Born on October 14, 1830, Helen Maria Fiske spent her early years in Congregationalist Amherst, Massachusetts. There she would meet Emily Dickinson and become a lifelong correspondent with her. To her parents' consternation, Helen was a high-spirited, inquisitive child, unlike her more sedate, younger sister Ann. Her mother, Deborah Vinal Fiske, wrote her cousin: "Helen learns very well, but I do not drive her very much to make her very literary--she is quite inclined to question the author of everything; the Bible she says does not feel as if it were true" ( Banning11).
Deborah Fiske, creative in her own right, sent her young daughter letters from their household cat that Jackson later in life would edit and collect in the children's story Letters from a Cat ( 1879). Her father, Nathan Welby Fiske, was a professor of languages at Amherst College. Formally a Congregationalist minister, he espoused the Calvinist faith, which Jackson discarded later in life. When her mother became sick with tuberculosis, Jackson at age nine was sent to a series of boarding schools as her parents looked for an environment with enough discipline for her. By the age of nineteen, Jackson had lost both parents to tuberculosis and attended six schools. This frequent moving and traveling began a lifelong pattern for Jackson. Under her maternal grandfather's care, she transferred to the Abbott (later Springer) Institution in New York, boarded with the John Abbott family, and finally excelled scholastically.
At a ball in Albany, New York, Jackson met the governor's brother Army Lieutenant Edward B. Hunt, an engineer and physicist with great potential. They were married in 1852, and during their eleven-year marriage, she led an active social life, meeting many contacts who later would help her during her literary