| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Harriet Prescott Spofford
Despite her long career and impressive list of publications, Harriet Prescott Spofford has been neglected by anthologists. To overlook this writer who challenged stereotypical depictions of women while blending the colors of romance with the realities of her New England environment is to shortchange our literary history.
Like the majority of women writers of her time, Spofford turned to authorship out of financial need. When barely in her twenties she began writing to help support her parents and younger siblings. Although some anonymous stories were published in Boston family story-papers, she never acknowledged these earliest money-making ventures. Her literary career officially began with the publication of the short story "In a Cellar" in the February 1859 issue of the Atlantic Monthly and continued throughout her marriage to Richard S. Spofford Jr. until her last collection, The Elder's People, which appeared in 1920, the year before her death.
During a writing career that spanned more than sixty years in two centuries, Spofford published continuously in periodicals, offering short stories, serialized novels, poetry, and articles—much of it still uncollected—for adults and children. Her first book was a romance called Sir Rohan's Ghost (1860), but Spofford's short stories would soon outweigh her other writings in lasting importance. She published The Amber Gods (1863), her first short-story collection, and two book-length romances before she married on December 19, 1865. In The Amber Gods, "Circumstance," "Knitting Sale-Socks," and "The South Breaker" offered the realistic dialect and the social and economic realities of the rural and small-town New England life that she knew best.
"Circumstance," which first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in May 1860 and was later included in W. D. Howells's collection, The Great Modern American Stories (1921), is a fine example of Spofford's realism. Based on a true incident in her family history, "Circumstance" is nonetheless startlingly unusual. It impressed Emily Dickinson as "the only thing I ever read in my life that I didn't think I could have imagined myself!" Spofford's gift is to treat the sensational or implicitly "romantic" event realistically: a very real wife and mother draws on the art of her life—the hymns and lullabies and folk tunes she has sung—to placate a wild beast and defend herself against death.
In other stories of women's lives Spofford rebuked the prevalent nineteenth-century stereotypes that divided women into good and bad, angels and whores. The title story of her first collection, "The Amber Gods," presented one such pair: the passionate Yone and the patient Lu. Each is defined by the jewelry she wears—"pagan" amber beads or "light" and "limpid" aquamarine. (Spofford asserted in her nonfiction Art Decoration Applied to Furniture (1878) that styles reflect the people who adopt them, a tactic she frequently used in her own fiction.) Yone and Lu foreshadow pairs of contrasting women in later Spofford stories who remind us that they are but two possible sides of one woman. Frequently also in Spofford's fiction male characters must learn to appreciate individual differences among women. Men know woman, not women, Spofford suggests in the story "The Composite Wife" in A Scarlet Poppy and Other Stories; when Mr. Chipperley plans to take a fourth wife, he sees her as a composite of the other three.
A Scarlet Poppy did not appear until 1894, but the years between 1863 and 1898 were filled with other writings. In her 1935 study of Spofford, Elizabeth K. Halbeisen identifies eight books and at least 374 works published in periodicals during that period. The works collected in A Scarlet Poppy are light satire, quite different from the more somber collection Old Madame and Other Tragedies (1900). Spofford's days in Washington with her husband provide the basis for the sentimental stories in Old Washington (1906), and her final collection, often considered her best, The Elder's People (1920), returns to New England. The dry humor, the New England realities, the believable dialect, and the restraint with which she individualizes each character earned Spofford high praise.
Spofford expresses the sisterhood of women in her final collection in a story called "A Village Dressmaker." In this tale of self-sacrifice, the dressmaker Susanna gives the wedding gown she made for herself to Rowena Mayhew, who is marrying the man they both loved. Spofford's women face the realistic necessities of life, live with the limited perceptions of their men, and triumph through the art they create (songs, quilts, and dresses that only a widened perspective recognizes as true art forms) and the choices they willingly make. Spofford always finds the vermilion and azure threads woven into the duns and grays of the New England life and women she knew so well.
Thelma Shinn Richard|
Arizona State University
In the Heath Anthology
The Amber Gods and Other Stories
A Scarlet Poppy and Other Stories
Old Madame and Other Tragedies
The Elder's People
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A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection
An introduction to Spofford's detective fiction.
Making of America
An extensive selection of digitized works by Spofford.
Alfred Bendixen, "Harriet Prescott Spofford" in Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, eds. Denise D. Knight and Emmanuel S. Nelson, 1997
Paula Bennett, "'Pomegranate-Flowers': The Phantasmic Productions of Late-Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Women Poets," in Solitary Pleasures: The Historical, Literary, and Artistic Discourses of Autoeroticism, eds. Paula Bennett and Vernon A. Rosario, 1995
Rose Terry Cooke, "Harriet Prescott Spofford," Our Famous Women, 1883
Anne Dalke, "'Circumstance' and the Creative Woman: Harriet Prescott Spofford," Arizona Quarterly 41:1 (Spring 1985):71-85
Robin Riley Fast, "Killing the Angel in Spofford's 'Desert Sands' and 'The South Breaker'," Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 11:1 (1994):37-54
Judith Fetterly, "Introduction to 'Circumstance'," Provisions (1985):261-68
Maryanne M. Garbowsky, "A Maternal Muse for Emily Dickinson," Dickinson Studies 41 (1981):12-17
Eva Gold and Thomas H. Fick, "A 'Masterpiece' of the 'Educated Eye': Convention, Gaze and Gender in Spofford's 'Her Story'," Studies in Short Fiction 30:4 (Fall 1993):511-23
Elizabeth K. Halbeisen, Harriet Prescott Spofford: A Romantic Survival, 1935
Lisa Logan, "'There Is No Home There': Re(His)stor(iciz)ing Captivity and the Other in Spofford's 'Circumstance'," in Creating Safe Space: Violence and Women's Writing, eds. Tomoko Kuribayashi and Julie Tharp, 1997
Fred Lewis Pattee, The Development of the American Short Story, 1923
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, "Stories That Stay," The Century Magazine, N.S. 59 (November 1910):119
Charles F. Richardson, American Literature (1607-1885), 2 vols., 1902 II, 443-5
Thelma J. Shinn, "Harriet Prescott Spofford: A Reconsideration," Turn-of-the-Century Women 1 (Summer 1984):36-45