Pity the publisher of classic literature. With only so much of it to go around, an imprint hoping to expand its catalogue in the 21st century must either promote a mediocre but popular writer or “rediscover” an “unfairly marginalized” one. The Library of America is an occasional offender in the former regard, having insisted with a straight face that H. P. Lovecraft, Jack Kerouac, and Kurt Vonnegut belong in the same dignified company as, say, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and W. E. B. Du Bois.
Rehabilitating a “forgotten” writer is a trickier matter. The point of publishing a book is to sell it, and books that people want to read tend not to disappear. There are exceptions to this rule. Charles Portis’s novels, for instance, fell out of print a while until the journalist Ron Rosenbaum successfully pled the case for their brilliance. The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit (1854), by John Rollin Ridge, is no such exception. If you’ve never heard of it, rest assured that there’s a very good reason for that.
Joaquín Murieta was added to the Penguin Classics this summer. It is not hard to guess at the calculus behind that decision. Penguin has marketed the book not only as the first novel written by a Native American, which is a significant distinction, but also as the first American novel to feature a Mexican protagonist, which is the kind of thing you mention to let hack critics know that they can truffle out a Trump angle. And, lo, Joaquín Murieta is essentially a Django Unchained revenge fantasy for aggrieved Hispanics.
Which would be fine, up to a point, were Joaquín not also a hilariously, dizzyingly bad book. Joaquín the man may verily have possessed a “countenance . . . exceedingly handsome and attractive,” with a “well-shaped head” no less, but Joaquín the book is a text that only a rather dim grad student could love. When Hsuan L. Hsu notes in a breathless introduction that Joaquín was an influence on both Zorro and Batman, one can’t help wondering whether this is intended as fair warning.
As the first Native American novelist, John Rollin Ridge certainly merits study. His biography is a microcosm of the chaos, violence, and injustice that new Americans inflicted upon indigenous ones. Ridge, the son of a Cherokee chief and a white mother from Connecticut, witnessed at age twelve his father’s murder by political opponents. His father’s crime was collaboration with the federal government; he had signed the 1835 treaty that established precedent for the Cherokee-removal policy and the Trail of Tears.
Joaquín, first published under Ridge’s Cherokee name, “Yellow Bird,” addresses the racist attitudes and oppressive policies under which Native Americans suffered by dramatizing those under which Mexican Americans suffered; a reader of its day could, one supposes, have drawn some general principles from this exercise. Yet reading Joaquín now does not furnish the typical historico-fictional pleasure of “knowing better.” Instead, it suggests that our forebears knew that racism was philosophically in error; they were simply less squeamish about acting in group-oriented self-interest anyway.
You don’t have to read between the lines to understand Joaquín. Just reading the lines will do. Set aside the critical apparatus and you will find a book in which every character seems to be an inveterate racist, including, at times, the very narrator who condemns “injustice to individuals” and “the prejudice of color or from any other source.” In Joaquín, the main problem with the prejudice of color (or from any other source) is being on the receiving end of it. Thus does the book prefigure today’s power-obsessed and hierarchy-contingent definition of racism, which gives one-time victims wider latitude to reciprocate injustices that they have suffered.
And Joaquín Murieta does earn his victim status. At age 18, having left his native Mexico, he is in California “engaged in the honest occupation of a miner in the Stanislaus placers.” He is intoxicated by a romanticized vision of the American character. Yet before long a pack of racist Yankees has driven him off his mining claim, beaten him, and “ravished his mistress before his eyes.” Later, he is caught riding an unbeknownst-to-him stolen horse furnished by his half-brother. He is scourged and his half-brother hanged.
This is a stirring origin story, in the superhero sense, but it does not result in Joaquín’s vowing to pursue murderers, rapists, thieves, or even racists. Rather, he declares war on America, tout court, and that includes his fellow minorities, the reviled “Digger” Indians, Chinese “coolies,” and so on. To this end he surrounds himself with a banditti of bad hombres. Chief among these is Manuel Garcia, or “Three-Fingered Jack,” though a better name would be “Manuel Dexterity,” given his prowess, despite his disability, at shooting, stabbing, carving, and gouging.
Three-Fingered Jack is that action-movie staple, the psychopathic henchman in need of constant restraining by a leader. He is Joaquín’s foil, the amoral cipher by comparison with whom Joaquín might look good. Like a mob boss who buys Thanksgiving turkeys for the poor, Joaquín indulges an occasional, capricious decency that is meant to complicate our opinion of him. Yet he fraternizes exclusively with men such as Claudio, “revengeful, tenacious in his memory of a wrong, sly and secret in his windings as a serpent, and . . . with less nobility than a rattlesnake,” who sounds about as morally complicated as the Grinch.
The bulk of Joaquín is taken up with robberies, serial murder, pursuits, shootouts, and escapes. Diana Gabaldon, who wrote the foreword to this edition, calls it a “rip-roaring entertainment.” Publishers Weekly calls it “humorous and a blast to read.” You know the drill: Like superhero comics, true crime, and Tijuana bibles, it’s a “guilty pleasure” with some redeeming artistic and cultural significance.
Having taken several months to finish this book, which clocks in at 137 pages, I can attest that it is in fact virtually unreadable. Repetitive, thuddingly paced, and rife with narrative shortcuts in the “we’re gonna need a montage” vein, it is also comically overwritten — in the superlative-heavy and thesaurus-reliant style of a precocious child. At times it reads like a skillful modern-day parody of its own style and emotional register:
They turned to look as they departed, and the last they saw was the faithful girl with her lover’s head upon her lap, pouring her tears upon him like a healing balm from her heart. Give me not a sneer, thou rigid righteous! for the love of woman is beautiful at all times, whether she smiles under gilded canopies in her satin garments or weeps over a world-hated criminal alone and naked in a desert.
Sentimentality and brutality go hand in hand, of course, which is why we find the author of this florid nonsense ridiculing a cowardly Indian (“seated upon his haunches, . . . enjoying a luxurious repast of roasted acorns and dried angle-worms”) or a couple of pathetic “Celestials” begging for their lives “in a by no means euphonious tongue.” The problem is not that we should find uncouth attitudes in a 19th-century book but that an academic such as Hsuan L. Hsu would insist that this lurid, moronic book “takes up some of the most complex themes in American literature: cultural assimilation, racist and antiracist violence, the tension between ethical and political action, and . . . philosophical questions about the legitimacy of state and extralegal violence.”
Come off it, man. The only thing this novel illustrates is the danger of trying to shoehorn a book into the canon for nakedly political reasons. Joaquín, like its hero, does not pan out. Even the least sophisticated reader knows fool’s gold when he sees it.