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  • “The Promise of One Such House”: Ramona, Real Estate, and the Romance of Speculation
  • Michelle Chihara (bio)

Helen Hunt Jackson intended her 1884 novel Ramona1 as a sugar-coated pill. Jackson hoped readers who sympathized with her star-crossed Indian lovers would swallow “a big dose of information on the Indian question without knowing it”2 and then take action against the further dispossession of Native Americans. The book, along with Jackson’s tireless political campaigning, helped to pass the Dawes Act, a vexed piece of legislation but one which did incorporate some protection for First Peoples. But Ramona, despite its success, struck both Jackson and her critics as a failed tool of social protest. Today Ramona is generally accepted as a book that helped to whitewash Southern California’s bloody ethnic past in favor of founding Anglo generations—all sugar, no bitter medicine. It provided the region with a sanitized vision of its own history: ethnically white3 Spanish aristocrats and peaceful Indians genuflect before Mission padres, with no suggestion of forced labor or violence. But while literary critics have tended to read the book through the lenses of race, domesticity, and/or empire,4 none has yet accounted for the crucial relationship between Ramona’s racialized fantasies and its idealization of home-ownership and ultimately real estate speculation.

Historians have long placed Ramona at the core of the original Mission myth, calling the novel an “amazing legend” pushed by “false emphasis” and “crass motives” (Carey McWilliams) or an “ersatz history” (Mike Davis) put “to the service of boosterism and oligarchy” (Kevin Starr).5 Literary scholars have shown a renewed burst of interest in the book in recent years and have explored important aspects of its role in regional literature, indigenous narratives, and protest literature.6 No one has ever doubted the book’s sheer popular power. Starr wrote that “no other act of symbolic expression affected [End Page 225] the imagination of nineteenth century Southern California so forcibly” and that the novel’s “spell” formed the “basis of a public myth which conferred romance upon a new American region.”7 I argue that racial projection and a reader reaction of martyred self-pity, which I speculate essentially replaced the protest that Jackson hoped to inspire, were crucial to the novel’s popularity as a romance of speculation—or that what might otherwise be dismissed as a latent middle class fetish for home-ownership is actually a powerful means of understanding both race within the novel and the book’s impact on material culture.8 White farmers, among others, used the essentialist fantasies about Native Americans in the book to project onto houses their desires and their anxieties about leaving agricultural life. They and other white buyers projected their needs onto built structures by imagining themselves into fictional Native American bodies. This projection certainly indicated a willingness to ignore terrible ethnic realities, to ignore the actual ethnic bodies being displaced by white arrivals, but the dominant fantasy made use of racial projection to focus on real estate and speculation.

A classic Marxist interpretation of novels might understand them as mere symptoms of underlying economic realities. But economic historian Robert Shiller reminds us that every asset bubble tells a story.9 Novels serve as more than just windows onto the economy or reflections of pre-existing economic realities. A full reading of Ramona explores the active role that this novel, like other cultural narratives, played in the larger economy. Since 2008, there can no longer be any question that the stakes are high in our mission to understand the stories that Americans tell about owning a home.

Helen Hunt Jackson targeted her white, bourgeois readers’ sympathies as property owners. Her investment in racial politics is ultimately inseparable from her investment in real estate. Her novel made houses themselves the only source of racial redress, and as such, the asset that could replace the homestead both emotionally and financially. As the culture moved away from landed self-sufficiency and the frontier, Jackson’s Indian heroes were a figure for the nation’s anxieties about leaving agrarian life—specifically for the many former farming families flooding into Southern California. The novel...


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pp. 225-249
Launched on MUSE
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