Helen Hunt Jackson: Remembering a legend

The female mastermind behind Ramona

Photo Courtesy of kcet.org
An unperturbed gaze from Helen Hunt Jackson. Time and place of documentation unknown.

■ By Halima Haider / Editorial Assistant

Who is Helen Hunt Jackson? Ms. Jackson was a journalist, poet, novelist, and social activist who interwove all four in her literary work. Coined “unquestionably the best novel yet produced by an American woman” a year after her death in 1885, “Ramona,” the stage version of Jackson’s best selling 1884 novel, makes its annual return to Ramona Bowl this April.
“Ramona” has seen more than 300 reissues and has been adapted into four films, the first of which was directed by Hollywood’s pioneer filmmaker D.W. Griffith in 1910 starring Academy Award-winning actress Mary Pickford. The novel also inspired the famous outdoor play better known as The Ramona Pageant, which debuted in 1923 at an open-air arts center in the Inland Empire, carrying on the torch to become The Ramona Bowl Amphitheater. The rest –– as the saying goes –– is history.
“Ramona” is dubbed the Golden State’s official outdoor play and is the longest running outdoor drama in all of North America. It is a quintessential American tragedy that has surprisingly dodged the bullet of being blemished by the mainstream limelight, staying original, savory, heart-wrenching to the last bit. Which makes all the sense in the world when you stumble upon Jackson’s prose in the epic novel from the Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Poe and Dickinson era.
In fact, born to academic Calvinist parents in Amherst, Massachusetts, Jackson was a lifelong friend of poet Emily Dickinson. Have a read of this poetically hyperbolic quote for instance: “We have flattered ourselves by inventing proverbs of comparison in matter of blindness, — ‘blind as a bat’ for instance. It would be safe to say that there cannot be found in the animal kingdom a bat, or any other creature, so blind in its own range of circumstance and connecti-45on, as the greater majority of human beings are in the bosoms of their families. Tempers strain and recover, hearts break and heal, strength falters, fails, and comes near to giving way altogether, every day, without being noted by the closest lookers-on.”
Well; damn. Jackson’s deep despair for and awareness of the myriad social plights incubating in 19th century Southern California speak volumes in her literary work. Not just in her magnum opus “Ramona,” but Jackson’s lesser known first big literary piece, “A Century of Dishonor,”published in 1881, was an exposé chronicling the rampant crimes against Native Americans. It actually led to the founding of the Indian Rights Association. After being posthumously hailed by literary critics far and wide, Jackson was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 1985, a century after her death.
The iconic “Ramona” is a luridly tragic tale of two interracial star-crossed lovers in the 1850s who, like Romeo and Juliet, like Tristan and Isolde, are subjected to romantic forbiddance as a result of racial bigotry and injustice. Forbidden love? Check. Unadulterated window into the genocidal history of Southern California’s native people? Check. Picturesque Southern California setting? That’s covered too. Jackson breathes life into each fictional character in her story with a near nonfictional backstory drawing on real life events and people. Hollywood icons to have played the titular lead role include Golden Globe-winner and sex-symbol Raquel Welch circa 1959, and Oscar-nominated actress Anne Archer circa 1969.
Over the century, a myriad of schools, streets, freeways, towns, and even deli stores have taken the name of “Ramona,” the novel’s heroine, and the lady at the helm, Jackson herself, paying homage to a legend that has been permanently etched into the forever lasting traditions of Southern California. “Ramona” stages weekends April 22 through May 7 at the famous Ramona Bowl in Hemet, California. Snag tickets here: http://www.etix.com/ticket/v/1917/ramona-bowl-amphitheatre.

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