Some Penguin Classics are grand gestures against invisibility. That's the term used by Hsuan Hsu's Introduction to the very welcome new Penguin Classics edition of The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta by John Rollin Ridge; he refers to the book as “one of the most invisible novels in the history of American literature,” a verdict that can hardly be argued but that is overturned as far as it can be by this lovely new Penguin Classics paperback, with the Penguin white-script-on-black-spine and a Murieta-inspired 19th century painting by Charles Christian Nahl, the great founding father of California art.
The book was the first novel ever published in California and the first written by a Native American (Rollins' Cherokee name was Yellow Bird), and it tells the picaresque, unflinchingly violent story of a young Mexican immigrant who's thwarted early in life and turns to a vigilante path of nurtured revenge:
He had contracted a hatred to the whole American race, and was determined to shed their blood, whenever and wherever an opportunity occurred. It was no time now for hime to re-trace his steps. He had committed deeds which made him amenable to the law, and his only safety lay in a persistence in the unlawful course which he had begun. It was necessary that he should have horses and that he should have money. These he could not obtain except by robbery and murder, and thus he became an outlaw and a bandit on the verge of his nineteenth year.
Somewhat surprisingly and refreshingly, Murieta's open and white-hot bigotry, one of the animating forces of the book, is not only addressed directly by bestselling Outlander author Diana Gabaldon in her Foreword:
To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is its charmingly casual racism. Racism is Joaquín's chief modus operandi. White people are Bad, Mexicans are Good. Chinamen [sic] are very industrious but stink at fighting, so naturally you should rob them whenever you come across them because they always have gold and it's easy. Sometimes you kill them, too, but that's not as much fun.
Fun is the key word for Joaquín Murieta, despite the desperate, bloody nature of the anti-hero's thoughts and deeds. Rollins' novel is thrilling saga of a charismatic vigilante defying not only law and order but often order itself. It's a winning template (Murieta was a dramatic grass roots hit – not only selling well but being feverishly read, translated, and pirated well outside of California), which explains why it's been used and re-used so often in pop culture, with better-known figures like the Lone Ranger, Zorro, and Batman all sharing some DNA with the archetypal mission-driven outlaw.
This Penguin Classics paperback is the first mainstream-house edition of Joaquín Murieta to appear in American bookstores in over a century. That's a long wait for readers to meet the great great grandfather of the Caped Crusader, but the thing makes a pretty addition to the Penguin list.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website ishttp://www.stevedonoghue.com