July 18, 2010

Jackson/Holm: a mild form of hysteria

The publishing company founded in 1846 in New York as Baker & Scribner. After the death of Isaac Baker, his partner, Charles Scribner, bought the rest of the company. From then on, it was a family business. But, it was not until July 18, 1879 that a published book included the inscription of "Charles Scribner's Sons."

That first book was Saxe Holm's Stories (second series) by an anonymous writer, later revealed as Helen Hunt Jackson. Jackson typically used the pseudonym of "H.H." — though her true identity was not a secret by 1879 — and tried to keep "Saxe Holm" a distinct character.

Jackson's first stories as Holm were written while living in the same boardinghouse in Colorado as Thomas Wentworth Higginson and his wife. Jackson claimed that Higginson even helped edit or write a few of them. But Jackson wanted to keep her identity as Holm a secret from the public, confessing to Charlotte Cushman that she would stop writing if the secret was revealed. Cushman called her hypocritical and told her, "You have virtually drawn it upon yourself."

Jackson was so adamant about keeping Holm a secret in an attempt to disassociate herself from her more autobiographical or more politically-charged works as H.H. The author's own growing doubts about her ability as a writer were also a factor. The second series stories published by Scribner's had an additional problem: many featured a man and a woman who fell in love after one or the other was already married. Jackson felt some guilt about the close relationship she shared with Higginson at the time (who also introduced her to Emily Dickinson; both women were born in Amherst, Massachusetts).

The concern may have been irrelevant, as Holm's popularity was sinking as of this second series. One critic noted they seemed "as if recited by a person laboring under a mild form of hysteria."

Charles Scribner's Sons eventually became Simon and Schuster.

*Some information for this post comes from Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life by Kate Phillips. The image above shows Jackson circa 1875, courtesy of the Tutt Library at Colorado College.

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