Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life Summary

Kate Phillips


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Helen Hunt Jackson is one of the largely forgotten American writers of the nineteenth century, although she is remembered for her popular romance, Ramona (1884). As Kate Phillips amply demonstrates in her biography of the author, Jackson deserves better. She was a prolific writer of essays, travel pieces, poetry, short fiction, and novels and an indefatigable writer of letters, often to the powerful and famous in support of the many causes to which she dedicated the later portion of her life. If for no other reason, her untiring efforts on behalf of the Mission Indians of Southern California call for a reassessment of Jackson’s life and career.

Helen Hunt Jackson (née Fiske) was born on October 14, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father, Nathan Welby Fiske, was an orthodox Calvinist minister, a writer (his most famous work was a mammoth Manual of Classical Literature), and a professor of Latin and Greek at Amherst College. Her mother, Deborah Vinal Fiske, also an orthodox Calvinist, wrote children’s stories. Helen was one of three siblings, including a young sister, Ann, and a brother, Humphrey, who died when Helen was three. Her mother suffered from tuberculosis and died when Helen was thirteen. The same disease afflicted her father; in May, 1847, he died of dysentery in Palestine, where he had gone in search of a cure. The orphaned Helen went with her sister to live with a guardian in Boston and began the peripatetic life she would maintain for the rest of her days.

Growing up in a strict Calvinist household and experiencing so many deaths as a child, Phillips notes that Helen was hardly out of mourning throughout her adolescence. She learned the discipline of Christian fortitude in the face of adversity, especially physical suffering, which comforted her during her many lifelong illnesses. Although she was early influenced by her parents’ piety, Jackson in later life rejected the religion of her family and instead adopted the more optimistic Unitarian and Transcendentalist religious beliefs. The teachings of her parents and of those who influenced her early years remained a force in Jackson’s life, however, and the value of submission she had learned as a child affected not only her subsequent life but also played out in her writings. Her anxiety about her own health also affected her life, causing her frequent relocation, Phillips calls it “psychological wanderlust” in search of better physical and mental health.

In 1851 Helen met Edward Hunt, a civil engineer and lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. They were married on October 28, 1852. The next year she gave birth to a son, Murray, who died of a brain tumor before he was one. In December, 1855, she gave birth to a second son, named Warren Horsford and called Rennie; he died in 1865, just eighteen months after her husband’s death as a result of a military experiment gone wrong. Although she would marry again, she had no more children and never completely recovered from the loss of her two young sons.

In 1866 Helen began her literary career by publishing a number of poems based on her early losses. That winter she took up residence in Newport, Rhode Island, in the same boardinghouse as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who would become her literary mentor—he later provided the same support for Emily Dickinson, a neighbor of Helen from Amherst. Higginson encouraged Helen to perfect her prose and to pursue writing poetry, which he felt was a superior literary form to prose. He also suggested that she explore a number of genres, advice she followed throughout her career in travel sketches, literary reviews, essays on domestic themes, and editorial pieces. Her early literary efforts were published under the initials “H. H.” and the pseudonym “Rip Van Winkle,” a name taken from Washington Irving’s famous tale.

These first sketches and travel essays expressed the nostalgia for a passing rural America then being rapidly transformed in the post-Civil War era. “A Protest Against the Spread of Civilization” summed up this attitude. By civilization, she meant the utilitarian money-getting that encouraged people to value material things over beauty and human compassion, what would now be called “consumerism.” This lingering skepticism about the rising tide of industrialization and the subsequent social changes it wrought was a feature of most of her later writing.

After more than a year spent abroad, Helen moved, once again in search of health, to Colorado Springs in the Colorado Territory. After her marriage to William Sharpless Jackson, a local banker and entrepreneur, the...

(The entire section is 1886 words.)