Helen (Fiske) Hunt Jackson

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Helen Hunt Jackson

Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885) was an American author of fiction whose most famous novel, Ramona, dramatized the plight of California's Indians.

Helen Hunt Jackson was born Helen Marie Fiske on Oct. 15, 1830, in Amherst, Mass. Her father taught Latin, Greek, and philosophy at Amherst College. After her mother died of tuberculosis in 1844, an aunt cared for Helen and her younger sister. To recover from his grief and improve his health—he too suffered from tuberculosis—Professor Fiske sailed for the Near East in 1846. He died in Jerusalem in 1847.

In 1852 Helen met and married Lt. Edward Hunt of the Coast Survey Department. The son born in 1853 lived only 11 months. Another son, Warren ("Rennie"), was born in 1855. In 1863 her husband, by this time a major in the Navy Department, died while testing a submarine device he had developed. Yet another blow fell: Rennie died in 1865.

Hunt expressed her grief in poems that she sent to the New York Evening Post over the signatures "Marah" and later "H.H." She was encouraged in her writing by Thomas W. Higginson, who was always anxious to help female writers and gave important encouragement to Hunt's lifelong friend Emily Dickinson. While Hunt traveled in Europe (1868-1870), Higginson arranged publication in magazines and newspapers of the sketches she sent back. Her first book, Verses (1870), was well received, as were Bits of Travel (1872) and Bits of Talk about Home Matters (1873), collections of her periodical sketches. In 1871 she began publishing short stories in Scribner's Magazine under the name "Saxe Holm."

In 1872 Hunt traveled to California. The next year, while in Colorado Springs, she met William Sharpless Jackson, a banker and leading citizen of that community. They married in October 1875, and Colorado Springs became her home.

Saxe Holm's Stories had been published in 1873 (second series 1878). Helen Hunt Jackson's first novel, Mercy Philbrick's Choice (1876), was widely circulated. Two years later she published another volume, A Masque of Poets.

Jackson's interest in the conditions of the western Indians resulted in A Century of Dishonor (1881), a thoroughly researched exposé of the injustices Indians had suffered. She was subsequently appointed by the U.S. government as special commissioner to investigate the conditions of Mission Indians. When she realized that amelioration by official means was unlikely, she turned from report writing to fiction. She pleaded for justice for Indians in her novel Ramona (1884), though the book owed its enduring popularity more to its romantic than to its propagandistic aspects. Jackson died on Aug. 12, 1885.

Further Reading

Ruth Odell, Helen Hunt Jackson, H.H. (1939), was the first, and remains the only, reliable biography. For light on her relationship with Emily Dickinson see Thomas H. Johnson, Emily Dickinson: An Interpretative Biography (1955), and David Higgins, Portrait of Emily Dickinson, the Poet and Her Prose (1967). □