(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Helen Hunt Jackson 1830-1885

Also wrote under the pseudonyms H. H., Saxe Holm, Marah, Rip Van Winkle. American children's author, novelist, essayist, non-fiction writer, and poet.

Known primarily as an author of popular children's books and poems during the late-nineteenth century, Helen Hunt Jackson rarely published under her own name, preferring instead to use such pseudonyms as H. H. and Saxe Holm. Although Jackson was a prolific writer and contributor to magazines and journals, many of her book reviews were unsigned, making it difficult to attribute much of her work. Years after her death, Jackson's fame rests not on the children's books that made her so popular during her lifetime, but on two works written for an adult audience—A Century of Dishonor (1881) and Ramona (1884). In the 1880s Jackson became a passionate advocate for the Native American cause and both these books reflect her concerns. Jackson's other works include contributions of short stories and essays to various literary and children's magazines, as well as juvenile novels, such as Nelly's Silver Mine (1878), that reflected her love for the landscape and life in the western United States.

Biographical Information

Jackson was born in 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father, Nathan Welby Fiske, was a stern clergyman and professor at Amherst College and her mother, Deborah Vinal, was an educated Bostonian. As a child, Jackson was known for her strong will. After her parents died when she was a teenager, an aunt raised Jackson and her sister. Jackson was educated at the Ipswich Female Academy and then continued her instruction at a school run by John and Jacob Abbott in New York City. She became acquainted with the poet Emily Dickinson during her early years in Amherst and the two remained friends and admirers of each other's work for the rest of their lives. In 1852 Jackson married Lieutenant Edward Bisell Hunt and together they had two sons, one of whom died in infancy. Lt. Hunt died in 1863 following an accident while conducting a scientific experiment, and shortly thereafter Jackson also lost her second son. She was grief-stricken at her loss and eventually moved to Newport, Rhode Island. It was here that she began her lifelong association with the literary world. She began attending meetings of local and visiting writers organized by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Her contact with these writers and intellectuals rekindled an interest in life and she began writing to support herself financially. She became one of Higginson's protégés and began to contribute poetry and prose to periodicals, including the New York Independent, Scribner's Monthly, and the New York Evening Post. She went on to publish hundreds of pieces and her work was included in most of the leading journals. In 1870 Jackson issued her first collection of poetry, titled Verses, to glowing reviews. In fact, author Ralph Waldo Emerson thought so much of her poetry that he included some of it in the second edition of his anthology Parnassus in 1874. After several years in Newport, Jackson traveled to the West in the early 1870s. In 1873, following an illness, she went to Colorado to recover. There she met and married William Sharpless Jackson in 1875. The two had no children, but Jackson was soon consumed with what became her life's crusade. Following a lecture on the suffering and dispossession of Native Americans, Jackson developed an intense interest in their cause and began writing letters and articles on the subject. She devoted the remainder of her life to improving the conditions of Native Americans and exposing the injustices heaped upon this marginalized group. Despite her popularity and acclaim as a poet and children's author, Jackson herself considered A Century of Dishonor and Ramona, two works that reflected her concern with the Native American cause, her own best legacy. Finally after suffering for several years from an unknown illness, Jackson succumbed to stomach cancer in 1885.

Major Works

Jackson began her publishing career in the early 1870s with the publication of several poems and reviews in contemporary literary journals. Her 1870 collection of poetry, Verses, derived from these early submissions and was reflective of her grief at losing her sons and her first husband. She followed this publication with two volumes of short stories, in 1874 and 1878. Jackson, like many of her female literary contemporaries, wrote for children, often entertaining them with tales of adventure and mischief. Her short stories are full of her own childhood escapades and Jackson often contributed them to children's magazines including Riverside Magazine for Young Readers. In 1876 she collected her children's pieces in one volume, Bits of Talk, in Verse and Prose, for Young Folks. In the mid-1870s Jackson also began writing full-length works and her first two novels, Mercy Philbrick's Choice and Hetty's Strange History, were published in 1876 and 1877 respectively. Both works feature New England settings and hallmark strong characters. A third novel, Nelly's Silver Mine, was published in 1878. An adventure story about the fictional March family, the work is based on Jackson's experiences in Colorado. In contrast to many contemporary stories about the West that presented a barbaric view of frontier life, Jackson's work was lauded for its realistic portrayal. Although the book was praised as a “true classic for the nursery,” its appeal has not endured and it is now read primarily as a historical curiosity. In contrast, Jackson's poetry for children continued to be popular well after her death. In addition to children's short stories and poetry, Jackson was also known for her “cat stories” which are collected into three publications. The most famous of these, Letters from a Cat (1879), relates daily events in the life of a feline. Jackson's other extremely popular cat-related titles include Mammy Tittleback and Her Family and The Hunter Cats of Connorloa.

