Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Helen Hunt Jackson: Poet and Advocate

Helen Hunt Jackson (NY Public Library)

 by Paula Gail Benson

Every October, usually on a particularly sunny day, my mother would remember my grandfather saying it was his favorite time of year by quoting a line from a poem, “October’s bright blue weather.” My mother and grandfather had been teachers, so I imagined they read their classes many poems. It occurred to me this year that I didn’t know the source of this phrase, so with the aid of the Internet, I went about discovering it.

The poem’s title is October’s Bright Blue Weather. Here is the final verse (a slight variation on the first):

O sun and skies and flowers of June,

Count all your boasts together,

Love loveth best of all the year

October’s bright blue weather.

Helen Hunt Jackson is the author. In her Wikipedia photo, she sports a sassy expression.

I had to know more.

Born Helen Maria Fiske in Amherst, Massachusetts, her father was a minister, writer, and professor at Amherst College. Emily Dickenson was her contemporary, classmate, and lifelong correspondent. Later, Emily characterized Helen’s writing as: “she has the facts, but not the phosphorescence.”

Helen had two brothers who died at young ages. Her parents died during her teen years, leaving only Helen and her sister Anne.

At age 22, Helen married Major Edward Bissell Hunt, and they had two sons, one who died in infancy and the other who passed away from diphtheria at age nine. Major Hunt served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and invented an early submarine, but became the first U.S. military submarine fatality.

Having lost her family, Helen turned to writing as a means of coping with her grief. Her poetry was published in magazines and admired by Ralph Waldo Emerson. She wrote using the pen name H.H.

On a trip to a resort in Colorado Springs, seeking a cure for tuberculosis, she met wealthy banker and railroad executive William Sharpless Jackson. After they married, she wrote using her full name.

After hearing a lecture in Boston by Standing Bear, a Ponca chief and Native American civil rights advocate, Helen began researching how state and federal governments had treated Native Americans. She wrote a nonfiction account, A Century of Dishonor (1881), which encouraged reform. She took a trip to southern California and learned about how indigenous peoples had been removed from mission lands. Helen gained appointment as an agent for the Interior Department and wrote reports about the conditions she had observed.

Perhaps her greatest contribution toward advocacy for Native Americans was her novel Ramona (1884), which she hoped would bring the same awareness for Native Americans that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin provided for African Americans. Ramona told the story of a mixed heritage woman (of Scottish and Native American descent) who faced prejudice and opposition, particularly after falling in love and eloping with a Native American man. The novel has been adapted into five movies, a television series, and an outdoor pageant performed annually in Helmet, California since 1923.

In 1885, Helen Hunt Jackson died from stomach cancer in San Francisco. Her husband arranged for her to be buried in Colorado Springs.

From her own personal sorrow and the inequities that she witnessed, Helen found a voice that not only captured the beauty of the world, but also sought to make it a better place for all.  


  1. Thanks for introducing me to Helen, Paula.

  2. It sounds like she overcame quite a bit of ill health to make a meaningful contribution to American literature.

  3. Thank you, Kait, Margaret, Molly, and Kathleen. I found Helen Hunt Jackson fascinating. I hope to do more research about her.

  4. So interesting, Paula. I didn't know any of this before!