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Helen Hunt Jackson A Literary Life

  • by Kate Phillips (Author)
  • April 2003
  • First Edition
  • Hardcover
  • Title Details

    Rights: Not available in Brit Comm, IE, JO, IQ; Incl. CA
    Pages: 408
    ISBN: 9780520218048
    Trim Size: 6 x 9
    Illustrations: 26 b/w photographs

Read Chapter 2


Lessons from Father and Mother


My father had a great deal of ambition with regard to my education. I was his favorite child. He took the most unwearied pains in teaching me, and I now ascribe whatever mental culture I may have, to the habits which he formed in me, at a very early age. I did almost worship my father[.] . . . To win a word of praise, to see him smile as he often would when I had recited a lesson remarkably well, was my highest ambition, when a child. I can distinctly remember when I was not more than five years old, seeing him look significantly at mother, when I had made some rather old remark. I knew that he was proud of me, and the thought was ever before me. It was unfavorable in its influence, in some respects: it inclined me to vanity, and yet it was a most powerful incentive to exertion. And perhaps after all that could hardly be called unfavorable in its influence, which led a child to bend every energy of mind and soul to the gratification of a parent.

Jackson to Julius Palmer, 8 March 1850, HHJ2


I inherited nothing from either of my parents except my mother's gift of cheer.

Jackson in adult life, exact date unknown, quoted in Sarah Woolsey, "H.H."


When Jackson was nineteen and twenty, and struggling to find her place in the world, she went through a phase of reassessing the effects of her upbringing. She was moved to examine her feelings by a new, close friendship with her guardian Julius Palmer. Her letters to Palmer from this period contain her only extended extant comments on her relationship with her father. In one of them, excerpted in an epigraph above, she emphasizes the huge intellectual influence he had on her in youth: he closely supervised her education, and she made it her "highest ambition" to please him with her attainments. In working to satisfy her father, she formed lasting "habits" of diligence in her studies, to which, as she entered adulthood, she ascribed all of the "mental culture" she had as yet obtained.

Years later, however, she told her friend Sarah Woolsey that she had "inherited" nothing from her parents, except her "mother's gift of cheer"—her ability to demonstrate cheerfulness in the face of adversity. It is true that Jackson's parents did not leave her a financial inheritance: following her father's death, she was supported by her maternal grandfather, David Vinal, who left her and her sister Ann his entire estate upon his own death in 1854; it provided Jackson with a comfortable income for life.1 It is also true that Jackson's mother had a naturally ebullient temperament, which set a standard for Jackson. Yet Jackson's ability to persevere in the face of adversity actually represented an inheritance not only of her mother's "gift of cheer," important as that was, but also of her father's "habits" of diligence—a legacy that new intellectual influences had perhaps obscured by the time she spoke with Woolsey.

In fact, Jackson inherited a number of personal characteristics for which she never explicitly gave her parents credit, but which would prove fundamental to her writing career—from the set of attitudes about health that led her continually to travel to her literary inclination itself and a belief that writing should be spiritually uplifting. Indeed, no other person or writer would ever have such influence over Jackson's writing as her parents had. That they died long before her career began did not lessen but quite possibly increased their influence: unable to confront her parents directly, she was turned back on herself, to work out her inheritance in writing.


Jackson's father, Nathan Welby Fiske, was the son of a Weston, Massachusetts, farmer and veteran of the Revolutionary War, also named Nathan Fiske, who was neither learned nor very religious. But Nathan Welby's pious mother instructed her five children rigorously in the Westminster Catechism. Moreover, there had long been Calvinist ministers in the Fiske family—including yet another Nathan Fiske, of Brookfield, Massachusetts, who in the eighteenth century had been a prolific writer of moralistic newspaper essays.2 Nathan Welby's own dedication to the Calvinist faith began in 1814, when, during his sophomore year at Dartmouth College, a student revival led him to conversion. After graduating from college, he paused for only a few years—one in which he served as principal of an academy in Maine, and two in which he worked as a tutor at his alma mater—before he entered the Andover Theological Seminary, a training ground for conservative Congregational ministers. He graduated three years later, Phi Beta Kappa, and was ordained as an evangelist on September 25, 1823, at the age of twenty-five.

The Reverend Elias Cornelius delivered the sermon that day in Salem's Tabernacle Church, on Exodus 14:15: "Speak to the children of Israel that they go forward." In the manner then customary, Cornelius cast America's Christians as the true children of Israel, permanently bound, as such, to "labour for the conversion of the world."3 Jackson's father took his duties as an evangelist very seriously. After his ordination, he moved to Savannah, Georgia, to proselytize among seamen. But Fiske was by nature a scholarly, introverted man, and within less than a year he began considering various academic positions. In 1824 he accepted the offer of a professorship in Latin and Greek languages from fledgling Amherst College, a Congregational institution that, like most in western Massachusetts at the time, still adhered to the sort of orthodox Calvinism that Fiske had learned in seminary.

Fiske would stay on in Amherst for more than twenty years. In 1828 he married Deborah Waterman Vinal; within the next four years Helen and Ann were born, and the family moved into a permanent home on South Pleasant Street. During these years, before paved roads, sewers, or electricity, Amherst was a quiet, rural town, notable for its lack of growth and industrial development, and also for the unchanging Puritanical thinking of its small population.4 Yet even in a town where strict Calvinism was the norm, and at a college founded to further that religion, Nathan Fiske stood out for the degree of diligence with which he carried out his professional duties, and for the fixity with which he proselytized submission to the Calvinist God from each of his positions as professor, minister, scholar, and father.

Among his colleagues at Amherst College, some dozen devout men, Nathan was known for being erudite, yet so narrowly focused on his duties that he gave little license to his imagination and occasionally lost sight of how his behavior affected other people. "For nothing, perhaps, was Professor Fiske more remarkable, than for his industry and perseverance," writes the Reverend Heman Humphrey, president of the college during most of Nathan's tenure there, in his 1850 Memoir of Rev. Nathan W. Fiske.5 While Humphrey praises Nathan's diligence and the work that he accomplished by it, he portrays him as so "eminently systematic in the division and improvement of his time," so "eminently a man of order," that he came to view the world in a manner that was "rather microscopic than telescopic." Humphrey explains, "He never was entranced by mere moonshine in his life; but if his extraordinary cautiousness saved him from mistakes, I think it sometimes repressed invention, and circumscribed the range of his active and powerful mind."6 According to the Reverend Professor Edward Hitchcock, who became college president after Humphrey retired in 1845, Nathan was "not well fitted to come in contact with men in the rough and tumble of life." Though he had a satirical sense of humor, for instance, he misjudged its effects, so that it often "wounded deeper than he intended." Hitchcock noted, "He seemed to want what scholars are so apt to want—a knowledge of common things, so that when they mix with men they do things, which though not wrong, are odd, and are laughed at. They shrink away from the world and live in a sort of seclusion."7

Like the faculty, students at the college respected Nathan's intellect and morality, but considered him rather narrow-minded. They ridiculed what they viewed as his obsession with Greek particles.8 Many suffered under his method of pedagogy, which one defined as "rigid, beyond that of most men whom I have known."9 In addition, though Amherst students were a pious lot—a large percentage of them went on after graduation to become Congregational ministers—they saw Nathan as unusually determined in his efforts to proselytize. "Professor Fiske loved the truth and was tenacious of it," explained one. "His countenance, gestures, and whole manner, bespoke his clinging to the truth."10 The pedantic nature of Nathan's religious instruction, in particular his habit of asking rhetorical questions rather than directly stating his beliefs, led one student to exclaim: "I can never forget his sanctity, stolidity, repulsion inspiring as he asked me not talked—about sanctification regeneration &c!"11

Nathan was aware of his questionable reputation at Amherst College. Awkward and shy, he knew that he seemed a "mere student" in comparison with the other faculty, who were by contrast men of "easy and good manners."12 In 1831, after delivering an ill-attended lecture, he felt that he had "utterly failed," and lamented to his wife: "Mr. Abbott is exceedingly popular; Mr. Hitchcock is lauded to the skies . . . on poorer Mr. F. everybody turns an eye of a sort of condescending respectfulness."13 A decade later, he was miserably humiliated when some students shaved his horse's tail as a prank. "I am as sick as you are of your connection with Amherst College," Deborah tried to console him, no doubt wounded herself, for over the years she had taken in several students as boarders. "You work very hard, and get no thanks, nothing but your daily bread and insults."14

Nathan coped with his difficulties by means of a disciplined perseverance that he would seek to instill in his daughter as well. Possessed of a firm belief that "God knows what is best for individuals & for the world," he always submitted to God's will under even the most trying circumstances. Over the years, he viewed the constant illnesses that afflicted his family as God's "servants," sent to foster their spiritual improvement.15 He expressed grateful resignation upon the deaths of two infant sons: David Vinal, who lived only a few weeks after his birth in 1829, and Humphrey Washburn, who was born in 1832 and lived less than a year. He turned his obituary sermon for his closest friend, the Reverend Royal Washburn, into a lesson on "cheerfulness" and "happy resignation" in the face of adversity.16 He even thought of his wife's death as the "discipline of God."17 By comparison, his ongoing troubles at Amherst were of little moment. He resigned himself to them completely, if anything becoming ever more single-minded in his dedication to his work and to evangelism.

