Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life, University of CA Press, 2003
Desciption from the University of California Press website:
Novelist, travel writer, and essayist Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885)
was one of the most successful authors and most passionate intellects
of her day. Ralph Waldo Emerson also regarded her as one of
America’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 Jackson’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 Jackson’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Jackson's unpublished private correspondence.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 relationships—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 selfdestruction,
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
Lectures on Helen Hunt Jackson at approximately twenty venues around the
country, including the California Historical Society, the Southern California
Historical Society, Amherst College, MiraCosta College, Voice of America, and
National Public Radio. (2003-2004)
Nationwide positive reviews, including:
Feature in the LA Times Book Review:
The woman behind 'Ramona'
Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life, Kate Phillips, University of California Press: 370
March 30, 2003 | Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author of, most recently, "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People."
Helen Hunt Jackson is best remembered for the 1884 novel "Ramona," a romantic tale of old California that was the inspiration for the so-called Ramona Pageant, the closest thing to a passion play that the popular culture of California has yet produced. Nearly every summer since 1923, amid the cactus and chaparral near Hemet, the saga of Ramona, half-Indian and half-Scottish, and her full-blooded Indian lover, Alessandro, has been staged for audiences that now exceed 2 million.
Kate Phillips, a novelist ("White Rabbit") as well as a literary scholar, seeks to put Jackson in her rightful place on the literary landscape -- and a lofty place it is. Her critical biography of Jackson rescues the writer from deepening shadows of a fastfading reputation and throws a bright light on her life and work. What she reveals about Jackson is surprising and fascinating: Jackson was an early advocate of the rights of Native Americans and a visionary who clearly saw California as an imperiled paradise. "With Ramona and Alessandro, who wander through Southern California as through a nightmare world, isolated, dispossessed of their rightful connection to the land, and longing to be consoled for the ruin of their dreams," explains Phillips, "Jackson created the first figures in the long line of disappointed, deracinated heroes who populate the later Southern California fiction of writers as diverse as Nathanael West, Evelyn Waugh, Thomas Pynchon, and Joan Didion."
Phillips shows herself to be an enterprising and indefatigable researcher. She sought out and examined 55 holdings of Jackson's letters, including some that were not available to earlier scholars. She also discovered that Jackson had laid obstacles for her biographers: "It is best to have no record anywhere of anything we don't wish to share with strangers after we are dead," Jackson once wrote to her husband, instructing him to burn the more intimate passages of her letters, which she carefully confined to separate pages to make it easier for him to carry out his task.
Jackson, born Helen Maria Fiske in 1830 in Amherst, Mass., turned to writing after a series of devastating personal losses: Both of her sons died in early childhood, and her first husband was killed in an accident during the test of a torpedo-launching device he had invented. Only two months after the death of her second son, Jackson published her first work in the New York Post, a poem titled "The Key to the Casket." Her sense of loss and her own frail health prompted Jackson to move west -- "she had laid the foundations for a complex psychological wanderlust," according to Phillips -- and she met and married her second husband in the Colorado Territory in 1875. Fatefully, her wanderlust carried her all the way to California, where she saw the terrain that she would soon populate with memorable characters of her own invention.
"Ramona," as Phillips points out, was hardly Jackson's only literary effort. She produced travel essays and children's tales, poetry and short stories, even a few serious works of history and ethnography. She won the friendship of Emily Dickinson and the praise of Ralph Waldo Emerson; when asked if he regarded Jackson as "the best woman-poet on this continent," he answered: "Perhaps we might as well omit the woman. "A Century of Dishonor," written in 1881, is hailed by Phillips as "one of the first serious historical studies of federal Indian policy," and Jackson was describing herself as an "advocate of the Indians' rights" in an era when Native Americans were literally at risk of their lives.
By the 1880s, when Jackson first visited Southern California, she was an unabashed activist as well as a belletrist. " 'Ramona' offers an almost unmitigated denunciation of U.S. imperialism in California," writes Phillips, "presenting the region in a dystopian light, as a paradise gone bad." Jackson, in fact, readily conceded that "Ramona" was a sentimental romance, but she insisted that she had written it with an ulterior motive: "In my 'Century of Dishonor' I tried to attack people's consciences directly, and they would not listen. Now I have sugared my pill, and it remains to be seen if it will go down."
