Helen Hunt Jackson.
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."
How, with the simple initials, "H.H.," had she won this place in
the hearts of the people? Was it because she was a poet? Oh no! many
persons of genius have few friends. It was because an earnest life was
back of her gifted writings. A great book needs a great man or woman
behind it to make it a perfect work. 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 in the cultured town of Amherst, Mass., Oct. 18, 1831, 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. Her own vivid description of the
"naughtiest day in my life," in _St. Nicholas_, September and October,
1880, shows the ardent, wilful child who was one day to stand out
fearlessly before the nation and tell its statesmen the wrong they had
done to "her Indians."
She and her younger sister Annie were allowed one April day, by their
mother, to go into the woods just before school hours, to gather
checkerberries. Helen, finding the woods very pleasant, determined to
spend the day in them, even though sure she would receive a whipping
on her return home. The sister could not be coaxed to do wrong, but a
neighbor's child, with the promise of seeing live snails with horns,
was induced to accompany the truant. They wandered from one forest to
another, till hunger compelled them to seek food at a stranger's home.
The kind farmer and his wife were going to a funeral, and wished to
lock their house; but they took pity on the little ones, and gave
them some bread and milk. "There," said the woman, "now, you just make
yourselves comfortable, and eat all you can; and when you're done, you
push the bowls in among them lilac-bushes, and nobody'll get 'em."
Urged on by Helen, she and her companion wandered into the village,
to ascertain where the funeral was to be held. It was in the
meeting-house, and thither they went, and seated themselves on the
bier outside the door. Becoming tired of this, they trudged on. One
of them lost her shoe in the mud, and stopping at a house to dry their
stockings, they were captured by two Amherst professors, who had come
over to Hadley to attend the funeral. The children had walked four
miles, and nearly the whole town, with the frightened mother, were
in search of the runaways. Helen, greatly displeased at being caught,
jumped out of the carriage, but was soon retaken. At ten o'clock at
night they reached home, and the child walked in as rosy and smiling
as possible, saying, "Oh, mother! I've had a perfectly splendid time!"
A few days passed, and then her father sent for her to come into his
study, and told her because she had not said she was sorry for running
away, she must go into the garret, and wait till he came to see her.
Sullen at this punishment, she took a nail and began to bore holes
in the plastering. This so angered the professor, that he gave her
a severe whipping, and kept her in the garret for a week. It is
questionable whether she was more penitent at the end of the week than
she was at the beginning.
When Helen was twelve, both father and mother died, leaving her to
the care of a grandfather. She was soon placed in the school of the
author, Rev. 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 she was married to a young army officer, Captain,
afterward Major, Edward B. Hunt, whom his friends called "Cupid" Hunt
from his beauty and his curling hair. He was a brother of Governor
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, and 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.
Suddenly, like a thunder-bolt 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 to him she clung 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
For months she shut herself into her own room, refusing to see her
nearest friends. "Any one 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.
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.
And then began, at thirty-four, absorbing, painstaking literary work.
She studied the best models of composition. She said to a friend,
years after, "Have you ever tested the advantages of an analytical
reading of some writer of finished style? There is a little book
called _Out-Door Papers_, by Wentworth Higginson, that is one of
the most perfect specimens of literary composition in the English
language. It has been my model for years. I go to it as a text-book,
and have actually spent hours at a time, taking one sentence after
another, and experimenting upon them, trying to see if I could take
out a word or transpose a clause, and not destroy their perfection."
And again, "I shall never write a sentence, so long as I live, without
studying it over from the standpoint of whether you would think it
could be bettered."
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
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 was despaired of. 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.
On her return, in 1870, a little book of _Verses_ was published. Like
most beginners, she was obliged to pay for the stereotyped plates.
The book was well received. 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 the _Gondolieds_, 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.
Again her health failed, but not her cheerful spirits. She travelled
to Colorado, and wrote a book in praise of it. Everywhere she made
lasting friends. Her German landlady in Munich thought her the kindest
person in the world. The newsboy, the little urchin on the street
with a basket full of wares, the guides over the mountain passes, all
remembered her cheery voice and helpful words. She used to say, "She
is only half mother who does not see her own child in every child. Oh,
if the world could only stop long enough for one generation of mothers
to be made all right, what a Millennium could be begun in thirty
years!" Some one, in her childhood, called her a "stupid child" before
strangers, and she never forgot the sting of it.
In Colorado, in 1876, eleven years after the death of Major Hunt, she
married Mr. William Sharpless Jackson, a Quaker and a cultured banker.
Her home, at 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. Once, when
Eastern guests were invited to luncheon, twenty-three varieties of
wildflowers, each massed in its own color, adorned the home. A friend
of hers says: "There is not an artificial flower in the house, on
embroidered table-cover or sofa cushion or tidy; indeed, Mrs. Jackson
holds that the manufacture of silken poppies and crewel sun-flowers
is a 'respectable industry,' intended only to keep idle hands out of
Mrs. Jackson loved flowers almost as though they were children. She
writes: "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." 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_. It is said that _Draxy Miller's Dowry_
and _Esther Wynn's Love Letters_ were written by another, while Mrs.
Jackson added the lovely poems; and when a request was made by the
publishers for more stories from the same author, Mrs. Jackson was
prevailed upon to write them.
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 believed they needed education and Christianization
rather than extermination. 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, and was obliged to go to Norway,
leaving a literary ally to correct the proofs of her book.
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 red 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 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 Indian
what Mrs. Stowe did for the slave, and she lived long enough to see
the great work well in progress.
This true missionary work had greatly deepened the earnestness of the
brilliant woman. Not always tender to other peoples' "hobbies," as she
said, she now had one of her own, into which she was putting her life.
Her horizon, with her great intellectual gifts, had now become as
wide as the universe. Had she lived, how many more great questions she
would have touched.
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, Cal., 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. "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 marvellous; 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. But I do not doubt we shall keep on working....
There isn't so much difference, I fancy, between this life and the
next as we think, nor so much barrier.... I shall look in upon you
in the new rooms some day; but you will not see me. Good-bye. Yours
affectionately forever, H.H." Four days before her death she wrote to
"From my death-bed I send you a message of heart-felt
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,