Contact: Wendel Sloan at 505.562.2253
Reporter: Helena Rodriguez
PORTALES—Dr. Linda Sumption, assistant professor of English at Eastern New Mexico University, struck a goldmine while doing research for her dissertation in 2000. She stumbled across a 500-page narrative by William Manly detailing his heroic rescue of three families from Death Valley during California's infamous Gold Rush.
As a result of an article Sumption published on William Manly in the autumn 2002 issue of "Journal of the Southwest," a film company, Forgotten Journey Productions, invited Sumption last summer to be featured in an upcoming PBS documentary, "Escape from Death Valley" which will be aired nationwide in about a year. Sumption recently returned from shooting the interview in September at a downtown library in Los Angeles. While she described her first-time experience in front of the movie cameras as "a bit grueling, involving a number of retakes," she said she is pleasantly surprised that someone is shining the spotlight on this important episode in American history.
"I think it is important to showcase American writings that have been neglected," said Sumption, who is beginning her second year at Eastern. "Manly's narrative is a unique American autobiography. He is candid about his trials as well as his triumphs, which is unusual in gold miner stories. He doesn't hesitate to tell both sides. I think this documentary will have the effect of focusing attention upon little known American literary collections."
In the documentary, Sumption said she was the only literary scholar interviewed. The other experts featured are all historians. "Since my field is literature, my approach is textual analysis more than historical examination."
Sumption's "Journal of the Southwest" article titled "The Domesticated Gold Rush in William Manly's Death Valley in '49" came about as a result of her doctoral dissertation research at City University of New York in 2000. Her dissertation was titled, "A Wayless Way: Patterns of Adventure in Nineteenth-Century American Travel Narratives," in which she traced narrative patterns in journals of Lewis and Clark as well as in nineteenth-century migration chronicles and travel narratives. Her dissertation focused on three aspects of this literature: exploration, migration and literary travel writings.
It was in doing that research Sumption came across Manly's writings and she quickly discovered that it was a historical event in which little, if any, attention had been focused. Manly set out for California during the Gold Rush in 1849, but ended up going on another mission. According to Sumption's article, Manly joined a small group of families hoping to find easy passage to California through the Southwestern plains, in a very rough, inhospitable landscape along the California and Nevada borders. As a result, the group found themselves stranded in the desert, very weak, lost and with no food. Manly and another young man decided to go to California and get help. The rescue took longer than they had hoped for, but, miraculously, they managed to get everybody safely back to civilization. "This is a remarkable story because a number of the '49ers just left these people stranded," Sumption said.
This is exactly the kind of digging for research materials that she often encourages her own students to embark upon, according to the professor. "I tell students to do this kind of research, besides their usual online research. It can be very rewarding, especially if they look at it like it is part of a treasure hunt. Look behind those scenes. Snoop around and dust off old books. I looked around for many days in old book collections in New York before I found Manly's narrative."
Sumption is originally from Minnesota. She said she has made something of a full circle, going from Minnesota to New York and then to Portales. She is particularly fascinated with Southwest literature because of all of the regional literature, the Southwest has "a fascinating mix of culture and traditions which often meet, clash and sometimes blend together."
Sumption has taught Literature of the Southwest classes at Eastern. Next spring, she will teach a class titled "Adventure and Travel Literature."