Jackson did not live long enough to see the startling phenomenon that "Ramona" represents in the history of American letters; she died of cancer in 1885, the year after it was published. But, as it turned out, "Ramona" turned Helen Hunt Jackson into a literary superstar. Her other books were put back into print to take advantage of her new fame, and she was merchandised through "calendars and books of Jackson quotations." By 1936, the sales of "Ramona" had reached an astonishing total of nearly 450,000 copies in hardback and 100,000 copies in a "cheap edition."
Phillips has produced what demands to be regarded as the definitive biography of Jackson. She resurrects Jackson's earliest-known writing, a poem written at the age of 11: "My dear papa tis very long / Since I have had a vacation." As a young woman, Jackson described herself as "book-mad" and "word-crazy" in a letter written in the thrall of reading Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound." Later, on her earliest westward travels, she described the first Indian she saw as "the most abject, loathly living thing I ever saw," but Phillips shows how Jackson "grew in racial and religious tolerance" and, ultimately, used her books to celebrate "the valor of ordinary people carving out dignity from a world full of trouble and change."
Phillips confronts the case that has been made against Jackson for the crime of inventing "the Ramona myth," a charge that has been laid against her by generations of distinguished historians, ranging from Carey McWilliams to Kevin Starr: "No other act of symbolic expression," writes Starr, "affected the imagination of nineteenth-century Southern California so forcibly." And Phillips readily concedes that " 'Ramona' was exploited by local entrepreneurs and civic organizations as a tourist draw," if only because, as she explains, "newcomers and visitors who adored Jackson's best-seller were eager to pay homage at local sites rendered sacred by real or trumped-up association with the novel."
But Phillips insists that the uses to which "Ramona" was put by its readers were alien to the author's intentions. "Jackson believed that California had been created [as] a kind of paradise on earth, a place that would always inspire new people to seek their fortunes there," Phillips argues. "Yet she also believed that no amount of personal dignity and perseverance on the part of California's Indians could succeed alone in maintaining this paradise in the face of American rapacity." The irony of Jackson's life and work, as Phillips allows us to see in rich and touching detail, is that " 'Ramona' drew outsiders to Southern California to further endanger and exploit the very people and places she had wished to protect." And she argues that Jackson ought to be remembered not for her unwitting role in creating an "ersatz historical California" but rather for devoting herself to "writings that were adamant in their opposition to race, class, and even gender inequality."
Featured in the San Francisco Chronicle:
REVIEW / Little-known California treasure comes to life
David Kipen, Chronicle Book Critic
Published 4:00 am, Saturday, April 19, 2003
Just imagine the look on her agent's face when Kate Phillips, author of a rapturously received first novel, "White Rabbit" (1996), decided to follow up her book with a biography of the half-forgotten 19th century novelist and social reformer Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885). But Phillips, a Harvard- educated Californian, has brought the perfect combination of Yankee rigor and Western skepticism to bear on a complex, hugely influential woman. Jackson grew up in Massachusetts and wandered the globe before settling in Colorado, then eventually California, so perhaps this happy meeting of bicoastal minds makes sense. Whatever the reason, Phillips has delivered a restorative, thoroughly researched, at times dry but uncommonly insightful life of the woman who brought more people to this state than the Super Chief.
Any English-speaking Californian whose family came here more than two but fewer than seven generations ago probably came at least in part because of Jackson's 1884 novel, "Ramona." Still in print after all these years, it's the story of an illegitimate biracial orphan and her doomed romance with the dashing Indian Alessandro. Jackson wrote it mainly to protest America's genocidal treatment of its indigenous population, but hundreds of thousands promptly clasped it to their bosom as a wisteria-scented lament for California's bygone adobe days. Legions of those readers bought tickets -- by no means all of them round trip -- to see "Ramona country" for themselves, thereby only hastening the demise of the dubious Mission paradise the author mourned.
It's a cruelly ironic story, told by Phillips with an intricate structure and a novelist's attention to Jackson's development as a writer. The danger in telling a story like this, about an important figure whose influence outstripped her not inconsiderable talent, is that Jackson might wind up a biddy and nothing more. The cover art makes her look exactly that, all stately Victorian ruffles and curls. From a commercial standpoint, the come-hither graduation photo at the back of Antoinette May's 1987 pocket bio might have proved a wiser choice. Precisely this sort of chauvinism, of course, has robbed Jackson of her rightful place in American letters for more than a century. Phillips redresses this omission by rediscovering the qualities in Jackson's life and work that make her uncannily contemporary. In her thoughtful, charming introduction, Phillips positions "Ramona" not just as the first novel about Southern California ever published but rightly as "the founding work in a powerful local dystopian tradition."
