Cheney, Ednah Dow (Littlehale) 1824-1904

views updated

CHENEY, Ednah Dow (Littlehale) 1824-1904

PERSONAL: Born June 27, 1824, in Boston, MA; died November 19, 1904, in Boston, MA; daughter of Sargent Smith (a businessman) and Ednah Parker (Dow) Littlehale; married Seth Wells Cheney (a painter), 1853 (died 1856); children: Daisy. Politics: Abolitionist and social reformer.

CAREER: Writer, social reformer. Lecturer at the Concord School of Philosophy; secretary, New England Freedmen's Aid Society.


Handbook for American Citizens, 1860.

(Compiler) Patience: A Series of Thirty Games with Cards, Lee & Shepard (Boston, MA), 1970, third edition, 1895.

Social Games: A Collection of 31 Games with Cards, Lee & Shepard (Boston, MA)/Lee, Shepard & Dillingham (New York, NY), 1871.

Sally Williams, The Mountain Girl, illustrated by L. B. Humphrey, Lee & Shepard (Boston, MA)/Lee, Shepard & Dillingham (New York, NY), 1873.

The Child of the Tide, Lee & Shepard (Boston, MA), 1875.

Life of Susan Dimock, 1875.

Gleanings in the Fields of Art, Lee & Shepard (Boston, MA)/Lee, Shepard & Dillingham (New York, NY), 1881.

Memoir of Seth W. Cheney, Artist, Lee & Shepard (Boston, MA), 1881.

Faithful to the Light, and Other Tales, American Unitarian Association (Boston, MA), 1884.

(Editor) Selected Poems from Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1885.

Louisa May Alcott, the Children's Friend, L. Prang (Boston, MA), 1888.

Louisa May Alcott, Her Life, Letters, and Journals, Roberts (Boston, MA), 1889.

Memoir of Margaret Swan Cheney, Lee & Shepard (Boston, MA), 1889.

Nora's Return: A Sequel to "The Doll's House," Lee & Shepard (Boston, MA)/Lee, Shepard & Dillingham (New York, NY), 1890.

Memoirs of Lucretia Crocker and Abby W. May, [Boston, MA], 1893.

Life of Christian Daniel Rauch of Berlin, Germany, Lee & Shepard (Boston, MA), 1893.

Reminiscences of Ednah Dow Cheney, Lee & Shepard (Boston, MA), 1902.

SIDELIGHTS: Ednah Dow Cheney is little known today, but in Boston's intellectual and activist circles of the nineteenth century she was an important figure. As a writer, her output was limited, but her most famous work, a biography of Louisa May Alcott, remains an important resource for literary scholars even today.

Cheney was born in Boston in 1824. Her family was comfortably well-off, and although there are few specific details available about her upbringing, it is clear that she enjoyed a greater access to education than was the norm for women of her time. Between her family connections and her literary aspirations, she became active in Boston's intellectual circles, making the acquaintance of the leading literary and philosophical lights of the day, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Louisa May Alcott.

Perhaps the single most important person in the development of young Cheney's intellectual development was Margaret Fuller, a prominent Boston-based journalist, feminist, and transcendentalist philosopher. In the early and mid-1800s it was not uncommon for women of Cheney's social station to attend salons and public lectures, but it was illegal for women to take to the public lectern. Thus, in 1839, Fuller began to hold private gatherings at her home, her so-called "conversations," to which were invited the leading thinkers and writers of the day. Among Fuller's many guests were Emerson and the Alcotts, with whom she had long been associated, having taught at Bronson Alcott's Temple School in Boston. It was through her attendance at Fuller's conversations that Cheney made the acquaintances that would strongly influence her own personal and intellectual development, as well as provide her with her first introduction to the woman whose biography she would ultimately write—Louisa May Alcott.

In the 1850s there were three powerful influences on the intellectual life of Boston. First was transcendentalism, the philosophical movement founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson; second was the anti-slavery movement, which found particular support in liberal northern cities like Boston and Cambridge; third was the early feminist movement, as educated women chafed against the legal restraints that hindered their full participation in the political and intellectual life of the time. These three influences, encouraged in conversation in Fuller's drawing room, had a profound influence on Cheney and colored the remainder of her life's work.

At about the same time that Cheney was enjoying the heady intellectual life offered through Fuller's conversations, she met and married painter Seth Cheney in 1853, when she was twenty-nine years old. During her brief marriage—it would last only three years—she continued to attend lectures and otherwise remain involved in Boston's intellectual life. It was not until 1856, when her husband died, that she threw herself full-force into a career of her own. When she did, it was with complete commitment. She became active in the abolitionist movement, making the acquaintance of Harriet Jacobs, former slave and author of the classic Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1858), which shocked the nation with its revelations of sexual abuse within slavery. She joined the New England Freedman's Aid Society, an influential movement that devoted much of its efforts to purchasing the freedom of slaves in the pre-Civil War years and after the war gave assistance to the newly freed slaves to help them establish independent lives. At this time, she also began lecturing in her own right, speaking out on a variety of subjects from women's suffrage to art and transcendentalism.

As a writer, Cheney left behind few traces of her work. She is best remembered for writing the first, and still strongly authoritative, biography Louisa May Alcott, Her Life, Letters, and Journals. In writing this volume, she enjoyed the benefit of access to family archives, for by this time she had become a close family friend of the Alcotts. In 1902 she published Reminiscences of Ednah Dow Cheney, wherein she recounts the story of her long association with the intellectual elite of Boston and Cambridge. Her other writings, which include minor biographies, reflections on art, and books on card games, have all fallen out of print.

It may well be that Cheney's activism in social causes drew her attention away from writing. It is known that her friendship with Harriet Jacobs was a close one. When, in 1867, Jacobs returned to her North Carolina birthplace after the Civil War to help the family she had left behind in her flight from slavery, she corresponded with Cheney about the difficulties and successes she encountered. By this time, Cheney had attained the position of secretary to the New England Freedman's Aid Association, and had begun a career as a lecturer at the Concord School of Philosophy. She died in Boston in 1904.



Childhood in Poet, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1972.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 1: The American Renaissance in New England, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1978.*