Americans in the Golden State: The Rhetoric of Identity in Four California Social Protest Novels
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This dissertation examines the rhetorical strategies of four California social protest novels of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries: Helen Hunt Jackson's <em>Ramona</em> (1884), María Amparo Ruiz de Burton's <em>The Squatter and the Don</em> (1885), Frank Norris's <em>The Octopus</em> (1901), and John Steinbeck's <em>The Grapes of Wrath</em> (1939). I argue that among these four texts, those that succeeded rhetorically--Ruiz de Burton's and Steinbeck's--did so by making it possible for their mostly white, middle-class audiences to identify with their characters along class, race, and other demographic lines. The rhetorical theories of Kenneth Burke help explain the complex ways these novels invite audience identification with some characters while creating distance with others. I also examine the roles of sentiment and naturalism in each text's rhetorical success or failure. Although these novels were all written or read as social protest fiction, there exists no full-length analysis of the rhetorical strategies these writers employ. In their arguments over California land ownership and the land's potential wealth, the novels reveal much about how American identity was constructed during this period.
Chapter One argues that in <em>The Squatter and the Don</em>, Ruiz de Burton encourages identification by blurring racial lines and emphasizing her characters' social class, presenting the Alamar family as entrepreneurial Americans who can pass for white and who blend easily with upper-crust New York society. Chapter Two focuses on the ways Jackson creates Native American characters in <em>Ramona</em> who possess some traits of "American" identity such as whiteness, domesticity, and work skills. Jackson's characters, however, remain too exotic for the reader to identify with them, and thus her novel has been read as romance rather than protest. Chapter Three argues that <em>The Octopus</em> is too deterministic to succeed as social protest against the railroad monopoly, but that Norris is arguing instead for a global expansion of U.S. capitalism. Chapter Four demonstrates how <em>The Grapes of Wrath</em> aligns the migrants with America's white middle class. Steinbeck enables identification by emphasizing the Okies' Anglo heritage and their willingness to work; like Ruiz de Burton, he also employs an effective balance between sentiment and naturalism.