History, Department of


Date of this Version

October 2001


Published in Western American Literature 36:3 (Fall 2001), pp. 212-231. Copyright © 2001 by the Western Literature Association. Used by permission.


A number of literary scholars have found much to compare between Jackson's Ramona and Ruiz de Burton's other novel, The Squatter and the Don. Both take place in nineteenth-century California and provide contrasting views of Californio and indigenous cultures. A comparison of Who Would Have Thought It? and Ramona, however, yields further crucial insights into how Ruiz de Burton critiqued Easterners' views of the West. Rather than situating this novel in the West, Ruiz de Burton locates it primarily in New England. This allows Ruiz de Burton to turn the tables on all the "Yankees" who wrote about the West. Further it enables her to explore and contest the meaning of race and gender in nineteenth-century America. While Jackson and many of her compatriots attempted to exclude Californios from the privileges of Whiteness, Ruiz de Burton countered Jackson and others by laying a claim to Whiteness. In each case, the authors embody their differing views of race in similar ways, employing evil stepmother characters, notions of the nineteenth-century ideal of true womanhood, the figure of a beautiful girl of mixed racial descent, and the specter of interracial marriage. Jackson holds out the possibility that her mixed-race heroine might achieve White status, but she forecloses this option by the end of her novel. Ruiz de Burton literally bleaches her supposedly mixed-race heroine until she far surpasses her Yankee adoptive family in Whiteness, civilization, and true womanhood.

What emerges from comparing these two books is the unstable nature of racial categories in the late nineteenth century and how conquered elites fought to shape the new racial order. Although their voices have been silenced and their writings exiled until very recently in the West's literary and cultural history, the recovery of Ruiz de Burton's novels reminds us that race has never been a fixed and stable system, but one constantly contested. Indeed, although Ruiz de Burton never sought to obliterate racial hierarchies but simply wished to reestablish a racial system that would secure her own elite social status, she prefigured late twentieth-century scholars' theories regarding the social construction of race.

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