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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 langu