There’s more to the dignified moocher than his military uniform, ostrich cane, and Kossuth hat.
Basically, this is a biography of California’s own eccentric named Joshua Abraham Norton–unofficially coronated as Emperor Norton. In some ways, he was like a tourist magnet for San Francisco.
How Does It Hold Up…?
The theme of identity comes into play throughout this book, for Norton I was intent on rediscovering himself in San Francisco. He went from being a Christian-educated English Jew from South Africa to being a businessman in land speculation to being the “Emperor of America.” Throughout these stages, Norton has tried to lay a claim on Earth with his identity.
In the case of his Judaism, it was clear that Norton knew that he was Jewish, however in South Africa there was barely a Jewish presence in the British colony. As such, Norton always felt left out, since he was given the traditional Jewish names, Joshua Abraham, while his siblings had more Christian names. Drury speculates that this outsider status was what led Norton to start identifying himself with European nobility.
This led to him developing a sense of marketing. The fact that he dressed himself in the uniforms of soldiers who deserted was a way for him to truly stand out as “legitimate.” Norton would also issue decrees, even as most people did not take them serious to the extent that Norton was a public official not a guttersnipe.
In San Francisco at his time, there were already plenty of people making outrageous claims in order to attract attention. Especially during the Napoleonic War, many claimants of Bonaparte descent started popping up. As can be imagined, Norton took note of this phenomenon and decided to take advantage of it himself by noting his physical appearance was proof of royal birth.
There were other eccentrics in the city, such as one who claimed to be George Washington’s son. Of course, like Norton, they were not shunned by San Franciscans, rather they were celebrated in their own right. However, Norton appeared to be the one who outshined them all.
The foundation of California was also a major theme in the book, since it provides the groundwork upon which Norton prospered. While he did achieve financial success at the beginning, a bad investment left him destitute. While California provided plenty of opportunities during the Gold Rush, it was also a place where entire livelihoods were risked. Indeed, there were plenty of early Californians who were easily given to corruption and crime because of their pursuit of wealth.
Drury writes in such a way as to introduce Emperor Norton to the reader, which is important to consider since writing such an eccentric character in American history requires some degree of steadiness. Drury did not get too caught up in details, while also maintaining the readers’ interest in Emperor Norton.
- A Dandy
- A Guttersnipe
- Kossuth Hat
- A Ragamuffin
- A Rowdy
Drury makes use of the words used to describe vagrants during the time. It does help provide a sense that this book takes place in the 19th century.
Considering Emperor Norton’s unique background as a South African Jewish immigrant, it would make sense how he would become a unique individual. The experiences that shaped Norton’s standing among gentiles makes it easy to understand why he became an eccentric.
Another use of Norton’s creativity involved the purchase of military uniforms from both Union and Confederate soldiers. It is interesting how he was able to take items from America’s most bitter conflict and turn them into San Francisco’s Emperor’s garb.
When even the Emperor of Hawai’i wants to recognize your authority, then you know how much attention you can easily draw. Such was the case with Emperor Norton. His stature made San Francisco a theatrical place to be. Indeed, California became a tourist hub as a result of Emperor Norton’s “conquest.”
This Book Adds…
…To World-Building Knowledge
I can definitely see how Emperor Norton would be a world-building inspiration, since his very existence breaks the continuity of typical American life. In fact, San Francisco was a world in itself along with the other eccentrics and the two dogs–Bummer and Lazarus.
…To Other Authors
This book comes to mind Richard Florida’s book about the creative class and how they were instrumental in creating a city’s identity. However, Florida acknowledges that the success of creatives are never guaranteed. In the case of Emperor Norton, he lived in perpetual poverty and was only supported by the generosity of San Franciscans.
Another book that comes to mind is Ayn Rand’s “Anthem,” which takes place in a dystopian future where collectivism is emphasized in a technologically primitive society. The main character tries to establish himself as an innovator but must keep a low profile lest he endure persecution. Emperor Norton is like this character, since he defies the standard.
…To My Own
It really makes the case that Emperor Norton might appear weird to the people around him, but when looking at the eccentrics, alcoholics, guttersnipes, and corrupt public officials, it is clear that he was just yet another face in the crowd. While everyone else in California had their weirdness, Emperor Norton is only different in that he successfully captured the American spirit in the California colony that would become a state. I will say that weirdness is essential in establishing an individual identity.
This book absolutely adds enough to provide deep thought. Emperor Norton definitely makes you think about your place in society.
- Drury, William. “Norton I, Emperor of the United States.” 1st Edition. Dodd, Mead. 1986.
- Florida, Richard. “Rise of the Creative Class: 10th Anniversary Edition.” Basic Books. 2014.
- Rand, Ayn. “Anthem.”