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Oregon Trail writings come alive in new publication

Feb. 1, 2007

KALAMAZOO--The writings of a 19th century California gold rush chronicler and satirist are revived in a new publication by a Western Michigan University faculty member.

Dr. Nicolas S. Witschi, an associate professor of English, has published a booklet on Alonzo Delano, a writer during the 1850s and 1860s who was widely known in his day for his overland diary and for poignant and satirical sketches about the gold rush.

Under the pen name "Old Block," Delano also is credited with being an early influence on such figures as Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Charlie Chaplin.

"When looking at California literature during and after the gold rush, his name kept popping up as someone who was really funny," says Witschi, who teaches American literature at WMU.

The 52-page book, "Alonzo 'Old Block' Delano," is part of Boise State University's Western Writers Series and is available for $8.50 through the Web site, http://westernwriters.boisestate.edu/.

It introduces readers to a wide-ranging catalog of Delano's writings, his most known being his 1854 diary, "Life on the Plains and Among the Diggings," and a collection of short satirical articles which began being published in Sacramento and San Francisco newspapers in 1852 called "Pen Knife Sketches, or, Chips of the Old Block," the basis for his nickname.

Delano's portrayal of certain groups, such as being sympathetic to Native Americans and recognizing women who were a part of the gold rush, were unusual for that time.

"Early in his career, he wrote a really racist, satirical play about Native Americans. But when he got to California and lived among them, he turned around 180 degrees and found that these are people who are worth writing about and writing about respectfully," Witschi says. "Also in the 1860s, he gets into a banter back and forth with women from the gold rush. This engagement with his readers revealed a very dynamic social environment."

Besides his latest booklet, Witschi is the author of numerous scholarly articles and of his first book, "Traces of Gold: California's Natural Resources and the Claim to Realism in Western American Literature."

He earned a bachelor's degree in film and television in 1988 from New York University, a master's degree in English in 1993 from the University of Colorado and a doctorate in English in 1998 from the University of Oregon. He continued his postdoctoral work at that university until 1999 when he became a Fulbright lecturer and visiting professor in American Studies at the University of Regensburg in Germany. He joined WMU's faculty in 2000.

Media contact: Deanne Molinari, (269) 387-8400, deanne.molinari@wmich.edu

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