Stuart, Ruth McEnery
STUART, Ruth McEnery
Daughter of James and Mary Routh Stirling McEnery; married Alfred Oden Stuart, 1879 (died 1883); children: Stirling (died 1905)
During the 1890s Ruth McEnery Stuart was one of the South's most popular women writers, rivaling Kate Chopin in her fame. Praised as the "laureate of the lowly," she became best known for her African-American dialect fiction, and at her death the New York Times observed that she "left no successor" in the genre. Although racial stereotypes, sentimentality, and Old South nostalgia now date much of her work, Joel Chandler Harris, creator of the Uncle Remus stories, said Stuart "got nearer the heart of the negro" than any other white author of that era.
Stuart was born on a plantation, but she grew up in New Orleans, the nation's most exotic setting for regionalist writing. After the Civil War, her father failed to regain his earlier prosperity, and Stuart contributed to the family's support by teaching. She moved to Washington, Arkansas, after marrying an affluent widower, but he died four years later, apparently leaving most of the estate to his grown children.
Stuart returned with her young son to New Orleans, where she met Dorothy Dix, Mollie Moore Davis, Eliza Jane Poitevent Nicholson, and other women writers. She probably resumed her teaching career, but an encounter with the editor of Harper's Monthly, Charles Dudley Warner, led her to submit stories to Northern magazines and by 1892 she made a permanent move to New York. She occasionally substituted for editors of various journals, turning down offers of regular staff positions in order to focus on her writing, which she published everywhere from the Youth's Companion to the Century Magazine.
A favorite of the "Harper set," Stuart mixed well in artistic and literary circles, both in New York and at her summer home in the Catskills. Her friends were diverse, from William Dean Howells, George Washington Cable, and Mark Twain to St. Nicholas editor Mary Mapes Dodge, General George Armstrong Custer's widow, Elizabeth, the Tiffany Company designer Candace Wheeler, and the Boston twin physicians Augusta and Emily Pope.
Thanks to her sister Sarah Stirling McEnery's support as household manager, Stuart was able to travel throughout the country reading to enthusiastic audiences from her own works, as Twain and Cable—but few women—did. Progressive on such issues as African-American education and women's suffrage, she opposed America's entry into World War I and recited one of her poems at a large peace demonstration in New Orleans.
Most of the stories in Stuart's first collection, A Golden Wedding and Other Tales (1893), are black dialect fiction. Her characters include an elderly ex-slave couple, who are poignantly reunited in New Orleans after decades apart, and a mischievous country boy whose mother dresses him in his sisters' hand-me-downs. Reviewers liked Stuart's blend of "humor and pathos" in such accounts of African-American life and also in her early portrayals of urban immigrants and genteel Arkansas spinsters.
Soon matching the black dialect stories in popularity were Stuart's Deuteronomy Jones monologues, narrated in folksy style by a middle-aged farmer from the fictitious Simpkinsville, Arkansas, who dotes on his precocious child. Stuart collected these comic pieces in the bestselling collection Sonny: A Christmas Guest (1896) and the sequel Sonny's Father (1910). Stories about the Jones' fellow townspeople appeared in In Simpkinsville: Character Tales (1897), which includes "The Unlived Life of Little Mary Ellen," a widely read portrayal of a young woman who is jilted at the altar, loses her mind, and goes to an early grave believing that her niece's talking doll is her own baby.
Most of Stuart's women characters, both black and white, cope better with adversity than the fragile Mary Ellen does. Stories in Solomon Crow's Christmas Pockets and Other Tales (1897) depict a cheerful widow with several children who earns "a scant living" at newspaper work but hosts a holiday dinner for all her boarding-house neighbors; an ancient African-American candy woman in New Orleans, who always claims Easter Sunday as her birthday; and a teenage girl who collaborates with her old mammy to start a new life in the city after the family plantation is sold for debts.
