Ramona: A True Story (1884) by Helen Hunt (a.k.a. Helen Hunt Jackson, 1830–1885) has been called the American West's most enduring romance novel. Nearly three hundred editions of it have appeared since its initial publication in 1884, and it has shaped the historical mythos of southern California and helped to spawn California's tourism industry. However, these were hardly the results Hunt had hoped the novel would prompt. For Hunt, Ramona began as a response to the failure of her nonfiction work A Century of Dishonor to have the impact for which she hoped. Hunt published A Century of Dishonor in 1881 as a factual, uncompromising account of the history of broken treaties and systemic mistreatment of American Indians by the United States. Hunt saw A Century of Dishonor as a means of documenting and changing America's relationship with American Indians, and in 1881, at her own expense, she sent inscribed copies to every member of Congress. The inscription read, "Look upon your hands: they are stained with the blood of your relations." If Hunt expected a groundswell of reaction from Congress, she was disappointed. Little, if anything, changed.
THE STORY AND ITS BACKGROUND
Between December 1883 and March 1884 Hunt sat in the Berkeley Hotel in downtown Manhattan and wrote the 150,000-word Ramona in something of a creative frenzy, regularly producing 1,000 to 2,000 words per day (May, Helen Hunt Jackson, pp. 106–112). She saw the novel as a way to invoke an emotional response to the Indian Question that A Century of Dishonor, with its intellectual appeal, had failed to produce. In a letter to a friend in southern California, Hunt described Ramona as "a way to move people's hearts" (May, Helen Hunt Jackson, p. 106). In the same letter she went on to describe her audience as those who "will read a novel when they will not read serious books." Hunt hoped Ramona would do for Indians what Harriet Beecher Stowe's equally sentimental Uncle Tom's Cabin had done for African Americans, and she wrote to her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson that "The success of it, if it succeeds, will be that I do not even suggest any Indian history till the interest is so aroused in the heroine and hero, that the people will not want to lay the book down" (May, Helen Hunt Jackson, p. 110).
Ramona is written in a highly sentimental style, and Hunt used melodrama as a means of helping Anglo readers understand the emotional costs of unjust confiscation of Indian lands. The following exchange occurs between Alessandro and Ramona the day white settlers show up to take their land:
[H]e said, "I will plough no more land for the robbers." But after his fields were all planted, and the beneficent rains still kept on, and the hills all along the valley wall began to turn green earlier than ever before was known, he said to Ramona one morning, "I think I will make one more field of wheat. There will be a great yield this year. Maybe we will be left unmolested till the harvest is over."
"Oh, yes, and for many more harvests, dear Alessandro!" said Ramona, cheerily. "You are always looking on the black side."
"There is no other but the black side, Majella," he replied. "Strain my eyes as I may, on all sides all is black. You will see. Never any more harvests in San Pasquale for us, after this. If we get this, we are lucky. I have seen the white men riding up and down in the valley, and I found some of their cursed bits of wood with figures on them set up on my land the other day; and I pulled them up and burned them to ashes."
Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona.
Hunt's chief modern biographer describes the novel as a "sugar pill" (May, Helen Hunt Jackson, p. 112). According to Antoinette May, Hunt sentimentalized the story in order to seduce the reader into swallowing the bitter medicine of a realistic depiction of the brutal mistreatment of California Indians and, through this depiction, to recognize the oppression of all Indians. She introduced elements of romance and set the story in exotic Old California, replete with missions, haciendas, dons, stunning landscapes, and land battles among Americans, Mexicans, and Indians. Even though Hunt creates only one fully developed Indian character, Alessandro, she saw her depictions of southern California and the introduction of Mexicans and Americas as a means, as she said, of introducing "variety" (May, Helen Hunt Jackson, p. 106).
