Helen Hunt Jackson, 19th-Century Author and Reformer
By Nava Atlas | On November 29, 2020 | Updated November 14, 2021 | Comments (0)
Helen Hunt Jackson (born Helen Maria Fiske, October 15, 1830 – August 12, 1885), was an American novelist, poet, and writer of nonfiction. She gained fame as an advocate of Native Americans, using her pen and her voice to expose their disgraceful treatment by the U.S. government.
Her best-known novel, Ramona (1884), called attention to the mistreatment of Native Americans, much as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1882) raised awareness of the evils of slavery.
Though Ramona is no longer as widely known as the latter, it was hugely successful in its time, going through hundreds of editions. And though the intent behind both Ramona and Uncle Tom’s Cabin could smack of white saviorism, they were the most widely read “moral novels” of the 19th century. The two authors fervently believed in the causes that propelled their writings.
Born and raised in Amherst, MA, Helen was a girlhood friend (and neighbor) of Emily Dickinson, who wouldn’t become a world-renowned poet until after both women had died. Today, the home in which she spent her early life is at 249 South Pleasant Street, is part of Amherst College.
The following excellent (if somewhat sentimental) biography has been adapted from Lives of Girls Who Became Famous by Sarah K. Bolton, 1914:
Thousands were saddened when, Aug. 12, 1885, it was flashed across the wires that Helen Hunt Jackson was dead. The Nation said, “The news will probably carry a pang of regret into more American homes than similar intelligence in regard to any other woman, with the possible exception of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe.”
Mrs. Jackson’s literary work will be abiding, but her life, with its dark shadow and bright sunlight, its deep affections and sympathy with the oppressed, will furnish a rich setting for the gems of thought which she gave to the world.
Born Helen Maria Fiske in the cultured town of Amherst, Massachusetts, she inherited from her mother a sunny, buoyant nature, and from her father, Nathan W. Fiske, professor of languages and philosophy in the college, a strong and vigorous mind.
When Helen was in her early teens, both her father and mother died of tuberculosis, leaving her to the care of a grandfather. She was soon placed in the school of the author Reverend J.S.C. Abbott, of New York, and here some of her happiest days were passed. She grew to womanhood, frank, merry, impulsive, brilliant in conversation, and fond of society.
At twenty-one, Helen married a young army officer, Captain (and later Major) Edward B. Hunt, whom his friends called “Cupid” Hunt from his handsome looks and curling hair. He was a brother of Governor Washington Hunt of New York, an engineer of high rank, and a man of fine scientific attainments.
They lived much of their time at West Point and Newport. The young wife moved in a fashionable social circle and won hosts of admiring friends. Now and then, when he read a paper before some learned society, he was proud to take his vivacious and attractive wife with him.
Their first baby died when he was eleven months old, but another beautiful boy came to take his place, named after two friends, Warren Horsford, but familiarly called “Rennie.” He was an uncommonly bright child, and Mrs. Hunt was passionately fond and proud of him. Life seemed full of pleasures. She dressed handsomely, and no wish of her heart seemed ungratified.
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A shattered life
Suddenly, like a thunderbolt from a clear sky, the happy life was shattered. Major Hunt was killed Oct. 2, 1863, while experimenting in Brooklyn with a submarine gun of his own invention.
The young widow still had her eight-year-old boy, and she clung to him more tenderly than ever. But in less than two years, she stood by his dying bed. Seeing the agony of his mother, and forgetting his own even in that dread destroyer, diphtheria, he said, almost at the last moment, “Promise me, mamma, that you will not kill yourself.”
She promised, and exacted from him also a pledge that if it were possible, he would come back from the other world to talk with his mother. He never came, and Mrs. Hunt could have no faith in spiritualism because what Rennie could not do, she believed to be impossible.
For months she shut herself into her room, refusing to see her nearest friends. “Anyone who really loves me ought to pray that I may die, too, like Rennie,” she said. Her physician thought she would die of grief; but when her strong, earnest nature had wrestled with itself and come off conqueror, she came out of her seclusion, cheerful as of old. The pictures of her husband and boy were ever beside her, and these doubtless spurred her on to the work she was to accomplish.
A bereaved mother’s poem
Three months after Rennie’s death, her first poem, Lifted Over, appeared in the Nation:
As tender mothers, guiding baby steps,
When places come at which the tiny feet
Would trip, lift up the little ones in arms
Of love, and set them down beyond the harm,
So did our Father watch the precious boy,
Led o’er the stones by me, who stumbled oft
Myself, but strove to help my darling on:
He saw the sweet limbs faltering, and saw
Rough ways before us, where my arms would fail;
So reached from heaven, and lifting the dear child,
Who smiled in leaving me, He put him down
Beyond all hurt, beyond my sight, and bade
Him wait for me! Shall I not then be glad,
And, thanking God, press on to overtake!”
The poem was widely copied, and many mothers were comforted by it. The kind letters she received in consequence were the first gleam of sunshine in the darkened life. If she were doing even a little good, she could live and be strong.
