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BRYAN WAGNER Helen Hunt Jackson's Errant Local Color Helen hunt jackson published Ramona (1884) in an effort to intervene in ongoing public debates over American Indian land rights. Set in California in the years after the U.S.-Mexico War, the novel tells the story of a mestiza orphan girl who abandons her wealthy Californio relatives to marry an American Indian named Alessandro who works on the family ranch. The couple flees the ranch only to face a series ofpersecutions from white settlers who steal their land and ultimately destroy their life together. An immediate bestseller, Ramona inspired a swell of sympathy for American Indian causes, influencing national legislative agendas and energizing activist organizations such as the Sequoya League and the Women's National Indian Association. At the same time, Ramona became a stock symbol of Southern California tourist bureaus that were eager to attract visitors to the region. Soon after the novel's initial publication, local boosters organized an immense Ramona promotion that included commemorative postcards and souvenirs as well as tourist maps that directed visitors to "Ramona sites" where the events of the novel supposedly took place. Ramona continued to attract readers well into the next century, appearing in dozens of editions and selling thousands of copies during many years through the 1940s. The novel has inspired countless theatrical adaptations, four Hollywood films, a hit song, and an annual outdoor pageant that to this day continues to draw capacity crowds to the small town of Hemet, California.1 In writing Ramona, Jackson faced the considerable challenge of making the underside of U.S. imperial expansion legible to her readers. To Arizona Quarterly Volume 58, Number 4, Winter 2002 Copyright © 2002 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-16 10 Bryan Wagner do so, she had to find a language powerful enough to counteract the prevailing myth ofManifest Destiny. This essay argues thatJackson met this challenge by drawing upon the themes and techniques of local color writing, in particular local color writing focused on the regional culture of the U.S. South. A popular genre of the late nineteenth century , local color is defined by its antimodern settings, its eccentric characters , and its enthusiastic imitation of vernacular speech. In its typical manifestations, local color depends upon familiar oppositions between centers and peripheries, modern ends and primitive origins, urbane narration and exotic dialect. For readers of local color, these oppositions provided the common denominators with which to understand every regional history. No matter how strange the region, it could be translated into the language of local color and made recognizable to readers conversant with the genre. Local color, one might say, made local cultures intelligible by making them functionally interchangeable. By standardizing the terms in which cultural difference was represented, local color made regional cultures into the interchangeable parts that constituted the mass-produced machine of the modern nation.2 Ramona puts this aesthetic of interchangeability to the test. While local colorists often carried narrative conventions from one region to the next, as Anne Goldman has demonstrated, few pushed this practice as far as Jackson. In an aggressive act of geographical transposition, Jackson rewrites the story of the imperial frontier by turning the Far West into the Deep South. Adapting the conventions of contemporaneous southern travel writing and local color fiction, Jackson represents the modernization of the western territories as a tragic fall from grace. This fall is depicted in three stages that would have been immediately recognizable to any reader familiar with the burgeoning tradition of southern local color. This narrative movement—which proceeds from pastoral tranquility, to armed conflict, to occupation by a foreign power—signals the surprising affinities between the histories of the Deep South and the Far West while minimizing their important differences . First, Jackson looks backward to a mythical age of prosperity and racial harmony when the Mission system was at its peak. Borrowing from the pastoral apology for slavery, she remembers the Missions not as a system of economic exploitation but as a paternalistic institution designed to promote American Indian assimilation. Second, Jackson marks the end of the Mission system with the outbreak of the U.S.- Helen Hunt Jackson's Errant Local...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 1-23
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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