Cheney, Ednah (Dow) Littlehale

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CHENEY, Ednah (Dow) Littlehale

Born 27 June 1824, Boston, Massachusetts; died 19 November 1904, Boston, Massachusetts

Daughter of Sargent Smith and Ednah Dow Littlehale; married Seth Wells Cheney, 1853 (died 1858); children: one daughter

Writer, activist, and self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades, Ednah Littlehale Cheney was the third daughter of a New England family of comfortable means and liberal sentiments. The independent spirit she displayed as a child found a home when, as a very young woman, Cheney came under the influence of transcendentalists Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott, and, above all, Margaret Fuller.

As ardent an abolitionist as her mentors, Cheney led the way after the Civil War in recruiting Boston teachers for freedmen's schools in the South. But for most of her eighty years, her energies as a reformer were devoted primarily to improving the educational, occupational, and political opportunities available to women. Through her long association with the New England Hospital for Women and Children, Cheney helped establish women's rights to medical training as well as to proper health care and information. She was the moving force behind a school of design and a school of horticulture (both for women) and chairman of the New England Women's Club committee that founded Boston's distinguished Girls' Latin School. As pamphleteer, public speaker, and clubwoman, she campaigned widely for female suffrage.

In 1853 Ednah married portrait artist Seth Wells Cheney. His death five years later left her with an infant daughter who herself died at the age of twenty-six.

For all her reform activities, Cheney thought of herself first as a writer. Three of her early books, Faithful to the Light (1871), Sally Williams (1874), and Child of the Tide (1874), are better-than-average children's fiction. Though marred by the besetting sins of the period and the genre—sentimentality, didacticism, and unlikely coincidence—they are absorbing stories which often correct conventional sexist stereotypes.

In 1875 Cheney published a memoir of [surgeon] Susan Dimock, the first of several elegies written in tribute to family, friends, and colleagues. The finest, clearly a labor of love, is the sketch of her idol, Margaret Fuller. Rich in anecdote and personal reminiscence, it shows Cheney at her sensible, insightful, generous best. Cheney's skills as a biographer again show to advantage in the Journals of Louisa May Alcott (1889), which she edited and extensively annotated. Later biographers are indebted to this fine work not only because it includes some journal entries now lost in the original, but because Cheney does not shrink from presenting the author of Little Women"without disguise." Alcott's passionate dissatisfactions are laid bare, as is the compulsive self-denial that embittered her life. Feminist interpretation, however appropriate it might seem, enters only indirectly, perhaps because of Cheney's desire to lay no blame, especially on Bronson Alcott.

But Nora's Return (1890), a nondramatic sequel to Ibsen's Doll's House, is avowedly feminist. It is also outrageously simplistic, contrived, and, inadvertently, very funny.

The delightful opening of Cheney's last major work, Reminiscences (1902), recalls a time when Boston was all but an island, town criers called out descriptions of lost children, and Election Day was celebrated with oysters, lobster, and baked beans on the Common. Personally revealing detail abounds—Cheney staying awake in church by pricking her finger and writing in blood in her prayer book, Cheney being asked to leave a Beacon Hill school because of her "bad influence on the other girls." Later sections of the autobiography, however, are flat and strangely impersonal.

Colleagues like Julia Ward Howe attributed much of Cheney's success as a reformer to her judiciousness, calm disposition, and broad-mindedness. The same qualities illuminate her writing, which is consistently lucid, unpretentious, and humane. Much of it deserves notice today only as social history, but her children's fiction still entertains, and her biographies of Alcott, Fuller, and parts of Reminiscences hold their own as literature. At moments, Cheney achieved the kind of originality that sometimes blossoms out of diligent research and honest, compassionate reporting.

Other Works:

Handbook for American Citizens (1866). Patience (1870). Social Games (1871). Memoir of Susan Dimock (1875). Memoir of Seth Wells Cheney (1881). Gleanings in the Field of Art (1881). Memoir of John Cheney, Engraver (1888). Memoir of Margaret Swan Cheney (1889). Stories of Olden Times (1890). Memoirs of Lucretia Crocker and Abby W. May (1893). Life of Christian Daniel Rauch (1893).

The letters of Ednah Cheney are at the Boston Public Library, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Smith College, and the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College.


Reference Works:

NAW, 1607-1950 (1971). Representative Women of New England, Howe, J. W., ed. (1904). A Woman of the Century (1893).

Other reference:

Memorial Meeting of the New England Women's Club, Ednah Cheney, 1824-1904 (1905). Women's Journal (26 Nov. 1904).