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Cary, Alice

CARY, Alice

Born 26 April 1820, Mount Healthy, Ohio; died 12 February 1871, New York, New York

Also wrote under: Alice Carey, Patty Lee

Daughter of Robert and Elizabeth Jessup Cary

Growing up in what was then considered the far western area around Cincinnati, Ohio, Alice Cary's educational opportunities were limited to those offered by a small country school, from which she was removed altogether quite early. Remarkably, with neither education, books, literary friends, nor encouragement, Cary and her sister Phoebe developed and sustained their literary talents.

Lack of intellectual stimulation was not the only obstacle to Cary's career as a writer. In 1835 her mother died of tuberculosis, which had already taken two of Cary's sisters and which eventually occasioned her death following a lengthy illness.

Alice and Phoebe began to publish first in western and then in eastern newspapers and journals.In 1850 Cary moved to New York, where Rufus W. Griswold praised her work in his Female Poets of America. It was also admired by other writers, including Edgar Allan Poe and Whittier, whose poem "The Singer" is about her. Phoebe joined Cary in 1851, and by 1856 both women had well-established literary reputations. Their home in New York City became the center of a literary salon that for 15 years met each Sunday.

Cary was a firm believer in abolition and women's rights, although many of her poems show woman's noblest role to be that of wife and mother. Despite her illness and her self-imposed rigorous writing schedule, she served as the first president of the first women's club in America, later kown as Sorosis. A prolific writer, Cary authored five volumes of poetry, as well as several novels and books of sketches and short stories. Although generally too didactic for modern sensibilities, her poetry was better than most of her contemporaries, and her prose retains a remarkable freshness. Clearly, her best works are the sketches based directly upon her recollections of western life.

Throughout Cary's poetry there are recurring themes and personae. Much of her poetry is religious or is designed to teach a moral, with an overall dark tone. As she writes in "Life," the world is "desolate and dreary," "poor and pitiful," and "fruitless and fruitionless." Yet, not all of her poetry is pessimistic; her love poems, especially those in the 1873 volume, are vivid and powerful. In "Snowed Under," for example, she stresses the sensuality of the older woman: "You would nip the blushing roses; /They were blighted long ago, /But the precious roots, my darling, /Are alive beneath the snow."

The most interesting personae of Cary's poetry are the women. A recurring figure is that of the unmarried but pregnant woman. This figure in "Morna" and later in "No Ring" is "not mother, wife, nor bride." Seduced and abandoned, she dies of a broken heart. Consistently, Cary urges understanding, offers poverty as both explanation and excuse, and stands quietly on the woman's side. A second figure is the strong woman, who although she looks happily upon marriage, retains her own identity. Such a woman is found in "The Bridal Veil," in Ballads, Lyrics, and Hymns (1866):

We're married! Oh, pray that our love do not fail!
I have wings flattened down and hid under my veil:
They are subtle as light—you can never undo them,
And swift in their flight—you can never pursue them,
And spite of all clasping and spite of all bands,
I can slip like a shadow, a dream, from your hands.

It is in Cary's prose, however, that the modern reader would be most interested. Clovernook (1852, later appearing in five pirated editions printed in England), Clovernook Children (1855), and Pictures of Country Life (1859) taken together make a significant contribution to our understanding of early western community life. The sketches are not romantic; they depict lives that were deprived, hard, and marked by early deaths.

There is ample material for study in Cary's prose, especially for those interested in the folklore of women. Material incidental to the story lines gives fascinating glimpses into a world in which, as Aunt Caty in Clovernook Children tells us, "widders [are] sometimes better off than wives," and in which an unmarried woman of 25 is a local tragedy. These stories are simple but satisfying, and especially remarkable for their vivid portrayal of life in the west.

Other Works:

Poems of Alice and Phoebe Cary (1850). Hagar: A Story for Today (1852). Lyra and Other Poems (1852). Poems (1855). Married, Not Mated; or, How They Lived at Woodside and Throckmorton Hall (1856). Adopted Daughter and Other Tales (1859). The Josephine Gallery (edited by Cary with Phoebe Cary, 1859). The Bishop's Son (1867). Snow-Berries: A Book for Young Folks (1867). A Lover's Diary (1868). The Born Thrall (1871). The Last Poems of Alice and Phoebe Cary (edited by M. C. Ames, 1873). Ballads for Little Folks (edited by M. C. Ames, 1874). The Poetical Works of Alice and Phoebe Cary; with a Memorial of Their Lives (edited by M. C. Ames, 1877).


Ames, M. C., A Memorial to Alice and Phoebe Cary, with Some of Their Later Poems (1873). Derby, J., Fifty Years Among Authors, Books, and Publishers (1884). Greeley, H., "Alice and Phoebe Cary" in Eminent Women of the Age (1869). Griswold, R. W., Female Poets of America (1859). Kolodny, A., The Land Before Her (1984). Venable, W. H., Beginnings of Literary Culture in the Ohio Valley (1891). Wyman, M., "Women in the American Realistic Novel, 1860-1893" (dissertation, 1950).

Reference Works:

American Women (1897). Cyclopedia of American Literature (1855). Essex Institute Historical Collections 109 (Jan. 1973). National Cyclopedia of American Biography (1892 et seq.). NAW, 1607-1950 (1971). A Supplement to Allibone's Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors (1891).


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