Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Helen Hunt Jackson

For their last essays, my students are researching and writing about local history.  Some of my classes are reading the often-overlooked 19th century novel Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson.  The book is set in Southern California shortly after the Mexican-American War, and it dramatizes al the social changes, upheavals, and tragedies happening in California at this time: displacement of Native Americans, decline of Mexican ranchos, and the coming of the Yankees.  The novel provides a unique window into what this area (Southern California) was like 150 years ago.  You can read my book report of Ramona HERE.

The author of Ramona, Helen Hunt Jackson, is an often-overlooked figure in American literature.  I never learned about her in school, and I have a Master's degree in Literature.  I discovered Jackson by reading, on my own initiative, local history books and articles, which sometimes reference her.  Jackson deserves to be remembered, especially by Southern Californians, because two of her books (A Century of Dishonor and Ramona) had a huge impact on the way this country viewed Native Americans in the West.

Who was Helen Hunt Jackson?  She was a writer from New England who hung out with other famous 19th century American writers like Emily Dickinson and Henry James.  She was also friends with notable abolitionists like Thomas Wentworth Higginson.  She was a well-known and prolific novelist and poet, living the literary "high life."

Everything changed for her in 1879 when she visited Boston and heard a harrowing account by a Native American named Standing Bear about the plight of his people under Manifest Destiny and American westward expansion.  Listening to Standing Bear speak, Jackson's social consciousness awakened in a way that would shape the rest of her life, which became consumed with opening America's eyes to the ugly realities facing Native Americans.

She began by writing lots of letters to the editor of major newspapers.  Because of her literary fame, Jackson had an audience for her views.  She ended up researching and writing a non-fiction book called A Century of Dishonor, which sought to chronicle atrocities committed against Native Americans by the United States of America.

In 1883, she was appointed as a Commissioner of Indian affairs and was sent to write a report on the conditions of the Mission Indians of Southern California, which she did.  It was her travels and experiences in Southern California that inspired her to write the novel Ramona, which presented a sympathetic Native American character, Alessandro.  She wrote Ramona for much the same reason Harriet Beecher Stowe write Uncle Tom's Cabin--to appeal to her reader's hearts and consciences.  She wrote, "There is but one hope in righting this wrong,  It lies in appeal to the heart and conscience of the American people."

Jackson considered A Century of Dishonor and Ramona "the only things I have done for which I am glad now.  The rest is of no moment.  They will live on and they will bear fruit.  They already have."  Ramona was widely read, and became part of education curricula for many years.  She did have an impact, and her work deserves to be read and remembered.

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