The novel focuses on Ramona, who is half-Indian, and her Indian lover, Alessandro. As the story opens, Ramona is the ward of her aristocratic, haughty stepmother, Señora Moreno. Even though the romance is forbidden by Señora Moreno, Ramona falls in love with Alessandro, and they flee Moreno's hacienda and are married by a sympathetic priest. The parallels between Ramona's romance and that of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet are quite clear. Just as the prejudices and animosities of the great, warring houses of the Montagues and the Capulets lead to a tragic end regretted by both parties, the allusions to Romeo and Juliet suggest that the prejudices and mistreatment of Indians by whites will also end tragically, foreclosing the possibility that Indians will be assimilated. However, while the allusions to Romeo and Juliet suggest a tragic end for Alessandro and Ramona, to provide contrast, Hunt depicts the beginning of Alessandro and Ramona's married life as happy. Ramona adapts quickly to Indian ways, finding much to admire, and is accepted into the community. At this point in the story the future looks rosy—that is, until Anglos take over tribal lands, forcing Ramona and Alessandro to move. They attempt to establish themselves in a lovely, remote valley near Saboba, and again they are forced to move by the arrival of Anglo settlers. Finally taking refuge in the mountains, Ramona and Alessandro's baby dies, and, unable to deal with this final tragedy, Alessandro suffers a breakdown. In the midst of this breakdown a confused Alessandro steals an American's horse, which he inadvertently mistakes for his own. The final outrage occurs when the American owner tracks down Alessandro and kills him in Ramona's presence. In all, the greed and bigotry of the Anglo landowners, the shared hardships with other Mission Indians, and the tragic murder of Ramona's husband underscore the social injustices suffered by all Indians.
The shooting of Alessandro is loosely based on actual events, and a host of articles published over the decades purport to have found "the real Ramona" or to document Hunt's supposed writing of the novel in various California locations. The best of these—one supported by Hunt's letters and court documents—was written by the historian George Wharton James in 1910. James traveled through the area depicted in the novel and was introduced to a Cahuillan Indian woman named Ramona. She claimed to be the real Ramona on whose story Hunt's novel is loosely based. James recorded Ramona's story into a gramophone. A letter written to a friend, Mary Sheriff, by Hunt substantiates much of the story recorded by this Ramona. In the letter Hunt asks Sheriff to make an inquiry into the killing of a Juan Diego by a Sam Temple, an Anglo settler, and into Temple's subsequent trial (May, Helen Hunt Jackson, p. 107). According to the account recorded by James, Juan Diego was the husband of the Cahuillian Ramona, who had met Hunt while she was visiting California. According to Ramona's story, her husband suffered from a condition that caused mental lapses. During a trip into town, Diego suffered one of these lapses, and he took Temple's horse, leaving his own pony in its place. Temple tracked down Diego. At Ramona and Diego's home, Temple repeatedly shot Diego in front of Ramona and her baby, leaving her husband's body riddled with bullets. Even though he bragged of shooting an Indian, he was acquitted of murder. Temple would later profit from the killing, making public appearances billing himself as "the man who shot Alessandro" and who, hence, inspired Ramona (May, The Annotated Ramona, p. 206).
RECEPTION AND INFLUENCE
Ramona proved an instant popular success; however, much of its message of social injustice was ignored, with critical opinion focusing on the novel's success as romantic fiction. Ramona was initially serialized in the Christian Union in 1884. The Union's announcement of the forthcoming novel lauded it as "an intensely dramatic and thoroughly modern story" (Byers, p. 236). Roberts Brothers produced the first book-length edition for Christmas 1884. Early reviews were mixed, but most tended to be laudatory. The New York Independent's review, appearing only a few weeks after the release of the Roberts Brothers' edition, exemplifies these early reviews. It noted that Ramona was written in a new style for Hunt and praised its "excellence, breadth, and force," noting that it far surpassed anything she had produced heretofore. The review praised the romance of the story, its exceptional characterization, and its use of local color. However, the reviewer criticized its didacticism, particularly in the latter chapters. Other reviews were less kind (Byers, pp. 236–237). The London Athenaeum described the novel as a "slight but graceful story," noting that the characterization was rather unreal and that Hunt was unfamiliar with "pioneer camps and American rowdies" (Byers, p. 214). Other critics, particularly those in the West, panned the novel, citing its romanticized treatment of Indians and harsh treatment of settlers.
