Bonner, Sherwood (1849–1883)

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Bonner, Sherwood (1849–1883)

American 19th-century writer of the "local color" school. Name variations: Catherine or Katherine Bonner McDowell; (pen names) Clayton Vaughn, Katharine McDowell, Kate McDowell, Anonymous, A Citizen of Holly Springs, and Bohemian. Born Catherine Sherwood Bonner in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on February 26, 1849; died in Holly Springs on July 22, 1883; daughter of Charles (a planter and physician) and Mary (Wilson) Bonner; sister ofRuth Maring Bonner (b. 1851), Samuel Wilson (b. 1854), andAnne Lea Bonner (b. 1858); attended Holly Springs Female Institute; Hamner Hall, in Montgomery, Alabama; Select School for Young Ladies, Holly Springs, Mississippi; married Edward McDowell, on February 14, 1871 (divorced, c. 1881); children:Lilian McDowell (b. December 10, 1871).

Selected writings:

Like unto Like (1878); Dialect Tales (1883); Suwanee River Tales (1884); Gran'mammy: Little Classics of the South, Mississippi (1927); The Valcours (a novella, 1881). Works also include pamphlets and countless periodical contributions.

Sherwood Bonner's promising literary career, which spanned two decades following the Civil War, was cut short by her untimely death at the age of 34. She is remembered mainly for her short stories and especially for her realistic use of regional dialects and humor. A pioneer in the local-color movement, she is placed in that group of writers which includes George Washington Cable, Thomas Nelson Page, Mary Noailles Murfree , and Kate Chopin , and is important as a forerunner for Southern women writers, such as Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty .

Born into Mississippi aristocracy in 1849, Bonner's brief life was tinged with controversy. Her teenage years were marred by the Civil War and the personal losses of her younger sister and mother. At age 22, married and with a child, she shocked her family by abandoning her husband and infant daughter and moving to Boston in 1871 to pursue her dream of becoming a writer.

Bonner's first story had been published in 1864 by Nahum Capen, who helped her get settled in Boston. Capen may have also facilitated her meeting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who became a mentor and a friend, though there is evidence that Bonner made her initial contact with the poet through a letter. During a trip to Europe in 1876, she wrote a number of travel articles which were published in the Memphis Avalanche and the Boston Times. Her short stories also appeared in Lippincott's, Harper's Weekly, and Youth's Companion. Her only novel, Like Unto Like, was published in 1878.

Through her "Gran'Mammy" tales, particularly one called "Gran'Mammy's Last Gifts" (1875), considered by Hubert H. McAlexander "one of the strongest genre pieces that Sherwood Bonner was ever to write," she created a literary portrait of a black woman who was an integral part of her Southern white family and may have presented "the first example of black dialect published in a Northern magazine." Also among her regional fiction is a story about a farm girl called "On the Nine-Mile," the result of Bonner's 15-month stay in Illinois (the most productive period in her career), which is told in lower-class dialect. Both her novel Like Unto Like and a novella, The Valcours, are set in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War and provide insight into the South during this period of enormous social change.

After returning to Holly Springs in 1878 to nurse her father and brother during fatal illnesses with yellow fever, Bonner was struck with breast cancer in 1881 just as her career was gaining momentum. That same year, she divorced her husband but not before raising eyebrows over a liaison with Longfellow. By the time she saw a doctor for the painful lump in her breast, it was diagnosed as cancer in an advanced stage. Bonner continued to work, making a last trip to Boston before returning to Holly Springs, where she wrote until her death on July 22, 1883.


Mainiero, Lina, ed. American Women Writers: From Colonial Times to the Present. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1981.

McAlexander, Hubert Horton. The Prodigal Daughter: A Biography of Sherwood Bonner. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Bonner, Sherwood (1849–1883)

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