María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Who Would Have Thought It? (the first Mexican-American novel in English) is centrally concerned with the notion of “good government”–and its absence from the nineteenth-century USA. Indeed, at some points the problems facing the country seem to be the fault of government per se “If we were to trace our troubles to their veritable source,” the novel’s narrator declares at one point, “we would often reach, more or less directly, their origin in our lawgivers. Not only the dwellers of the frontiers, not only the victims of lawsuits, not only–“ (201).
Here, however, the train of thought is interrupted. The narrator breaks off to declare “But I am no political philosopher. I am wandering away from my humble path” (201). And that path is, ostensibly, a romantic comedy of domesticity and manners.
The narrative opens as the life of the Norvals of New England is transformed when Dr. Norval returns to his family from an expedition to the American Southwest with a young Mexican girl named Lola he has helped to rescue from a band of border Indians. The doughty and upright Mrs Norval is shocked and upset, but the unwelcome arrival is rather sweetened by the fact that the girl brings with her a million dollars’ worth of gold ore and precious stones. Much of this loot has to be kept in trust until Lola comes of age and/or is reunited with her missing father. In the meantime, however, there is plenty that can be appropriated by the family, whose daughters are soon arrayed in the latest fashion and riding out from a New York mansion in the finest carriages. There is even enough money to be spread around family friends and acquaintances, and to outfit entire companies for the Union side when the Civil War breaks out.
The bulk of the novel then charts the ways in which money and warfare expose the frailties and hypocrisies of WASP respectability. The story’s greatest rogue is a lawyer turned preacher turned military man by the name of Mr. Hackwell, who circles the Norvals, their womenfolk, and their money, like a hyena who has sniffed out the stench of moral corruption and is anxious to reap the profits. Hackwell contrives to seduce Mrs Norval into a clandestine marriage once her husband takes off on yet another voyage, while trying to engineer nuptials between her son, Julian, and Hackwell’s own sister, Emma. All the while he lusts after the young Lola, who develops into a striking beauty as she matures, made all the more desirable by the potential dowry that she bears with her.
Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita point out that money and machinations thereby lead to “the fall of Republican motherhood” (“Introduction” xxviii) and “the violation of the marriage contract” (xxxi). But this is also an allegory of broader social disturbances, just as the arrival of Lola and her wealth points to the US acquisition of over half of Mexico’s mineral-rich territory following the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848. As Sánchez and Pita observe, the novel exposes “the degeneration of democratic values and the faltering of the republican ideal” as a whole (xlv). Democracy is a myth, rights are proclaimed only to be abused and ignored, and there is “no informed consent of the governed [. . .] but rather corruption and influence peddling everywhere, even in the highest circles of government” (xlv).
The novel is indeed scathing about the state of the American res publica. Mrs Norval’s sister, Lavinia, travels to Washington to enquire about her brother, Isaac, a prisoner of war in a Southern camp. She discovers, however, that her government is happy to let its citizens languish if it should mean increasing pressure upon the Confederacy’s capacity to feed even its own people. Moreover, Isaac in particular has been removed from any list of prisoners to be exchanged because he once had a run-in with a powerful politician. Private pride (as well as ambition and indifference) is allowed to over-rule any sense of compassion or responsibility.
Lavinia had previously “believed all she had read in printed political speeches” (106); soon, however, she reluctantly comes to share in the cynicism expressed eventually by almost all the novel’s admirable characters. Julian too, for instance, who is threatened with dismissal from the army despite his heroic record, and then studiously ignored when he tries to press his case before the President, soon finds himself learning a “bitter philosophy [. . .] from the leading men of his country” (215).
In short, precisely at the moment at which the United States is forging some of its most potent discourses of self-justification and exceptionalism, from Manifest Destiny to the Empancipation Declaration, Ruiz de Burton reveals their bankruptcy and hypocrisy. Figures such as Mrs Norval may continue to declare that theirs is “the best government on Earth” (67), and to rail against both foreigners and popery; but she is insulated by wealth and blinded by the return of long repressed desires that dance around her, Ruiz de Burton suggests, like “unbottled imps” that have particular and “abundant fun” in Washington (148). As the social contract is revealed to be a sham, any putative hegemony is replaced by the new habits of wealth and the impish antics of misguided desire.