Following out the plan already indicated under which mention has only been made of those attaining the higher degrees of excellence, it needs only to be said that in the early period of American life literature was wholly subordinated to theology among women as among men, as in the case of the celebrated Anne Hutchinson, it did not embody itself in literature, and those women who early engaged in literature, as Anne Bradstreet and Phyllis Wheatley, left little that was valuable behind. Miss Sedgwick, Miss Leslie, and above all Mrs. Lydia Maria Child, gained afterwards a wide though not permanent reputation; and all were eclipsed by the extraordinary success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the production of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896). She was the daughter of the Rev. Lyman Beecher, D.D., and the wife of Prof. Calvin E. Stowe. Her life upon the western border had brought her closely in contact with slavery, and after she married she had removed with her husband to the little town of Brunswick, Maine, she wrote, amid the cares of her own nursery, a book which was within a year or two more widely read and in greater variety of languages than any book that had ever appeared with the history of the world. The publishers had put little faith in it and wished her to share the expense of printing it, but ten thousand copies were sold in a week, and according to Mrs. Stowe’s own statement, perhaps a little exaggerated, three hundred thousand copies within a year. Within eight months twelve shilling editions were issued in London. There were all forty English editions, and there was in the British Museum, some years since, a collection of versions in twenty different languages and sometimes from six to ten different translations in the same language. It cannot be said that this success was
due to the subject only, for both Harriet Martineau and Richard Hildreth had written anti-slavery novels, but the comparative mediocrity of Mrs. Stowe’s other work shows that the theme as least helped the work of the author. Various books by other authors, also mediocre, as The Lamplighter and The Wide Wide World, also followed in the path of success; but no other American woman can be said to have achieved a permanent name in fiction until the writings of Miss Mary E. Wilkins (1862), who has dealt with the oft-told story of plain New England life with extraordinary success, and who occasionally, as in her Jane Field, exhibits a grasp which fairly entitles her to rank among the great artists. Among other successful American writers of fiction may be mentioned Miss Sarah Orne Jewett of Massachusetts, Miss Mary N. Murfree of Tennessee, the lady who writes under the name of Octave Thanet (Miss Alice French of Iowa), and Miss Grace King of New Orleans.
It is a singular coincidence that the two American women who stand highest in poetic genius should have been born within a few years of one another in the same New England town of Amherst, Mass. One of these, Helen Maria Fiske (1831-1885), who was the daughter of an Amherst professor and the wife of an army officer, Captain Edward Hunt, though all her literary development occurred after she became a widow. The other, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), who was the daughter of Edward Dickinson, the treasurer of Amherst College, led a peculiarly shy and secluded life, so that only one or two of her poems were published during her lifetime. In both cases, therefore, there was something abnormal in their literary fame, although Mrs. Hunt had lived in various places, had traveled much, had a wide acquaintance, and was, when compared to Miss Dickinson, an experienced woman of the world. Her poems sound a depth of passion and analysis equaled by no other American woman, but she was best known by two prose of works, A Century of Dishonor and Ramona, both devoted to depicting the wrongs of the American Indian. In later life she became the wife of Mr. William S. Jackson and resided with him in Colorado, but died in San Francisco.
Emily Dickinson wrote no prose, except some remarkable letters which were published after her death, but her shy and mysterious poems, always short and full of the most elevated and ideal thoughts, achieved unexpected popularity and had, strange to say, a wider circulation than those of any contemporary poet.
Next to these two authors in poetic ability and surpassing both in standard skillful execution and also in transatlantic fame is Louise Chandler Moulton (1835) of Boston. Prolonged residence in London has given her a much wider personal acquaintance, has given her work more direct publicity, than belonged to either of those just mentioned and, since their decease, she undoubtedly stands at the head of the women poets in America. With her should, however, be linked a woman of singular social brilliancy and varied experience, Mrs. Julia Ward Howe (1819), whose permanent literary fame is likely to rest upon a single poem, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which owes its fame largely to its connection with the most popular war song of the civil war, although mainly to the ardor and fire of its execution. The number of American women writers is now very large and constantly increasing, but it may be that those whom we have mentioned are the ones who, tried by the standard of permanent fame, have accomplished the most for their country.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.