Born 9 May 1834, Westchester County, New York; died 1908, Montrose, New York
Daughter of Nicholas and Eliza Kortright Cruger
Although biographical information about Mary Cruger is scarce, she remains of interest to the literary historian because her five novels are emblematic of the variety and scope of socially conscious fiction written by American women during the final decades of the 19th century. Each of Cruger's novels examines one or more social issues and posits a theory of reform. Her emphasis is primarily Christian; social problems are resolved through faith in a more egalitarian afterlife and the model of idealized behavior is that of the Christian committed to a social gospel of salvation.
Cruger's first novel, Hyperaesthesia (1886), centers on several vacationers at an upstate New York resort. Each of her major characters suffers from an incapacitating form of "hyperaesthesia," an almost morbid nervous sensitiveness affecting them physically, emotionally, and mentally. Cruger's novel treats the problem of the "hysterical woman," a widespread medical problem which first attracted public attention due to the work of S. Weir Mitchell. Recent historians, among them Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Kathryn Kish Sklar, have studied the social implication of this female hysteria and invalidism, and their orientation is similar to Cruger's. The treatment prescribed in her novel is that of wider activity and charity work in one case and a more responsive marriage in the other.
Cruger's temperance novel, A Den of Thieves (1886), focuses on the efforts of a newlywed couple to convince their neighbors to join with them to destroy the liquor trade. These middle-class reformers quickly recognize alcohol abuse explains all of the problems in their town: the inability of factory workers to live on their wages, bad marriages, and poor church attendance. Alice, the heroine, is Cruger's most overtly political character. She rejects standards of female behavior which prescribe decorum and propriety rather than public involvement and she chooses her husband on the basis of his position on numerous social issues. Both Alice and her husband die as a result of their temperance work, consistent with Cruger's general emphasis on a heavenly resolution to social problems, but the townspeople vow to continue their work.
Information about Cruger's life may be surmised from her novel, How She Did It; Or, Comfort on $150 a Year (1888). In her introduction to this novel about how a recently impoverished daughter of a prominent family builds her own home and lives off the land, Cruger assures her readers that "The author of this little book wishes to say, as strongly and impressively as words can express it, that its story is not merely founded on fact, but is an actual portrayal, step by step, of her own experience, her own wonderful success in carrying out a long cherished theory of comfortable economy." Complete with blueprints of the house, detailed account books, recipes, carpentry and horticultural guidelines, and nutrition advice, the novel is memorable less for its plot than for its attempt to provide a fully realized plan for living.
Cruger's last novel, Brotherhood (1891), was written in response to the militant labor organizing and social unrest so frequent in the latter 19th century. Although sympathetic to the problems created by inadequate wages and unsafe working conditions, the novel takes a stand against labor unions. Brotherhood contrasts a charismatic labor leader, who preaches industrial brotherhood, with a domestic heroine, who preaches Christian brotherhood. The heroine convinces the workers that a Christian faith is the only viable social philosophy. Justice will be found in heaven, if not in the factory.
Cruger's fiction is often characterized by a certain confusion of intention. She repeatedly begins a novel with an indictment of existing social conditions, only to abandon this focus and write what appears to be first a ghost story and later a pastoral romance. These frequent convolutions of plot and purpose prove detrimental to any lasting interest in her fiction.
The Vanderheyde Manor House (1887). Labor, the Divine Command, by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Cruger, 1890).
Hill, V. L., Strategy and Breadth: The Socialist-Feminist in American Fiction (dissertation, 1979). Taylor, W., The Economic Novel in America (1942).
DAB, 1600-1900 (1904). A Woman of the Century (1893).
Chautauquan (April 1886). Critic (14 Jan. 1885). Literary World (21 Aug. 1886, 20 March 1886).
—VICKI LYNN HILL