up with a new editor at Simon & Schuster, not then his publishing company, who saved the day.

Holliday had reams of information about how the miners built flumes to change the courses of rivers, sawing down trees, working all day in cold water, knowing that all the work would be washed downstream in the fall. He still admires them so much that he explains the whole process and finishes off by saying, ''And then they'd have some cold coffee and beans and be in a wet blanket and go to bed!'' shaking his head at their heroism.

The new editor, John Dodds, said, ''You know, nobody wants to read all that, Holliday. Nobody wants to know what you think they ought to know!'' Holliday laughs as if he has just heard a joke around a campfire. ''I said, 'I spent seven years finding that and you can't take it away from me! Seven years!' I said 'that sentence' -- I used to remember the provenance of every sentence -- 'I remember I found that in Ohio; you can't.' John says, 'I don't care if it took 70 years, take it out!' He was right,'' says Holliday, without a bit of resentment.

He changed publishers. Swain came back into his own, firmly hewing to his principles, not mentioning the rudeness in San Francisco, and not firing a shot on the Fourth of July. Holliday has spent 30 years wrestling with Swain, trying to see what else was going on, and it is hard now to say who won, Swain or Holliday. The book is almost a dialogue between the sober Swain and Holliday, whose protests come through his chapter summaries and the voices of the more rascally writers.

Swain's trip cleared him about $500 in gold. Holliday just seems glad to have finished. ''Other people who have some goal, some inner wish, some hidden project, (should) know that after 34 years, some guy did get the thing finally done. . . .

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