Squatter And The Don Essays About Love

In 1885, at the height of the movement in literary realism in the United States, W. D. Howells and Mexican-American writer María Amparo Ruiz de Burton published strikingly parallel novels featuring the businessmen of the late-nineteenth century. Howells' The Rise of Silas Lapham, serialized in Century between november 1884 and August 1885, was well received across the country.1 A review in the Overland Monthly hailed it as the "best" of Howells' work thus far and dubbed Howells "the most significant figure in American literature today [and] the man who has given American novel-writing its standing."2 Judging Silas Lapham by Howellsian criteria, the Overland commended its "simple, natural, and honest" qualities: "When was the romance of business—the anxiety and pain and desire that do, in fact, make business life almost as full of human emotion as love affairs—so brought out, as in The Rise of Silas Lapham?"3 As if discovering a secret it already knew, the reviewer used Howells' realist standards to propose a framework for reading and valuing American literature whose lingua franca in an industrial age was not love but money.

Although it also strove to illustrate the "romance of business" in its protagonist's struggle to modernize his trade, Ruiz de Burton's The Squatter and the Don met a different reception in early 1885. Failing to garner the attention of East Coast publishers, Ruiz de Burton's novel was instead released as a bound book by Samuel Carson and Company, "a small San Francisco bookseller" and, coincidentally, the Overland's publisher at the time.4 Like Howells' novel, Squatter received favorable remarks, but these appeared in California newspapers rather than in literary magazines. The San Francisco Examiner described it as "a book with purpose [that] narrat[ed] a story of [End Page 210] every-day life" and suggested its writer possessed a "literary ability of no mean order."5 Other reviews also commended Squatter's achievement with what would seem like the Howellsian terms of simplicity and honesty by emphasizing its "attemp[t] to paint in realistic style."6 The San Francisco Alta California, attuned to the novel's business dimension, noted the "fervid eloquence [used by] the author … to depict the baleful effect [of a railroad monopoly in] Southern California."7 Similar reviews abounded, yet they spoke of an unknown, pseudonymous author and of Squatter's potential "contribution" not to national American literature but to the "incipient literature of the Pacific Coast."8 In the 1885 American literary scene, then, Ruiz de Burton and Howells stood at opposite ends—the former in the field of unknown yet aspiring fiction writers, and the latter in the editorial realm of the literary magazine, where professional authorship was a regular practice.

These reviews signal a simple but foundational resemblance between the novels, showing how both Ruiz de Burton and Howells employed the keynote landscape of the realist generation—the everyday world of business. However, while Silas Lapham "is often called the first realistic portrayal of a businessman in American literature," Squatter's place in realist studies remains rather ill-defined because it emerged out of the West—in seemingly agrarian or regionalist form—during a time when realism was the project of the urban northeast's white male writers.9 Seeking to better situate Ruiz de Burton in late-nineteenth-century American literary history and among her more commercially successful peers, chiefly Howells, I argue that with The Squatter and the Don Ruiz de Burton writes a Mexican-American realist novel. Mexican-American realism, in this case, might be conceived of as a marginalized literary project that fought for a place among eastern-dominated American letters but failed to reach or make the national literary scene. As the regionalist inflections of the book reviews indicate, Squatter failed, perhaps first and foremost, because it was pigeonholed into a California framework, which occluded its national or transcontinental ambitions. I begin this essay, accordingly, by tracing Ruiz de Burton's biography, highlighting her struggles in California...

“The Squatter and the Don, like its author, has come out a survivor,” notes Ana Castillo in her Introduction. “The fact that it has resurfaced after more than a century from its original publication is a testimony to its worthiness.” Inviting comparison to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s illuminating political novel is also an engaging historical romance. Set in San Diego shortly after the United States’ annexation of California and written from the point of view of a native Californio, the story centers on two families: the Alamars of the landed Mexican gentry, and the Darrells, transplanted New Englanders–and their tumultuous struggles over property, social status, and personal integrity.

This Modern Library Paperback Classic is set from the first edition of 1885.

Ana Castillo is a poet, essayist, and novelist whose works includethe recent poetry collection I Ask the Impossible and the novel Peel My Love Like an Onion. She lives in Chicago and teaches at DePaul University.

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