Brooks, Maria Gowen
BROOKS, Maria Gowen
Born circa 1794, Medford, Massachusetts; died 11 November 1845, Mantanzas, Cuba
Wrote under: Maria del Occidente
Daughter of William and Eleanor Cutter Gowen; married JohnBrooks, 1810
When Maria Gowen was orphaned in her childhood, she came under the protection of John Brooks, a Boston merchant. In 1810 the fifty-year-old merchant married his fifteen-year-old ward. The marriage was evidently an unhappy one, and she threw herself into her studies. Brooks' dissatisfaction with her marriage was exacerbated when John suffered financial losses and moved the family to backwater Portland, Maine. There she met the Canadian officer who became her romantic fixation. John died in 1823, and Maria moved to Cuba where relatives owned coffee plantations. On a subsequent visit to Canada, she became engaged to the Canadian officer, but they were estranged through a series of misunderstandings. Maria attempted suicide twice. In 1826 she began a correspondence with the British poet laureate Robert Southey. After trips to England and Europe, Maria returned to Cuba, where she died of a tropical fever.
In 1820 some of Brooks' poetry was published in a volume titled Judith, Esther, and Other Poems. By a Lover of the Fine Arts The personae in these poems are all female. In "Judith" and "Esther," Brooks deals with the psychological aspects of the trials of these biblical heroines. "The Butterfly" presents an analogue to relationships between the sexes: a poet is too wrapped up in his own concerns to save an exquisite butterfly from the flame. The frank but almost naive "Written after passing an evening with E. W. R. A******, Esq., who has the finest person I ever saw" warmly describes the physical charms of the Canadian officer with whom Brooks had fallen in love.
In 1833 Robert Southey supervised publication of Zophiel; or the Bride of Seven, which tells the story of a fallen angel's love for a mortal woman. In it, Brooks was not afraid to include many passionate and "forbidden" scenes, or to vividly describe human physical beauty. Zophiel is "dense" in the manner of Milton and contains full and learned notes on Middle-Eastern history, sorcery, and biblical tradition, with many literary, botanical, cultural, and geographical references, as in the work of Yeats and Eliot. Deeply scholarly in one sense, its actual expression is similar to the sensuality of Keats's Eve of St. Agnes and Coleridge's symbolistic uncanniness in Christabel.
In 1838 Brooks's Idomen: or the Vale of Yumuri was published serially in the Boston Saturday Evening Gazette. Several publishers refused the fictionalized autobiography as "too elevated to sell," so Brooks published it privately in New York in 1843. Idomen, the heroine, is "formed in every nerve for the refinements of pleasure," although her real life is a round of "duties" and "wearisome employments." For Brooks, virtuous passion is a sign of intellectual and emotional consciousness.
The almost hallucinatory clarity of Idomen's imagery heightens the impression that many of its images and scenes must be interpreted symbolically, even as archetypes. The Edenic myth is everywhere apparent—in the idyllic Cuban scenes, but also in the celestially majestic frozen glory of the rivers and mountains of Canada. Idomen herself seems a pattern of the human soul. Caught in a dull marriage as the soul is caught in the mortal body, she yearns for the Ideal Absolute as personified by Ethelwald, a character based on Brooks's Canadian officer. Yet Idomen cannot have Ethelwald in this world, for some mysterious inability to communicate with him intervenes even after she is freed by the death of her husband. This is one manifestation of a continuing theme of psychic or supernatural fates or impulses which leads to an exploration of suicidal tendencies and the hypersensitive imagination. Idomen acts out the Christ-like cycle of death, resurrection, and ascension, although such an allegory may have been unconscious on Brooks's part. It is as a psychological novel of considerable subtlety that Idomen will capture the modern imagination.
It can hardly be explained why Brooks is not better known and studied. Her work is good, at times great, but she was too large for her assigned role in the social and intellectual world of her time. In this and in the continued lack of recognition of her worth, she is an archetype of the early American woman writer.
Grannis, R., An American Friend of Southey (1913). Griswold, R., Southern Literary Messenger (1913). Gustafson, Z., introduction to Maria Gowen Brooks' Zophiel (1879). Southey, R., The Doctor (1834).
Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography (1888). Cyclopedia of American Literature (1855). DAB (1929). NAW (1971).
American Collector (Aug. 1926). Graham's Magazine (Aug. 1848). Medford Historical Register (Oct. 1899).
—L. W. KOENGETER