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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Alice Cary

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.
Judith Fetterley
State University of New York at Albany

In the Heath Anthology
Clovernook, Second Series
      Uncle Christopher's (1853)

Other Works
Clovernook, or, Recollections of Our Neighborhood in the West (1852)
Hagar: A Story for Today (1852)
Pictures of Country Life (1859)

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Making of America
Scans of the entire the book, Early and Late Poems of Alice and Phoebe Cary.

Poet's Corner
The texts of "Autumn" and "January."

The Words of a Woman
A collection of 12 poems.

Secondary Sources