Until her son died from an accidental fall in 1905, Stuart published a story collection or novella almost every year. An interviewer reported that her intense program of writing and platform reading would exhaust even a strong man. But Stuart cut back drastically on her work and her social life for about four years after Stirling's death. Even though the market for local color fiction was shrinking, all but one of Stuart's later volumes reprise the Southern settings, dialects, and character types that made her famous. The exception is her last book of fiction, The Cocoon: A Rest-Cure Comedy (1915). Drawing on her experiences at the Jackson Health Resort in Dansville, New York, Stuart uses the genre of romantic burlesque to comment on such issues as infertility, eugenics, and women's nervous diseases. Critics have noted resemblances to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's feminist classic "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892), and Stuart had met Gilman's bane, Dr. Weir Mitchell—a likely model for the presiding physician of the Virginia sanitarium in The Cocoon. Stuart's protagonist, Blessy Heminway, is a witty New Yorker who spends much of her stay undermining the rest cure regimen.
In the 1920s, plays about African-American life were attracting attention, and Sarah McEnery tried unsuccessfully to find a dramatist who would adapt her sister's black dialect fiction for the New York stage. Racially insensitive as some of these stories now look, one obituary described the author as a "friend of the negro," and Kate Chopin—whose literary reputation has fared much better than Stuart's—emphasized that her body of work was unmarred by "prejudices" of any sort.
Carlotta's Intended and Other Tales (1894). The Story of Babette: A Little Creole Girl (1894). Gobolinks or Shadow-Pictures for Young and Old (with Albert Bigelow Paine, 1896). The Snow-Cap Sisters: A Farce (1897). Moriah's Mourning and Other Half-Hour Sketches (1898). Holly and Pizen and Other Stories (1899). Napoleon Jackson: The Gentleman of the Plush Rocker (1902). George Washington Jones: A Christmas Gift That Went A-Begging (1903). The River's Childen: An Idyl of the Mississippi (1904). The Second Wooing of Salina Sue and Other Stories (1905). Aunt Amity's Silver Wedding and Other Stories (1909). The Haunted Photograph, Whence and Whither, A Case in Diplomacy, The Afterglow (1911). Daddy Do-Funny's Wisdom Jingles (1913). Plantation Songs and Other Verse (1916).
The main collection of Stuart's papers is in the Manuscripts Department of Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University, New Orleans.
Fletcher, M. F., "Ruth McEnery Stuart: A Biographical and Critical Study" (dissertation, 1955). Frisby, J. R., Jr., "New Orleans Writers and the Negro: George Washington Cable, Grace King, Ruth McEnery Stuart, Kate Chopin, and Lafcadio Hearn, 1870-1900" (dissertation, 1972). Halsey, F. W., ed., Women Authors of Our Day in Their Homes: Personal Descriptions and Interviews (1903). Harkins, E. F., and C. H. L. Johnston, Little Pilgrimages Among the Women Who Have Written Famous Books (1902). Knight, D. D., ed., Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers (1997). McKee, K. B., "Writing in a Different Direction: Women Authors and the Tradition of Southwestern Humor, 1875-1910" (dissertation, 1996). Simpson, E. C., Introduction to Simpkinsville and Vicinity: Arkansas Stories of Ruth McEnery Stuart (1983). Sneller, J. E., "Bad Boys/Black Misfits: Ruth McEnery Stuart's Humor and 'The Negro Question,"' in Images of the Child (1994). Sneller, J. E., "Man-Figs and Magnolias, Ladies and Lariats: Humor and Irony in the Writings of Three New Orleans Women, 1865-1916" (dissertation, 1992). Sneller, J. E., "'Old Maids' and Wily 'Widders': The Humor of Ruth McEnery Stuart," in New Directions in American Humor (1998). Sneller, J. E., "'Sambo' and 'The Southern Lady': Humor and the (Re)Construction of Identity in the Local Color Fiction of Ruth McEnery Stuart," in Gender, Race, and Identity (1993). Taylor, H., Gender, Race, and Region in the Writings of Grace King, Ruth McEnery Stuart, and Kate Chopin (1989).
ANB (1999). DAB. DLB 202. Library of Southern Literature (1909). Nineteenth-Century American Fiction Writers (1998). NAW, 1607-1950 (1971). Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary (1979).
Bookman (1904). Harper's Bazaar (1899). Legacy (1993). Louisiana Literature: A Review of Literature and Humanities (1987). NYT (8 May 1917). Studies in American Fiction (1998). Xavier Review (1987).
—JOAN WYLIE HALL