McDowell, Katherine (Sherwood)Bonner
McDOWELL, Katherine (Sherwood)Bonner
Born Catherine Sherwood Bonner, 26 February 1849, Holly Springs, Mississippi; died 22 July 1883, Holly Springs, Mississippi
Wrote under: Sherwood Bonner
Daughter of Charles and Mary Wilson Bonner; married Edward McDowell, 1871 (separated 1873, divorced 1881); children: one
As a young teenager, Katherine Bonner McDowell experienced the harsh realities of the Civil War, when Union troops occupied Holly Springs and even her family home. McDowell also suffered personal losses during the war years, with the deaths of her youngest sister in 1863 and her mother in 1865. In 1871, McDowell married another native of Holly Springs; their only child was born in 1872. The McDowells separated in 1873; finally, McDowell established residence in Illinois and obtained a divorce in 1881.
In 1873, McDowell moved to Boston to pursue a career in writing; there Nahum Capen, who had published her first story in 1864, recommended her to Henry W. Longfellow, with whom she worked and established a close friendship. During 1876, McDowell sent from Europe a number of travel articles for the Memphis Avalanche and the Boston Times. Her only novel, Like Unto Like, was published in 1878.
McDowell returned to Holly Springs in the fall of 1878 and nursed her father and brother through fatal illnesses with yellow fever. In 1881, as her writing career was gaining momentum, McDowell learned that she had breast cancer. Until her death, she continued to write and to prepare her short stories, which had appeared in such magazines as Lippincott's, Harper's Weekly, and Youth's Companion, for publication in two volumes, Dialect Tales (1883) and Suwanee River Tales (1884).
McDowell's Gran'Mammy tales present a distinctive element of southern life; McDowell creates one of the finest literary portraits of the black mammy, who sustained and taught the members of her white family. "Gran'Mammy's Last Gifts" (1875) may well be the first example of black dialect published in a northern magazine. The most successful story of the group is "Coming Home to Roost" (1884), in which McDowell perceptively treats slave superstition. The child narrator has a significant role in the story's action, for her chance remark causes Aunt Beckey to believe she has been bewitched. The story is humorous, yet suspense builds as Beckey weakens spiritually and physically. She is cured by the brash young medical student, Henry, who is able to deal with the "trickery" on Beckey's level. McDowell's detailed and accurate descriptions are effective, as is the realistic attitude of the rest of the white family, who can view Henry's actions only as a "fraud." McDowell's months in Illinois resulted in other examples of regional fiction, such as "On the Nine-Mile" (1882), which tells in lower-class dialect the story of Janey Burridge, a farm girl who is severely crippled shortly before her wedding. Her fiancé rejects her because she cannot carry her share of the workload on his farm. Up to this point, the story is realistic and somber. However, McDowell succumbs to sentimentality; in the last two paragraphs, Janey reforms the alcoholic father of the child responsible for her injury, marries him, regains her ability to walk, and has a child with him.
McDowell's longer works, Like Unto Like and "The Valcours," a novella published serially (1881), are set during the Reconstruction period. Like Unto Like focuses on the continuing conflict of regional ways of life after the war, primarily in the romance of southerner Blythe Herndon and Roger Ellis, a northern radical. There are weaknesses in Like Unto Like, but McDowell avoids sentimentality, especially when Blythe renounces Roger's love and remains alone at the end of the novel. McDowell has been praised for her characterization, particularly of women such as Blythe Herndon and the lively Buena Vista Church of "The Valcours."
A study of McDowell's fiction does not reveal any sustained development from purely regional to more sophisticated realistic works. Even though she began writing as a teenager, McDowell wrote for too short a period of time to develop her talents fully. Like Unto Like was reviewed favorably, but McDowell is appreciated today chiefly for her short stories, especially for her realistic use of dialects—lower-class midwestern, southern mountain, and black—and her humor. Many readers also enjoy her characterizations and plots. She is important as a forerunner of later southern women writers like Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty.
Frank, W. L., Sherwood Bonner (1976).
AA. DAB. NAW. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States.
ALR (Winter 1972). MissQ (Winter 1963-64). NMW (Spring 1968, Spring 1969).
—MARTHA E. COOK