Monday, February 20, 2006

19th century Native California poet: John Rollin Ridge

I wish to talk about some early California poets. What can they tell us about the early years of poets in the state of California?

First, John Rollin Ridge, was part-Cherokee and member of the renowned wealthy Ridge family who argued that Cherokees assimilate into Anglo-America. Members of the Ridge family signed the New Echota Treaty of 1835 that gave Cherokee lands to the state of Georgia and accepted removal of the Cherokee from Georgia to Oklahoma. For the next 15 years the Ridges and their enemies the Ross faction fought resulting in the murders in 1839 of three Ridge family members and John Rollin Ridge killing a Ross supporter in 1849.

Thus in 1850 John Rollin Ridge left for the gold fields of California in part to avoid prosecution for the killing. After two months gold mining, Ridge left it for journalism and published in 1853 Anglo California's 1st novel Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, about the Mexican Robin Hood outlaw killed in 1853. Many scholars such as Eric Sundquist of the Cambridge History of American Literature interpret Ridge's novella has an outcry against the oppression of Native Americans and Mexicans, but critic/USC professor John Carlos Rowe disagrees.

I wish to talk here not about Ridge's novel but about his poetry. He published a book of poetry in 1868, one of the earliest books put out in the state. His poem "California," celebrates the pioneers of 1850: "those brave men, those hardy Pioneers,/Who led the way for Science, Art and Law," braving many dangers. Ridge celebrates the hardy Pioneers' deeds: "of young empire sowed the seeds?" He surely seems to be praising the conquest of California as creation of a "young empire."

Further, Ridge in the next few lines compares the hardy Pioneers as a group to "some reverend head, majestic as a seer's" arising from the mass of people like the "snow-crowned peak" of some majestic mountain rising up above the flatland. In Ridge's "Mount Shasta," a poem imitating Shelley's "Mount Blanc," Ridge had praised Shasta as the incarnation of the eternal masculine genius. John Carlos Rowe says, "The personification of genius as a divine power, predictably masculine, is typical of romantic idealizations of human rationality as 'divine mind' and it is the utopian goal of realizing such genius that justifies Manifest Destiny .... " (Rowe 108).

In "Mt. Shasta" after praising the lofty male genius of the mountains, Ridge argues California will only survive "if, /Its own Mt. Shasta, Sovereign Law, shall lift/Itself in purer atmosphere ...." He's arguing that instead of "human passions," California should be ruled by this absolute, eternal law that treats all Men equally including those socalled "foreigners" like Joaquin Murieta that the Anglos were driving out of the gold fields. The attacks on non-Anglo miners--Chinese, Mexican, Chilean--were brutal and ugly in the 1850s.

But back in the poem "California" the Pioneers for years "did fight the wild beast back/To plant their homes ..." One wonders who Ridge means by the "wild beast"--a real beast or a metaphorical beast? He likens the Pioneers dieing to pines that brave "the howling winter strong," so surely he means they survived the harsh winters and physical hardships of making a home in Northern California. But he also gives the meaning of "wild beast" as wild, unruly humans as he describes the pioneers greatest achievement as planting "Science, Art and Law" in California--making the domestic arts bloom in the wilderness.

Ridge says a "woman's hand" will save the memories of these hardy Pioneers when the female hand transmits the names to "History's Scroll." In this gender division women pioneers don't exist but a metaphorical woman acts to preserve male greatness. Unlike Whitman or Frederick Douglas, Ridge isn't an early feminist but only concerned with male fame. One example Ridge gives is the name of "Lassen" attached to that peak in Northern California is a "fit memorial of the grandest fame;" well, the fame of the hardy male empire-building Pioneers will last after all. To be fair to Ridge, he argues against racial discrimination and for laws that treat all men fairly in California. I think that Ridge's demands in his poems for equality before the law for Men was progressive in the 1850s and 1860s.

Rowe also analyzes Ridge's novel Joaquin Murieta, the beginning of a California myth, as portraying Murieta, born in Sonora, Mexico, as a heroic romantic male individual not a Robin Hood. In Ridge's novel Anglo barbaric violence against Murieta as an indivudal force him to seek to revenge himself by leading a gang of outlaws.

Rowe mentions that Latin American writers have revised the Joaquin Murietta myth many times. For instance, Pablo Neruda wrote Fulgar y Muerta de Joaquin Murieta (Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murieta, 1967). Neruda's 5-act musical drama makes Murieta a Chilean (many Chileans came to the California Gold Fields but were driven out by the Anglos) who fights for a collective "working class against Yankee imperialism .... "

Also Chicano playwright Luis Valdez wrote in 1964 his first play The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa," whose hero is Joaquin, a Robin Hood who steals from the rich to give to the poor; in the play Valdez holds out hope that the community will unite and take action to fight Anglo injustices against its communal self. Well, the issues that Ridge raise still reverberate in California literature.


Lyle Daggett said...

Julia -- Really fascinating post. Especially interested in the bits of information about Joaquin Murieta, of whom I've heard often but have never known very much. Thanks for posting this.

Lyle Daggett said...

Julia, Sharon Doubiago asked me to pass this along to you (she doesn't have a Blogger account) -- I'm quoting verbatim from an email from her:

"thank you Julia. It is informative, yet so disturbing, of course. I've been much drawn to the Cherokee history of California, mainly in the Valley. All I really know is the names, the names like trails that I've followed, continue to. Are you teaching a class on this? Sharon Doubiago."

California Writer said...

Hi Lyle & Sharon,
To answer sharon's question, Yes, I'm teaching a class on California literature: poetry, fiction, and drama. So I decided to post some of my ideas on the poetry, the novels, and the drama. I think California literature as a whole as been underestimated, California poets have never gotten adequete criticism, and California literature is worth talking about in length.

I welcome other people to contribute their ideas about California poetry & other parts of its literature. I hope Sharon would contribute as to which California poets effected her growing up?