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Jackson, Helen Huntfree

(14 October 1830–12 August 1885)
  • Rosemary Whitaker

Helen Hunt Jackson.

Albumen silver print, c. 1884, by Charles F. Conly.

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Jackson, Helen Hunt (14 October 1830–12 August 1885), writer and reformer, was born Helen Maria Fiske in Amherst, Massachusetts, the daughter of Nathan Welby Fiske, a professor of languages at Amherst College, and Deborah Vinal. Her mother, recognizing Helen’s inclination toward independent thought and behavior, described her as “quite inclined to question everything; the Bible she says does not feel as if it were true” (Banning, p. 11). Despite a sporadic education at a series of boarding schools, she was better educated than most women of her time, having exposure to mathematics, science, and philosophy as well as the usual “finishing school” subjects.

In 1852 Helen Fiske married Edward Bissell Hunt, a mechanical engineer in the U.S. Army. His frequent changes of station gave her the opportunity to live at the artists’ colony of Newport, Rhode Island, and in Washington, D.C., where she met a number of the leading writers and publishers of her day. The Hunts had two sons; one died in infancy and the other in childhood. In 1863 Major Hunt was killed in a military accident, and Helen Hunt turned to writing as a form of solace as well as a possible source of income.

Using her literary contacts, Helen Hunt began her career in 1865 with two poems published in the New York Evening Post. Her first poetry collection, Verses, appeared in 1870, followed by a prose collection, Bits of Travel, in 1873. Under the tutelage of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whom she had met at Newport, Hunt emulated other female writers who had successfully met the requirements of publishers catering to female readers. Carefully adhering to the woman’s sphere of domesticity, she stressed in lyrics, essays, and travel sketches the moral and emotional qualities a woman was expected to possess in her role as exemplar to husband and children. She was able to bring a sprightly air to plodding subjects and to subdue fashionable melodramatic excesses without losing dramatic effect. Her rapid success can also be attributed to her astute cultivation of literary contacts as well as the size of the female readers’ market. Her popularity established, she added short stories, children’s stories, and novels, published under several pseudonyms but most often simply “H.H.”

Through her acquaintance with Higginson, Hunt came into contact with her childhood friend Emily Dickinson. They began a correspondence that lasted until Hunt’s death. In her characteristic way, Dickinson occasionally enclosed a poem. Though sometimes admitting that the lines puzzled her, Hunt was aware she was in touch with talent that far surpassed her own. Consistently she pleaded that Dickinson allow her to help with publication. She chided Dickinson for not giving her “day & generation” the privilege of reading her poems. Like no other of Dickinson’s known correspondents, Hunt unhesitatingly expressed her conviction that her friend was a great poet.

Hunt’s early travel sketches were about her excursions into quaint New England and European byways; then in 1872 a trip by transcontinental railroad from New York City to San Francisco gave her material for essays collected in Bits of Travel at Home (1878). When in 1873, after a period of ill health, Hunt returned to the West to try its restorative powers, she went to the new town of Colorado Springs, where in 1875 she married William Sharpless Jackson, a banker and railroad executive. For the rest of her life she called Colorado Springs home but made many trips back east to maintain contact with publishers and other authors, and regular journeys to California, which attracted her for its history as well as its beauty.

In 1879, while visiting in Boston, she attended a reception for representatives of the Ponca and Omaha Indian tribes who were touring the East in an attempt to arouse public indignation over the confiscation of their tribal lands by the U.S. government. Jackson had never shown any interest in reform movements, nor had her experiences in the West sparked any concern for Indian rights, but suddenly she was transformed. She wrote a friend that she had become what she had previously considered “the most odious thing in the world, ‘a woman with a hobby’ ” (Banning, p. 149). Her dedication to the cause of justice for Indian tribes resulted in a well-researched exposé of Indian mistreatment published in 1881 as A Century of Dishonor; the government-commissioned Report on the Conditions and Needs of the Mission Indians, with Abbot Kinney (1883); Ramona (1884), one of the most popular novels of its day; and a series of essays on the California Mission Indians, collected in Glimpses of California and the Missions (1902).

When her nonfiction writings did not initiate the reforms that Jackson sought, she said of Ramona, “I am going to write a novel, in which will be set forth some Indian experiences in a way to move people’s hearts… . People will read a novel when they will not read serious books” (Banning, p. 200). Critics and readers responded positively, but Jackson was dismayed by the focus of the reviews: “Not one word for the Indians; I put my heart and soul in the book for them. It is a dead failure” (Banning, p. 216). Instead of recognizing Jackson’s intent, readers were captivated by the charm of the southern California setting and the romance between a half-breed girl raised by an aristocratic Spanish family and an Indian forced off his tribal lands by white encroachers.

In little more than a year following the publication of Ramona, Jackson died of cancer in San Francisco. She was eulogized in newspapers from coast to coast. Publishers rushed to produce reprints and new collections. Ramona became the impetus for the romanticization of southern California history. For a time a body of literature about “Ramona Country” flourished, and various sites from the book became tourist attractions. It has gone through over 300 printings and transformation into stage plays, movies, and pageants.

Of all her work, Jackson believed only Ramona and A Century of Dishonor would survive. She was close to being right; however, her travel sketches and essays, especially those about the West, also deserve a continuing readership. One of the few cultivated women to travel to the West and write about the journey, and then to marry and establish a home there, her responses to these experiences are unique among nineteenth-century travelogues. Although she was disappointed that her dedication to the cause of justice for the American Indians did not have more immediate results, her writings inspired other reformers to continue their efforts. A Century of Dishonor and Report on the Conditions and Needs of the Mission Indians were frequently used as resources in the speeches and writings of such organizations as the Indian Rights Association and the Women’s National Indian Association. Especially in her exposure of the treatment of the Mission Indians of California, Jackson influenced reform legislation.

Bibliography

Major collectors of Jackson’s papers and letters are the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., and the Tutt Library of Colorado College in Colorado Springs. A comprehensive bibliography appears in Valerie Sherer Mathes, Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Indian Reform Legacy (1990). Two biographies are Ruth Odell, Helen Hunt Jackson (1939), and Evelyn I. Banning, Helen Hunt Jackson (1973). See also the Jackson chapter in Susan Coultrap-McQuin, Doing Literary Business: American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century (1990).