| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Alice Cary was born on a farm in Hamilton County, Ohio, eight miles
north of Cincinnati. The village nearest this farm was called Mt. Healthy and
it is this village with its surrounding farms and houses that became the
Clovernook memorialized in her short fiction. Cary’s father, Robert Cary, had
an American ancestry that could be traced back to the Plymouth Colony of 1630.
Cary’s mother, Elizabeth Jessup Cary, was of Irish descent and, according to
Cary herself, “a woman of superior intellect and of a good, well-ordered life.
In my memory she stands apart from all others, wiser and purer, doing more and
loving better than any other woman” (Ladies’ Repository, August, 1855).
Cary’s fiction, however, does not support this vision of a loving mother; it
records instead a motherless universe in which parents provide neither physical
affection nor emotional support for their children and are often overtly
hostile to them.
While she was growing
up, Cary chose as her particular companion Rhoda, a sister two years older than
herself, and, according to Cary, the most gifted member of the family. On
the way to and from school Rhoda would tell stories, and “when we saw the house
in sight, we would often sit down under a tree, that she might have more time
to finish the story” (Mary Clemmer Ames, A Memorial of Alice and Phoebe
Cary, with Some of Their Later Poems, 17). Cary never fully recovered from
the death in 1833 of this sister who not only taught her the art and
fascination of storytelling but also encouraged her first attempts at poetry.
Though both Cary
parents were literate, apparently formal education for their children mattered
little to them. In an early letter to Rufus Griswold, Cary described her formal
education as “limited to the meagre and infrequent advantages of an obscure
district school.” Whether from lack of money or lack of interest the Cary
household contained few books. As Universalists, however, the Carys subscribed
to the Trumpet, a Boston Universalist periodical, whose poet’s corner,
according to Phoebe Cary (1824–1871), Alice’s lifelong companion and fellow
writer, served as Cary’s major model and source of inspiration.
Evidently, Alice Cary
began writing poetry at an early age. In 1838, Cincinnati’s Universalist paper,
the Sentinel, printed “The Child of Sorrow.” For roughly a decade
thereafter Cary continued to publish in local newspapers and periodicals. In
1847, however, she began to write fiction for the National Era
(1847–1860), an abolitionist paper whose editor, Gamaliel Bailey, had recently
moved from Cincinnati to Washington, D.C. The Era, best known perhaps
for its serialization of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, brought Cary a national
audience; it also brought her the attention of John Greenleaf Whittier, notable
for his support of nineteenth-century American women writers. In 1848,
Rufus W. Griswold, editor of two anthologies of American poetry and prose,
wrote to Alice and Phoebe Cary requesting material for inclusion in his latest
project, The Female Poets of America. As a result of Griswold’s often
vexed but often amicable relations with Edgar Allan Poe, Poe wrote a review of
this anthology for the Southern Literary Messenger (February, 1849) and
singled out the work of Alice Cary, declaring her “Pictures of Memory” to be “decidedly
the noblest poem in the collection.” In 1849, Griswold arranged for the
publication of Poems of Alice and Phoebe Cary.
By 1850 Alice Cary was
well on her way to becoming a writer with a national reputation. In the summer
of this year, she made her first trip east, visiting New York, Boston, and
Amesbury, Massachusetts, where Whittier lived. Shortly thereafter, Cary
determined to make New York her home. In November of 1850 she left Ohio; in the
spring of 1851 Phoebe joined her in New York. Cary eventually purchased a house
on East Twentieth Street, where she lived until her death. Here she set up a
household that became famous for its Sunday evening receptions. Cary herself
was the financial and executive center of this household, managing both its
external and internal affairs. Though the events of her life tell a story of
achievement against the odds of being poor, female, uneducated and unsupported,
Cary evidently paid a high price for her success. Her biographer presents her
as working to live and living to work, finding pleasure only in labor and
permanently destroying her health by refusing to rest. Alice Cary died on
February 12, 1871, at her home in New York, and was buried two days later in
Brooklyn’s Greenwood cemetery.
Cary thought of
herself primarily as a poet and it was as a poet that she achieved her popular
success. During her lifetime she published four volumes of poetry, two
collections of poetry and prose for children, and three novels. Cary deserves a
place in American literary history, however, not for her poetry or her novels,
but for her short fiction. There she was able to use her art to explore her
consciousness. In so doing, Cary worked against the grain of a culture that
labelled such privileging of the self in women as negatively egocentric or even
pathologically narcissistic. This consciousness, located in the narrative “I”
of her sketches, experiences human life primarily as a mystery, a fragment of
some larger and essentially unknowable whole. For Cary consciousness determined
form. The sketch permitted her to accept and express the fragmentary nature of
reality in fiction as she perceived it in life. Cary’s interest lies not
in plot but in character; action for her is rarely complete or completed. The
strength of Cary’s fiction lies in her insistence on specificity and her
resistance to closure; her gift is recollections and sketches, by definition
partial, personal, and incomplete, of one particular neighborhood in the West.
Cary shares with her
female contemporaries a commitment to realism. With her male contemporaries she
shares an understanding of fiction as psychic exploration and dream work.
“Uncle Christopher’s” demonstrates Cary’s dual interest in realism and romance.
It combines detailed descriptions of the contents of Uncle Christopher’s attic
with the portrait of seven women, exactly alike, knitting the same stocking in the
same way at the same time. Indeed, the story contains much that we tend to
associate with fairy tale and myth and might be taken for a bad dream, were it
not from start to finish so chillingly realistic. Recording a world in which
children don’t matter and in which the death of a child transforms no one,
Cary’s fiction offers a harsh antidote to those child-centered works so popular
with other 19th-century American writers.
University of New York at Albany
In the Heath Anthology
Clovernook, Second Series
Clovernook, or, Recollections of Our Neighborhood in the West
Hagar: A Story for Today
Pictures of Country Life
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Making of America
Scans of the entire the book, Early and Late Poems of Alice and Phoebe Cary.
The texts of "Autumn" and "January."
The Words of a Woman
A collection of 12 poems.