Friday, October 15, 2010

15 October 1830: birthday of Amherst Author and Native American Rights Activist Helen Fiske Hunt Jackson

Mass Moments reminds us:
On This Day... 1830, an Amherst College professor and his wife rejoiced at the safe delivery of their second child, Helen Maria Fiske. A lifelong friend of Emily Dickinson and a talented poet in her own right, Helen Fiske Hunt Jackson would become one of the most admired and prolific authors of her time. Her poems, essays, travel sketches, and children's stories were widely published in the 1860s. On a visit to Boston in 1879, she heard an Indian chief speak about the injustices his people had suffered at the hands of the U.S. government. Never before involved in reform, Jackson was moved to action. She became a crusader for Indian rights and devoted the rest of her life to the cause. (read the rest)
In recent decades, as interest in both women's and Native American history has increased, Helen Hunt Jackson has begun to reclaim some of the attention of scholars and general public alike.  She is now best remembered for her indictments of policy toward Native Americans in A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government's Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes (1881) and the bestselling novel, Ramona (1884).

Jackson was an almost exact contemporary (born in the same year, dying a year earlier) of Emily Dickinson's. The manuscript "List of Women Delivered by I.G.C," a record kept by Dr. Isaac G. Cutler of Amherst and preserved in the Jones Library Special Collections, records the births of the two children (though only the fathers' names are listed) on the same page.  They corresponded in the last decade of their lives, and it has been said that Jackson was one of the few contemporaries who fully appreciated Dickinson's originality.  Jackson published one of Dickinson's poems in an anthology in 1878, and just before her death, asked the poet to "make me your literary legatee & executor."

Helen Hunt Jackson (center, in purple dress)
The Amherst Community History Mural (2005) in the 1730 West Cemetery includes a portrait of Jackson in a panel of local literary figures. In 2009, the Historical Commission proposed, and Town Meeting approved, Community Preservation Act funding for up to ten signs to commemorate the sites associated with the lives of Amherst authors.  Among these was the birthplace of Helen Maria Fiske, attributed to architect Warren S. Howland, at what is now 249 South Pleasant Street.

The late art historian and former Historical Commission member Paul F. Norton  described it as follows:
The side of the house facing eastward is typical of the Greek Revival in having four pilasters (though the order is more Roman than Greek) supporting an entablature, above which a low-pitched gable rests comfortably.  Weather boards fitted flatly increase the classical effect, but on the other sides traditional clapboards were used.  The central chimney also suggests the strength of early Colonial tradition.
[Amherst: A Guide to Its Architecture (Amherst Historical Society, 1976), 136]
Amherst College acquired the structure in 1921.  The Historical Commission is now moving forward with requests for proposals for fabrication of the markers and hopes to have them installed sometime next year.

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