The woman behind ‘Ramona’

Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author of, most recently, "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People."

Helen Hunt Jackson is best remembered for the 1884 novel “Ramona,” a romantic tale of old California that was the inspiration for the so-called Ramona Pageant, the closest thing to a passion play that the popular culture of California has yet produced. Nearly every summer since 1923, amid the cactus and chaparral near Hemet, the saga of Ramona, half-Indian and half-Scottish, and her full-blooded Indian lover, Alessandro, has been staged for audiences that now exceed 2 million.

Kate Phillips, a novelist (“White Rabbit”) as well as a literary scholar, seeks to put Jackson in her rightful place on the literary landscape -- and a lofty place it is. Her critical biography of Jackson rescues the writer from deepening shadows of a fast-fading reputation and throws a bright light on her life and work. What she reveals about Jackson is surprising and fascinating: Jackson was an early advocate of the rights of Native Americans and a visionary who clearly saw California as an imperiled paradise.

“With Ramona and Alessandro, who wander through Southern California as through a nightmare world, isolated, dispossessed of their rightful connection to the land, and longing to be consoled for the ruin of their dreams,” explains Phillips, “Jackson created the first figures in the long line of disappointed, deracinated heroes who populate the later Southern California fiction of writers as diverse as Nathanael West, Evelyn Waugh, Thomas Pynchon, and Joan Didion.”

Phillips shows herself to be an enterprising and indefatigable researcher. She sought out and examined 55 holdings of Jackson’s letters, including some that were not available to earlier scholars. She also discovered that Jackson had laid obstacles for her biographers: “It is best to have no record anywhere of anything we don’t wish to share with strangers after we are dead,” Jackson once wrote to her husband, instructing him to burn the more intimate passages of her letters, which she carefully confined to separate pages to make it easier for him to carry out his task.


Jackson, born Helen Maria Fiske in 1830 in Amherst, Mass., turned to writing after a series of devastating personal losses: Both of her sons died in early childhood, and her first husband was killed in an accident during the test of a torpedo-launching device he had invented. Only two months after the death of her second son, Jackson published her first work in the New York Post, a poem titled “The Key to the Casket.”

Her sense of loss and her own frail health prompted Jackson to move west -- “she had laid the foundations for a complex psychological wanderlust,” according to Phillips -- and she met and married her second husband in the Colorado Territory in 1875. Fatefully, her wanderlust carried her all the way to California, where she saw the terrain that she would soon populate with memorable characters of her own invention.

“Ramona,” as Phillips points out, was hardly Jackson’s only literary effort. She produced travel essays and children’s tales, poetry and short stories, even a few serious works of history and ethnography. She won the friendship of Emily Dickinson and the praise of Ralph Waldo Emerson; when asked if he regarded Jackson as “the best woman-poet on this continent,” he answered: “Perhaps we might as well omit the woman. “A Century of Dishonor,” written in 1881, is hailed by Phillips as “one of the first serious historical studies of federal Indian policy,” and Jackson was describing herself as an “advocate of the Indians’ rights” in an era when Native Americans were literally at risk of their lives.

By the 1880s, when Jackson first visited Southern California, she was an unabashed activist as well as a belletrist. “ ‘Ramona’ offers an almost unmitigated denunciation of U.S. imperialism in California,” writes Phillips, “presenting the region in a dystopian light, as a paradise gone bad.” Jackson, in fact, readily conceded that “Ramona” was a sentimental romance, but she insisted that she had written it with an ulterior motive: “In my ‘Century of Dishonor’ I tried to attack people’s consciences directly, and they would not listen. Now I have sugared my pill, and it remains to be seen if it will go down.”

Jackson did not live long enough to see the startling phenomenon that “Ramona” represents in the history of American letters; she died of cancer in 1885, the year after it was published. But, as it turned out, “Ramona” turned Helen Hunt Jackson into a literary superstar. Her other books were put back into print to take advantage of her new fame, and she was merchandised through “calendars and books of Jackson quotations.” By 1936, the sales of “Ramona” had reached an astonishing total of nearly 450,000 copies in hardback and 100,000 copies in a “cheap edition.”

Phillips has produced what demands to be regarded as the definitive biography of Jackson. She resurrects Jackson’s earliest-known writing, a poem written at the age of 11: “My dear papa tis very long / Since I have had a vacation.” As a young woman, Jackson described herself as “book-mad” and “word-crazy” in a letter written in the thrall of reading Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound.” Later, on her earliest westward travels, she described the first Indian she saw as “the most abject, loathly living thing I ever saw,” but Phillips shows how Jackson “grew in racial and religious tolerance” and, ultimately, used her books to celebrate “the valor of ordinary people carving out dignity from a world full of trouble and change.”

Phillips confronts the case that has been made against Jackson for the crime of inventing “the Ramona myth,” a charge that has been laid against her by generations of distinguished historians, ranging from Carey McWilliams to Kevin Starr: “No other act of symbolic expression,” writes Starr, “affected the imagination of nineteenth-century Southern California so forcibly.” And Phillips readily concedes that “ ‘Ramona’ was exploited by local entrepreneurs and civic organizations as a tourist draw,” if only because, as she explains, “newcomers and visitors who adored Jackson’s best-seller were eager to pay homage at local sites rendered sacred by real or trumped-up association with the novel.”

But Phillips insists that the uses to which “Ramona” was put by its readers were alien to the author’s intentions. “Jackson believed that California had been created [as] a kind of paradise on earth, a place that would always inspire new people to seek their fortunes there,” Phillips argues. “Yet she also believed that no amount of personal dignity and perseverance on the part of California’s Indians could succeed alone in maintaining this paradise in the face of American rapacity.”


The irony of Jackson’s life and work, as Phillips allows us to see in rich and touching detail, is that “ ‘Ramona’ drew outsiders to Southern California to further endanger and exploit the very people and places she had wished to protect.” And she argues that Jackson ought to be remembered not for her unwitting role in creating an “ersatz historical California” but rather for devoting herself to “writings that were adamant in their opposition to race, class, and even gender inequality.”