Written by M. K. Waller
I fell asleep in my chair and when I awoke, I was right clicking on Ernest the Cat’s soft underbelly.
Such is my life: cats, computers, and clicking. It’s past time for a new project.
Thirty-three years ago this month, I received a master’s degree in English. I’d spent the previous year digging myself into and then out of research that resulted in a thesis: The Writing of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. I followed my usual writing process: modified chaos. If my adviser had known how I worked, he’d have booted me out of his office the first day.
At the outset, he gave me some excellent advice:
- Modify your aspirations. When I said I’d like to write about Emily Dickinson, he asked if I wanted to spend all my time reading what everyone else had written about her. I didn’t. He said I would be expected to add to the body or organized knowledge, and suggested I read Helen Hunt Jackson’s nineteenth-century American novel Ramona and see if I found anything worthy of research. I did, and I did.
- You’ll get six semester hours’ credit for the thesis. Don’t do more than six hours’ work. One hundred pages, cover to cover. It came in at 185.
- Don’t get tangled up in words. I got tangled up in words, but that’s my process.
Starting out, I knew nothing about Helen Hunt Jackson. I knew Ramona was a propaganda novel the author hoped would gain sympathy for the Native Americans as Uncle Tom’s Cabin had for the slaves. The book was commonly described as sentimental romance. Combine sentimental romance with propaganda, and add that it was written by a woman, and you come out with a pretty bad book. Nineteenth-century chick lit.
After I read the novel and the standard biography of Helen Hunt Jackson, I held a different opinion. I thought it was a pretty good book. And I saw parallels between Jackson’s life and that of her main character. In other words, I had the foundation of a thesis.
I was surprised no one had already tackled the topic. But Jackson was like the newly discovered Emily Dickinson*–her life was so interesting that critics focused on her and ignored her writing. In fact, there were times when I thought critics hadn’t read Ramona at all; the few references I found contained one error after another. That worked to my advantage, of course: where they got it wrong, I would get it right.
It also worked to my disadvantage. My words, even if they were never traditionally published, would be bound in hard cover and sit on a library shelf, available to the world. The book might travel through the interlibrary loan program. People I didn’t know might read it. Future scholars might refer to it in their theses. They might feel free to point out my errors.
That realization hit hard. It kept me from saying things like, “John Smith writes that Ramona’s husband’s name is Felipe, while in reality his name is Alessandro; this egregious error on the part of Smith suggests he is not only a poor scholar but also that he is an illiterate knothead. And I’m right, so nyah, nyah, nyah.” It didn’t keep me from wanting to say such things, but on paper it kept me humble.
I spent over a year immersed in all things Ramona–the history of the Franciscan missions and the Mission Indians of Southern California, U. S. government policy toward Native Americans, Helen Hunt Jackson’s life as a writer and as an activist in support of Native Americans, and social and literary commentary on the novel. It made for fascinating reading.
It made for fascinating writing, too. I would suffer for a while, then turn in a chapter; my adviser would say, “Keep going”; I would go home, barricade myself in the spare bedroom, play the Mario Lanza LP nonstop (Ooooooooverhead the moon is beeeeeeeaming, whiiiiiiiiiiiite as blossoms on the boughhhhhhhhhhhh), eat peanut butter, and ponder how to say what I meant.
I’ve heard that if you can’t write what you mean, you don’t know what you mean, but that’s not true. I knew exactly what I meant; I always know exactly what I mean. The challenge is to pull the correct words out of that vague, amorphous dust cloud looming above my head and string them together in the right order. Each time I finished a chapter, I was amazed at what I knew.
With a maximum of moaning, I finally completed the task to everyone’s satisfaction. I delivered the manuscript to the university library; the university returned it as bound copies. I was tempted to borrow a stroller and wheel the thing around town. People who have babies show them off that way, and that book was my baby.
When I delivered the manuscript to my adviser for his signature, he made several more memorable statements:
- It’s publishable. He said I should contact Twayne and see if they were interested in a book. I didn’t. Quite frankly, I didn’t know how, I was too intimidated (and shy) to ask questions, and within a few months life threw up a roadblock that I didn’t have the energy to work around.
- You’re the Texas expert. Hearing that pleased me. I didn’t know there was much advantage to being the Texas expert on Ramona, since no one else would know I was the expert–I couldn’t go around telling people, and most would have said, “Ramona Who?”–but it was comforting to think I knew something the rest of the state (and several illiterate knotheads in other states) didn’t.
- I didn’t think you could do this. I thought the book was too flimsy. In other words, he told me to read Ramona and see if I could find something worth writing about and all the while he was thinking I would find nothing nothing NOTHING. I have never come so close to knocking a professor out of his chair as I did that day.
Anyway, that’s the story of the writing of The Writing of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. One bound copy sits in the library at Texas State University, another bound copy sits in the vault there (at least, I was told a copy would be hidden away), and a third sits at the bottom of a stack of books in my house.**
Since 1985, my copy has gathered dust, but I recently pulled it out and skimmed through it and thought back on the days when I was a lot smarter than I am now. And I decided it was time people knew that, although I’m probably not still the Texas expert, in 1985, I held the title.
So I’m putting it online. Unfortunately, since I can’t find the manuscript, I have to type the whole thing, including pages and pages of citations. Fortunately, I’ll be able to add illustrations.
The new site is currently private. I intended to make it public when the entire thesis is online. But after considering how slowly I type, I’ve decided to open the site chapter by chapter. As soon as I’ve proofed the introduction, I’ll go public. No one will want to read it in one sitting anyway. (I’m not saying it’s dry; I’m saying if I were writing it today, sentences would be shorter and semicolons would be few.)
I don’t expect hordes of readers to descend and jam all of WordPress’ ports, but maybe someone out there will be interested in reading about Helen Hunt Jackson and an American classic.
In case you’re wondering–Ramona is a half-Native American, half-Scottish girl reared by a wealthy Mexican widow who doesn’t love her because of her heritage. It’s unspoken but true that no Mexican of her adoptive mother’s class will marry her. But when Ramona falls in love with young Native American sheep shearer, her mother forbids the relationship. Southern California, where they live, is now under rule of the United States. Problems ensue.
I’ll add this, too–Doris McCraw, formerly full-time, now occasional Writing Wranglers and Warriors blogger, is an everywhere expert on Helen Hunt Jackson. Her Facebook page, Helen Hunt Jackson Live, can be found here.
*Helen Maria Fiske [Hunt Jackson] and Emily Dickinson were born a few months apart in Amherst, Massachusetts and were lifelong friends.
**I have a couple of other copies stored at some indeterminate location.