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Cary, Phoebe

CARY, Phoebe

Born 4 September 1824, Mount Healthy, Ohio; died 31 July 1871, Newport, Rhode Island

Daughter of Robert and Elizabeth Jessup Cary

Phoebe Cary grew up in a rough farmhouse eight miles north of Cincinnati, Ohio. Her meager education, like her sister Alice's, was based on The Trumpet, a Universalist journal, the Bible, and a few sentimental or sensational novels popular at the time. Cary started writing poetry at the age of thirteen. Like her sister's poems, Cary's are also filled with sudden deaths, meditations on graves, and lingering illness, characteristics not difficult to understand when one realizes Cary's two sisters and mother succumbed to tuberculosis within two years of each other. Phoebe's poems were included with those of her sister Alice in Rufus W. Griswold's edition of The Female Poets of America (1849), and her early poems were collected with her sister's for Poems of Alice and Phoebe Cary (1850). Following Alice to New York City, Cary settled there in 1851 and began to earn her living by her pen. Like her sister, she contributed to newspapers and religious journals. Within six years the two sisters had earned enough to purchase their own home on 20th Street, where they lived for the rest of their lives.

Cary was not as prolific a writer as her sister Alice, a fact that put additional burdens on Alice, who was their main financial support. Cary's poems are collected in two volumes, Poems and Parodies (1854) and Poems of Faith, Hope, and Love (1868). Most of her poems are sketches of simple country people or prayers for strength and God's forgiveness. In a few poems she develops her attitudes toward women's role.

Critics of her day regarded Cary's greatest gift to be her wit and keen parodic streak. Ironically, her best verse is that which parodies the sentimental works of Longfellow and the popular ballads of the day. Along with her sister, she also presided over the Sunday-evening receptions held for artistic and literary figures for 15 years in their 20th Street house. Sipping sweetened milk and water, the sisters presided over "the nearest approach to the first ideal blue-stocking reception in America."

Cary believed in temperance, human rights, and women's social and civil enfranchisement. She briefly worked as assistant editor for Susan B. Anthony's suffrage paper, The Revolution. Her attitude toward women, however, contained typical Victorian features. Cary and her sister, although vastly different in temperament, appearance, and productivity, were totally dependent on each other, and Cary often talked of the marriage proposals she rejected in order to continue living with Alice. After Alice's death, Cary rapidly declined and died five months later. Their biographer Ames asserts: "It is impossible to estimate either sister without any reference to the other—as impossible as to tell what a husband and wife would have been, had they never lived together."


Ames, M. C., A Memorial of Alice and Phoebe Cary, with Some of Their Later Poems (1873). Greeley, H., "Alice and Phoebe Cary" in Eminent Women of the Age (1869). Pulsifer, J., "Alice and Phoebe Cary, Whittier's Sweet Singers of the West" in Essex Institute Historical Collections (January 1973).

Reference Works:

American Women (1897). Cyclopedia of American Literature (1855). National Cyclopedia of American Biography (1892 et seq.). NAW, 1607-1950 (1971). A Supplementto Allibone's Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors (1891).


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