Stuart, Ruth McEnery (c. 1849–1917)
Stuart, Ruth McEnery (c. 1849–1917)
American writer. Born Mary Routh McEnery in Marksville, Louisiana, on May 21, 1849 (some sources cite 1856); died in White Plains, New York, on May 6, 1917; eldest of eight children of James McEnery (a cotton merchant, planter, and slaveholder) and Mary Routh (Stirling) McEnery; married Alfred O. Stuart (a merchant and planter), on August 5, 1879 (died 1883); children: Stirling McEnery (1882–1905).
A Golden Wedding and Other Tales (1893); 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); Sonny: A Story (also published as Sonny: A Christmas Guest , 1896); Solomon Crow's Christmas Pockets and Other Tales (1896); In Simpkinsville: Character Tales (1897); 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 Children: An Idyll of the Mississippi (1904); The Second Wooing of Salina Sue and Other Stories (1905); Aunt Amity's Silver Wedding and Other Stories (1909); Sonny's Father in which the Father, now become Grandfather, a Kindly Observer of Life and a Genial Philosopher, in his Desultory Talks with the Family Doctor, Carries along the Story of Sonny (1910); The Haunted Photograph, Whence and Whither, A Case in Diplomacy (1911); Daddy Do-Funny's Wisdom Jingles (1913); The Cocoon: A Rest-Cure Comedy (1915); Plantation Songs and Other Verse (1916).
Ruth McEnery Stuart was born Mary Routh McEnery on May 21, 1849, although some sources indicate as late as 1856, in Marksville, Louisiana, to an Irish father and a Welsh-Scottish mother. Although her father emigrated from Ireland as a descendent of the landed gentry, he was not as prosperous as the rest of his family, and the Civil War aggravated the family's precarious finances. When Ruth was seven, her father moved the family to New Orleans, where he found work at the customhouse. This vibrant atmosphere exposed young Ruth to a number of cultural influences as she encountered Italians, Creoles, and African-Americans in the old French Market area of New Orleans, which is vividly reflected in her later stories. She attended both private and public schools, and evidence suggests that she may have taught at the Locquet-LeRoy Institute in New Orleans—a fashionable school for girls—for financial reasons. Little is known of her own formal education.
Ruth left New Orleans after her 1879 marriage to Alfred Oden Stuart, a merchant and planter nearly twice her age and three times previously married, but their life together in Washington, Arkansas, was cut short by her husband's death in 1883. He left little money to support Ruth and their infant son, so she returned to New Orleans to teach school. As so many women did during this era, Stuart turned to fiction writing as a means of earning a living, and drew on her impressive mastery of New Orleans dialects to create colorful characters in short stories. In January 1888, she published a story in African-American dialect, "Uncle Mingo's 'Speculations,'" in the New Princeton Review. She then wrote and published more stories in the same local-color style for various periodicals, including "Lamentations of Jeremiah Johnson" in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. The success of these stories led her into book publishing, and, with the exception of a period of depression following her son's death at the age of 13 in 1905, she consistently published at a pace averaging a volume a year. These stories were full of the dialects she had painstakingly mastered, including those of poor Southern whites, African-Americans, Latin-African Creoles, and the Italian and French immigrants to New Orleans. Her first book, A Golden Wedding and Other Tales, appeared in 1893, and her best-known work In Simpkinsville: Character Tales was published in 1897.
Stuart moved to New York City in 1891 to be closer to her publishers. In 1893, she began traveling successfully on the lecture circuit, where her writing talent, combined with a graceful manner, natural beauty, and ready repartee, endeared her to audiences. There was also a novelty factor, as few women writers took to the platform in the tradition of such literary wits as Mark Twain. She became a member of the "Harper Set," and for a brief period worked as the temporary editor of Harper's Bazar magazine. Numerous national magazines bid for her material and services, and her stories consistently sold well.
Stuart viewed her literary contributions as entertainment, and drew on humor, pathos, and dialect to buttress her tales. Her widespread reputation as a humorist and author of unique dialect stories seemed sufficient to ensure that her fame would last, but it soon faded after her death from bronchopneumonia, at age 67, on May 6, 1917. The historical value of her tales and character sketches is considerable, since they embody literary myths of the genteel South, and draw deeply from the well of universal humanity. Kathryn B. McKee notes that although later generations criticized Stuart for relying on "easily identifiable stereotypes," Stuart's literary significance "is in the sense that her work offers the modern reader valuable insight into the cultural concerns of the time in which she wrote, the uncertain transition between centuries that both intimidated and excited Americans."
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.
McKee, Kathryn B. "Ruth McEnery Stuart," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 202: Nineteenth-Century American Fiction Writers. Detroit, MI: Gale Group, 1999, pp. 242–250.
B. Kimberly Taylor , freelance writer, New York, New York