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Catherwood, Mary Hartwell

CATHERWOOD, Mary Hartwell

Born 16 December 1847, Luray, Ohio; died 26 December 1902, Chicago, Illinois

Also wrote under: Mary Hartwell

Daughter of Marcus and Phoebe Thompson Hartwell; married James Catherwood, 1877

After graduation in 1868 from Granville Female College in Granville, Ohio, Mary Hartwell Catherwood taught in Ohio and Illinois before she was able to support herself by writing. Her early work combined strands of critical realism and melodrama. She published many short stories and long serials in magazines such as the Atlantic and Lippincott's. Two of the early serials, A Woman in Armor (1875) and Craque-o-Doom (1881), were published as novels. She also wrote a number of juveniles in the early years, which, while not well plotted, contain some fine local color; the best of these, Rocky Fork (1882), remained in print until the middle of this century.

In 1889, with the publication of The Romance of Dollard, an historical romance based on the work of Francis Parkman, Catherwood took a new direction. From then until her death, she wrote romantic historical fiction, using the French settlement of the West and Canada as background. While remaining in the Midwest (in 1886 she helped found the Western Association of Writers), she turned her back on realistic treatment of Midwestern material. At her famous confrontation with Hamlin Garland at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, she argued for "the aristocratic in literature."

As an historical novelist Catherwood is somewhat of a contradiction; meticulously accurate about details, writing under the influence of Parkman, she nevertheless committed one of the cardinal sins of the careless historical novelist: she wove fact with fiction in recounting the lives of actual persons. Catherwood's most popular novel, Lazarre (1901), is based on the claims of Eleazar Williams (1789-1858) that he was the lost dauphin of France. The novel is well written and exciting, with violence, dramatic scenes such as a visit with Napoleon, traditional American characters such as Johnny Appleseed, and a romantic ending in which Lazarre gives up the throne of France for the woman he loves and the freedom of the western plains. Otis Skinner dramatized Lazarre in 1902 and the play had a successful if not spectacular run.

Historians of American fiction suggest that Catherwood's importance lies in her having been the first novelist to write popular romantic historical novels, forecasting the bestselling genre at the turn of the century. Catherwood was the first woman novelist born west of the Alleghenies and the first woman novelist to be a college graduate. As a writer, however, she is much more important today because of her works of critical realism and her pioneering regional material. Her two early novels, A Woman in Armor and Craque-o-Doom, contain tantalizing hints of the social realist she might have become. A Woman in Armor, despite its melodramatic plot, has a detailed if satiric description of the town in which the action is set, Little Boston. It also has a slight feminist theme, although she never developed it much beyond that novel.

Catherwood's major literary achievement as a regionalist/realist can be found in her short stories; three volumes of which remained in print into the 1980s. Her relentless portrayal of various Midwest towns, from Ohio to Indiana and Illinois, attest to her craftsmanship. Surrounded by the glamour of nature and the seasons, her towns are dreary cultural wastelands peopled with squalid characters whose little dramas often illustrate such basic beauties of human nature as parental love. Her most realistic stories, except for "The Spirit of an Illinois Town," are not collected and can only be found in periodicals. When Catherwood abandoned realism, however, she did not leave the short story behind; in fact, she was one of the few writers who tried to use the materials of historical romance in the short-story form.

Catherwood has a remarkable record of "firsts" to her name, and her early work is worth reading. It is ironic that perhaps her career as a serious writer was betrayed by her disdain for those prairie villages that she so realistically portrayed. "The aristocratic in literature" has lost its charms for the modern reader, who eagerly looks for evidence of just such provincial experience which Catherwood (and her characters) longed to escape.

Other Works:

Lower Illinois Valley: Local Sketches of Long Ago of Mrs. Mary Hartwell Catherwood (1875). The DogberryBunch (1879). Old Caravan Days (1884). The Secrets at Roseladies (1888). The Story of Tonty (1890). The Lady of Fort St. John (1891). Old Kaskaskia (1893). The White Islander (1893). The Chase of St. Castin and Other Stories (1894). The Days of Jeanne d'Arc (1897). Bony and Ban: The Story of a Printing Venture (1898). Heroes of the Middle West: French (1898). Mackinac and Other Lake Stories (1899). The Queen of the Swamp and Other Plain Americans (1899). Spanish Peggy (1899). "The Stirring Off" in Home Material: Ohio's Nineteenth-Century Regional Women's Fiction (1998).


Dondore, D. A., The Prairie and the Making of America (1926). Garland, H., Roadside Meetings (1931). Pattee, F. L., A History of American Literature Since 1870. Price, R., A Critical Biography of Mary Hartwell Catherwood: A Study of Middle Western Regional Authorship, 1847-1902 (dissertation, 1944). Treece, P. B., "The Characterization of the Nineteenth Century Woman in the Selected Works of Mrs. Mary Hartwell Catherwood" (thesis, 1975). Wilson, M. L., Biography of Mary Hartwell Catherwood (1900, 1983).

Reference Works:

DAB, NCAB (1892 et seq.). NAW, 1607-1950 (1971).

Other reference:

American Literature 17 (1945). Bulletin of Cincinnati Historical Society (1964). Michigan Historical Magazine 30 (1946).


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