Synopses & Reviews
Novelist, travel writer, and essayist Helen Hunt Jackson (1830and#150;1885) was one of the most successful authors and most passionate intellects of her day. Ralph Waldo Emerson also regarded her as one of Americaand#8217;s greatest poets. Today Jackson is best remembered for Ramona,
a romantic novel set in the rural Southern Californian Indian and Californio
communities of her day. Ramona,
continuously in print for over a century, has become a cultural icon, but Jacksonand#8217;s prolific career left us with much more, notably her achievements as a prose writer and her work as an early activist on behalf of Native Americans. This long-overdue biography of Jacksonand#8217;s remarkable life and times reintroduces a distinguished figure in American letters and restores Helen Hunt Jackson to her rightful place in history.
Discussing much new material, Kate Phillips makes extensive use of Jackson's unpublished private correspondence. She takes us from Jackson's early years in rural New England to her later pioneer days in Colorado and to her adventerous travels in Europe and Southern California. The book also gives the first in-depth discussions of Jackson's writing in every genre, her beliefs about race and religion, and the significance of her chronic illnesses. Phillips also discusses Jackson's intimate relationshipsand#151;with her two husbands, her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the famed actress Charlotte Cushman, and the poet Emily Dickinson. Phillips concludes with a re-evaluation of Ramona, discussing the novel as the earliest example of the California dystopian tradition in its portrayal of a state on the road to self-destruction, a tradition carried further by writers like Nathanael West and Joan Didion.
In this gripping biography, Phillips offers fascinating glimpses of how social context both shaped and inspired Jackson's thinking, highlighting the inextricable presence of gender, race, and class in American literary history and culture and opening a new window onto the nineteenth century.
"Interest in Helen Hunt Jackson has been strong since the second-wave feminist efforts to recover 19th-century women writers. While there are other biographies of Jackson available, this one is remarkable in a few respects. Phillips gives a chronicle of Jackson's life along the lines of her literary productions, which ranged from early poetry to mid-life journalism to late-life novels. She follows recent trends in academia toward historicization; she urges readers to consider what Jackson herself thought of her own writing, as well as how her life events shaped her career. The biography also emphasizes certain points of Jackson's character which are sure to draw sympathy with the current politics of those studying women writers—Jackson maintained a life-long interest in and passion for nature, was an outspoken, independent women who traveled widely, and, late in her life, became one of the first advocates for Native American rights. Phillips' book is clearly written, well researched, unassuming, and should work harmoniously within the growing field of writings on Jackson and on late 19th-century women writers." Reviewed by Andrew Witmer, Virginia Quarterly Review (Copyright 2006 Virginia Quarterly Review)
Includes bibliographical references (p. 329-349) and index.
"This beautifully crafted book is a landmark in literary and cultural studies. Kate Phillips brings together in this definitive life of Helen Hunt Jackson a variety of challenging issues-feminism, literary history, psychology, social history, biography, intellectual history, anthropology-and the result is a brilliant contribution to the entire field of American studies. Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life will have a broad and lasting impact on our understanding of American culture."and#151;Sacvan Bercovitch, Powell M. Cabot Research Professor of American Literature, Harvard University
About the Author
Kate Phillips received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in the History of American Civilization and is an independent scholar and writer. She is the author of the acclaimed novel White Rabbit (1996, paperback 1997).