Every day, he arose by five and went to bed at ten, the intermediate hours almost entirely filled with labor. He carried a heavy teaching load. During his first decade as a professor, he taught classics, including the Greek and Latin languages, and, for several years, Greek literature and belles lettres. During his second decade at Amherst he taught "moral philosophy," the other major humanistic study of his era, which encompassed not only topics classified today under the social sciences but also epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics. He also offered public lectures: in 1830-31, 1840, and again in 1842, he toured the Northeast, speaking on various subjects in American history and geography. Preparations for his many lectures absorbed so much of his time that by 1836, Deborah Fiske had come to think of the "huge pile of volumes" that he used for research as a "sister wife."18 In addition to teaching, Nathan had many administrative duties at the college, including keeping the chapel records and soliciting funds to keep the school running. He was so zealously committed to the latter enterprise that in 1832, when travels to procure funding were keeping him away from home for months, he told Deborah that given the "imperious urgency of duty," he would have been willing to travel for years.19

Entwined with Nathan's collegiate duties were a number of ministerial duties: in addition to proselytizing continually to his students, he took his turn along with other ordained faculty in preaching to them in the college chapel, and he also often preached in town. According to Heman Humphrey, Nathan devoted an unusual amount of effort to his preaching: though he never intended to publish his sermons, and "although ninety-nine out of a hundred readers would have said that the first draft needed no revision," he left behind manuscripts that were "very much interlined" with corrections and emendations.20 Some of Nathan's colleagues described his labored sermons as too abstruse, too strenuously "metaphysical and scholastic," for popular tastes.21 But however obscure his particular topic might be, Nathan's main intention in his sermons was always to make his listeners understand the necessity of Christian submission, or what he calls in one sermon the "entire subjection of the soul" to God22—and this message was always perfectly clear. Indeed, Nathan was known for preaching with particular "power" during the four periods of religious revival that stirred Amherst College during his time there.23

As a child, Helen heard some of her father's pointed sermons. She seems to have admired their strengths, for in adult life she always expressed pleasure in meeting people who had read the sermons reprinted in Humphrey's Memoir of her father, and she once urged the ministry on a young friend by assuring him that the glory of speaking in a pulpit could make up for any "necessities and embarrassments" associated with clerical life.24 In her youth, moreover, she was a daily witness to the diligence with which Fiske applied himself to his college duties, especially his writing. Over the course of his career, Nathan wrote a number of books and scholarly essays: like his sermons, they all, however varied in nature, were ultimately aimed at proselytizing his religion.25 His single-minded industry served as a powerful example for Helen, later inclining her not only toward diligence and perfectionism in her own career but also toward a desire to make her writing uplifting.

Nathan's major literary undertaking was a textbook, an extensively annotated and expanded translation of a Manual of Classical Literature by the German literary historian Johann Joachim Eschenburg.26 He began work on the Manual in the fall of 1834, and in the course of preparing four successive editions labored on it until the summer of 1843. Throughout Helen's childhood, from the time she was four until she was almost thirteen, her father spent most of his time absorbed in this project.

Nathan's Manual is a work of imposing erudition; it contains more than 650 dense pages of materials pertaining to Greek and Latin literature and art, of which more than a quarter is Nathan's contribution to the original. The Manual attests to his knowledge of ancient and modern languages and to his respect for classical literature, which he had been studying since college. Yet while Nathan appreciated classical literature, and states at various times in his Manual that he hopes his book will promote "better understanding" of it, his ultimate hope is that knowledge of the ancient pagan beliefs recorded in classical literature will inspire his readers toward a deeper Christianity: properly to understand the classics, as properly to understand anything in Nathan's view, is to gain in "knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ, 'whom to know is eternal life.'"27 Throughout the Manual, he bends his subject matter toward lessons in Christian morality. His discussion of the Greek New Testament, for instance, includes a lengthy digression on the New Testament in general. His commentary on the meaning of its books typifies his didactic, and also his competent, but somewhat cumbersome, literary style:

There is irresistible evidence, that they are from the pens of men who wrote as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, and contain the infallible rules of faith and practice for us as the intelligent moral subjects of the Great Ruler of the universe. . . . It is only by giving earnest heed to these books, that we can cleanse our ways from sin, or obtain part in the life and immortality which they and they only have brought to light.28

Because Nathan saw his Manual not only as a textbook but also as an important piece of moral didacticism capable of transforming the souls of its readers, he devoted himself to it with fervor. "It would not be far from the truth to say that he was always in his study when his health would allow," writes Heman Humphrey. "Call when you might, you would find him at his desk, with pen in hand, or poring over his text book and classics."29 Nathan's relentless toil exhausted his energies and strained his relations with his family. In his journal, he records the severe toll taken on his health by his "diligent & labourious application" to each edition of the Manual: in 1839, for instance, the "immense" task "of preparing the copy & examining the proof" for the third edition "proved too much," and "symptoms of an incipient consumption" forced him to give up work of every kind for almost a year.30 Immediately upon his recovery, plans were made for the stereotyped fourth edition. Nathan was tormented by fears that the publishers of this new edition would steal his profits from the book, and he was so overburdened with preparing new copy that he had little time left over for parenting. In 1842, when Helen went through a period of great loneliness, having been sent away to Charlestown to spend three months with the family of her mother's beloved Aunt Vinal in order to ease Deborah's burdens, Nathan's work on the Manual kept him from granting her repeated requests that he come to visit her. What she received, instead, were long letters from her mother, apprising her how "very busy" her father was, struggling to supply his publisher with as many as "sixty or seventy pages a week."31 At long last, her father did come, but his visit was only an addendum to a business trip to Boston, where he needed to examine some recently published books.

Not only was Helen well aware of her father's dedication to his scholarly work, but she also knew of his determination to evangelize with his writings, for he wrote a number of didactic works for children. Helen kept a copy of one of them in her personal childhood library: The Story of Aleck: or, Pitcairn's Island. Being a True Account of a Very Singular and Interesting Colony, which Nathan published anonymously in 1829.32 In this purportedly nonfiction work, Nathan recounts the history of Pitcairn's Island in the South Pacific, focusing on the awakening to God, under the guidance of Christian missionaries, of the "ignorant and wicked" natives and the evil pirate castaways who once lived there. While Nathan strives to keep the attention of young readers by portraying his hero Aleck as a real-life Robinson Crusoe, he never disguises his intention to present a moral lesson. He reminds his readers that God is always watching them, "just as he saw the pirates, who could not escape from the punishment of their sins, although they fled to a desert island." He concludes his book with a chapter of "Reflections Suggested by the Narrative," in which he advises: "take the Bible for your daily teacher, and friend. Read it carefully. See what it tells you to feel, and feel so. See what it tells you to do, and do so."33

It is likely that Helen learned what the Bible expected her to feel and do from another of Nathan's works for children, The Bible Class Book, a Sunday school pamphlet that he coauthored with his Amherst colleague and former theology school classmate, the Reverend Jacob Abbott. "There are many things which every person who lives ought to do, and many things which every person ought not to do," say Fiske and Abbott in this pamphlet. "The Bible points out these things, and thus teaches all our duties."34 Among the many duties that Fiske and Abbott list and annotate, they emphasize the duty of "patient submission," to be demonstrated in the further obligations of steadfast cheerfulness and industry. Their discussion of the "duty of contentment and cheerfulness" is more lengthy than their discussion of any other. They also place special emphasis on the "duty of diligence in business," arguing that diligence is not only an earthly duty but also an eternal one: "the rest of heaven consists in exemption from fatigue and suffering, not from employment."35

In addition to witnessing her father's steadfast efforts to preach and to practice Christian submission, Helen received his direct instruction. From her earliest years, both of her parents were intimately involved in her general education: according to the adult testimony of her sister Ann, Helen was "a very uncommon child," intellectually precocious, and her parents "took the very greatest pains" in teaching her.36 When Helen was a toddler, her parents went over daily readings in the Bible with her. From the time she began at age four to attend a succession of private day schools in Amherst, including Mary White's, Miss Baker's, and Miss Nelson's, they supplemented her education. Her mother supervised her progress in reading, spelling, composition, and domestic arts such as sewing, while her father instructed her in foreign languages, including, from the age of five, Hebrew and especially Latin. When Helen began in 1841 to attend schools outside of Amherst, they continued to direct her education through letters. While Helen's father and mother both emphasized the attainment of an attitude of Christian submission as the ultimate goal of all education, her father was more single-minded in urging its pursuit. He was also more determined to see Helen conduct her studies in a diligent and sober manner. In teaching her, he employed the same strict pedagogy and narrow focus on Christian duty for which he was known at Amherst College. Because he had ultimate authority over Helen's education—sole authority, following Deborah's death in February 1844—his efforts were enormously influential.

