Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Sincerity, Secrecy, and Lies: Helen Hunt Jackson's No Name Novels

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Sincerity, Secrecy, and Lies: Helen Hunt Jackson's No Name Novels

Article excerpt

Until the last six years of her life, Helen Jackson's career as a nineteenth-century American women writer was in so many ways conventional that most contemporary critics conclude, as Cheryl Walker does in The Nightingale's Burden, that "for Jackson the culturally determined literary sensibility she inherited was definitive."(1) She turned to writing only after the deaths of her first husband and two sons denied her her first role choice of wife and mother; she published most of her work - poetry, travel essays, domestic advice, children's books, and fiction - pseudonymously or anonymously; while she had a sharp eye for local color and realistic detail, frequently her tone is didactic, her plots improbable, and her characters sentimentally idealized. Today she is remembered as a minor character in the biography of her friend Emily Dickinson and, most importantly, as one of the earliest activists in reforming the United States government's treatment of the American Indian. She is best known for her 1884 novel Ramona, written in the year and a half before her death. Though Ramona achieved tremendous popular success as a romance of the American West, Jackson intended it as a protest novel to promote the cause of the American Indian in the way that Uncle Tom's Cabin had promoted abolition.(2)

Why Jackson, at the age of forty-nine, suddenly devoted herself to the cause of the American Indian has been essentially inexplicable to her biographers. She was indifferent to abolition and to women's suffrage, though many of her friends, including Thomas Wentworth Higginson and his circle, were active in both causes. Most of her biographers assume she had simply become bored with her life and needed a new interest.(3) Higginson and others have seen continuity in the fact that many of her poems and essays "were written with a distinct moral purpose."(4) Jackson's letters and the comments of her contemporaries leave no doubt that despite being a capable businesswoman, she saw her role as a writer in conventional moral terms. Like the nineteenth-century women writers Mary Kelley discusses in Private Woman, Public Stage, she "exemplified the |habit of feeling for others' by writing for the good of humanity."(5) I propose, however, that her apparently sudden interest in Indian reform has even more specific roots in a particular moral problem with which she had wrestled for the past few years in writing the two anonymous novels she published in Roberts Brothers' No Name Series, Mercy Philbrick's Choice in 1876, followed by Hetty's Strange History in 1877. In these two novels Jackson problematized the sentimental convention of "sincerity" in order to examine her society's ambivalence about the meaning of "confidence," thereby demonstrating the potential hyprocrisy of sincere intention, the deceptive possibilities of social forms and language, and the moral ambiguity of secrecy and silence. Her exploration of this problem shook her own sense of identity, resulting in the rejection of anonymous authorship with which she publicly became "what I have said a thousand times was the most odious thing in life - |a woman with a hobby.'"(6)

Both Mercy Philbrick's Choice and Hetty's Strange History are out of print today, although they sold fairly well in the nineteenth century. In the lives of their heroines, both novels demonstrate what Karen Halttunen in Confidence Men and Painted Women identifies as the central premise of sentimental fiction, namely the moral superiority of private sensibility to public action.(7) Mercy and Hetty, both intensely private women, feel experience deeply, make moral judgments of excruciating sensitivity, and choose lives of service to others. Both exemplify the sincerity which Halttunen says sentimentalists saw as society's defense against deceptive evil in the realm of public action; women of the truest sensibility were thought to be "constitutionally transparent, incapable of disguising their feelings. …

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