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Helen Hunt Jackson by Sarah Knowles Bolton
Written by: Sarah Knowles Bolton
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 impossible.
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 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 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 mischief."
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 President Cleveland:--
"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,
That same day she wrote her last touching poem:--
"Father, I scarcely dare to pray,
So clear I see, now it is done,
That I have wasted half my day,
And left my work but just begun;
"So clear I see that things I thought
Were right or harmless were a sin;
So clear I see that I have sought,
Unconscious, selfish aim to win
"So clear I see that I have hurt
The souls I might hare helped to save,
That I have slothful been, inert,
Deaf to the calls Thy leaders gave.
"In outskirts of Thy kingdoms vast,
Father, the humblest spot give me;
Set me the lowliest task Thou hast,
Let me repentant work for Thee!"
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."
Many will stand by that Colorado grave in the years to come. Says a California friend: "Above the chirp of the balm-cricket in the grass that hides her grave, I seem to hear sweet songs of welcome from the little ones. Among other thoughts of her come visions of a child and mother straying in fields of light. And so I cannot make her dead, who lived so earnestly, who wrought so unselfishly, and passed so trustfully into the mystery of the unseen."
All honor to 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.
Mrs. Jackson's work is still going forward. Five editions of her Century of Dishonor have been printed since her death. Ramona is in its thirtieth thousand. Zeph, a touching story of frontier life in Colorado, which she finished in her last illness, has been published. Her sketches of travel have been gathered into Glimpses of Three Coasts, and a new volume of poems, Sonnets and Lyrics, has appeared.