Townsend, Mary Ashley (Van Voorhis)

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TOWNSEND, Mary Ashley (Van Voorhis)

Born 24 September 1832, Lyons, New York; died 7 June 1901, Galveston, Texas

Also wrote under: Mary Ashley, Crab Crossbones, Michael O'Quillo, Henry Rip, Xariffa

Daughter of James G. and Catherine Van Voorhis; married Gideon Townsend, 1852

Mary Ashley Townsend was the only child of her mother's second marriage. Her father died when she was one year old, and her mother subsequently married a third time. The family, with five children, lived in pleasant circumstances in the country, and Townsend attended the district school and the academy. She married a first cousin and after living in Fishkill, New York, and Iowa City, they moved in 1860 to New Orleans, where they lived for the remainder of their lives. Townsend became known as the "poet laureate of New Orleans." Her husband, Gideon, was a successful businessman and they led an active social life. Three daughters were born to them.

The first in a long series of contributions by Townsend to newspapers was published in the Daily Delta (19 Sept. 1850), while she was in New Orleans visiting a married sister. In her many years as a writer, Townsend adopted different pseudonyms for her work in various genres. "Xariffa" was the signature used for a great many of her poems, especially in her early period. For essays on topics ranging from bonnets to warfare and in tones from light to serious, she used the name "Michael O'Quillo." She signed her name as "Crab Crossbones" to "Crossbones Papers," which were often didactic or satiric comments on society's foibles. "Henry Rip" was the signature to "My Penny Dip," a popular moral tale. Her own name, Mary Ashley, was signed to both prose and poetry late in her career. Her work was published in newspapers, magazines, and anthologies.

Townsend published a number of short stories, but her only novel was The Brother Clerks: A Tale of New Orleans (1857). The novel is concerned with the coming of age of two very different brothers, who move to New Orleans from New York, and with their experiences in a strange city. It has interesting sketches of what life was like in New Orleans in the early 19th century, but the characters do not really come alive. In common with the better-known fiction writers of the 19th century, Townsend has an intrusive manner in addressing comments directly to the reader.

Townsend was best known and widely praised for her poetry. It reflects her wide diversity of interests; much of it is of a moral or religious nature. Her love of the region is also evident. She was asked to write poems for many special occasions, which she did (but asked others to read for her, feeling her gift was for writing and not public reading). Her most popular poem was "Creed," first published in 1868, and reprinted many times. It is included in Xariffa's Poems (1870).

James Wood Davidson wrote in 1869, "Her blank verse is remarkable for its ease, vigour, and spirit." He compared her poetry favorably with all other women writers of the time. Four of her poems were printed in the Louisiana Book by Thomas McCaleb in 1894, and he quoted Henry Austin on her essentially Southern style, saying further: "This poet, I think, has written finer passages than any other American woman, except perhaps, Emma Lazarus and Sarah Helen Whitman." Grace King eulogized Townsend in 1901 as a poet and a woman who would be greatly missed by readers throughout the South.

Other Works:

The World's Cotton Centennial Exposition (1885). Easter Sunrise (1889). Distaff and Spindle (1895). Down the Bayou: The Captain's Story, and Other Poems (1902).


McCaleb, T., The Louisiana Book (1894). Manly, L., ed., Southern Literature from 1579-1895 (1900). Meyer, A. M., "Mary Ashley Townsend: A Biographical and Critical Study" (thesis, 1938). Thompson, T. P., Louisiana Writers, Native and Resident (1904).

Reference works:

AA. DAB. Living Female Writers of the South (1872). Living Writers of the South (1869). LSL. Poets of America (1886). The South in History and Literature: A Handbook of Southern Authors (1907).