A season of melancholy for poets, autumn is often made magical by the blue skies of October.
The American poet Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885) published five books of poetry, including Verses (1870), Easter Bells (1884), and A Calendar of Sonnets (1891) as well as children’s literature and travel books, often using the pseudonyms “H.H.”, “Rip van Winkle”, or “Saxe Holm”.
At the Abbott Institute, a boarding school in New York City, she was a classmate of the poet Emily Dickinson. The two corresponded for the rest of their lives, although few of their letters have survived.
In 1881, Jackson wrote her most important book, A Century of Dishonor. She sent a copy to each member of Congress with a quote from Benjamin Franklin printed in red on the cover: “Look upon your hands: they are stained with the blood of your relations.” The book condemned federal and state Indian policies, detailed the history of broken treaties, and called for significant reform in government attitudes toward Native Americans.
In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur appointed Jackson, along with translator Abbott Kinney, Special Commissioner of Indian Affairs – the first woman to hold that post. Her assignment was to visit the Mission Indians in Southern California, ascertain the location and condition of various communities, and determine what lands should be purchased for their use.
In 1883, Jackson and Kinney published their 56-page report, which recommended extensive government relief for the Mission Indians, including establishing new reservations and more Indian schools. Jackson’s call for “some atonement” for past neglect and injustice was ignored.
Inspired by her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jackson wrote:
“I am going to write a novel, in which will be set forth some Indian experiences in a way to move people’s hearts. People will read a novel when they will not read serious books. If I could write a story that would do for the Indian one-hundredth part what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the Negro, I would be thankful the rest of my life.”
Her novel Ramona dramatized the federal government’s mistreatment of Native Americans in Southern California and attracted considerable attention to her cause, although its popularity owed more to its romantic and picturesque qualities rather than its political content.
Jackson’s poems tend to be sentimental, but some of them deserve to be better known, like “October” from A Calendar of Sonnets.
“The month of carnival of all the year,
When Nature lets the wild earth go its way
And spend whole seasons on a single day.
The spring-time holds her white and purple dear;
October, lavish, flaunts them far and near;
The summer charily her reds doth lay
Like jewels on her costliest array;
October, scornful, burns them on a bier.
The winter hoards his pearls of frost in sign
Of kingdom: whiter pearls than winter knew,
Or Empress wore, in Egypt’s ancient line,
October, feasting ’neath her dome of blue,
Drinks at a single draught, slow filtered through
Sunshiny air, as in a tingling wine!”
“October” by the Russian realist painter Efim Volkov (1844-1920).