Sunday, September 12, 2021

Echoes in the City of the Angels

Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885)
From Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology

Old California Mission Ranch with Wagon and Figures, 1886, watercolor by American artist Alexander Francis Harmer (1856–1925). ArtNet.

Harmer painted several portraits of the Coronel family, including Antonio and Mariana Coronel, Veranda Scene, 1885, oil on canvas, shown below. Two years earlier Canadian American illustrator Henry Sandham had created a very similar drawing of Coronel serenading his wife for Jackson’s article in Century.
In January 1885, shortly after the publication of her most famous novel, Ramona, Helen Hunt Jackson explained the book in a letter to an unidentified friend: “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.”

Published four years earlier, A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes collated federal papers, eyewitness accounts, and Jackson’s commentary to describe massacres, forced migrations, and other maltreatment of Native Americans and to document the violation of treaties and other agreements made with various tribes. Jackson sent a copy of the book to every member of Congress with little in the way of results, but in 1882 the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price agreed to deputize Jackson as a commissioner for the purpose of investigating the welfare of Native Americans in California. With the help of another federal agent, Abbot Kinney, Jackson wrote Report on the Conditions and Needs of the Mission Indians of California, which advocated government relief for the tribes and led to a bill that passed in the Senate but was tabled in the House of Representatives.
Antonio and Mariana Coronel

Jackson spent most of the year 1883 traveling throughout California and writing a total of twenty travel articles for various magazines. She spent much of her stay in Los Angeles with her new friends Antonio and Mariana Coronel. “Echoes in the City of the Angels,” one of her four essays that appeared in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine that year, includes a lengthy depiction of her hosts, who are identified merely as Don Antonio and his wife and who are presented as illustrative of “the lost empire of his race and people on the California Shores”—a characterization that that the Coronels themselves helped cultivate.

What is only hinted at in the article—and what her readers back East would not have realized—is that Antonio Coronel was a major figure in both the Mexican and the American governments of the city. After serving in various capacities under Mexican rule, he became the fourth American mayor of the incorporated city of Los Angeles and served for fourteen years as a city council member, six years as county assessor, and four years as state treasurer. Mariana, born Mary Williamson in Texas to a father from Maine and a Tejana mother, is deceptively portrayed by Jackson as a “seƱora” who understands “just enough” English to translate for her husband. The Coronels had amassed an enormous assortment of art and artefacts of early Los Angeles, and after Antonio’s death the collection would make up much of the holdings of the newly founded Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Despite her romanticization of the Coronels, Jackson’s articles capture the city’s Mexican roots and the couple’s prominent role in preserving them during a period of drastic social upheaval. “During the 1870s,” writes Kate Phillips in her biography of Jackson, “Americans took possession of many Hispanic ranches, even though America had promised the Californios secure possession of their property upon the conclusion of the Mexican War; during the 1880s American settlers were pouring into Los Angeles.” Jackson perceived that the region’s culture and traditions were vanishing under an onslaught of assimilation and industrialization, and Don Antonio helped map out her research trip to the area’s residual Mexican communities and Native American villages. “Many of the topics Jackson covered in these pieces had never before been so fully addressed in the English language,” notes Phillips.

Although her essays included considerable detail about the state’s Mexican heritage, her chief concern remained the destitute conditions of the Native American tribes. Inevitably frustrated by the inaction in Congress and the apathy that seemed to have greeted her books and travel essays, Jackson decided to “sugar the pill” that she was trying to administer to American readers. On her way back to New York in November 1883, she wrote to the Coronels, “I am going to write a novel, in which will be set forth some Indian experiences in a way to move people's hearts. People will read a novel when they will not read serious books.” Using Uncle Tom’s Cabin as her model, she incorporated the history, lore, and customs she had learned while writing her articles for Century to create a protest novel intended to arrest the sympathies of her readers. She wrote Ramona in less than four months and the novel was published in late 1884.

Ramona became an immediate best seller, but Jackson died from stomach cancer in August of the following year and did not live to see the cultural phenomenon it became, spawning a successful play and eventually selling more than half a million copies. As critics and historians have since noted, Jackson’s intention backfired: instead of elevating concern for the well-being of Southern California’s Native American communities, the book enthralled readers with its love story, its idealization of the heroine, and the descriptions of the landscape. An immense tourism industry grew around the places that were allegedly depicted in the novel. “In the end,” concludes Kate Phillips, “Ramona drew outsiders to Southern California to further endanger and exploit the very people and places she had wished to protect.”

Notes: The Earthly Paradise (1868–70), by British author William Morris, is an epic poem that reimagines Norse and Greek myths and legends. The Scottish phrase “braw flitting” literally means a fine removal (such as the act of moving one’s luxury goods from one residence to another); Robert Chambers in his Traditions of Edinburgh (1825) describes a braw flitting where “parties of young people were made up, to go and see the fine furniture brought out, sitting perhaps for hours in the window of some friend on the opposite side of the street, while cart after cart was laden with magnificence.” The Lancaster system of education was a teaching method in which the better students mentored the younger or inferior students. In Greek mythology, the Hesperides were the nymphs of sunsets and evenings who guarded the tree (or grove) of golden apples Hera received when she married Zeus; many later ancient and medieval retellings of the myth assumed that the “golden apples” were oranges.

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