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The start of a literary career
Then began, at thirty-four, absorbing and painstaking literary work. She studied the best models of composition and found it most helpful to study the works of Wentworth Higginson.
Her first prose sketch, “A Walk Up Mt. Washington from the Glen House,” appeared in the Independent, Sept. 13, 1866; and from this time she wrote for that able journal three hundred and seventy-one articles.
She worked rapidly, writing usually with a lead-pencil, on large sheets of yellow paper, but she pruned carefully. Her first poem in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled Coronation, delicate and full of meaning, appeared in 1869, being taken to Mr. Fields, the editor, by a friend.
At this time she spent a year abroad, principally in Germany and Italy, writing home several sketches. In Rome, she became so ill that her life hung by a thread. When she was partially recovered and went away to regain her strength, her friends insisted that a professional nurse should go with her; but she took a hard-working young Italian girl of sixteen, to whom this vacation would be a blessing.
In 1870, on Helen’s return from Europe, a little book of Verses was published. Like most beginners, she was obliged to pay for the stereotyped plates. The book was well received. Ralph Waldo Emerson liked especially her sonnet, Thought. He ranked her poetry above that of all American women, and most American men.
Some persons praised the “exquisite musical structure” of “Gondoliers,” and others read and re-read her beautiful “Down to Sleep.” But the world’s favorite was “Spinning”:
Like a blind spinner in the sun,
I tread my days;
I know that all the threads will run
I know each day will bring its task,
And, being blind, no more I ask.
But listen, listen, day by day,
To hear their tread
Who bear the finished web away,
And cut the thread,
And bring God’s message in the sun,
“Thou poor blind spinner, work is done.’
After this came two other small books, Bits of Travel and Bits of Talk about Home Matters. She paid for the plates of the former. Fame did not burst upon Helen Hunt; it came after years of work after it had been fully earned. The road to authorship is a hard one, and only those should attempt it who have courage and perseverance.
A second marriage
Eleven years after the death of Major Hunt, in 1876, Helen married Mr. William Sharpless Jackson, a Quaker and a cultured banker. Their home in Colorado Springs, became an ideal one, sheltered under the great Manitou, and looking toward the Garden of the Gods, full of books and magazines, of dainty rugs and dainty china gathered from many countries, and richly colored Colorado flowers.
The new Mrs. Jackson loved flowers almost as though they were children. She wrote:
“I bore on this June day a sheaf of the white columbine — one single sheaf, one single root; but it was almost more than I could carry. In the open spaces, I carried it on my shoulder; in the thickets, I bore it carefully in my arms, like a baby …
There is a part of Cheyenne Mountain which I and one other have come to call ‘our garden.’ When we drive down from ‘our garden,’ there is seldom room for another flower in our carriage. The top thrown back is filled, the space in front of the driver is filled, and our laps and baskets are filled with the more delicate blossoms.
We look as if we were on our way to the ceremonies of Decoration Day. So we are. All June days are decoration days in Colorado Springs, but it is the sacred joy of life that we decorate — not the sacred sadness of death.”
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A budding novelist and advocate for Native Americans
But Mrs. Jackson, with her pleasant home, could not rest from her work. Two novels came from her pen, Mercy Philbrick’s Choice and Hetty’s Strange History. It is probable also that she helped to write the beautiful and tender Saxe Holm Stories.
The time had now come for her to do her last and perhaps her best work. She could not write without a definite purpose, and now the purpose that settled down upon her heart was to help the defrauded Indians.
She left her home and spent three months in the Astor Library of New York, writing her Century of Dishonor, showing how we have despoiled the Indians and broken our treaties with them. She wrote to a friend, “I cannot think of anything else from night to morning and from morning to night.” So untiringly did she work that she made herself ill.
At her own expense, she sent a copy to each member of Congress. Its plain facts were not relished in some quarters, and she began to taste the cup that all reformers have to drink; but the brave woman never flinched in her duty. So much was the Government impressed by her earnestness and good judgment, that she was appointed a Special Commissioner with her friend, Abbott Kinney, to examine and report on the condition of the Mission Indians in California.
Could an accomplished, tenderly reared woman go into their adobe villages and listen to their wrongs? What would the world say of its poet? Mrs. Jackson did not ask; she had a mission to perform, and the more culture, the more responsibility. She brought cheer and hope to the Native American men and their wives, and they called her “the Queen.” She wrote able articles about them in the Century.
The report made by Mr. Kinney and herself, which she prepared largely, was clear and convincing. How different all this from her early life! Mrs. Jackson had become more than a poet and novelist; even the leader of an oppressed people.
At once, in the winter of 1883, she began to write her wonderfully graphic and tender Ramona, and into this, she said, “I put my heart and soul.” The book was immediately reprinted in England, and has had great popularity. She meant to do for the American Indian what Mrs. Stowe did for the slave, and she lived long enough to see the great work well in progress.
An injury and last letters
In June 1884, falling on the staircase of her Colorado home, she severely fractured her leg and was confined to the house for several months. Then she was taken to Los Angeles for the winter. The broken limb mended rapidly, but malarial fever set in, and she was carried to San Francisco. Her first remark was, as she entered the house looking out upon the broad and lovely bay, “I did not imagine it was so pleasant! What a beautiful place to die in!”
