A good year for women on film, as exemplified in new releases The Eyes of My Mother, Miss Sloane, and more
Matthew Lickona 5 p.m., Dec. 9
Bret Harte’s California, his regional mythmaking effort embodied in twenty volumes of collected works, also includes the tyranny of lynch mobs. The formation of a lynch mob soon transforms the formerly idyllic One Horse Gulch into lawless pandemonium. In this case, opposing interests are represented by two dueling newspapers that provide alternate descriptions of Sal’s courtroom testimony regarding Victor Ramirez’s actions during the days preceding his death. One correspondent writes in the Silveropolis Messenger that “‘Miss Clark’s evidence… strongly impressed the jury as the natural eloquence of one connected with the tenderest ties to the unfortunate victim…’” (362).This language, though beautiful, is highly deceptive. The feud between audience-specific newspapers is responded to by the One Horse Gulch Banner humorously, employing all the grandeur of vulgar speech, embodying the more truthful, more crudely eloquent language of One Horse Gulch versus the corrupting, falsifying influences of the Silveropolis Messenger. The Banner accounts differently that “‘Sal was no slouch of a witness. Rigged out in ten yards of Briggs’ best black glazed mosquito netting round her head, she pranced round the stand like a skittish hearse horse in fly-time… we’d recommend her to buy up Briggs’ stock and take one of Pat Hoolan’s carriages for the season’” (362-3). The editors of the two papers then shoot at each other with guns. Violence, as an ultimate and practical solution to conflicts in One Horse Gulch, as elsewhere in California at the time of the Gold Rush, occasions the impromptu conclusion of the narrator’s record of the dueling newspapers: “At 1 o’clock that morning the Editor of the Messenger fired at the Editor of the Banner and missed him. At half-past one two men were wounded by pistol shots in a difficulty at Briggs’ warehouse—cause not stated” (Gabriel 363). The proclivity for violence to resolve conflict among the dwellers of One Horse Gulch is one way to incite one’s alienation from civilizing forces. The courtroom dynamics of Gabriel’s trial also adds humor to the harsh ethnic reality of the legal ruling of People v. Hall, which Harte characterizes as “…the famous Californian law that a Pagan was of necessity a liar, and that truth only resided in the breast of the Christian Caucasian” (361). An examination of a number of Caucasian witnesses during the trial, in comparison, yields no important information. This is one way in which Harte obviously satirizes the iniquitous distribution of civil rights in California. In Book Seven, the last book according to the Standard Library Edition, set in 1885, a chapter titled “In Which the Footprints Return” concludes Gabriel’s trial with the revelation of new identities regarding Grace and Mrs. Conroy (448). The ill-circumstances of Madame Devarges’ life suggest to the reader nefarious connotations. This proves that only a humble, loving, “big” guy can ignore past discretions. On the other hand, Grace, despite her cleverness, falls into the fantasy of a “seven-year” marriage that is invented to cover over her abandonment. The death of Jack Hamlin is surprising, having been bested by a man of better mating “caliber” (pun), Poinsett. Yet Poinsett’s superiority may only exist in the domain of social class. The tearful departure of Hamlin and Pete regarding their power relationship is revelatory of fraternal love and an informal code of honor. On his deathbed, Hamlin grumbles “‘I want Pete—no one else.’ The old negro entered with a trembling step. And then catching sight of the white face on the pillow, he uttered one cry… And then the black and the white face were near together and both were wet with tears” (Gabriel 459-60). The discovery of new silver permits a happy ending for the Conroys, but some bitterness remains, which counterbalances the novel’s optimistic conclusion (e.g., the crash of the stocks, the loss of Doña Dolores’ estate to the Mission of San Antonio, and the surprising death of Jack Hamlin). The reader is also left hanging, intentionally by Harte, to wonder what will happen to the unfortunate Doña Maria, who lost her fortune, Pete, now without a master, Mrs. Markle, Sal, and others. Despite the appearance of a “happy ending,” the close of Gabriel Conroy occurs with a number of losers. Moreover, these losers cannot be rationalized away as “sinners” or moral transgressors. For example, Doña Maria Sepulvida loses not only her estate and assets pertaining to the Mission of San Antonio, but her romantic claim for Arthur Poinsett’s affections. Her survival is jeopardized with the collapse of the Conroy Mining Company when the silver “drops” after an earthquake. Unlike Doña Maria, as Andrea Tennemeyer notes, Grace Conroy figures importantly into the novel’s plot structure “…by offering, in the guise of racial masquerade… the most in-depth examination of Manifest Destiny’s impact after the war” (38). The recovery of Grace Conroy involves the estates and assets of a “politically degraded race” that sought legitimacy through the “whiteness” of Doña Maria and the “color” of Doña Dolores. The earthquake earlier in the novel during the failed lynching of Gabriel Conroy flattens the home of Doña Dolores and sacks one of the two bell towers of the Mission of San Antonio. The symbolism of the earthquake that helps save Gabriel from vigilantes coincides with scores of Eastern investors and tourists who have been defrauded by Peter Dumphy. Therefore, the destiny and success of Gabriel on the East Coast, assuming he may go there, hints gloomily that Gabriel may not be suited well in the stiffer rigors of aristocratic influences, especially when so many characters of high social class are disreputable. From a familial perspective, the Conroy lineage, a product of the shaping forces of Californian identity and experience, survives in three branches: dual impostors, Arthur Poinsett and Grace Conroy, the odd couple, Gabriel and Mrs. Conroy, and the Olympian younger sister, “Olly.” Gabriel’s killing of vigilantes hired by Peter Dumphy, “the Three Voices,” by toppling a statue of Justice over them from the courthouse cupola corroborates and fulfills the warrior connotations stemming from Gabriel’s symbolic linkages with Hector and Hercules. It is even described in epic language: “Awoke! [The statue of Justice] leaned toward them; advanced its awful sword and shook its broken balance, and then toppling forward with one mighty impulse, came down upon them… Gabriel arose, panting, pale, but triumphant” (368). The statue of Justice, which for Gabriel is equivalent to any hero’s sword, corresponds in classical mythology to Iustitia, the personification of justice in Roman thought (Grimal 240). These Hellenic influences link Gabriel Conroy to other mythological influences regarding Californian identity. One of the most readily apparent of these is the role of Athena in the seal of the State of California. Athena, like the impostors and outsiders in Gabriel Conroy, was born fully formed of dubious parentage, and historically “was often adopted as protectress and patroness of towns” (Grimal 67). The final chapter of the novel is in the form of a letter from Olympia to Gabriel. If one considers that the claims of identity surrounding the classical Mediterranean romance that California has historically been subject to, these Hellenic influences suggest important myth-making exercises by Harte. The influence of myth on Californian identity even dates, for example, to a letter in 1524 addressed the King of Spain by Hernán Cortés, conqueror of the Aztec empire, which “reported his expectation of finding an island of Amazons” in modern-day Baja California, once thought to be inhabited by griffins (Bean 16-7). The belief in the presence of Amazonian women in such a place, referring to Calafía, “Queen of California,” in fact, stems from “an old Spanish novel, Las Sergas de Esplandián… written about 1500 by Garcí Ordóñez de Montalvo… [with] several references to an Amazon island called California” (Bean 17). These historical traces of Californian identity surely demonstrate that Harte’s wild epic is not without precedence regarding the historically perceived mystery and grandeur of California.