John Rollin Ridge’s Joaquín Murieta: Sensation, Hispanicism, and Cosmopolitanism

Posted in Articles, Latino Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2015-03-19 02:01Z by Steven

John Rollin Ridge’s Joaquín Murieta: Sensation, Hispanicism, and Cosmopolitanism

Western American Literature
Volume 49, Number 4, Winter 2015
pages 321-349
DOI: 10.1353/wal.2015.0008

John C. Havard, Assistant Professor
Department of English and Philosophy
Auburn University, Montgomery, Alabama

The mixed-race Cherokee poet, journalist, and novelist John Rollin Ridge’s The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit (1854) is a sensation novel about racial upheaval in 1850s California. The work has become prominent in the study of US ethnic literatures largely because it is the first novel authored by a Native American. Many thus read it as a commentary on Indian Removal politics, with Ridge allegorizing his experience as a Cherokee through Joaquín’s sufferings. Several factors support this reading. The byline features Ridge’s tribal name, Yellow Bird, instead of his Anglicized name. Moreover, the publisher’s preface emphasizes Ridge’s ancestry and the Cherokee Nation’s plight in the years following the Trail of Tears. These framing moves played upon the marketable curiosity of a Cherokee novelist. They also prompted readers to draw a parallel between Cherokee Removal and the novel’s more ostensible concern for the dispossession of Mexicans in California. Moreover, Ridge’s characterization of Murieta as dashing, romantic, and vengeful reflects Ridge’s own reputation and self-image. Finally, the Westernized Murieta embodies the Cherokee adoption of Western social and political structures, a process that Ridge followed his family in promoting.

Readings elaborating these connections reflect Indian literary identity politics, nationalism, and indigenism. According to the often-overlapping nationalist and indigenist positions, Native authors ought to view literature as a valuable medium through which to speak with subtlety and nuance for the concerns of particular Indian nations and for the general human dignity of Indigenous peoples. Critics, likewise, are exhorted to explicate the specifically national, Indigenous aspects of Indian literature. As advocate for this movement Simon J. Ortiz explains,

Too much is at stake for easy, convenient images to adequately and appropriately represent Indigenous people, much less to bring attention to conditions and circumstances that need to be brought to light. Indigenous writers and poets such as myself can undertake this task to the best of our abilities by creating and composing literature.

What is at stake here, of course, is Native America’s need to protect its cultural and legal sovereignty against the legacies of European colonialism. As Ortiz claims, that struggle “has given substance to what is authentic” in Native literatures, animating the Indigenous, national consciousness of the surge in Native literary production since the 1970s (“Towards” 9, 11–12). Although Louis Owens is known for a hybridist account of Indian identity that is frequently contrasted to nationalist perspectives, he echoes a basic element of Ortiz’s premise in claiming that “for the contemporary Indian novelist . . . [the question of tensions between US American and Native American] identit[ies] is the central issue and theme” (5). For many critics, including Owens, Ridge’s novel prefigures contemporary Indian fiction in its pursuit of this theme.

I offer a non–mutually exclusive alternative interpretation that elaborates the novel’s cosmopolitanism. This cosmopolitanism, I argue in my first subsection, takes shape in Joaquín Murieta’s form. Often considered inchoate, the novel is, in fact, purposefully organized. This becomes apparent if we read it as a sensation novel. That Ridge put sensation to cosmopolitan purposes may seem surprising. Sensation is often associated with racist cliché, particularly in contrast to late-nineteenth-century social realism, which was commonly used to combat racial prejudice. However, in Ridge’s formulation, whereas social realism tends to imagine the nation in terms of the particularity of typical national actors, the sensation novel imagines the commonality of the peoples who meet in a narrative. If much sensation relies on racialist conventions, Ridge cleverly manipulates such conventions to propound his cosmopolitanism to his readers. This cosmopolitanism informs a critique of what can be termed Hispanicism, the discourse by which US imperialists bound the United States to liberalism by contrasting Americans with illiberal Hispanophone peoples. Through this strategy US imperialists rejected Hispanic claims to national sovereignty on the basis of a supposed Hispanic aversion to social and economic progress, an aversion exhibited in a rejection of liberal, democratic self-government. As I formulate this point in my second subsection, Ridge contests Hispanicism’s discursive violence by characterizing Murieta as a good liberal in contrast to…

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Mixed-Bloods, Mestizas, and Pintos: Race, Gender, and Claims to Whiteness in Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona and María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Who Would Have Thought It?

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2011-08-25 23:26Z by Steven

Mixed-Bloods, Mestizas, and Pintos: Race, Gender, and Claims to Whiteness in Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona and María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Who Would Have Thought It?

Western American Literature
Volume 36, Number 3 (Fall 2001)
pages 212-231

Margaret D. Jacobs, Professor of History & Director, Women’s and Gender Studies
University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Since the 1980s, a growing number of scholars in widely different fields have discredited race as a self-evident category of human social relations. Alongside the work of scientists who have found no genetic or biological basis for racial categorization, critical race theorists have looked to changes in legal definitions of race and citizenship to conclude that race is socially and culturally constructed. Historians have contributed to the field by analyzing the history of Whiteness and the so-called White race. Many groups considered “White” today were once deemed non-White; it was only through renouncing common cause with other stigmatized “races” that certain Americans such as Irish and Jewish immigrants were able to attain White status and privilege. Of course, “choosing” to become White has not been an option for some Americans whose skin color is not light enough to allow them to pass for White. But as George Fredcrickson argues, it is not from color alone that race is constructed. He asserts that “theessential element [in notions of race and racism] is that belief, however justified or rationalized, in the critical importance of differing lines of descent and the use of that belief to establish or validate social inequality”.

The social construction of race played out in myriad spaces: in brightly lit courtrooms and dark bedrooms, in factories and fields, in movie theaters and swimming pools, in classrooms and offices, in fast-moving trains and plodding city buses. The realm of literature as well became a space in which various American sought to envision and enforce their notions of race. The literature of the American West offers a particularly rich bounty of competing constructions of race. Until recently it has been all too common in the fields of both western American literature and western history to study Anglo-Americans’ views of the West and its peoples. A growing number of scholars, however, have challenged the ethnocentrism and cultural hegemony of this approach.

Significantly, though, we are not the first to engage in such a critique of Anglo-Americans’ portrayals of the West. Even as Easterners flooded bookstores and literary journals with their accounts of the West in the nineteenth century, an elite and well-educated Californians, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, penned her own challenge to such representations. In 1872, countering Anglo notions that Californians were a “half barbaric” race who were unfit to govern themselves, to hold property, or to occupy professional positions, Ruiz de Burton published Who Would Have Thought It?, a political satire dressed up as a romance novel. Although written twelve years before one of the most famous Anglo novels about nineteenth-century California, Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, Ruiz de Burton’s novel nevertheless reads like a sharp retort and a satire of Jackson’s view of California and the West…

Read the entire article here.

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