Helen was a smart and studious girl who liked to please her parents. She found studying with them "delightful,"37 and also made good progress at school. In 1841, when she was staying with family friends in Hadley, the Dickinsons, she wrote to her mother about her studies at the local school: "I am very much interested in all of them and am trying to see how far I can proceed."38 The following year, when she had been sent to stay with the Vinal family in Charlestown, where she attended Miss Austin's school, the Vinals reported in a letter to Helen's mother that Helen was "quite ambitious about her studies," even "disposed to study evenings although there is no need of it, and we do not like to have her."39 Helen sent her mother a listing of her six-day class schedule and reported with pride that Miss Austin had told Aunt Vinal that "I was a very good girl and she was very much interested in me."40

Though Helen needed no encouragement to be diligent, in her father's opinion she needed help learning to channel and sustain her efforts. "Be more patient in learning one thing first, & then something else," he told her. "Your constant danger is that you will run from one thing to another & lose the power of self control & perseverance."41 Even when Helen was away from home he closely monitored her Latin studies, examining her translations through the mail and suggesting various additional exercises. He was so exacting in his scrutiny and demands for thorough and methodical study that Helen only truly began to enjoy Latin when she was away in Hadley, studying under a Latin teacher who was "not half as strict as pa."42 Back at home in 1842, probably before her trip to Charlestown, she wrote her father a poem, begging him for a brief respite from Latin. It is her earliest known piece of poetry, written at age eleven:

My dear papa tis very long,
Since I have had a vacation.
And now I write a little song,
To move your hearts compassion.
I'm tired to death of Latin,
As you no doubt do know.
I get on slow with practising,
Alas! Alas! how slow!
I think it is but fair,
That I should have some rest,
And tis my fervent prayer,
That you may think it best.
I'm but a child,
And rather wild,
As all the world doth know.
And this is why,
It seems so dry,
For me to study so.
That old brown book,
Has such a look,
It makes one sigh to see it.
And only think how long twill take,
For you to drag me through it.
Now if you'll grant a resting spell,
I think I then shall go on well.
I would write more but my thoughts are fled,
And mother says 'Now go to bed.'
I wish you'd answer this in rhyme,
If you can possibly find the time.
Your affectionate daughter, H.M. Fiske43

There is no evidence of Nathan's response to Helen's request, in verse or prose. Even if she did receive her desired respite, the following year she was again hard at work on her Latin, now as a boarding student at the Pittsfield Academy, studying under the Reverend E. Tyler, brother of the Amherst professor William S. Tyler. That spring she wrote to her mother, "Tell pa Mr. E. Tyler is as thorough in the Latin Grammar as he could desire."44

Nathan could be a severe critic when Helen did not perform according to his wishes. "I guess if you had seen me seated slate in hand," a defiant, wounded Helen wrote to her father after one unknown altercation, "you would have retracted your chosen opinion 'that I cannot think.'"45 Decades later, when she had become a professional writer, she acknowledged in two autobiographical essays for children that she had long lived in fear of displeasing her father. In "The First Time," she recounts the agony she once suffered upon lying to her parents about a bad report card. While thoughts of her "loving and sympathetic" mother made her continually wish to reveal and apologize for her lie, fear of her father's "stern" eyes and inevitable condemnation kept her quiet: "the terror of my father's suffering and displeasure sealed my lips." In "The Naughtiest Day of My Life, and What Came of It," she describes her father's verbal censure as the worst part of the punishment she received when her parents finally realized, a week after her early flight through the Amherst countryside, that she had no intentions of apologizing. "Helen, I would like to see you in my study a little while," her father said to her. "Oh, how my heart sank within me!" Jackson recalls. "As soon as I saw my father's face, I knew it was not a whipping I was to have, but something a great deal worse—a long talk."46 Elsewhere, in an essay for adults in which Jackson argues that wounds inflicted by a parent are "certain to rankle and do harm," she uses her father's tendency toward harsh criticism as a case in point. "To this day," she writes, "the old tingling pain burns my cheeks as I recall certain rude and contemptuous words which were said to me when I was very young, and stamped on my memory forever. I was once called a 'stupid child' in the presence of strangers. I had brought the wrong book from my father's study. Nothing could be said to me today which would give me a tenth part of the hopeless sense of degradation which came from those words."47

Nathan was extreme in his demands because he wished Helen not only to fulfill her Christian obligation of active industry but also to develop the sort of earnest, focused view of the world that he himself possessed, and that he believed compatible with Christian submission. For his main intention in educating his daughter, like his main intention everywhere, was to evangelize.

Helen had a vivid imagination and from an early age took notable delight in hearing, reading, and inventing fanciful stories. When she was only twenty-seven months old, her mother told Aunt Vinal: "Helen is an 'everlasting talker' and has a great passion for stories—we can never satisfy her with telling her about you and uncle and uncle Vinals horse—she will say 'tell that adin Ma' a dozen times."48 In 1841, when Helen was homesick in Hadley, she especially missed hearing family "anecdotes"; the following year, in discussing her studies with her mother, she explained, "I admire Natural History it is almost like a story."49 Nathan disliked his daughter's tendency to waste time on "foolish dreams," however, and made every effort to have her concentrate instead on her obligations to God.50 In his letters, he continually reminds her, just as he reminded young readers of The Story of Aleck, that God is always watching, and that she must therefore control her imagination. He urges her to read only educational and religious writings, which could "improve" both her "head" and her "heart," and tells her that if she must read fiction or poetry, she should give up her interest in such humanistic authors as Shakespeare—whom she had begun to admire at least by the fall of 1841—and focus instead on such moralists as Hannah More.51 When Helen was ten years old, he advised her: "If you hope to live to old age & be happy then, you must lead until then a good & useful life, store your mind with important knowledge, & your imagination not with foolish fancies, but with beautiful pictures of truth & virtue."52 Four years later, he offered similar advice, phrased in one of his trademark rhetorical questions: "How apt some persons are to mistake their own mere imaginations to be realities, so that they are scarcely able to distinguish between the conceptions which are accidentally awakened in their minds & reliable matters of fact. If you know any body who is too much given to indulge in flights of fancy & airy dreams & castle-building & story-making, what advice would you give to such an one?"53

By encouraging his daughter to be more sober-minded than was her natural inclination, Nathan hoped to help her attain a state of mind and soul in which she might undergo a conversion experience, the intense period of awakening to God that was a necessary rite of passage for every Calvinist. From an early age, Helen had resisted many of the tenets of Calvinism, finding them "very repulsive" to her feelings.54 ("I was a skeptic before I could understand the plain English of the Scriptures which I doubted," she later explained to Julius Palmer.)55 When she was six, her mother told a family relation: "she is quite inclined to question the authority of everything; the Bible she says she does not feel as if it was true."56 Later, during her stay with the Vinals in Charlestown, she tried (unsuccessfully) to be excused from attending Sunday school. Steadily influenced by her father's efforts, however, she did eventually approach conversion on two occasions.

