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One of the most prolific women writers of her time, Helen Hunt Jackson hoped to be remembered mainly for A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes (1881) and Ramona: A Story (1884). Before Jackson’s death, more than fifteen thousand copies were sold of Ramona, the novel she hoped would arouse public outrage at the plight of Native Americans in the California missions, just as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) had called attention to the plight of African Americans. While the success of the novel in fulfilling that objective is still debated, the story and its leading characters have continued to attract audiences for more than one hundred years. Since its first publication, Ramona has been reprinted more than three hundred times; the story has been represented in many pageants and plays for stage, motion pictures, and television; and its main characters and settings have been blended into the legendary past of southern California.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Personal Tragedy Leads to Successful Career
Helen Maria Fiske Hunt Jackson was born on October 14, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. She married Edward Bisell Hunt, a lieutenant and eventually a major in the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The Hunts’ first child, born a year after their marriage, died in infancy of a brain tumor. After serving in several important Civil War battles, Major Hunt died in 1863. Two years later their second son died of diphtheria. Devastated and alone while recovering from these losses, Helen Hunt began to write. It was 1865, the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Gilded Age. Industrialization was transforming American culture, and women writing about children, home, and family values were reaching vast audiences in newspapers and magazines.
The favorable response to her first published poems about the loss of her son surprised Hunt, for she had never considered becoming a writer. Encouraged by that response, she published several more poems and a travel sketch on Bethlehem, New Hampshire, during the next six months. In 1866 she moved back to Newport, Rhode Island, where she became reacquainted with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a resident at the same boarding-house, and met other well-known figures in the circle of artists who summered in Newport. Higginson, who had become an important editor, became Hunt’s literary mentor and personal editor for the rest of her life. During the next ten years she published hundreds of poems, travel articles, editorials, book reviews, and short stories in magazines and newspapers. In the fashion of the day she maintained anonymity by signing her work as Marah, Rip Van Winkle, Saxe Holm, and, most frequently, H. H.
Jackson Heads West
In May 1872 Hunt made her first trip to the West. Hunt’s collected sketches of Europe enabled her to negotiate a contract with the New York Independent for a series on the West to subsidize her journey. In writing her Western sketches for the New York Independent and Scribner’s Monthly Magazine she joined a popular new industry for authors.
Hunt’s next trip west was to Colorado in 1873. While boarding at the Colorado Springs Hotel, Hunt became acquainted with another resident—William Sharpless Jackson, a Colorado banker and Quaker from Pennsylvania. In less than a year Jackson proposed marriage; although Helen declined his proposal for several months, they were married in October 1875. Three years later, Jackson published a novel for children, Nelly’s Silver Mine: A Story of Colorado Life, and Bits of Travel at Home (1878). A reviewer in the Atlantic Monthly regarded the novel highly for introducing young readers to realistic and respectable Colorado characters who were notably absent in much popular fiction about frontier Western life. Nelly’s Silver Mine became a staple in children’s literature and was reprinted at least a dozen times through the 1930s.
A Life Change
In late October 1879, Jackson attended a lecture by Standing Bear, a Ponca chief whose address became an event that changed the course of her life and writing. Standing Bear was on an organized tour of the East to call attention to the plight of the Poncas, an agricultural Plains tribe that the U.S. government had mistakenly moved from the Dakota homelands of the tribe to a section of the Sioux Reservation and then farther south onto barren land that was depressingly uninhabitable. Within weeks of meeting Standing Bear, Jackson began to research and write about the Indian cause. After writing about the Poncas in the New York Independent, she wrote articles for the New York Times and the New York Daily Tribune to publicize her findings. Early that winter she decided that she would incorporate this material into a larger study, A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes (1881). Jackson was proud of her work. She considered it one of her finest accomplishments, but the book did not sell well. Critics blamed the lackluster response on the fact that the book was written quickly and edited poorly. Despite poor popular and critical response, A Century of Dishonor did succeed in bringing the U.S. government’s flawed Indian policy and the unfair and cruel treatment of North American Indians by expansionist Americans to public consciousness.
In September 1881 Richard Watson Gilder commissioned Jackson to write several articles on the California mission Indians for Century Magazine. Jackson’s research on the Poncas and the California mission Indians prepared her to write Ramona: A Story (1884), the work for which she is best remembered. The novel was serialized in the Christian Union in May 1884 and published in book form by Roberts Brothers in November. Her Native American characters are just as imaginary as those of James Fenimore Cooper, but by refusing to confirm cultural stereotypes in her depictions of her characters and describing communities of Indians who were hardworking, law-abiding citizens, Jackson stirred popular sympathy for them as victims during the century of dishonor that she had attacked in her nonfictional reports.
A Final Novel
During this period she worked on her last novel, Zeph: A Posthumous Story (1885), which, like Nelly’s Silver Mine, is set in the mining country of Colorado. She sent Zeph to her publisher a week before she died. The novel was included in a series of works written by American authors and published in Edinburgh, a series including fiction by William Dean Howells, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mary E. Wilkins, and Joel Chandler Harris. With her husband by her side, Jackson died of stomach cancer in San Francisco on August 12, 1885.
Works in Literary Context
Hunt showed a knack for travel writing in her early articles on New England, and her European travel sketches were widely praised for their vivid descriptions that avoided the musty flavor of a guidebook. In writing her Western sketches for the New York Independent and Scribner’s Monthly Magazine she joined a popular new industry for authors. During the early 1870s Scribner’s, for example, was running lead articles on the West and the South in nearly every issue and began to replace its serials from English writers with articles, poetry, and fiction by Hunt, Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, and John Muir. Each of these writers shared a tendency toward naturalism.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in France, America, and England, the literary movement known as naturalism came into being. Naturalism as a style of writing is used to describe any form of extreme realism as well as writing that demonstrates a deep interest in nature. It draws its name from its basic assumption that everything that is real exists in nature. The works produced in this movement tend to portray humans either engaged in a struggle for survival or as victims of environmental forces and the products of social and economic factors beyond their control or full understanding.
