How Ramona Was Written


IN sorting out some old letters, the other day, I came upon one from the pen of that ardent and brilliant woman who wrote one of the two great ethical novels which dealt severally with the wrongs of the American negro and the American Indian. Mrs. Stowe has left on record, in some degree, the circumstances under which she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin ; and this letter portrays yet more vividly the mental conditions under which Mrs. Helen Hunt — afterwards Mrs. W. S. Jackson —was led to write Ramona. She had nearly broken herself down with hard work in libraries, preparing The Century of Dishonor, of which she had sent a copy, at her own expense, to every member of Congress; and she had been guided at the most important points by the counsel of regular army officers of wide Indian experience, her late husband’s friends ; yet in spite of all this care in preparation she had seen its plain statements set aside by mere civilian critics, such as Theodore Roosevelt, as being merely feminine sentimentalism. Finding her laborious historical work thus jauntily classed with fiction, she seems to have been tempted into writing fiction that should illuminate history, and the immediate result was Ramona; the remoter consequence being her appointment, by the Commissioner of Affairs, with Coates Kinney, Esq., to prepare a report — published in 1883 — on The Condition and Need of the Mission Indians of California, in which she returns to literal history again. The letter which preceded this, and which explains the origin of Ramona, is here first printed, as follows: —

THE BERKELEY, February 5, 1884.

... I am glad you say you are rejoiced that I am writing a story. But about the not hurrying it — I want to tell you something. You know I have for three or four years longed to write a story that should “ tell ” on the Indian question. But I knew I could not do it ; knew I had no background, — no local color for it.

Last spring, in Southern California, I began to feel that I had ; that the scene laid there — and the old Mexican life mixed in with just enough Indian to enable me to tell what had happened to them — would be the very perfection of coloring. You know that I have lived six months in Southern California.

Still I did not see my way clear ; got no plot; till one morning late last October, before I was wide awake, the whole plot flashed into my mind, —not a vague one — the whole story just as it stands to-day, — in less than five minutes, as if some one spoke it. I sprang up, went to my husband’s room, and told him ; I was half frightened. From that time, till I came here, it haunted me, becoming more and more vivid. I was impatient to get at it. I wrote the first word of it December 1. As soon as I began, it seemed impossible to write fast enough. In spite of myself, I write faster than I would write a letter. I write two thousand to three thousand words in a morning, and I cannot help it. It racks me like a struggle with an outside power. I cannot help being superstitious about it. I have never done half the amount of work in the same time. Ordinarily it would be a simple impossibility. Twice, since beginning it, I have broken down utterly for a week—with a cold ostensibly, but with great nervous prostration added. What I have to endure in holding myself away from it, afternoons, on the days I am compelled to be in the house, no words can tell.

It is like keeping away from a lover, whose hand I can reach.

Now you will ask what sort of English it is I write at this lightning speed. So far as I can tell, the best I ever wrote! I have read it aloud as I have gone on, to one friend, of keen literary perceptions and judgment, the most purely intellectual woman I know — Mrs. Trimble. She says it is smooth — strong — clear. “ Tremendous ” is her frequent epithet.

. . . The success of it — if it succeeds — will be that I do not even suggest any Indian history, — till the interest is so aroused in the heroine — and hero — that people will not lay the book down. There is but one Indian in the story.

Every now and then I force myself to stop, and write a short story or a bit of verse; I can’t bear the strain ; but the instant I open the pages of the other, I write as I am writing now — as fast as I could copy ! What do you think ? Am I possessed of a demon ? Is it a freak of mental disturbance ? or what.

I have the feeling that if I could only read it to you, you would know. — If it is as good as Mrs. Trimble, Mr. Jackson, and Miss Woolsey think, I shall be indeed rewarded, for it will “ tell.” But I can’t believe it is. I am uneasy about it; but try as I may — all I can

— I cannot write slowly for more than a few moments. I sit down at 9.30 or ten, and it is one before I know it. In good weather I then go out, after lunching, and keep out, religiously, till five,

— but there have not been more than three out of eight good days all winter, — and the days when I am shut up in my room from two till five alone — with my Ramona and Alessandro — and cannot go along with them on their journey are maddening.

Fifty-two last October — and I’m not a bit steadier-headed, you see, than ever ! I don’t know whether to send this or burn it up. Don’t laugh at me whatever you do.

Yours always,

H. J.