Cover image for Helen Hunt Jackson : a literary life
Helen Hunt Jackson : a literary life
Phillips, Kate, 1966-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Berkeley : University of California Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
x, 370 pages, 22 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS2108 .P48 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



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Discussing much new material, Kate Phillips makes extensive use of Jackson's unpublished private correspondence.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 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.

Author Notes

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).

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Phillips's dense biography provides a thorough, contextualized examination of Jackson's literary work and development as a writer. The structure of the book makes it easy to use: parts 1 and 2 comprise biographical information; parts 3 and 4 discuss Jackson's literary output as a professional writer. Phillips (an independent scholar of the history of American civilization) discusses the body of Jackson's work by genre--poetry, travel writing, domestic essays, short stories, novels, and reform work; each part is self-contained, which makes for easy reference. The greatest strength of the biography is Phillips's extensive use of letters from and to Jackson; these provide fascinating glimpses into Jackson's complex life, her work ethic, her developing skill as a writer, and her developing social conscience (which led to the writing of Ramona, 1884, her most enduring novel). Even those not interested in the entire range of Jackson's writing will find this book interesting and thought-provoking reading. It is an excellent addition to the more specialized studies dealing with her reform work and with American Indian issues in particular (e.g., Siobhan Senier's Voices of American Indian Assimilation and Resistance, CH, Oct'01, and works written and edited by Valerie Sherer Mathes). ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. B. Hans University of North Dakota