Helen Hunt Jackson and “Ramona”

Attention paid today to poet, novelist, historian and activist Helen Hunt Jackson (Helen Maria Jackson, 1830-1885), best known today for her 1884 novel Ramona, which was adopted for the American screen four times. But even so that was not her most significant work.

She was originally from Amherst, Massachusetts, and was a former classmate of Emily Dickinson’s. At age 22 she married her first husband, Captain Edward Bissell Hunt of the U.S. Army. A dozen years later, during the Civil War, Hunt killed himself while tinkering with an invention. His widow mourned for years, and during the grieving process, turned to the writing of verse under the pseudonym “H.H.”, for Helen Hunt. Her poetry was popular; Emerson was a fan and recited her poetry at his readings. She lived in Newport for a time, then toured Europe and the American Far West. While recupering from TB at a spa in Colorado she met wealthy railorad man and banker William Sharpless Jackson. The pair married in 1875.

Moved by a lecture she attended in 1879 by the Ponca Chief Standing Bear, Helen Hunt Jackson next became deeply inolved in rights for Native Americans, touring reservations, reporting on conditions, lobbying Congress, and writing her 1881 non-fiction work A Century of Dishonor, which ought to tell you everything you need to know about its contents, outside of reading it! Wanting to take her message to an even wider reading public, she next decided to write a novel in the fashion of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1884 she published Ramona, a romance about the bigotry suffered by the title character, who is half native and half Scottish. The book was a smash success, critically acclaimed (in its day) and reprinted 300 times to fill demand.

The book was still popular decades later when cinema arrived. D.W. Griffith adapted it in 1910, starring Mary Pickford and Henry B. Walthall. Donald Crisp made a three hour long feature length version in 1916 (all but one reel of this monster epic is now lost). The last silent version was made in 1928 starring Dolores Del Rio and Warner Baxter. The 1936 talkie version had Loretta Young and Don Ameche. The screen versions of course bowdlerize Jackson’s heavy political messaging and concentrate on the melodrama. There are also two Mexican screen versions, and an annual outdoor pageant that has been produced in Hemet, California (the book’s setting) every year since 1923. It is the official state play of California.

I’m a little surprised that the pageant is still being performed. Much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in spite of its good intentions, Ramona has aged in problematic ways, plugging into the Noble Savage stereotype of its time. This is surely one of the reasons the last American version was 85 years ago. I’m sure long about the mid 20th century it was beginning to seem a bit of a frayed relic, an old fashioned melodrama like The Drunkard, East Lynne, or indeed UTC. And today the book itself, apart from the racial aspects, has lost its critical esteem. At the time it was written, Jackson was one of the nation’s few female novelists. Now that there have been thousands of women authors, and probably hundreds of ones better than Jackson, her place has fallen from its position in the heavens. But Ramona remains an important historic and cultural product nevertheless, one worth studying and discussing.

Please join me a few weeks from now, when I commence a project very much related to the career of Helen Hunt Jackson and writings like Ramona.