Spofford, Harriet Prescott (1835–1921)

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Spofford, Harriet Prescott (1835–1921)

American author. Name variations: Harriet Elizabeth Spofford. Born Harriet Elizabeth Prescott on April 3, 1835, in Calais, Maine; died of arteriosclerosis on August 14, 1921, on Deer Island, in Amesbury, Massachusetts; daughter of Joseph Newmarch Prescott (an attorney and lumber merchant) and Sarah Jane (Bridges) Prescott; educated at schools in Newburyport, Massachusetts; attended the Pinkerton Academy, Derry, New Hampshire; married Richard S. Spofford, in 1865 (died 1888); children: one son, Richard (b. 1867, died in infancy).

Selected writings:

Sir Rohan's Ghost (1860); The Amber Gods (1863); Azarian: An Episode (1864); New England Legends (1871); Art Decoration Applied to Furniture (1878); The Servant Girl Question (1881); Poems (1882); Hester Stanley at Saint Marks (1883); Ballads about Authors (1887); A Scarlet Poppy, and Other Stories (1894); In Titian's Garden (1897); Old Madame, and Other Tragedies (1900); The Children of the Valley (1901); The Great Procession (1902); Old Washington (1906); The Fairy Changeling (1910); The Making of a Fortune (1911); A Little Book of Friends (1916); The Elder's People (1920).

Of English ancestry, Harriet Prescott Spofford was born in Calais, Maine, in 1835, the daughter of Joseph Prescott and Sarah Bridges Prescott . As a young teen, she and her four siblings suddenly found themselves fatherless after Joseph abandoned the family to head west in an attempt to rebuild the fortune lost by his father during the War of 1812. The family moved to Newburyport, Massachusetts, to make a new home near relatives. Here Spofford received her education, with two years spent at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire.

Spofford first began to take her writing seriously at the age of 16, when an essay she wrote on the insanity of the title character in William Shakespeare's Hamlet won a contest she had entered. Encouraged, she began submitting short stories to Boston newspapers and weekly magazines as a way of stabilizing her family's tenuous financial state. Her new source of income was offset by the return of her father, in poor health and impoverished, providing Spofford with an incentive to produce as much saleable writing as possible. A prolific and inventive writer who was praised for her insights into the workings of the human conscience and her love of nature, she was soon producing quantities of writing—everything from short stories and poetry to children's books, travelogues, and novels—setting a pace that would not falter throughout a career that spanned six decades.

Spofford first caught the attention of critics when her short story "In a Cellar" appeared in the fledgling Atlantic Monthly in the spring of 1859. Enthusiastically accepted into Boston's highbrow literary circles, by the late 1800s Spofford had become one of the most popular women writers in the United States. She was well known among such peers as Edith Wharton and Sarah Orne Jewett through the appearance of her stories and poems in such highly thought of national periodicals as Scribner's, Century, and Harper's Bazaar, which actively sought fiction to fill their pages as demand for popular magazines increased after the Civil War. Her short stories, published in collections including The Amber Gods (1863) and New England Legends (1871), came to define the "Gothic" tale with their reliance upon legend, mystery, and elements of mysticism and the supernatural.

In addition to her short-story collections, such as A Scarlet Poppy, and Other Stories (1894) and Old Madame, and Other Tragedies (1900), Spofford also produced the poetry collections In Titian's Gardens (1897), a highly praised critique of Charlotte Brontë published as the introduction to the 1898 edition of Brontë's Jane Eyre, children's books that included The Fairy Changeling (1910), and the essay collection A Little Book of Friends (1916), as well as a number of novels. Her first full-length work of fiction, the anonymously published Sir Rohan's Ghost (1860), preceded her marriage to attorney Richard Spofford, with whom she eventually built a house in Amesbury, Massachusetts, large enough for her to entertain the literary women friends with whom she joined in rejecting the naturalism of novelist Henry James. While critical estimation of Spofford's works declined as her productivity increased in the latter decades of the 1800s, by 1900 she had turned to the familiar subject of her native New England, and her story collection The Elder's People (1920) did much to reclaim her literary reputation. Arteriosclerosis resulted in her death in her home on August 14, 1921.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Pamela Shelton , freelance writer, Avon, Connecticut