The reading public, however, embraced Ramona, and it soon became a best-seller (May, Helen Hunt Jackson, p. 131). The novel sold 7,000 copies in the three months following its initial release and 15,000 copies prior to Hunt's death in August 1885 (Mathes, Helen Hunt Jackson, p. 81). Hunt died certain that Ramona and Century of Dishonor were the best of all her writings. However, in the months prior to her death she worried that the reviewers and the public would continue to focus on the romance of Alessandro and Ramona and not on the "Indian side of the story" (Mathes, Helen Hunt Jackson, p. 83).
Hunt's death only added to the novel's mystique. In the two decades following its publication, Ramona was described as "an exquisite work of art" (Byers, p. 209) and "unquestionably the best novel yet produced by an American woman" (Byers, p. 229). Ralph Waldo Emerson and Higginson ranked Hunt among the best women writers of the period (Byers, p. 228). If anything, the novel's popular appeal far outstripped early critical praise. In 1931 Publishers Weekly noted that since 1884 over 400,000 copies of Ramona had been sold and that it was still selling at the rate of 10,000 copies per year. New editions of the novel appeared well into the 1940s (Byers, p. 231). Among Indian rights groups Ramona and Hunt came to enjoy the kind—if not the degree—of influence that Hunt had hoped for the novel. The Women's National Indian Association, for example, established the Ramona Mission among the California Indians (Mathes, Helen Hunt Jackson, p. 92), and the novel influenced the 1887 passage of the Dawes Act, which provided for individual allotment of tribal lands and was believed by many liberal thinkers at the time to be the first step toward the eventual assimilation of Indians into American society as equals.
The novel's popular appeal, however, continued to be focused on the romance of Alessandro and Ramona and its setting. Accepted by its early readers not so much as inspired by a true story but as a true story, the novel seems to have captured a romantic Old Mission California that the public embraced. Hunt's social justice agenda was generally ignored. Instead it became an icon in American popular culture. The novel inspired a silent movie by D. W. Griffith and two subsequent Hollywood adaptations. It also inspired a 1920s hit song, and in 1923 the Ramona Pageant began in the southern California town of Hemet. The pageant featured a staged production of Ramona that is currently billed as both the largest and the longestrunning American outdoor drama. Most important for southern California, the novel inspired what has been called the "Ramona boom," an influx of tourists seeking the California depicted in the novel. A report in 1916 noted that over 50 million tourism dollars could be directly linked to the popularity of Ramona (May, The Annotated Ramona, p. 231). Everything from olive and fruit groves to a Catholic convent has honored the novel by taking its name.
Despite the novel's wide popular appeal, its sentimentality caused Ramona's critical star to dim from the late 1940s through the early 1980s. The novel was largely ignored by cultural critics and literary historians, who dismissed it as overly melodramatic. The late twentieth century saw renewed interest in the novel, however, and some scholars turned their attention to Hunt and her work. In 1987 Antoinette May produced the first modern biography of Hunt; in 2003 Kate Phillips published a fully documented, scholarly biography. In 1989 May capitalized on the success of her biography to issue an annotated edition of Ramona. Valerie Mathes has also written a monograph on Hunt's legacy as an Indian activist (1990) and edited a collection of Hunt's Indian reform letters (1998). Given the continuing interest in ethnic and women's literature, it seems likely that critical attention to Hunt and Ramona will increase in the years to come as scholars recover Hunt as a western regional writer, a nineteenth-century professional woman author, and, to a lesser extent, an author of children's literature.
Jackson, Helen Hunt. Ramona. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1884.
Byers, John and Elizabeth. "Helen Hunt Jackson: A Critical Bibliography of Secondary Comment." American Literary Realism 6, no. 3 (summer 1973): 196–241.
Mathes, Valerie Sherer. Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Indian Reform Legacy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.
Mathes, Valerie Sherer. The Indian Reform Letters of Helen Hunt Jackson, 1879–1885. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
May, Antoinette. Helen Hunt Jackson: A Lonely Voice of Conscience. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1987.
May, Antoinette, ed. The Annotated Ramona. San Carlos, Calif.: Wide World Publishing, 1989.
Phillips, Kate. Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.