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Emily Dickinson & Helen Hunt Jackson: Another Famous Friendship

Helen of Troy will die, but Helen of Colorado, never.  You’ve probably heard of Helen of Troy, labeled in Greek mythology as the most beautiful woman in the world.  But who, you’re most likely wondering is  “Helen of Colorado?”   I wondered the same thing when I read that quote by the poet Emily Dickinson about her friend Helen Hunt Jackson, who lived in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

A popular poet, fiction writer and essayist, Helen Hunt Jackson was a prominent and indomitably outspoken advocate of the rights of Native American people.  She produced a barrage of words: letters, speeches, articles, essays and two important books,  A Century of Dishonor,  a searing critique of the U.S. government’s policies, and Ramona, a romance about a mixed race woman and her Indian husband that she hoped would change bigoted attitudes.  (Ramona was adapted for several Hollywood movies.   Since 1923, it has been performed as a pageant at the Ramona Bowl in Hemet, California.)

Born two months apart in Amherst, Massachusetts, Helen (b0rn first) and Emily were childhood friends.  A mutual friend reconnected them when they were in their late 30s.  By then Helen’s two children and her husband had died and she had turned to writing to fill the void, as well as to support herself.  Emily, who was living in her childhood home, had disengaged from social activities and focused on her poems, making clean copies of earlier poems and produced many more new ones. (Hundreds of poems in 40 handsewn booklets were discovered after she died!)  Sending letters back and forth they rekindled their friendship.  On two occasions in the 1870s, Helen visited the reclusive Emily.

They were different in so many ways.  In appearance, except for the same middle-of-the-head part in their hair,  Helen was full bodied with plump checks and Emily was a thin-faced, wisp of a woman.  A critically acclaimed poet, Helen was  nationally known. Emily was an unknown, as almost all of her poems were published after she died. While Helen was trying to change policies and attitudes with her words, Emily was keeping hers private, a fact that exasperated Helen.   “It is cruel and wrong,” she fumed in a letter, for Emily to deprive people of her unique poems: “I do not think we have a right to withhold from the world a word or a thought any more than a deed, which might help a single soul.”

Yes, they were as different but their friendship endured, sustained by a shared passion, a passion for words, for writing.

Helen Hunt Jackson died in 1885.  A year later so did Emily Dickinson.

The first link is to a marvelous website, “lit2go” where you can read and listen to the works of many authors. The second is to for Emily Dickinson’s material.

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