Native Americans in American Literature
The portrayal of Native Americans by white writers of American literature underwent considerable evolution between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. In the earliest works of American literature, specifically the nonfiction accounts written by the Puritan settlers of New England, the Native Americans are virtually equated with the then-untamed wilderness as something threatening and frightening—and, indeed, the white settlers had good reason to fear the Native Americans, who sought actively to repel the foreigners. Native American warriors frequently raided European settlements in the seventeenth century, killing or taking captive the inhabitants. The Europeans responded in kind, and the ferocity of their actions was sufficient to spark at least occasional pity from the contemporary chroniclers. William Bradford remarked in his History of Plymouth Plantation (1650) on the horror of watching as a Native American village was destroyed and its inhabitants burned alive. But despite his pity, Bradford counted the “victory” a ”sweet sacrifice.” Cotton Mather, an influential Puritan minister, added his support to the idea that Native Americans were a barbaric, even demonic, force to be conquered in the name of Christianity in such works as Magnalia Christi Americana (1702).
Throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and even into the nineteenth century, American settlers moving west clashed with Native Americans. During this time, a type of literature known as the captivity narrative—firsthand accounts of abduction and captivity of white settlers by Native Americans—was extremely popular. Such accounts as Mary Rowlandson’s A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682) (a best seller and one of the first of the genre) found an eager audience, and the pictures of the suffering of the mostly white female captives at the hands of the Native Americans continued to reinforce in the mind of the public the image of the Native American as a bloodthirsty savage.
By the time Helen Hunt Jackson wrote Ramona, white America’s struggle with the Native Americans was nearly over. The Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, between the United States army and Sioux factions, is generally considered the last battle of the so-called Indian Wars. By Hunt’s time, the Native Americans had become less of a threat in popular perception and more of a social issue, and readers were ready to accept sympathetic portraits of Native American characters.
Works in Critical Context
Author of more than twenty books and hundreds of articles, Helen Hunt Jackson is remembered for the two books she considered her most significant contributions. Before her death she stated, ”A Century of Dishonor and Ramona are the only things I have done for which I am glad now.” For historians, A Century of Dishonor and Ramona remain important artifacts of late-nineteenth-century Indian reform, but the question remains how influential they were in shaping government policy.
A Century of Dishonor
Although Jackson viewed the book as the best work she had done, A Century of Dishonor suffers from hurried writing and poor editing. Never a best seller, the book nonetheless attracted attention from humanitarian reformers and many others who for the first time read of the horrible living conditions of Indians. In April 1881 Francis Parkman wrote to Jackson that her book was ”an honest and valuable record of a scandalous and shameful page in the history of the American people—for the blame lies with them in the last resort.” At her own expense Jackson sent every member of Congress a copy of her book, the cover embossed with the words of Benjamin Franklin: ”Look upon your hands! They are stained with the blood of your relations.”
Ramona: A Story
The immediate success of Ramona: A Story was followed by its steady popularity for more than one hundred years. By 1940 six hundred thousand copies of it had been sold. Most contemporary critics praised the work highly and often cited it as the best work Jackson had done, although she was disappointed that some were more impressed by the novel’s tragic love story than by the depictions of the suffering of the Indians. Other critics valued the literary merit of the novel more than its message. A reviewer in the Atlantic Monthly, however, noted that the narrative worked extremely well because although readers became indignant about the plight of the Indians, they never lost interest in the unfolding story. A year after Jackson’s death, Albion W. Tourge, in reviewing Ramona for the American Scholar, wrote that it was the best novel yet produced by an American woman.
While twentieth-century assessments have had to acknowledge changes in literary taste, several have recognized the merit of Jackson’s achievement. Howard Mum-ford Jones, in a review for the Boston Evening Transcript in 1939, argued that Ramona has the strength of Longfellow’s Evangeline (1847) in depicting the spectacle of human suffering. Allan Nevins lauds the eloquence, vitality, and fiery truth of Ramona, which he calls a tour de force in its field.
- Banning, Evelyn I. Helen Hunt Jackson. New York: Vanguard, 1973.
- Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. ”Helen Jackson (‘H. H.’).” Contemporaries. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1899, pp. 142-167.
- Odell, Ruth. Helen Hunt Jackson. New York: Appleton-Century, 1939.
- Rolle, Andrew F. ”Introduction to Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor.” New York: Harper & Row, 1965, VII-XXII.
- Byers, John R., Jr. ”Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885).” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 2 (Summer 1969): 143-148.
- Dobie, J. Frank. ”Helen Hunt Jackson and Ramona.” Southwest Review 44 (Spring 1959): 93-98.
- Hamblen, A. A. ”Ramona: A Story of Passion.” Western Review 8, no. 1 (1971): 21-25.
- Kime, Wayne R. ”Helen Hunt Jackson.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 8 (Autumn 1975): 291-292.
- McWilliams, Carey. ”Southern California: Ersatz Mythology.” Common Ground 6 (Winter 1946): 29-38.
- Nevins, Allan. ”Helen Hunt Jackson: Sentimentalist vs. Realist.” American Scholar 10 (Summer 1941): 269-285.
- Pound, Louise. ”Biographical Accuracy and ‘H. H.”’ American Literature 2 (January 1931): 418-421.
- Shinn, M. W. ”The Verse and Prose of ‘H. H.”’ Overland Monthly, second series, 6 (September 1885): 315-323.
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