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Thursday, January 20, 2011

January 20, 2011: Honorable Work

I had a mini-debate the other day—in a Facebook comments thread, of all places; 21st century, what are you gonna do?—with Rick Perlstein, one of the very best historians of modern conservatism; the specific topic isn’t particularly important (to my point here, I mean), but the underlying question was, at least in part, what those of us trying to shift America’s historical narratives (a category into which I think both he and I fall) are really trying to do. I had said that I was interested in “complicating” such narratives, and Perlstein’s reply was that “complicating” is an academic word, and that what we need to do is “change” the narratives. Leaving aside the semantic aspect of that distinction, I think what we were debating could be boiled down to the difference between a political motivation (and Perlstein’s goals are openly political) and a scholarly one; that doesn’t mean that Perlstein is any less rigorous or successful of a historian, nor that my work doesn’t intersect with the political realm, but I do think that “change” suggests a definite and more overtly political endpoint to our historical engagement, while “complicate” suggests the kind of openness to further development and analysis (in multiple possible directions and ways) that is, I hope, at the heart of much of my scholarly and pedagogical work.

Because I’m, y’know, an AmericanStudier, reflecting on all of this got me thinking about Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885), and specifically her two kinds of historical and literary activism on behalf of Native American rights. Jackson was 49 in 1879, with a successful and ongoing career as a novelist, poet, and author of travel narratives about (among other things) her experiences in the frontier settlement of Colorado; that year she happened to attend a speech in Boston by Standing Bear (Machu Nazhi), a chief of the Ponca tribe (from the Nebraska area), who was on a speaking tour to protest the removal and mistreatment of his and other tribes. Deeply moved by what she had heard, Jackson became within a few years one of the most passionate and productive advocates for Native American rights in the nation’s history (before or since); that work included dozens of articles and exposés for newspapers and magazines and a more than 50-page report for the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the situation faced by Southern California’s so-called “Mission Indians.” But without question Jackson’s two most significant—and yet contrasting and in some ways even opposed—contributions to our national consciousness about the issue were two books published in the final few years before her tragically early death from stomach cancer: the historical and polemical treatise A Century of Dishonor (1881), which is driven by a litany of facts and quotations and sources; and the epic and romantic novel Ramona (1884), which is driven by the tragic love between its beautiful but doomed Native American hero and the equally beautiful titular Native-Mexican-Scottish heroine.
While Century has not entirely faded from our national memories (it’s probably on the short list of nonfiction works about Native American issues that have any ongoing presence there), its legacy can’t possibly compare with Ramona’s, and for that matter neither can many other American novels of any era—not too many novels have spawned an entire tourist industry, which Ramona has in its Southern California setting, including an annual outdoor pageant in the town of Hemet, California. Yet for many scholars and critics, Ramona’s successes are due largely or even solely to the novel’s romantic and sentimental elements, qualities which in the best-case versions of such arguments dilute and in the worst-case versions overwhelm entirely the novel’s more political and reformist elements. In these arguments, that is, even if Ramona’s idealized visions of Native Americans and its tragic depictions of their losses and mistreatments might complicate the audience’s perspective on those issues, they aren’t necessarily likely to change them, much less to lead to actual changes in the nation’s practices or laws; whereas Century sought very overtly and centrally to effect precisely such changes. That debate has a long history, connecting for example to similar arguments about Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and abolitionism; certainly in this particular instance it’s hard to argue that many positive changes for Native Americans came out of Jackson’s novel, or came at all in the late 19th century (although one of the era’s controversial but mostly well-intended changes, the apportionment system for Native land ownership, was in fact influenced by Jackson’s work). Yet one relatively simple answer would be to note that it should in no way be either-or—that Jackson could and did create both kinds of texts, quite possibly reached drastically different but complementary audiences as a result, and so extended the reach of her revisionist perspective on Native rights and identities into multiple political and cultural arenas.
That isn’t intended to be the last word on these broader questions, not least because the whole of this blog is in some important ways devoted to the issue of what public scholarship is and can be, and what it can and should aim to do and contribute to our national narratives. But when it comes to Jackson, I would have to agree with the final sentiment of a quote from her last days, when she wrote to a friend that “My Century of Dishonor and Ramona are the only things I have done of which I am glad. They will live and bear fruit.” We should honor that latter sentiment, and the honorable work that Jackson accomplished in these final years and in this pair of texts. More tomorrow, on a tragic site in our nation’s history and the literary and folk masterpieces that came from within its walls.
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      The full text of Ramona (which is very long):
3)      OPEN: Any thoughts on these different kinds of activism? Any figures or texts that seem to connect to these debates for you?

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