When she was thirteen, and boarding at the Pittsfield Academy, her father urged her to cultivate the friendship of Miss Lincoln, a pious teacher at the academy who was also Helen's roommate. Both he and Helen's mother corresponded with Miss Lincoln about the state of Helen's soul. Helen liked Miss Lincoln, and under the combined influence of this new teacher and her parents, she "obtained a hope" of conversion. As she later told Julius Palmer, she "made a written dedication" to God, "and for a short time was happy, as I have never been since." But when her mother died that winter, she saw "only too plainly" that her hope of faith had been unfounded: "I tremble sometimes now when I think of the bitterness and opposition which raged in my spirit, as I saw my dear mother's form laid under the cold wet ground," she told Palmer.57

The death of her mother plunged Helen back into her religious doubts, and forward into a period of prolonged mental anguish and depression. Her father, worried over her health and distressed by her abortive approach to conversion, removed her from the Pittsfield Academy and sent her to live in Falmouth with her mother's pious cousin, Martha Hooker, and Martha's husband the Reverend Henry Hooker, an austere Calvinist who had first introduced Helen's parents to each other. She spent more than two unhappy years in Falmouth. Her father became ever more adamant that she view her studies as ancillary to her religion. His letters to her from this period mimic exactly the central trope of his published writings: every discussion moves slowly but surely toward yet another assertion that the only truly important endeavor is to know God. Again and again, after discussing Helen's academic endeavors, Nathan reminds her that he desires no new accomplishment on her part "so much as to see you evincing a love for your Redeemer, & a conformity in temper & conduct to his requirements & example." He insists, "Especially I do hope, Helen, that you will improve your advantages for cultivating the fear of the Lord, & making attainments in true piety. I am far less anxious about your intellectual culture than respecting the training of your heart & dispositions."58

While Helen lived with the Hookers, Nathan expected her to train her dispositions, and demonstrate patient submission to her fate, by behaving with "constant self-control & prompt cheerful compliance with every regulation of the family."59 This meant that she must faithfully attend Henry Hooker's church and yield to Martha Hooker's desire that she spend a good portion of her time in household chores, and less than she wished in studying for her classes at the local school or in reading—indeed, if she wished to read, she was to content herself with the religious works Martha selected for reading aloud. Nathan was no doubt pleased to have his skeptical daughter under the religious guidance of the pious Hookers. He was grateful, too, that Martha was willing to assume his deceased wife's place in directing Helen's domestic education: though he never explicitly mentions possible future occupations for Helen in his correspondence, not even matrimony, he occasionally alludes to a hope that she would one day return to manage his own Amherst home. But Helen was long accustomed to devoting herself to her studies, while servants did the cooking and cleaning. She developed a lasting hatred of Martha for forcing her to serve as the Hooker family's "maid of all work," for circumscribing her activities as if she were living in a "prison."60

She became adept at squirreling away every spare moment for study. By the summer of 1846, she was preparing so intensely for the entrance examinations to the new women's college at Mount Holyoke, for which she hoped to leave Falmouth in the fall, that the strain in her relations with the Hookers intensified. Her father interceded, reversing his original approval of Mount Holyoke and informing Helen that she must instead attend the Female Seminary at Ipswich, an institution that he believed would provide "less stimulus to intellectual effort."61 This decision must have come as a great shock to Helen. Though her father had long urged her to be methodical and patient in her studies, never seeking to advance too quickly nor at the expense of maintaining a pious and obedient disposition, his sudden directive to refrain from making the most of herself intellectually went against all of his usual efforts to have her study well and diligently.

Distressed and anxious, her mind overwrought by the many demands being made upon it, Helen began her second approach to conversion. When a revival started in Henry Hooker's church, she was at first, as she would later tell Julius Palmer, "shocked at the depth of my hatred to the cause of Christ." But when Hooker discovered what she was feeling, "he talked with me hour after hour all to the affect that I was the most depraved of all sinners, was in the most ominous peril, &c, &c," until she was finally "fairly frightened into what I thought an actual submission of my own will and a resolution to be a Christian." But like her first approach to conversion, her new religion was not lasting. It quickly "wore off" when she left Falmouth for Ipswich, for it had been "merely an excitement fanned and stimulated to the highest pitch by external agonies, until from mere exhaustion, some rest must follow."62

That winter, as her father recorded his continued prayers for her conversion in his journal, Helen devoted her "whole soul" to study, making it her "idol."63 Over the years, the main earthly reason Nathan had given her for doing well in school was the winning of his approval. Now, just before he set out for Palestine, he offered her an added incentive: he promised that upon his return, he would take her back home with him to Amherst and there personally supervise the completion of her education. "My heart beat high at the thought of it, and I took an instant resolve to strain every nerve during his absence," Helen later told Palmer. "I do not think that nine months were ever devoted to study with more miserly calculation of the exact amount of labor which could be accomplished in every moment than were those." She studied more than ever with the goal of pleasing her father, selecting many of her courses with his particular needs in mind:

I acquired a tolerable good knowledge of German (and as I knew that he had often occasion to refer to books in that language, I pleased myself with the idea that I might make my knowledge of it, useful to him). I read three new Latin authors. . . . I devoted a great deal of time to Intellectual Philosophy, which I knew to be one of his favorite studies. . . . I also . . . took lessons in perspective drawing, and took some dozen sketches from nature, because he had once told me that it would be very useful to him, could I do so.64

When Nathan died after Helen's first nine months at Ipswich, she lost her entire reason for studying. "No words can describe the sensations of loneliness, disappointment and discouragement which weighted down my spirit," she explained to Palmer. "I felt that I had now no motive to do, or even to live."65 Immobilized by grief, she finally managed to recover herself and to continue with school only by deciding that her father would have wished her to do so. "To know that anything was or would be his wish will be sufficient to lead me unhesitatingly to do it," she determined at the time.66

Though Helen continued striving to please her father even after his death, she was never able to grant his greatest wish, that she undergo a heartfelt conversion to Calvinism. The day before her twenty-first birthday, she admitted to Julius Palmer in "the most uncensored outpouring" of her "most sacred thoughts & sorrows," that she considered herself unsuited ever to become a true Christian, for she was unwilling to make the sort of "entire, absolute, unconditional" commitment to "active exertion for the cause of Christ" that her father's example had made her believe necessary. "I love dress; I love company; I love all sorts of reading; I love simple intellectual exertion, without any view to an end," she confided. "I love, in short, the world: I know I am not willing to give it up."67

Unable to accept Calvinism, Helen was nonetheless "firmly resolved," as she entered adulthood, to "live in the daily observance of Christian duties; that even if I am never saved, I will exert as much of good influence in the world as I can."68 Like her father, she became a model of diligent submission in the face of adversity. Her diligence would allow her to accomplish much when she began to write professionally, even as her desire to do "good," and her deeply ingrained habit of seeking to please her father with her endeavors, would set somewhat restrictive parameters for her work.


While Helen's father was to have a profound influence on her literary career, her mother may largely be credited with making her career possible. For even as Nathan Fiske continually instructed Helen to give up her "foolish fancies" and direct all of her thoughts toward God, Deborah Fiske stoked the fires of her daughter's enthusiasm for storytelling and encouraged her to make the most of her active imagination. She wrote playful letters to Helen, examples of the fun that could be had with writing, and she urged her to develop a vivid, natural style in her correspondence and compositions.

Like her husband, Deborah Fiske had become a devoted Calvinist following an early conversion experience; like him, too, she lived in a world of moral absolutes in which all behavior could be judged according to laws laid down in the Bible and in which no endeavor was "of any consequence compared with securing the favor of God and a happy Eternity."69 She believed it a Christian responsibility "to act under every circumstance from a conviction of duty rather than from momentary impulses," and she was given to making lists of her duties, with such titles as "Duties of Parents to Children" and "What Saith the Scriptures."70

In particular, she shared her husband's belief in the supreme importance of demonstrating Christian submission through constant diligence and cheerfulness. She often attended church four times on Sundays, for example, and she considered suffering an impetus for greater industriousness: upon the death of her baby boy Humphrey, she assured her father, "If this affliction should be the means of arousing us to prepare with more diligence for our own departure, we shall rejoice in Eternity that his precious spirit was called home so soon."71 In her correspondence, the word "cheer" appears again and again, like a mantra: she is "cheerfully submissive" upon baby Humphrey's death; she struggles to be "cheerful always" during her own chronic illness; as her death approaches, she asks her husband to join her in placing "cheerful confidence in God."72 Virtually every description of her ever written highlights her cheerful disposition. Unlike her husband, who was sanguine by force of will, Deborah Fiske possessed a natural, unforced brightness. "Mrs. Fiske was totally different from the Professor," said Edward Hitchcock, Jr., "a little woman, smiling, approaching you interestedly, but easily, with a kind remark always."73 Upon Deborah's death, Heman Humphrey delivered a sermon, "The Woman That Feareth the Lord"; besides lauding her "meekness, humility, gentleness, charity, industry, fortitude," he praised her "perennial cheerfulness" nine times.74

