|Some Thoughts on Emperor Norton
When I first had the idea of writing a story about Emperor Norton, I assumed it would be a simple matter to research his life, and to come up with a plausible yarn. I was soon to discover that Joshua wasn't that easy. Most people seem to assume the man was simply mad, or at least a trifle dotty. He was a highly public figure in his day, often mentioned in newspapers, both lampooned and praised. Mark Twain, among others, admired him. And yet, there is much we do not know about him.
Joshua Norton, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Was he crazy, or was everyone else? He lived through some bizarre decades: the Gold Rush, when half the Nation was trying to move to California, and the Civil War, when each half of the Nation was trying to slaughter the other. Norton defended Chinese Immigrants and other minorities. He witnessed the advent of the railroad and telegraph, and had been a member of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance. Despite all this, we know almost nothing about the man. There are few books about him, and most of these are out of print. We know of certain events in the life of Norton, such as when and how he went bankrupt, and when he wrote and published his first Imperial Proclamation. Yet we know nothing of what he was like between these events. Despite his public appearances and royal presence, he lived always alone, never married, or--as far as we know--in love. He gave public lectures before educated auciiences, yet we do not know his private thoughts.
There has been much speculation: I ran across one reference to a psychiatrist, who proposed that Norton suffered from "histrionic personality disorder." I wouldn't know. That sounds like too neat a category. He believed he was Emperor, and that he could solve the problems of the Nation, if only people would listen. Or was he only pretending to believe, so as to get loose change out of tourist pockets? We'll never know. What we do know is that Norton inspired in those around him a desire to share his fantasy, a desire which continues to this day.
In writing a novel about Emperor Norton, I feel free to make up a lot of storyline to fill in the missing gaps. It is perhaps an expansion of the Emperor's own fantasy life. I hope he will not begrudge me this freedom. More and more, I am convinced the line between history and fantasy is a thin one. For those interested in pursuing what is actually known about our only American Emperor, you might start here: