December 1, 2012

Jackson: it has made your heart ache

When Atlantic editor Thomas Bailey Aldrich praised the novel Ramona, author Helen Hunt Jackson was not satisfied. The novel was not intended to entertain, but to draw attention to the plight of Native Americans. In a letter to Aldrich dated December 1, 1884, she wrote: "I am not satisfied till you say, it has made your heart ache, as well as given your ear pleasure." The book was a bait and switch; it started as a fairly traditional novel, and she admitted her hope was that readers would become so invested in the characters, they would not realize she had ulterior motives. He would not realize right away he had "swallowed a big dose of information on the Indian Question, without knowing it."

Ramona was inspired by several true events, but Jackson encompassed the negative realities of Native American culture within a work of fiction because her other writings on the "Indian Question" remained controversial. But she was empowered by the undertaking. As she told Aldrich, she normally wrote at the rate of 700 to 1000 words in a morning; for Ramona, she wrote 3000 to 4000 words in four hours. "I am not without my superstition about it," she admitted. Her next goal was to write a story on a similar theme for the Youth's Companion and its half million readers.

Ramona told the love story of the half-Indian title character and a full-blooded Indan named Alessandro. Throughout lies the struggle of identity, be it Native American, Mexican, Californian, or American, as well as the negative influence of poverty and crime on the culture of these people. A scene from the first volume of Ramona:

"Heavens, Senorita!" [Alessandro] cried, "have you not heard? Do you not know what has happened?"

"I know nothing, love," answered Ramona. "I have heard nothing since you went away. For ten days I have been sure you were dead; but to-night something told me that you were near, and I came to meet you."

At the first words of Ramona's sentence, Alessandro threw his arms around her again. As she said "love," his whole frame shook with emotion.

"My Senorita !" he whispered, " my Senorita! how shall I tell you! How shall I tell you!"

"What is there to tell, Alessandro? " she said. "I am afraid of nothing, now that you are here, and not dead, as I thought."

But Alessandro did not speak. It seemed impossible. At last, straining her closer to his breast, he cried: "Dearest Senorita! I feel as if I should die when I tell you, — I have no home; my father is dead; my people are driven out of their village. I am only a beggar now, Senorita; like those you used to feed and pity in Los Angeles convent!" As he spoke the last words, he reeled, and, supporting himself against the tree, added: "I am not strong, Senorita; we have been starving."

*Further reading: The Indian Reform Letters of Helen Hunt Jackson, 1879-1885 (1998), edited by Valerie Sherer Mathes.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff, Rob! I would just add that Jackson was also specifically inspired to write her novel by reading and reviewing one that she felt failed, William Justin Harsha's *Ploughed Under*. I like Harsha's novel a lot more than Jackson did, but in any case it's another interesting part of the process through which she moved into this Indian reform novel.