Spofford, Harriet (Elizabeth) Prescott

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SPOFFORD, Harriet (Elizabeth) Prescott

Born 3 April 1835, Calais, Maine; died 14 August 1921, Deer Island, Massachusetts

Also wrote under: Harriet Prescott

Daughter of Joseph N. and Sarah Bridges Prescott; married Richard S. Spofford, 1865; children: one child, who died as an infant

Harriet Prescott Spofford was born into a distinguished New England family that had suffered economic reversals since the War of 1812. Spofford spent most of her early years in a household of women, including her mother and four Prescott aunts, while her father sought his fortune in the West. In 1849 she settled with her mother in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where she attended Putnam Free School, finishing her education later at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire. In 1856, when her father returned an invalid and her mother soon was stricken, Harriet became the support of the family. She turned to writing, one of the few lucrative careers open to women in her day. This early work, published anonymously in Boston family story-papers in the 1850s, remains uncollected and unacknowledged. Quantity was demanded rather than quality, as these pieces earned Spofford between $2.50 and $5 each. Only with the publication of her short story "In a Cellar," in the young Atlantic Monthly (February 1859) did her career really begin.

Spofford's marriage to Richard S. Spofford, a Newburyport lawyer, was long and successful, although their only child died as an infant in 1867. They lived briefly in Washington (Old Washington, 1906, is based on Spofford's memories); traveled abroad twice; and finally settled on Deer Island, a five-acre island in the Merrimac River near Newburyport. The scenery, legends, and people of her New England home supplied much of the material for Spofford's writing, especially her poetry. In "June on the Merrimac," John Greenleaf Whittier called attention to the setting in which "Deer Island's mistress sings." Spofford lived on Deer Island for the rest of her life, visiting and often visited by a circle of women writers in Boston including Sarah Orne Jewett, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward, and Julia Ward Howe.

From the 1860s until her death, Spofford was one of the most widely published of American authors. Many stories, essays, and poems appeared in Harper's Bazar, Atlantic Monthly, the Knickerbocker, the Cosmopolitan, and in juvenile magazines such as Youth's Companion.

Two strengths save Spofford from being dismissed as merely a popular magazine contributor producing only "romantically frothy tales." The first, for which she is alternately highly praised and condemned, is her vivid and often graphic description. In Sir Rohan's Ghost: A Romance (1860), for instance, her description of a wine cellar was so convincing and memorable connoisseurs sent her tributes of wine for years afterward. In a century when a woman's sphere was domestic, Spofford utilized her special knowledge to make textures, jewelry, even furniture definitive of character. In Art Decoration Applied to Furniture (1878), Spofford observed that furniture is "emblazoned, as one might say, with the customs of a people and the manners of a time." Her ability to capture character through setting and inanimate objects is nowhere more stunning than in the title story of The Amber Gods (1863), where the two women, Yone and Lu, are defined by the jewels they wear ("This amber's just the thing for me, such a great noon creature!") and the materials that suit them ("I never let Lu wear the point at all; she'd be ridiculous in it,—so flimsy and open and unreserved; that's for me.").

Spofford's second strength is that although she too divides her women into opposites reminiscent of the fragile blondes and passionate brunettes who represent saint and sinner for most romantics—and only too accurately represent the roles in which contemporary women were cast—Spofford reveals the woman within the role. If she takes sides, her vibrant heart urges her to admire the passionate Yones over the dutiful Lus; but Lu, too, is always loved. In "Desert Sands," for instance, the submissive wife Eos has artistic talent that is recognized immediately and appreciated by the seductive Vespasia, and her cousin Alain berates her husband for suppressing it: "This aptitude, this power, this whatever you choose to call it, genius or inspiration, for which you refuse her utterance, this has produced a spiritual asphyxia."

Beginning her career in the 1850s, Spofford found herself caught between the dying school of romanticism and the newly-vociferous advocates of realism. Her discerning eye and ability to capture the character of her New England neighbors in dialect and description earned the praise of W. D. Howells and the young Henry James, but they were both bothered by her romantic lushness and discouraged her from "fine writing." Although her realistic talent would culminate in her last collection, The Elder's People (1920), it could at best earn her recognition as a strong minor writer scarcely comparable to Mary Wilkins Freeman. It is in her romantic tendencies that the uniqueness of Spofford's writing can be found, even though in response to the fickle changes in popular taste and literary approach, she often either abandoned (always reluctantly) or failed to develop and control the poetic promise of her early romantic work.

Other Works:

Azarian: An Episode (1864). New England Legends (1871). The Thief in the Night (1872). The Servant Girl Question (1881). Hester Stanley at St. Marks (1882). The Marquis of Carabas (1882). Poems (1882). Ballads About Authors (1887).House and Hearth (1891). A Lost Jewel (1891). A Scarlet Poppy, and Other Stories (1894). A Master Spirit (1896). In Titian's Garden, and Other Poems (1897). An Inheritance (1897). Stepping-Stones to Happiness (1897). Hester Stanley's Friends (1898). Priscilla's Love-Story (1898). The Maid He Married (1899). Old Madame, and Other Tragedies (1900). The Children of the Valley (1901). The Great Procession, and other Verses for and about Children (1902). That Betty (1903). Four Days of God (1905). The Fairy Changeling: A Flower and Fairy Play (1911). The Making of a Fortune: A Romance (1911). The King's Easter (1912). A Little Book of Friends (1916).


Bendixen, A., ed., "The Amber Gods" and Other Stories (1989). Cooke, R. T., Our Famous Women (1883). Halbeisen, E. K., Harriet Prescott Spofford (1935). Hopkins, A. A., Waifs, and Their Authors (1879). The Development of the American Short Story (1923). Pattee, F. L., A History of American Literature Since 1870 (1915). Ward, E. S. P.,, "Stories That Stay," in The Century Magazine (Nov. 1910). Richardson, C. F., American Literature (1607-1885) (1902).

Reference works:

NCAB, IV. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Bookman (Nov. 1925).