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  • A Failed Uncle Tom's Cabin for the IndianHelen Hunt Jackson's Ramona and the Power of Paratext
  • Kimberly E. Armstrong (bio)

In an 1883 letter to her publisher about her novel-in-progress, Ramona, Helen Hunt Jackson famously stated that she wished the 1884 novel "would do for the Indian a thousandth part what 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' did for the Negro" (qtd. in Marsden 17). Though the novel was widely read and highly successful, selling more than ten thousand copies in its first ten years of printing, it did not have the lasting cultural impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a protest novel (Tebbel 281). By the 1930s the novel had inspired four film adaptations, a yearly festival, many school and town names, and many other books. Yet by the 1950s the novel was little read. Instead of cultural change, Ramona's long-term cultural legacy was the creation of a tourist destination and a best seller, which actively worked against the stated protest message, drawing greater and greater numbers of tourists and settlers to the sites of the novel rather than returning those sites to the Native Americans whom Jackson aimed to help.

In recent decades literary scholarship has often focused on the ways that Jackson herself failed to imbue the novel with the necessary power to create lasting change. Valerie Sherer Mathes argues, based on an 1885 Overland Monthly review, that with Ramona's publication "more poet than reformer emerged. [Ramona] possessed 'no burning appeal, no crushing arraignment, no such book as 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'" (83). Martin Padget argues that while Jackson "criticized sharply the federal government's removal and reservation policies from the 1830s on for keeping Indians separate from the general population … thus maintaining their marginal status on the fringes of American society," this message was obscured [End Page 129] in the novel (834). Padget argues that Jackson's contemporary readers missed the message of Indian reform present in the novel in part because of Jackson's own biases against Indians and support of missionary culture, marked by her choice to dramatize Alessandro's tribe's "poverty, displacement, and cultural demise as a consequence of the loss of their former home" (853). John M. Gonzalez contends that the novel's success, ironically, further eroded Native American land rights, arguing that "the novel's very success prompted heavy promotion of southern California for literary tourism and homesteading, further displacing Indian communities as more white settlers migrated to the area" (455). Overall, critics have blamed Jackson's plot, characterizations, and excessive praise of the mission system for the novel's failure to establish itself as an important protest novel.

The mission system, and Ramona's connection to it, became a fundamental part of California's attempt to create a history for itself. Historian Mike Davis argues that Ramona "transformed selected elements of local history into romantic myth" (26). Charles Fletcher Lummis, the first city editor of The Los Angeles Times, "promoted the [mission] myth as the motif of an entire artificial landscape" and organized an 1895 Los Angeles "Fiesta around a comprehensive 'mission' theme, influenced by Ramona" (Davis 26). In Davis's view, Ramona's legacy is that of "a romance that generations of tourists and white Angelenos have confused with real history" (330). As Davis argues, in the decades after Ramona the mission myth became a fundamental part of the way Californians constructed the state's past. Ramona, Kate Phillips argues, held a "unique romantic legend" for many white readers that afforded "American newcomers to California with a ready-made, usable past, one with which they could more easily identify than with the region's actual history of Native American tenure and still troubled colonial occupation" (275). Ramona came to be used as a way of forgetting the atrocities committed against the Native Americans rather than as a touchstone for reform. A site of trauma is transformed into a site of celebration and consumption, just as the state is transformed from one founded on depravity to one with a romantic mission past.

While Padget and Gonzalez have explored the reasons that Jackson [End Page 130] deserves a large share of the blame...


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