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Reviewed by:
  • Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life
  • Cari M. Carpenter
Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life. By Kate Phillips. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 380 pp. $34.95.

To write a literary biography is to assume two rather daunting tasks: finding some consistency in a life riddled with contradictions and respecting the difference between what is knowable and what is best left unknown. Kate Phillips manages these demands well in her study of the nineteenth-century writer and reformer Helen Hunt Jackson. Phillips shares newly excavated aspects of Jackson's life, such as her attachment to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and expands on more familiar details, like the irony that her anti-industrialist novel Ramona actually increased tourism and settlement in Southern California. The subject that emerges in these pages is an engaging, complicated one: a woman described as both a "'wild witch cat'" and a model of Christian submission (17).

Phillips's biography is organized into sections devoted to the chronological and generic stages of Jackson's literary career: a consideration of the influence of her parents, who died when she was young but nevertheless left an indelible stamp on her writing; a study of her essays and poetry that reminds us of Jackson's stature in the eyes of prominent writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson; and an analysis of her regionalist and reform work. On the whole, this organization works well; important threads reappear from different angles without seeming repetitive.

While previous biographies of Jackson tend to suggest—with a somewhat awkward, obligatory chapter break—that Jackson stumbled rather haphazardly upon the Indian reform work that would become a large part of her legacy, Phillips offers a more nuanced sense of why a woman who had previously shied away from reform movements would come to write one of the era's most famous indictments of the U.S. government's treatment of American Indians. Marshalling a dizzying array of evidence—including a book about Indians that Jackson read as a child, Jackson's own correspondence and literary work, and a letter indicating her father's opposition to Cherokee removal—Phillips situates Jackson's self-declared "hobby" in the context of her travel essays, her increasing sense of moral responsibility as a writer, and her interest in agriculture over industrialization. One gets the sense that very little exists of Jackson's writing, or even that of her family and close friends, that Phillips has not read.

Phillips's introduction, which locates Jackson's work in terms of contemporary studies of sentimentalism and regionalism, makes Jackson seems less an individual phenomenon than a case study for those interested in a wide swath of nineteenth-century U.S. literature. Given the breadth of this discussion, I was surprised by the absence of critics like Laura Wexler and Siobhan Senier, who would fill out Phillips's discussion of Jackson's relationship to sentimentality and American Indians in important ways. Wexler's article "Tender Violence," for example, usefully demonstrates how sentimental literature's "'connections across gender, race, and class boundaries'" were detrimental to Native American children (32), and Senier's Voices of American Indian Assimilation and Resistance, which may not have been available until Phillips's biography was in press, uses the concept of possessive individualism to argue that in speaking "for" Indians, Jackson asserted her own personhood. Together, such scholarship would give us a better sense of the particular implications of Jackson's reform work.

There are other moments when I'd like to see more attention to Jackson's relationship with American Indians. For example, the sentence "Several specific factors in the Ponca case inclined her to move beyond mere feelings of sympathy to make the cause of Indian rights her own" appears with little sense of the problematic nature of a middle-class white woman claiming Native American rights as "her own" [End Page 254] (223). This sentiment also seems odd given Phillips's later critique of Jackson's "romantic racialism" of Mexican, Spanish, and Native American cultures. And because of Phillips's careful approach to Jackson's work, I was struck by her misspelling of "Paiute." While this might seem like a minor error, it suggests that Phillips...


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pp. 254-255
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