It's a long haul from the anti-Californio and anti-Indian prejudice of "Ramona" to the anti-replicant prejudice of "Blade Runner," but Phillips is on to something here: the way writers have always insisted on seeing California as paradise lost, practically from the moment they first found it. These dystopians aren't wrong -- they may be getting righter by the day -- but one has to wonder whether they'd even notice if things started looking up. Not only was Jackson the first practitioner of California noir, Phillips argues, she was a multiculturalist before the term was ever (over-) used. "Ramona and Alessandro," Phillips writes, "are in a racially mixed marriage. And that they are never allowed to establish a home, despite all of their earnest efforts, is intended as a negative commentary on the moral health of the American nation."
Right again, though the best parts of the book come when Phillips approaches her subject as a fellow novelist. Here's where her decision to shape the book thematically as well as chronologically -- examining Jackson in successive chapters as a poet, essayist, short story writer and finally a novelist -- pays its richest dividends. We see Jackson repeatedly combing out the raw wool of her strict Calvinist childhood and tragic first marriage, spinning it into clumsy autobiographical fictions before finally giving herself license to make stuff up out of whole cloth. Jackson never left her formative experiences completely behind -- as no writer ever can, or should -- but she refined them with steadily growing facility.
Maybe only her early death at 55 kept her from realizing the gifts that writers as diverse as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson and Jose Marti (who translated "Ramona" into Spanish) all saw in her.
To be sure, there are longueurs here. Jackson wanted her papers destroyed at her death, and, unlike Kafka's, her wishes were obeyed. This creates occasional gaps in the historical record, gaps Phillips sometimes fills with overly thorough quotations from less scrupulous contemporaries. She also relies too much on the neologism "lifeways," a less condescending synonym for "folkways" that only insults the same folks whose feelings she's supposedly sparing, by suggesting that a quaint word like "folkways" can do them any real harm. Finally, it's distracting to see Carey McWilliams' slyly uncharitable essay on Jackson errantly attributed to his book "North From Mexico" instead of to "Southern California Country: An Island on the Land," as it should be.
But "Helen Hunt Jackson" succeeds unequivocally as an accomplished, smoothly written investigation of a life whose echoes still resound in the California around us. Phillips apparently made up her mind to write it after accompanying her grandmother to the "Ramona Pageant," still produced each summer in an outdoor amphitheater in Riverside County. This same grandmother also inspired Phillips' "White Rabbit," a novel about an elderly California woman on the last day of her life. It will be interesting to see where Phillips -- whether stirred again by what must have been a truly remarkable grandmother or simply following her own unfailingly empathetic curiosity -- takes us next.
From The New York Times:
BOOKS IN BRIEF: NONFICTION
SEPT. 21, 2003
HELEN HUNT JACKSON
A Literary Life.
By Kate Phillips.
University of California, $34.95.
Helen Hunt Jackson's ''Ramona'' (1884), a sentimental romance designed to throw light on the desperate conditions of Southern California's Indians, presents something of an irony: the novel's popularity led to curious crowds exploiting the very culture and topography she hoped to preserve. In similar fashion, Jackson's own reputation has suffered from the book's fame: millions have made West Coast pilgrimages to attend the Ramona Pageant, an outdoor extravaganza still going strong in theatrical tribute to Jackson's interracial heroine and her handsome Luiseño Indian lover. But perhaps not as many link Jackson to the poetic gift Emerson so admired that he added her verses to his public readings and included five of them in his anthology ''Parnassus.'' Although Jackson (1830-85) enjoyed prominence as a poet, travel writer, fiction writer and social reformer, only recently have feminist scholars attempted to resurrect her work beyond ''Ramona.'' Yet little of her poetry and prose can transcend a 19th-century bent for didacticism and moral fortitude. So with new correspondence in hand, the novelist Kate Phillips rightly chooses to knit a smart biography of a tireless literary worker and intellectual, not a genius -- a singular woman who, despite or because of the benumbing early deaths of her parents, husband, and two small sons, strode full force into a remarkably independent, productive life. Oddly no advocate of women's rights, Jackson nonetheless keenly understood the disenfranchised. Hence Phillips can validate Ramona herself as a prototype for those future ''disappointed, deracinated heroes'' of Nathanael West, Thomas Pynchon and Joan Didion.