Deborah Fiske not only embodied Christian submission but also worked earnestly to instill an attitude of submission in her children. Because she was always aware that she might die at any time, leaving her children motherless, she consciously fashioned temporary separations from them into training grounds for her impending permanent absence, using her letters to detail the necessity and advantages of obedience to God's will. She especially urged Helen to cultivate a cheerful and industrious disposition, knowing how important such a disposition would be if Helen were ever orphaned and forced to depend on the goodwill of others. Reminding Helen that she herself had lost her mother when she was very young, and had spent her own youth wandering from temporary home to temporary home, she repeatedly advised her daughter that the proper response to this situation was to "be very obedient and pleasant and obliging wherever you go."75 As early as 1836, when Helen was away with her father visiting Boston and Weston, where her paternal grandfather and aunt lived, Deborah told her that "every little girl should learn to love work while very young." She explained, "You must remember that you are five years old, and that if you try, there are a great many little things you can do to be useful."76 In the following years, Deborah was no doubt gratified to receive reports, such as one from Martha Vinal in Charlestown, that Helen did try to make herself "uniformly pleasant and obedient" and "cheerful."77

After Deborah Fiske died, Nathan bound many of her letters to her children and to other relations into several letter books, which he gave to Helen and Ann before he departed for Palestine. He wrote prefatory notes for these books, advising his children of the appropriate way to read their mother's letters: he treats them as the writings of an exemplary Christian, thereby construing evangelism as their main purpose. To Helen, he explains that the letters should inspire her to "a suitable emulation" of her "dear mother's many virtues," so that she would "be prepared to meet her among the redeemed."78

When Helen perused the letters, she must indeed have been reminded of her departed mother's piety and sincere desire to advocate Christian submission. But at the same time, she would have been reminded with equal force of other qualities: her mother's imagination and creativity. In fact, unlike Helen's father, Deborah had never devoted her entire energies to proselytizing. She loved to read, and while she especially cherished certain pious authors, including Thomas à Kempis, Blaise Pascal, and William Cowper (whose poems and letters she cherished for their "heavenly spirit, full of gratitude and cheerful submission"),79 she also read widely in history and travel. When directing Helen's reading, she urged study of the Bible and moralistic works like John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, but she also encouraged her daughter to join in her own enthusiasm for travels and history. Unlike Helen's father, she did not object to Helen's early interest in Shakespeare. Moreover, Deborah's discussions of writing in her letters, and especially her own unique writerly voice, show her to be a woman of real literary feeling. She takes obvious joy in writing to Helen, and in the act of writing itself: she loves to "manufacture wonders," as she calls storytelling,80 and to stimulate her daughter's imagination.

Like her husband, Deborah Fiske had a satirical sense of humor; unlike him, she made delightful, playful use of it. Thus, in a letter to Helen written after a visit with a cousin who believed in the power of mesmerism, or animal magnetism, Deborah lightly mocked such credulity, describing a dream in which she had the following conversation with an Amherst neighbor: "Mrs. Nelson asked me if I knew whether it was Mr. Fiske's opinion that clams could be mesmerized. I told her I did not know what he thought, but my opinion was they could be, because clams didn't know enough to resist the mesmeric influence."81 Whereas Nathan Fiske ranged farthest from his usual didactic mode when he sent Helen a letter written in Latin, hoping by this means to promote her studies, Deborah Fiske sent her a letter written entirely in a kind of jabberwocky verse, titled "The jabberings of Helen Maria Fiske in her sleep, while she was dreaming about money, and kicking her cousin Sarah Hooker out of bed."82 And in a letter illustrative of her gift for storytelling, Deborah asked Helen, "Wouldn't you like some Amherst news, and to see it dated from our nursery window, and written with my old pen?" She then offered a fanciful account of her own recent return to Amherst, accompanied by her father David Vinal, and of the reception they received from Nathan Fiske:

Last Monday afternoon, between the hours of three and four, a carriage entered the village drawn by four red horses, and drove up to the public house, where old and young were awaiting its arrival. It halted only long enough for salutations to be exchanged, and then proceeded on to the house of a private gentleman, who had insisted that the travellers should at once become his guests. In a few moments the carriage was standing in front of a most rural residence. A most venerable looking old gentleman alighted, followed by an invalid daughter, and two attendants; their reception was most cordial; and so much do they seem to enjoy their delightful retreat that the probability is they will give up travelling for this season. In short, Helen, we've got home.83

In supervising Helen's progress in composition, Deborah encouraged imitation of her own inventive, pictorial manner of writing. She accomplished this task when Helen was away at school by reviewing the occasional school essay and especially by critiquing Helen's letters. Once, she criticized a letter in which Helen had merely listed her various activities "without a single incident connected with them, just like the bare heads of a sermon," and charged her to "send me a graphic description . . . so that we shall seem to see it ourselves, from your picture."84 Another time, writing also on behalf of Ann, she asked Helen to "really tell us something to help us see where you are, and who you are with . . . and anything else that you think would be a good 'story.'"85 Helen soon adopted her mother's standards for composition, echoing her demands for entertaining and "very definite" letters and trying to write such letters herself.86 From the beginning, she gave evidence of having inherited her mother's eye for the humorous in everyday life. "You would laugh to see her letter to me," Deborah Fiske wrote her husband when Helen was about ten years old, "a whole sheet filled, telling the whole about everything in a most amusing way."87 Deborah rewarded her daughter's displays of humor, encouraging her to develop an easy, natural writing style: "When people don't write stiff primmed up letters, how much it is like a real talk. Such a talk, I was delighted to have from you this forenoon; and you will please to take notice that you have immediate attention in return, just such as the governor himself would have, should his highness send me letters—what do you suppose can be the reason he does not write?"88

While Deborah was playful and informal in her letters to Helen, and encouraged similar responses, she was careful to remind Helen never to write in a manner "not sufficiently refined" to people outside of the family: "things said may be forgotten," she warned her, "but things written, remain."89 But in fact, Deborah herself was often far more whimsical than "refined" in her own correspondence with people outside her immediate family. She liked to assume new identities in her letters, for instance. Signing herself "Yours sincerely, One Night Cap," she once wrote to a needy acquaintance: "I am a poor lonesome creature, tired of my existence, and yet too conscientious to end it by suicide; therefore will good Mrs. Walker be kind enough to wear me out in her service, so that my life may be short and yet be the means of doing a little good."90 She also liked to daydream, however much her husband was opposed to such self-indulgent behavior. "I do wish I could take a peep into Adeline's windpipe, Ellen's lungs and mine, and your joints that ache," she once wrote to Ann Scholfield, one of her three beloved Scholfield cousins (these daughters of Martha Vinal's sister lived in Beacon Hill, Boston). "Like a thousand other gratified wishes, the result would bring nothing but vexation—the pain I shouldn't find in your poor knees—no dust that would explain Adeline's wheezing, nor apple cores or bits of flannel that would account for my cough or Ellen's."91

At times, Deborah's natural creativity was so powerful that it even threatened to obscure her firm sense of moral duty. In her letters to her Scholfield cousins, she sometimes indulged in a playful kind of "slandering and tattling," as she called it.92 "I cannot describe to you how pleasant it is to me to see Adeline and Ellen," she wrote to cousin Ann during one visit to Boston:

We talk about you, and everybody, and everything—praising or slandering just as we please after we have got through with making sport of all our friends' foibles, and wondering at the world at large. We have thought of penning a book to be called the black book in which a fine is to be charged for every instance of back biting to be paid over to some benevolent society. This idea was suggested by a moral reform publication sent by a good lady the other day to reform me,—such an experiment is in process with some of the contributors to that purifying periodical; but it is discouraging to try to do good or be good so many stand ready to pervert useful designs, now your Ellen, good as she is, insists upon it that the more we slander the better if the fine is to go to some good object. One thing I know no such account shall be opened while Adeline and Ellen stay—I'll have the full enjoyment of an unbridled tongue and save my coppers.93

For a woman as sincerely pious as Deborah Fiske, this letter is remarkably flippant on the subject of moral improvement. In fact, in another letter to Ann Scholfield, perhaps written while she was feeling anxious over her children's future, Deborah Fiske once questioned the effectiveness of her own efforts to do moral good: "As to doing good by letters, the moment I try to call up, out, or down, anything substantial, my head feels just like an egg-shell with the contents suddenly blown out."94

In early 1839, when she was thirty-two years old and had been married for more than ten years, Deborah Fiske tried a new way of effecting good with her writing: she wrote five pieces of children's fiction and published them anonymously in Youth's Companion, a children's magazine founded in 1827 as a Sunday school reader. Deborah tried to keep her work for Youth's Companion a secret from her family, and Helen seems never to have known of it. (Nor is there any record of her later reaction to the letter in her possession that revealed the secret.)95 Still, Helen had been receiving Youth's Companion for several years when her mother's pieces appeared in the magazine; Deborah may well have directed her attention to these particular contributions, in which Deborah's protagonists are usually little girls just about the same age as eight-year-old Helen.

