Cooke, Rose Terry
COOKE, Rose Terry
Born 17 February 1827, Hartford, Connecticut; died 18 July 1892, Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Also wrote under: Rose Terry
Daughter of Henry Wadsworth and Anne Hurlburt Terry; married Rollin H. Cooke, 1873
Born into an old New England family, Rose Terry Cooke at sixteen graduated from the Hartford Female Seminary. Following her conversion that year, she became a lifelong member of the Congregational church. To support herself, she taught school, and in 1848 a legacy gave Cooke leisure to write. Although she considered herself primarily a poet, she is remembered mainly as a local colorist.
Cooke's published works include two volumes of poetry, a novel, children's stories, religious sketches, and more than 100 short stories. Her verse now seems conventional and spiritless; only her short stories endure. For almost 40 years Cooke's fiction appeared in prominent magazines, where it had a decisive impact on the development of regional or local-color writing. Although the local colorists she influenced soon overshadowed her, Van Wyck Brooks felt some of Cooke's tales were never surpassed by later authors.
Rich in realistic detail and shrewd social observation, these stories recreate rural New England before and during the 19th-century migration to cities and prairies. Cooke knew the regional mind as it was shaped by Calvinism and hard work, bleak landscapes, and scanty resources. Although she could treat her characters with broad Yankee humor, she took their "controversies with Providence" seriously and reviewed their eccentric behavior with the sympathetic but critical eye of the insider.
Cooke describes New England's woods and seasons with poetic sympathy, but deliberately refutes its nostalgic, pastoral image. Life on her farms centers on work, ranging from bitter drudgery to quiet self-fulfillment. Although the mills loom on the periphery, her setting is preindustrial. Husband and wife share responsibility for their family's survival, and a woman's skill within her sphere is highly prized.
Domestic scenes, rendered lovingly, dominate Cooke's fiction. Critical of women's rights activists, she often reminds readers that a woman's place is in her home, under the "headship" of a good husband. However, in "Mrs. Flint's Married Experience," a miserly deacon works his wife nearly to death, grudging her even food and clothing; Cooke's repudiation of the patriarchy which supports him is compelling. In "How Celia Changed Her Mind" and "Polly Mariner, Tailoress," Cooke characterizes outspoken and self-determined spinsters with evident sympathy. Although many of Cooke's stories are too didactic, the best probe the Puritan psyche with considerable sophistication.
Cooke's respect for Calvinism's moral seriousness is reflected in her careful analysis of character and motivation. Nevertheless, she criticizes the Puritan tradition's legalism and emotional repression and argues that its "sour sublimity" should be sweetened with mercy and human love, the Christian nurture of social bonds.
Cooke's importance as an innovator is increasingly clear. A major influence on local-color writing, Cooke turned the dialect story to serious themes and gained it a place in respectable literary magazines. Her portrayal of spinsters, deacons, handymen, and farm women opened new possibilities for the representation of everyday life. Cooke smoothed the transition from the sentimental romances of the 1850s to the realism of William Dean Howells—a role evidenced by Cooke's style, which swings from florid romantic rhetoric to vernacular dialect and concrete historical detail. Although her tales are loosely structured and occasionally plotless, their focus on character is a hallmark of the modern short story. Read primarily for her impact on later writers, and for her depiction of a lost time and place, Cooke offers a significant handful of stories valuable in their own right.
Poems (1861). Groton Massacre Centennial Poem (1881). Somebody's Neighbors (1881). A Lay Preacher (1884). Root-Bound and Other Sketches (1885). No (1886). The Sphinx's Children (1886). The Deacon's Week (1887). The Deacon's Week. And What Deacon Baxter Said (1887). Happy Dodd (1887). The Old Garden (1888). Poems (1888). Steadfast, the Story of a Saint and a Sinner (1889). Polly and Dolly, and Other Stories (1890). Huckleberries Gathered from New England Hills (1891). Little Foxes (1904).
Brooks, V. W., New England: Indian Summer (1940). Donovan, J., New England Local Color Literature: A Women's Tradition (1983). Downey, J., "A Biographical and Critical Study of Rose Terry Cooke" (dissertation, 1956). Elrod, E. R., "Reforming Fictions: Gender and Religion in the Works of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rose Terry Cooke, and Mary Wilkins Freeman" (thesis, 1991). Jobes, K. T., "The Resolution of Solitude: A Study of Four Writers of the New England Decline" (dissertation, 1961). Martin, J., Harvests of Change: American Literature 1865-1914 (1967). Patee, F. L., The Development of the American Short Story (1923). Spofford, H. P., A Little Book of Friends (1916). Toth, S. A., "More Than Local Color: A Reappraisal of Rose Terry Cooke, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and Alice Brown" (dissertation, 1969).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
American Transcendental Quarterly (Summer-Fall 1980). BB (Summer and Fall 1955). KCN (1976). Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers (Fall 1992). WS (1972).
—SARAH WAY SHERMAN