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who would have thought it?

30 october 2009

Who Would Have Thought It?, indeed. María Amparo Ruiz de Burton's novel was published (anonymously) in 1872 to dismissive notices from the few reviewers who bothered to discuss it. In 2009, it has just been reissued as a Penguin Classic.

The novel's first reviewers, quoted in the Penguin introduction by Amelia María de la Luz Montes, opined that Who Would Have Thought It? "does not ask the most implicit belief from the reader" and showed a "perhaps too cynical habit of observation" and a "total disregard for the common denouement of novels" (xx-xxi). As so often, negative reviews are the most discerning in their description of a work. To put it less genteelly, Who Would Have Thought It? has plot holes you could march the Army of the Potomac through. Its story, borrowed from the Victorian stock of imperilled-orphan plotlines, eventually fizzles out in rhetoric.

But, as de la Luz Montes notes, "Ruiz de Burton's works speak to our twenty-first-century world" (xvi). Literary scholars in 2009 are drawn to polemical, overtly rhetorical fiction, and the more cynical its "habit of observation," the better. We read novels primarily as arguments, even as "projects" akin to scholarly books. Given such an "interpretive community," Who Would Have Thought It? becomes an ideal candidate for scholarship.

The plot construction of Who Would Have Thought It? would have made Charles Dickens wince. A key to the orphan Lola Medina's perils is a misdirected manuscript that falls into the hands of her guardian's brother-in-law Isaac Sprig. Isaac, upon reading the manuscript, travels to Mexico to discover more about Lola – completely unsuspecting that his brother-in-law's mysterious Mexican ward Lola might be the mysterious Mexican orphan Lola mentioned in the manuscript. "Slow on the uptake" doesn't begin to describe it.

Enormous blind spots in novels may be forgiven, of course: the plot of Jane Eyre would go nowhere if Jane had investigated all that thumping in Rochester's attic to begin with. But Who Would Have Thought It? has more grievous narrative sins on its conscience. It's often dull. Long chapters are devoted to shuttling characters up and down the Eastern Seaboard so that their romantic entanglements can realign. The book ends not just without a denouement, but with its characters pointlessly chasing one another around in boats.

Now, this critique is far beside the point, I realize. Who Would Have Thought It? is valued today not for Ruiz de Burton's story skills, but for its "intricate ethnic, gender, sexual, and racial relationships to power" (xv). I grant this point completely. In fact, from my own perspective as a desultory student of Civil War fiction, I found Who Would Have Thought It? interesting for its corrosive view of the Union war effort. The most loathsome opportunists, in Ruiz de Burton's world, become the most decorated heroes. Three separate characters have their fortunes made, respectively, by (1) fleeing the first battle of Manassas in a stolen buggy, (2) spurring a horse the wrong way in an attempt to retreat that turns into an inadvertent charge, and (3) self-inflicting a gunshot wound in another scramble to the rear. The wartime administration is run from an undisclosed location by the sinister Edwin M. Stanton, for the benefit of "shoddy" profiteers who make Halliburton look like pikers. Even Abraham Lincoln comes across as a bloviating buckpasser.

All very interesting, I admit. But are these historical/rhetorical insights worth the effort of wading through a 305-page novel that is often either preposterous or provokingly tedious? There are good, energetic things in Who Would Have Thought It? – small set pieces like an old maid's undermotivated chloroforming of her pet canaries, or a proleptic discussion of postwar "leg opera" on the New York stage – but they are embedded in a matrix of rather drossy narrative. Wouldn't it be more profitable to study essays and letters from the period for their political opinions, than to slog through such a novel?

However, the very word "novel" is still magical. It connotes "literature," with its guarantee of artistic merit, and its entrenched place in the curriculums and syllabuses of English departments, and publishers' front- and backlists. Who Would Have Thought It? is of very minor interest in literary history. Even de la Luz Montes concedes as much implicitly, making no mention in her introduction of Ruiz de Burton's career as a belle-lettrist. But the rhetoric of the novel is of considerable interest. And in a century where literature increasingly tends to reduce to rhetoric, such a text is a Classic indeed.

Ruiz de Burton, María Amparo. Who Would Have Thought It? 1872. New York: Penguin, 2009.