Deborah clearly intended her pieces as lessons in the importance of Christian diligence. Each of them is set up in the same way: Deborah writes of young people who are idle, inattentive, and unable to appreciate the advice of adults, with the hope that young readers will recognize whatever shortcomings they might share with these protagonists and dedicate themselves to becoming more industrious and obedient. But in fact, like her letters, her published writings are most remarkable not for their moral didacticism but for their wit. Deborah's natural zest for the ludicrous in everyday life continually leads her to betray sympathy for her boisterous protagonists. Thus, in "A Letter from a Little Girl Who Did Nothing but Play, to her Cousin Who Loved to Study," Deborah's fictional "Hannah," intended as a warning to children who neglect their studies, actually makes shirking seem a good option. "I hav lernte toe rede an rite and spel and thiss iz enuf phor mee," she says. "I pla orl most orl thee tyme. Kum and Pla with mee."96 In another piece, titled "What a Useful Young Lady! Two Leaves from Her Journal, Picked Up in the Street a Few Days Ago," an indolent young diarist's description of her morning does more to amuse readers than to persuade them of the need for Christian diligence:

Awoke early; a very cold morning; heard my mother and sisters getting breakfast; thought they would get along well enough without me; went to sleep again, and didn't wake till nine o'clock. Sat up in bed a while, looking at the frost upon the windows; screamed and screamed for somebody to come and make a fire in my room; nobody would hear. Suffered dreadfully from the cold putting on my clothes; knew I should actually perish if I stopped to comb my hair. Ran downstairs into the parlor; there was a good fire and my breakfast by it. The table cleared off, and the work all done, just as I thought it would be.97

Here, Deborah's comic sensibility and sympathy for children almost entirely overwhelm the moral lessons she wishes to impart. The same can be said of the drama of "Poor Susan," which played itself out in the pages of Youth's Companion for a month. In "Ten Questions That I Wish Nobody Would Ever Ask Me Again," Deborah's young Susan complains that she is incessantly "driven from one thing to another" by her Aunt Betsy's ten "why don't you's," demands for diligence and obedience that include such unreasonable requests as "why don't you keep still while others are talking." Poor Susan finds herself in need of commiseration:

I really feel discouraged, and it is this feeling that makes me tell my troubles in the Youth's Companion. There is great comfort in sympathy; and will not some of my little mates write me a letter that will cheer up my spirits. It mustn't be a very long letter, for aunt Betsy, if it is, will be after me before I shall have read half of it, with some of her 'why don't you's.' Everything but absolute work and absolute study, she calls all nonsense that I am too big for. I am nine years old. I wish aunt Betsy was ninety-nine, but she is only thirty-seven.98

Within a few weeks, Youth's Companion received many responses to Susan, including letters from "C.N." and "S.P.G.," young readers who strove earnestly to assure Susan of her own culpability and to remind her of her duties.99 The response of Deborah's "Aunt Betsy," on the other hand, is far less sober in effect. In "A Few Words to 'Poor Susan,'" Aunt Betsy intends to inform Susan that what she needs is not sympathy but a scolding. Yet in her righteous indignation, her eagerness to have the young readers of the Youth's Companion side with her, rather than with a clever child, Aunt Betsy makes herself ridiculous: "Aunt Betsy is not so easily imposed upon. To be sure she is more used to making puddings, than writing for the Youth's Companion; but she is not afraid to defend herself anywhere; and any little girl that comes out and tells but half of anything for the whole, needn't be surprised to see the other half from Aunt Betsy."100

Essentially, Deborah Fiske's sketches are not so much inducements to better behavior as they are comic portraits of behavioral battles in which children tend to act with a wisdom, albeit a naive wisdom, utterly lacking in their adult adversaries. Before publishing these pieces, Deborah had frequently alluded in her letters to a special interest in writing but had been unable to take her abilities seriously, always turning her interest into a joke. "It would prick my pride most grievously to know that you did not consider it a fine thing to receive such fine composition as I always 'make up' to put into letters," she teases her father in one letter; in another, playing with the idea of publication, she suggests that the two of them "make some books for others to read, you furnish the ideas and I will be your amanuensis."101 In a letter to Ellen Scholfield, written during a period when Deborah's illness was making it difficult for her to do housework, she jokes about another writing project she never actually intends to undertake: "Of late my attention has been very much given to finding out the easiest way of doing things, and I have some hope of making discoveries that will be of great advantage to housekeepers and invalids; I will not specify them here, but if you see a work advertised with the title 'good news to hard workers' you may suspect that you know the author, and I advise you to buy a copy."102

Deborah could only joke about writing for publication in the years before her Youth's Companion pieces because she believed that her duty lay elsewhere, in her role as a wife and mother. Deborah's Calvinist faith taught her this, and her husband reinforced the notion. When the Fiskes were married, one of Nathan's friends sent Deborah a poem, "The Province of Woman," which specified the conventional, limited role that he, and by proxy Nathan himself, would "expect,—mark that word, expect, confidently expect" to see her fill. In the words of the poem, she was to withdraw her "modest head from public sight," "unknown to flourish, & unseen be great," so that she might "give domestic life its sweetest charm."103 Deborah kept this letter and poem pressed into a scrapbook for reflection. Moreover, both she and her husband believed that all writers worthy of the name were engaged in the serious business of directing readers toward God. If it overtasked Nathan's energies to fulfill this obligation, how could Deborah, her days filled with domestic duties, conceive of becoming a writer? "How can I step into the perplexities that you with all your philosophy and firmness can hardly bear?" she once asked him.104

Though Deborah believed, and her husband insisted, that she should not stray from the domestic realm, she was sometimes frustrated within her limited role. As a student she had shined near the top of her class at a variety of boarding schools in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but her illness made it impossible for her to excel as a housekeeper. In 1836, a particularly difficult year, she admitted to her husband that "it sometimes seems mysterious that when there is nothing in the world that I do not do better this should have been my employment."105 Not long before she wrote her Youth's Companion pieces, she had begun to dream with new urgency of directing her efforts to something literary, perhaps for "the benefit of little children." In a letter to her cousin Martha Hooker, she explained: "My life is slipping away and I am doing nothing but taking care of my family. I know it is my proper business, but some do so much good besides."106

When Deborah finally did try writing for publication, making her attempt to "benefit" children in the pages of the Youth's Companion, she was ashamed of the results. She told Martha Hooker, who had somehow discovered her secret, that she had written fanciful pieces because she thought children might learn more readily from fiction than from narrow exhortation. But she believed that in the end she had produced only "silly things" and "nonsense," that she had been "a fool" to undertake writing for publication in the first place. "I have never been in the habit of writing anything but familiar letters about family matters or nothing at all and it is all I am fit for," she insisted. Deborah also admitted to Martha that she was worried about her husband's reaction to her secret endeavor, which he was soon to discover by reading her letter: "To make a bad matter still worse," she said, "Mr. Fiske must ask me to let him see this before it is sealed, so the cat will be out of the bag."107 Indeed, Deborah's lengthy self-deprecations in this letter have the feel of being directed as much toward her husband as toward Martha. She never wrote for publication again.

Though Deborah was uncomfortable with her own irrepressible sense of humor, it seems to have been the very quality that most impressed Helen in her mother's writing. Early in her career she would find inspiration for several children's stories about the antics of cats in a rollicking series of letters her mother had sent to her in the summer of 1836, pretending to be her cat. And in 1879 she published Letters from a Cat, a revised version of her mother's actual letters.

