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  • “For the wrongs of our poor bleeding country”: Sensation, Class, and Empire in Ridge’s Joaquín Murieta
  • Mark Rifkin (bio)

John Rollin Ridge’s novel The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (1854) most certainly qualifies as an example of the kind of sensation fiction that became immensely popular in the 1840s and ’50s.1 While an example of popular fare, the text uses mass mediated forms to reflect on the political problematics and legacy of the U.S. incorporation of various non-national populations—those who by war or jurisdictional fiat find themselves and their lands recoded in U.S. law and policy as part of “domestic” space.2 The legacy of expansionism resulted in the absorption of peoples and polities which continued to exist in residual (if altered) forms within the putative boundaries of the nation and whose efforts to maintain political and cultural autonomy continued to distinguish them from the majority of the American populace, and the text reflects these dynamics: written by a Cherokee—whose family had participated in the negotiations leading to the Trail of Tears—about a Mexican bandit and set in California in the years just following the end of the Mexican-American War.3 For non-national populations, popular media provide a means of entering public discourse unconstrained by the discursive and institutional structures of the state apparatus; however, non-national authors had limited access to a non-national audience because of its low English literacy rates.4 Due to the expansion of literacy among whites and significant developments in print technology and production, the mid-nineteenth century [End Page 27] saw a dramatic increase in the availability of various kinds of reading matter.5 When representing non-national populations to an Anglo audience, the novel-form speaks neither to nor for them, in the sense of expressing their popular voice or will. In other words while using sensational strategies that appeal to a mass audience among the imperially dominant population, disproportionately comprised of working-class readers/consumers, Joaquín Murieta and other forms of “popular” writing in English occupy a very different position within the class formations of the imperially dominated.6

Ridge’s text, then, raises two related interpretive issues that have not been given adequate consideration in American literary history focused on nineteenth-century writings: the survival of publics “within” national territory (albeit in altered and often officially unrecognized forms) whose status as distinct cultural and political entities exceeds the assertion of U.S. jurisdiction over them; and the existence of class difference within such publics and its influence on the kinds of texts they produce and the sorts of commentary and critique such texts offer.7 These populations and their writings often are incorporated into an overarching multiculturalism which even if it foregrounds conflict still evades or elides the history of and desire for autonomy that characterizes groups like the Cherokees and the Californios (the Mexican nationals in California prior to the war). For example, Cheryl Walker describes Ridge as “patriotic in his writings concerning the United States” and interprets the novel as “a fascinating picture of a multicultural frontier America” and “an allegory of the American character” (119, 122), and Timothy Powell suggests that “Ridge’s work reveals . . . conflicting feelings of a deep-seated racial rage at white society and an equally powerful desire to be included into ‘America’” (196).8 In these accounts, opposition to the expansionist extension of U.S. jurisdiction over previously distinct political entities (native and otherwise) is conflated and confused with an anti-racist critique of the exclusion of populations from full citizenship and belonging within the nation-state. However, rather than emphasizing an internal struggle over American identity, Ridge’s novel questions the process by which the country claims to have internalized various peoples and places. The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta uses its elaborate depiction of murder and mayhem to suggest that the Mexican-American War continues in an ongoing armed struggle in California, offering a fantastic composite portrait of the effects of [End Page 28] imperial dislocation/relocation that can be thought of as an allegory of U.S. expansionism.9

When addressing the continued...


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