To the last, her letters to her friends were full of cheer. She wrote:
“You must not think because I speak of not getting well that I am sad over it,” she wrote. “On the contrary, I am more and more relieved in my mind, as it seems to grow more and more sure that I shall die. You see that I am growing old [she was but fifty-four], and I do believe that my work is done.
You have never realized how, for the past five years, my whole soul has been centered on the Indian question. Ramona was the outcome of those five years. The Indian cause is on its feet now; powerful friends are at work.”
To another, she wrote:
“I am heartily, honestly, and cheerfully ready to go. In fact, I am glad to go. My Century of Dishonor and Ramona are the only things I have done of which I am glad now. The rest is of no moment. They will live, and they will bear fruit. They already have. The change in public feeling on the Indian question in the last three years is marvelous; an Indian Rights Association in every large city in the land.”
She had no fear of death. She said, “It is only just passing from one country to another … My only regret is that I have not accomplished more work; especially that it was so late in the day when I began to work in real earnest.”
A peaceful departure
Four days before she died, she wrote to President Cleveland:
“From my death-bed I send you a message of heartfelt thanks for what you have already done for the Indians. I ask you to read my Century of Dishonor. I am dying happier for the belief I have that it is your hand that is destined to strike the first steady blow toward lifting this burden of infamy from our country, and righting the wrongs of the Indian race.
With respect and gratitude, Helen Jackson”
That evening, Aug. 8, after saying farewell, she placed her hand in her husband’s, and went to sleep. After four days, mostly unconscious ones, she wakened in eternity.
On her coffin were laid a few simple clover-blossoms, flowers she loved in life; and then, near the summit of Cheyenne Mountain, four miles from Colorado Springs, in a spot of her own choosing, she was buried.
Do not adorn with costly shrub or tree
Or flower the little grave which shelters me.
Let the wild wind-sown seeds grow up unharmed,
And back and forth all summer, unalarmed,
Let all the tiny, busy creatures creep;
Let the sweet grass its last year’s tangles keep;
And when, remembering me, you come some day
And stand there, speak no praise, but only say,
‘How she loved us! It was for that she was so dear.’
These are the only words that I shall smile to hear.
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Helen Hunt Jackson’s legacy
All honor a woman who, with a happy home, was willing to leave it to make other homes happy; who, having suffered, tried with a sympathetic heart to forget herself and keep others from suffering; who, being famous, gladly took time to help unknown authors to win fame; who, having means, preferred a life of labor to a life of ease.
Helen Hunt Jackson’s work was republished in numerous editions, reaching generations of readers, especially with Century of Dishonor and Ramona. Zeph, a touching story of frontier life in Colorado, which she finished in her last illness, was also widely read. Her sketches of travel have been gathered into Glimpses of Three Coasts, and a posthumous volume of poems, Sonnets and Lyrics, was published.
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Helen Hunt Jackson Memorial in Seven Falls, Colorado
More about Helen Hunt Jackson
Schools, libraries, portions of parks, and more, have been named in honor of Helen Hunt Jackson’s legacy. A majority of her papers are archived at Colorado College, and some of her papers are also archived in the NY Public Library, She was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 1985
- Bits of Travel (1872)
- Bits about Home Matters (1873)
- Saxe Holm’s Stories (1874)
- The Story of Boon (1874)
- Mercy Philbrick’s Choice (1876)
- Hetty’s Strange History (1877)
- Bits of Talk in Verse and Prose for Young Folks (1876)
- Bits of Travel at Home (1878)
- Nelly’s Silver Mine: A Story of Colorado Life (1878)
- Letters from a Cat (1879)
- A Century of Dishonor (1881)
- Ramona (1884)
- Zeph: A Posthumous Story (1885)
- Glimpses of Three Coasts (1886)
- Between Whiles (1888)
- A Calendar of Sonnets (1891)
- Ryan Thomas (1892)
- The Hunter Cats of Connorloa (1894)
- Poems by Helen Jackson Roberts Bros, Boston (1893)
- Pansy Billings and Popsy: Two Stories of Girl Life (1898)
- Glimpses of California (1914)
- Helen Hunt Jackson by Ruth Webb O’Dell, 1939
- Helen Hunt Jackson by Evelyn I. Banning, 1973
- Helen Hunt Jackson: A Lonely Voice of Conscience by Antoinette May, 1987
- Valerie Sherer Mathes, Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Indian Reform Legacy, 1992
- Helen Hunt Jackson: Selected Colorado Writings, Mark I. West., ed., 2002
- Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life, Kate Phillips, 2003
- Indian Reform Letters of Helen Hunt Jackson, 1879 – 1885, Valerie Sherer Mathes, ed., 2015
Read and listen online
More information and Sources
- Poetry Foundation
- Reader discussion of Helen Hunt Jackson’s works on Goodreads
- Helen Hunt Jackson papers at Colorado College
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