Jackson, Helen (Maria Fiske) Hunt

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JACKSON, Helen (Maria Fiske) Hunt

Born 15 October 1830, Amherst, Massachusetts; died 12 August 1885, San Francisco, California

Also wrote under: H. H., Saxe Holm, Helen Jackson, Marah, NoName, Rip Van Winkle

Daughter of Nathan Welby and Deborah Vinal Fiske; married Edward Bissell Hunt, 1852; William Sharpless Jackson, 1875, children: two, both of whom died young

The elder and more impetuous of two surviving children of a minister-turned-professor and his devout and educated wife, Helen Hunt Jackson was raised in an atmosphere of learning, piety, and enforced propriety. Although her parents both succumbed to tuberculosis while Jackson was a teenager, she continued to attend private schools until 1850. Jackson then married Lieutenant Hunt and began the restless life of an army wife and mother of two sons, only one of whom survived infancy. In 1863 Jackson's husband was killed testing his newly invented torpedo. When, two years later, Jackson's son died, she turned to writing poetry as an outlet for her grief.

Jackson's early poems won her recognition from the influential Thomas Wentworth Higginson; her subsequent prolific periodical publications gathered a wide popular audience and critical praise, even from Emerson. Jackson supported herself and traveled widely on the profits of her pen. Her generally pious and sentimental treatments of death, love, and nature themes date much of her poetry, but many of her Verses (1870) and Sonnets and Lyrics (1886) can still be appreciated for their skillful technique and use of language.

Jackson's first prose efforts were travel pieces, enriched by her flair for observation of detail in interior decoration and natural scenery. Her descriptions of unconventional people encountered along the way reveal the lingering influence of Jackson's narrowly proper upbringing. While wintering in Colorado Springs in 1873 she met William Sharpless Jackson, a Quaker banker and railroad promoter, whom she married two years later. Jackson continued writing and experimented in prose fiction. Her passion for anonymity continued; "Saxe Holm" aroused popular curiosity as the author of two series of Jackson's short stories (1874 and 1876), and she wrote two novels, Mercy Philbrick's Choice (1876) and Hetty's Strange History (1877), for her publisher's "No Name" series. These works, set in New England, focus upon strong women characters dealing with complications wrought by love, death, family responsibility, and illness. For example, Draxy Miller, a memorable "Saxe Holm" heroine, arranges her sick father's retirement, marries a minister, and takes over his pulpit after his death, all to the approval of the small-town community.

Jackson's love of children, undiminished by the deaths of her own, emerges in her children's books. Her cat stories, particularly Letters from a Cat (1879), remain entertaining. In Nellie's Silver Mine (1878), Jackson incorporated her first impressions of Colorado into her story of unrelievedly good and resourceful Nellie and her somewhat petulant twin brother. The didactic asides prevalent in these works overwhelm Jackson's Bits of Talk in Verse and Prose for Young Folks (1876).

In 1879 Jackson heard Suzette "Bright Eyes" LaFlesche, an Omaha Native American, describe the wrongs suffered by Native Americans. Aroused by a righteous passion for justice for Native Americans comparable to abolitionist fervor, Jackson produced her most memorable works, and abandoned her pseudonyms to speak her mind. In A Century of Dishonor (1881), Jackson also abandoned fiction, writing impassioned history documenting several heinous examples of governmental perfidy practiced upon Native American tribes. Jackson's strong indictment of the U.S. government and, by extension, its acquiescent populace, delighted reformers and enraged some critics who believed Jackson's lack of objectivity damaged her case.

Jackson was most appalled by the wrongful treatment inflicted upon California's Mission Native Americans. She and Abbot Kinney served as official investigators, producing a Report on the Conditions and Needs of the Mission Indians (1883). Jackson was determined to publicize the situation of California's natives and, since government documents reach few, she wrote Ramona (1884), a romance involving a half-Native American girl raised on a Spanish hacienda who elopes with a Native American, and subsequently shares his life as victim of land fraud and prejudice. Ramona enjoyed continuing popularity in over 300 reprintings, but unfortunately had little real impact upon Native American policy. Perhaps the outrage Jackson intended to arouse was lost in local color and drowned in tears, the very elements of Ramona 's story that have encouraged its frequent retelling in local pageants and national media productions.

Ramona first reached the screen in a three-hour photoplay in 1916. A modified happy ending was added to the popular 1928 version, but in 1936, when a technicolor Ramona was released, one critic found the story "a piece of unadulterated hokum" far too sentimental for "these heartless days."

In spite of the sentimentality of much of her work, Jackson was widely respected in the literary and Native American reform circles of her era, and her death from cancer in 1885 was sincerely mourned. Her posthumously published stories return to eastern themes, and while they lack the fire of her Native American works, remain interesting for their powerful, independent women characters such as Sophy Burr in Zeph (1885), Victorene and Little Bel in stories included in Between Whiles (1887), and Pansy Billings and Popsy (1898).

Although most modern critics fault Jackson's obvious sentimentality, her works are important, both as an index for the taste of her times as well as for their focus upon women who act to determine their destiny. Marriage is not the end of their stories; Jackson shows them coping with widowhood, poverty, infidelity, and work. The presentation of Native Americans in her works deserves some criticism for its "noble savage" inclination and implications of Indian passivity, but the aim of her writing, to reach and arouse a white audience susceptible to such stereotypes, must be considered in any evaluation. Readers may weep at Ramona's plight, but must still be subconsciously impressed by her strength of purpose.

Other Works:

Bathmendi: A Persian Tale (1867). Bits of Travel (1872). Bits of Talk about Home Matters (1873). Saxe Holm's Stories (Series 1, 1874). The Story of Boon (1874). Bits of Travel at Home (1878). Saxe Holm's Stories (Series 2, 1878). Mammy Tittleback and Her Family (1881). The Training of Children (1882). Easter Bells (1884). Glimpses of Three Coasts (1886). The Procession of Flowers in Colorado (1886). My Legacy (1888). A Calendar of Sonnets (1891). Poems (1891). Cat Stories (1898). Father Junipero and the Mission Indians (1902). Glimpses of California and the Missions (1902).

Many of the papers of Helen Hunt Jackson are at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.


Hardy, G.J., American Women Civil Rights Activists: Bibliographies of 68 Leaders, 1825-1992 (1993). Higginson, T. W., Contemporaries (1899). Higginson, T. W., Short Studies of American Authors (1906). Odell, R., Helen Hunt Jackson (1939).

Reference works:

Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. 3 (1887). Authors at Home (1886). DAB, IX. Herringshaw's National Library of American Biography, Vol. 3 (1914). NAW. Notable Women in History (1913). Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, Vol. 6 (1904).

Other references: American Literary Realism (Summer 1969, Summer 1973). AL (Jan. 1931). American Scholar (Summer 1941). Common Ground (Winter 1946). NYT (6 April 1916, 15 May 1928, 7 Oct. 1936). SR (Spring 1959).


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