Helen Hunt Jackson

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

ph_0111205156-Jackson.jpg Helen Hunt Jackson Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Jackson received the first government commission on behalf of American Indians and fought vehemently for their civil rights and liberties.

Early Life

Helen Maria Fiske was born on October 15, 1830, to Nathan Wiley Fiske and Deborah Vinal Fiske. Nathan Fiske was a Congregational clergyman and a professor of philosophy and language at Amherst College who brought his children up under strict Calvinistic authority. Helen’s mother Deborah was a quiet, demure woman whose influence on the young vivacious Helen was minimal. Indeed, Helen’s father’s only real influence occurred when he either punished her physically or derided her in front of her friends. Although her home in Amherst provided her with stability and a strict code of ethics, little affection or warmth was conveyed to the young and impressionable Helen. For friendship and companionship, Helen would turn to her friend Emily Dickinson, who lived down the road from her house. Helen’s friendship with the reclusive Emily proved to be a sustaining relationship throughout her life.

Illness was a common feature of New England life in the middle of the nineteenth century. Deborah contracted tuberculosis and died a few months after Helen’s twelfth birthday—the year was 1844. Helen had been a devoted daughter and had received all of her education from her mother up to that point. By the summer of 1846, Nathan had also contracted tuberculosis, but he was set on traveling to the Holy Land. Since the death of Deborah, Helen had been separated from her younger sister Ann and had been attending various seminaries. A year after leaving Amherst, Nathan died, and he was buried on Mount Zion. Helen was nearly fifteen when she was faced with being separated from her only sister and living in seminaries with virtual strangers.

These early years of personal hardship and grief were formative in how Helen lived her life and clearly forged many of her later moral and political values. Despite such hardship, Helen maintained her somewhat carefree and unstructured lifestyle. From these early years as a young girl until she finally came to live in San Francisco, Helen remained true to her own ideals rather than those of other people. Corresponding with Emily Dickinson was the one unaltered joy that sustained her through many personal and family hardships.

From this period in her life until her death in San Francisco, Helen was a traveler whose trunks and cases seemed to be permanently packed. These formative years gave the young, headstrong Helen a yearning to travel and to experience new and different places, becoming a part of society wherever she found herself.

Life’s Work

Although Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona (1884) made a lasting contribution to American literature, her literary and political endeavors had a rather inauspicious beginning. After the death of her first husband, Lieutenant Edward Bissel Hunt, in 1863 and the tragic death of her nine-year-old son two years later, Jackson turned to writing as a form of solace. (She became Helen Hunt Jackson when she later married William S. Jackson, a wealthy Quaker financier, in 1875.) Recognizing that she had an ability to write, she set out to become a well-known and respected writer. Helen undertook a life dedicated to writing. Articles, poems, sketches, and novels became her life-blood. Outwardly, at least, Helen Jackson remained vivacious and ebullient, seemingly undaunted by the tragic life that had been hers in only thirty-five years.

In the summer of 1865, Parke Godwin, the assistant publisher of the New York Evening Post, published Helen’s poem “The Key to the Casket.” This unexpected acceptance of her work inspired Helen to move to the writing community of Newport, Rhode Island. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a respected writer and critic, soon became Helen’s writing mentor, friend, and confidant. Newport allowed Helen the freedom to write even though woman writers were at that time far from being accepted. Because women writers were still an enigma, Jackson was forced to publish her works anonymously. Only when Ramona was published in 1884 did Jackson believe that her true identity was no longer an issue.

Because of the phenomenal success of Ramona, many people have the impression that Jackson was really only the author of a solitary novel. This could not be further from the truth. From her early years at Newport and continuously throughout her life, Jackson wrote in many different subject areas.

Jackson’s early writing, however, reveals little of the passion and conviction that the cause of the American Indians...

(The entire section is 1932 words.)