Deborah Fiske's original cat letters are even more mischievous, more filled with sheer fun and frolic, than her other writings. The Fiske cat displays a literary sensibility in her letters, like Deborah herself; unlike Deborah, however, the cat revels in her talents, boasting of her ability to write better than other cats, who generally make "dreadful work . . . trying to print," and jealously guarding her reputation for erudition by telling Helen not to show her letters to anyone, "unless it may be to some cat who knows less than I do."108 While Deborah mostly only dreamed about undertaking useful literary work, and was dissatisfied with the results when she did actually publish, the Fiske cat opens a school for other cats and candidly scorns females who confine themselves only to taking care of their own kittens. "The Judge's cat," she complains, "is very old and stupid, and so taken up with her six kittens (who are the ugliest I ever saw), that she does not take the least interest in her neighbor's affairs."109

In editing her mother's letters, Helen was careful to preserve their original charm. Take, for instance, a day when the cat is frightened by a spring housecleaning, and bumps her nose against a window. In Deborah's original letter, the cat laments,

My poor nose tingles yet from the sad thump it got against the glass and when I wash my face my nose feels as if it must have a very flat look. If it has such a look, I am sure I hope it will outgrow it for the beauty of any cats face is a handsome nose.110

In Helen's version, the cat is slightly more self-conscious, but still herself:

But the worst of all is the condition of my nose. Everybody laughs who sees me, and I do not blame them; it is twice as large as it used to be, and I begin to be seriously afraid it will never return to its old shape. This will be a dreadful affliction: for who does not know that the nose is the chief beauty of a cat's face?111

In her introduction to Letters from a Cat, Helen describes Deborah Fiske as "the kindest human being I ever knew."112 Surely this tribute was prompted not only by Deborah's cheerful good nature and constant desire to do "good," but also by the loving creativity that she poured into her relationship with her daughter. As a writer, Helen would find in her mother's comedic sensibility and interest in the idiosyncrasies of human character an important counterbalance to the sober legacy of her diligent, single-minded father—a man who, in a rare moment of self-pity, once complained, "I am obliged, if I use the pen at all, to do it in the capacity of a toilsome drudge."113

In the years immediately following the deaths of her parents, Helen acknowledged that they had both "left their teaching in the heart of their child."114 Their lessons in Christian submission would help her carry on amid the many losses still in store for her, and fuel her early efforts to make good on her inherited literary disposition.



Chapter 2. Lessons from Father and Mother

1. Nathan Fiske had earned only between $800 and $1,000 per year, and he left behind little savings. Before her first marriage, Jackson received through her guardian Julius Palmer some $100 per year, which apparently came from her father's estate. At the same time, David Vinal provided for her board and expenses with some $400 dollars every year. When Vinal died, he left Jackson property in Boston's South End valued at approximately $32,000 (most of it mortgaged) and more than $20,000 in cash. Throughout her life, Jackson received quarterly interest payments on this inheritance, along with other personal banking services, from a succession of Boston-based financial trustees: first from her guardian Julius Palmer; next, upon Palmer's death in 1872, from his son Julius, Jr., and an associate, Mr. Poor; then, when she and Ann became dissatisfied with Julius, Jr.'s handling of their investments, from Charles Tufts; and finally, beginning in 1879, from Charles Fiske, a paternal relative. During her marriage to Hunt, she received some $400 per year as a supplement to Edward Hunt's annual income of $1,400. Following Hunt's death in 1863, she and Rennie lived on her trust income alone. It was not until after the Civil War ended that she began to write for publication; she was then also given a lump military widow's payment of $500 along with a monthly "widow's claim" of $25. During Julius Palmer, Jr.'s tenure as trustee, she received between $2,000 and $2,600 in interest per year, and during the tenure of Charles Fiske, she continued to receive an average of $2,000 per year—amounts that allowed for comfortable living. (Letters and other documents providing information on Jackson's finances are housed in the Tutt Library.)

2. The earlier Nathan Fiske, who was born in 1733 and died in 1799, anticipated his great-nephew in his orthodoxy, his belief in the importance of cheerfulness and industry, and many of his literary tastes. One hundred fifty-one of his newspaper essays, originally published under a variety of pseudonyms, are gathered in a two-volume publication titled The Moral Monitor; or a Collection of Essays on Various Subjects (Worcester, Mass.: Isaiah Thomas, 1801). In these essays, the elder Fiske sounds like the younger in his desire to promote what he calls "the union of piety and poetry." He insists that all good writing, indeed everything worth knowing, leads to "just ideas of God," and that any writer who gives "loose reins to an unhallowed imagination" is to be rejected (1:99, 2:124, 1:154). It is not known whether Jackson ever read The Moral Monitor.

3. Elias Cornelius, Sermon, Delivered in the Tabernacle Church, Salem, Mass., Sept. 25 1823 . . . (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1823), 3.

4. According to Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Amherst's population "increased by only 575 persons, from 2,631 to 3,206," from the year of Jackson's birth until 1860, even as "neighboring Northampton, which boasted a number of local industries and factories, nearly doubled in size" (Emily Dickinson [1986; reprint, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1988], 557 n. 3).

5. Heman Humphrey, Memoir of Rev. Nathan W. Fiske, Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy in Amherst College; Together with Selections from His Sermons and Other Writings (Amherst, Mass.: J.S. & C. Adams, 1850), 83. Along with his remembrances of Fiske, Humphrey's Memoir includes a selection of Fiske's sermons, two of his lectures, and excerpts from the private journals Fiske kept with some regularity beginning in college. Three of Fiske's actual journals are housed in HHJ1.

6. Ibid., 83, 76-78.

7. Edward Hitchcock, Reminiscences of Amherst College, Historical, Scientific, Biographical, and Autobiographical: Also, of Other and Wider Life Experiences (Northampton, Mass.: Bridgman & Childs, 1863), 30-31.

8. On Fiske's nickname among his students, "Kai Gar" (formed from two Greek particles), see William Gardiner Hammond, Remembrance of Amherst, An Undergraduate's Diary, 1846-1848, ed. George F. Whicher (New York: Columbia University Press, 1946), 29, 289 n. 5; Claude Moore Fuess, Amherst: The Story of a New England College (Boston: Little, Brown, 1935), 101 n. 4.

9. Anonymous student, quoted in Humphrey, Memoir of Rev. Nathan W. Fiske, 85.

10. Anonymous student, quoted in ibid., 89.

11. Edward Hitchcock, Jr., quoted in Jay Leyda, Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 1:xlvi.

12. Nathan Fiske to Deborah Fiske, 22 December 1829, HHJ1.

13. Nathan Fiske to Deborah Fiske, 17 January [1831], HHJ1.

14. Deborah Fiske to Nathan Fiske, [October 1841], HHJ1.

15. Nathan Fiske to David Vinal, 17 February 1832, HHJ1.

16. Nathan Fiske, Obituary Address at the Funeral of the Rev. Royal Washburn, Amherst, Mass., January 4, 1833 (Amherst, Mass.: J.S. & C. Adams, 1833), 24-26.

17Nathan Fiske, journal, in Humphrey, Memoir of Rev. Nathan W. Fiske, 56.

18. Deborah Fiske to Nathan Fiske, [1836], HHJ1.

19. Nathan Fiske to Deborah Fiske, [1832], HHJ1.

20. Humphrey, Memoir of Rev. Nathan W. Fiske, iv.

21. Ibid., 88. See also William S. Tyler, A History of Amherst College during the Administrations of Its First Five Presidents from 1821 to 1891 (New York: Frederick H. Hitchcock, 1895), 135.

22. Nathan Fiske, "Spiritual Liberty," in Humphrey, Memoir of Rev. Nathan W. Fiske, 106.

23. Tyler, A History of Amherst College, 135, 277.

24. Jackson to Henry Root, 28 March 1852, HHJ5.

25. In addition to the works I discuss, Fiske published Outlines of Mental Philosophy (n.d.); a Memoir of Philip Doddridge, which Fiske mentions in his journal, but which I have been unable to locate; an edition of The Course of Time, by Robert Pollok (1828); and perhaps a children's book called Young Peter's Voyage around the World, which Ruth Odell mentions in her biography of Jackson, but which neither she nor I succeeded in locating.

26. Johann Joachim Eschenburg (1743-1820) was a German literary critic, historian, and poet. His own Handbuch der klassischen Literatur was published in 1783. Fiske's version of the Manual was used as a textbook at Amherst and Harvard, among other colleges, and some 12,000 copies had been purchased by the time of its fourth edition.

27. Nathan Fiske, trans. and comp., Manual of Classical Literature, by Johann Joachim Eschenburg, 4th ed., with additions (Philadelphia: E.C. & J. Biddle, 1854), 85, xii.