During a trip to New York City in the 1870s, Jackson attended a lecture by Ponco Chief Standing Bear on the plight of Native Americans and their suffering and dispossession at the hands of the United States government. Jackson was profoundly affected by this knowledge and she became a passionate advocate working for the cause of Native Americans up until her death. In a letter to her friend Charles D. Warner in 1879, Jackson wrote “I shall be found with ‘Indians’ engraved on my brain when I am dead. A fire has been kindled within me, which will never go out.” Her activism led her to write numerous essays and articles on the subject, which further prompted her research for a non-fiction work to expose the government's maltreatment of these native people. The result was the publication of A Century of Dishonor. The work theorizes that contemporary United States government policy regarding Native Americans defied the basic principles of justice. Jackson was so committed to her cause that she mailed copies of the work to all the members of Congress at her own expense. While legislation based on Jackson's work concerning the Mission Indians of California was introduced, and was approved by the Senate, Congress did not pass the bill. In fact, there were many, including Theodore Roosevelt, who criticized her work. Nonetheless, a few years later the Indian Rights Association was formed, and in 1882 Jackson was appointed a commissioner of Indian Affairs, assigned to visit and report on the conditions of Indians in California. Jackson considered A Century of Dishonor her best work and though the book went out of print after her death, later students have considered it “one of the soundest and most exhaustive works” on Indian rights. In 1884 Jackson continued her efforts to highlight the plight of Native Americans by the publication of Ramona, a romantic novel set against the background of the old Spanish patriarchal life in California. It is the story of Ramona, a half Indian and half Spanish woman and her Indian husband's love in the face of persecution by whites. Ramona, who was designed to represent the best of two races, is considered one of the most memorable female characters in nineteenth-century literature. Ramona was the last full-length work issued by Jackson.

Critical Reception

Jackson was a prolific and popular writer at a time when women writers faced hostility and disrespect. Although her poetry is now generally considered dated and her handling of the major themes of life, love, and death frequently interpreted as too sentimental, she was considered one of the best poets in her own time. In fact, at the time of her death, her longtime mentor and friend Higginson rated her poetry as her best contribution to American literature. And while Jackson's poems continued to be anthologized well into the 1970s, most twentieth-century scholarship and criticism of Jackson's writing has focused on Ramona and A Century of Dishonor. In 1886 Albion W. Tourgee wrote in the North American Review that Ramona was “unquestionably the best novel yet produced by an American woman.” Along with Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, it was ranked as one of the two great ethical novels of the nineteenth century, and Jackson herself said “If I can do one-hundredth part for the Indian as Mrs. Stowe did for the Negro, I will be thankful.” In contrast, most twentieth-century critics consider Ramona a great sentimental romance, and while they praise the work for its didactic purpose, many critique it because it offers no constructive remedy. In fact, Ramona has become famous primarily because it is a great romance; it has been reprinted over 300 times, attesting to the popularity of the work.

While Ramona's political nature cannot be disputed, some critics have noted that despite its failure to match the social impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin, it is nonetheless a better-written work than Stowe's novel. Reviewing Ramona in his book Through Ramona's Country, George Wharton James noted Jackson's attention to realistic detail. According to James, Jackson used many actual events in the creation of her novel, and although the “hero and heroine are fiction … Ramona … is a work of essential truth.” In an essay that traces the factual elements of Ramona back to Jackson's A Century of Dishonor, critic John R. Byers expresses a similar opinion, calling Century “one of the most scathing indictments of the United States Government on the treatment of the Indian population. …” Byers further states that Century served as the source for Ramona, and that the two works share a close relationship, drawing on the same set of facts. In contrast, although Century is lauded for its strong and convincing indictment of government policy and practice with regards to Native Americans, most critics agree that the work is “stylistically flawed by hasty writing with little revision.” Although Jackson was a popular writer of both prose and poetry in her time, most twentieth-century scholarship focuses on Ramona. With this novel and Century, says Carol Schmudde, Jackson “put the moral authority” she had gained as a poet and author through her previous works “on the line, and it is for her passionate concern and contribution to her cause that she is most remembered today.”