28. Ibid., 542.

29. Humphrey, Memoir of Rev. Nathan W. Fiske, 83.

30. Nathan Fiske, 29 May 1844, journal, HHJ1. Fiske's entry for this day offers a retrospect of the previous ten years.

31. Deborah Fiske to Jackson, [1842] and [1842], HHJ1.

32. By age nine, Helen had a personal library of eighty-six books, including, in addition to The Story of Aleck, such titles as Temperance Tales, in five volumes; The Reformation; The Young Lady's Guide and The Young Lady's Friend; Kempis's Imitation of Christ; and Am I a Christian? (see listing of books in Helen's library, HHJ1). Ten of young Helen's actual books are stored in HHJ1; all are pious volumes, including two Bibles—one given to her by her father, the other by her mother.

33. Nathan Fiske, The Story of Aleck: or, Pitcairn's Island. Being a True Account of a Very Singular and Interesting Colony (Amherst, Mass.: J.S. & C. Adams, 1829), 6, 20-21, 47.

34. Nathan Fiske and Jacob Abbott, The Bible Class Book; Designed for Bible Classes, Sabbath Schools, and Families, Scripture Duties No. 2 (Boston: T.R. Marvin, 1829), 9. This series was sponsored by the Massachusetts Sabbath School Union.

35. Ibid., 31-32, 29.

36. Ann Fiske Banfield to Helen Jackson (Ann Banfield's granddaughter), 24 April 1906, HHJ2.

37. Jackson to Deborah Fiske, [1841], HHJ1.

38. Jackson to Deborah Fiske, [1841], HHJ1.

39. Cousin Martha to Deborah Fiske, [1842], HHJ1.

40. Jackson to Deborah Fiske, [1842], HHJ1.

41. Nathan Fiske to Jackson, 24 October 1844, HHJ1.

42. Jackson to Deborah Fiske, [1841], HHJ1.

43. Jackson to Nathan Fiske, [1842], HHJ1.

44. Jackson to Deborah Fiske, [May 1843], HHJ1.

45. Jackson to Nathan Fiske, 14 November 1841, HHJ1.

46. Jackson, "The First Time," St. Nicholas, May 1877; "The Naughtiest Day of My Life, and What Came of It," St. Nicholas, October 1880.

47. Jackson, "The Inhumanities of Parents—Rudeness," in Bits of Talk about Home Matters (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1873), 36-37.

48. Deborah Fiske to Martha Vinal, 7 February 1833; quoted in Leyda, Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, 1:19.

49. Jackson to Deborah Fiske, [1841] and [1842], HHJ1.

50. Nathan Fiske to Jackson, 15 September 1844, HHJ1.

51. Nathan Fiske to Jackson, 30 September 1844, HHJ1. "In the evening I read Shakespeare," Helen had told her mother when she was in Hadley in 1841 (HHJ1).

52. Nathan Fiske to Jackson, 17 December 1840, HHJ1.

53. Nathan Fiske to Jackson, 21 January 1845, HHJ1.

54. Jackson to Julius Palmer, 6 October 1850, HHJ2.

55. Jackson to Julius Palmer, 8 March 1850, HHJ2.

56. Deborah Fiske to Martha Hooker, 28 April 1837; quoted in Leyda, Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, 1:36.

57. Jackson to Julius Palmer, 8 March 1850, HHJ2. "That was a great many years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday," Jackson would later write of her mother's funeral ("The First Time," St. Nicholas, May 1877).

58. Nathan Fiske to Jackson, 15 September and 23 November 1844, HHJ1.

59. Nathan Fiske to Jackson, 23 November 1844, HHJ1.

60. Jackson to Ann Scholfield, 14 January 1856, transcript, WSJ2.

61. Nathan Fiske to Jackson, 10 July 1846, HHJ1.

62. Jackson to Julius Palmer, 8 March 1850, HHJ2.

63. Ibid. See also Fiske's journal, 30 January 1847, HHJ1.

64. Jackson to Julius Palmer, 8 March 1850, HHJ2.

65. Ibid.

66. Jackson to Ann Scholfield, 29 July 1847, transcript, WSJ2.

67. Jackson to Julius Palmer, 13 October 1851, HHJ2.

68. Jackson to Julius Palmer, 15 December 1850, HHJ2.

69. Deborah Fiske to Jackson, [June 1843], HHJ1.

70. Deborah Fiske to Elizabeth Holmes Washburn, n.d., HHJ1; Deborah Fiske, duty lists, HHJ1.

71. Deborah Fiske to David Vinal, n.d., HHJ1.

72. Deborah Fiske to David Vinal, n.d., HHJ1; Deborah Fiske to Nathan Fiske, [1833] and n.d., HHJ1.

73. Edward Hitchcock, Jr., quoted in Leyda, Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, 1:xlvi.

74. Heman Humphrey, The Woman That Feareth the Lord, a Discourse Delivered at the Funeral of Mrs. D. W. V. Fiske, 21 February 1844 (Amherst, Mass.: J.S. & C. Adams, 1844), 12-13, 36. Humphrey's sermon is based on Proverbs 31:10 and 30.

75. Deborah Fiske to Jackson, [summer 1836], HHJ1.

76. Deborah Fiske to Jackson, [summer 1836], HHJ1.

77. Martha Vinal to Deborah Fiske, [1842], HHJ1.

78. Nathan Fiske, prefatory note to letter book 1 (correspondence of Deborah and Helen Fiske, 1835-43), 25 June 1846, HHJ1.

79. Deborah Fiske to Ann Scholfield, [1841], HHJ1.

80. Deborah Fiske to Jackson, [September 1841], HHJ1.

81. Deborah Fiske to Jackson, n.d., HHJ1.

82. Deborah Fiske to Jackson, [1842], HHJ1.

83. Deborah Fiske to Jackson, [1843], HHJ1.

84. Deborah Fiske to Jackson, 4 October 1841, HHJ1.

85. Deborah Fiske to Jackson, [May 1843], HHJ1.

86. Jackson to Deborah Fiske, [May 1843], HHJ1.

87. Deborah Fiske to Nathan Fiske, n.d., HHJ1.

88. Deborah Fiske to Jackson, [October 1841], HHJ1.

89. Deborah Fiske to Jackson, [1842], HHJ1.

90. Deborah Fiske to Mrs. Walker, n.d., HHJ1.

91. Deborah Fiske to Ann Scholfield, n.d., HHJ1.

92. Deborah Fiske to Ann Scholfield, [1841], HHJ1.

93. Deborah Fiske to Ann Scholfield, n.d., HHJ1.

94. Deborah Fiske to Ann Scholfield, [1841], HHJ1.

95. Deborah claims in a letter to Martha Hooker to have published, in addition to those I discuss, a Youth's Companion piece called "One of Grandma's Bible Stories" (see Deborah Fiske to Hooker, 14 April 1839, HHJ1). I have been unable to locate it.

96. Deborah Fiske, "A Letter from a Little Girl Who Did Nothing but Play, to Her Cousin Who Loved to Study," Youth's Companion, 1 February 1839.

97. Deborah Fiske, "What a Useful Young Lady! Two Leaves from Her Journal, Picked Up in the Street a Few Days Ago," Youth's Companion, 22 February 1839.

98. Deborah Fiske, "Ten Questions That I Wish Nobody Would Ever Ask Me Again," Youth's Companion, 1 February 1839. At this time, Deborah Fiske was only thirty-two years old, not thirty-seven.

99. See "To the Editor of the Youth's Companion" and "The Ten Questions," Youth's Companion, 22 February and 1 March 1839.

100. Deborah Fiske, "A Few Words to 'Poor Susan,'" Youth's Companion, 22 February 1839.

101. Deborah Fiske to David Vinal, 11 December 1823 and 16 March 1828, HHJ1.

102. Deborah Fiske to Ellen Scholfield, n.d., in Sheila M. Rothman, Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 96.

103. W.S. to Deborah Fiske, including copy of poem "The Province of Woman," 21 October 1828, HHJ1.

104. Deborah Fiske to Nathan Fiske, [1836], HHJ1.

105. Deborah Fiske to Nathan Fiske, [September 1836], HHJ1.

106. Deborah Fiske to Martha Hooker, [1838 or early 1839]; in Rothman, Living in the Shadow of Death, 97.

107. Deborah Fiske to Martha Hooker, 14 April 1839, HHJ1.

108. Deborah Fiske to Jackson, [summer 1836], HHJ1.

109. Jackson, Letters from a Cat: Published by Her Mistress (1879; reprint, Boston: Little, Brown, 1902), 42-43.

110. Deborah Fiske to Jackson, [summer 1836], HHJ1.

111. Jackson, Letters from a Cat (1879), 56-57.

112. Ibid., 19.

113. Nathan Fiske to Henry Hooker, 14 April 1839, HHJ1.

114. Jackson to Julius Palmer, 15 December 1850, HHJ2.