American Literature Harriet Prescott Spofford
by
Cindy Murillo
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0116

Introduction

Harriet Prescott Spofford (b. 1835–d. 1921) was a short-story writer, essayist, novelist, and poet born on 3 April 1835, in Calais, Maine, to a distinguished seafaring family (the sea would find its way into to such stories as “The Southbreaker”). Money difficulties prompted the Prescotts to send Harriet to live with her aunt Elizabeth in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where she attended the Putnam Free School. She attracted the attention of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who awarded her the prize for an essay on Hamlet. She published in the local school paper before graduating and going on to attend Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire. Harriet began publishing anonymously (as did most 19th-century women writers) in the local Boston family story papers to help support her family. She wrote for as long as fifteen hours a day and received anywhere from $2.50 to $5.00 per piece, publishing over one hundred stories in this local medium. She never acknowledged these stories, and they remain lost. It was not until Spofford sent “In a Cellar” to the Atlantic Monthly in 1858 that she leaped to literary fame. Upon receiving this at his office in 1858, James Russell Lowell did not publish the piece at first, thinking it was a French translation with all its European flourish and exotic lore. Higginson verified that a “demure little Yankee girl” wrote “In a Cellar” and she received $105 for this story. Higginson was so impressed with this work of fiction that he suggested to Emily Dickinson that she read “Circumstance,” which she did and replied: “I read Miss Prescott’s ‘Circumstance,’ but it followed me in the dark, so I avoided her.” Spofford’s writing career continued for close to sixty years during which time she was esteemed by such fellow writers as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rose Terry Cooke, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and William Dean Howells, among many others. She published continuously in The Atlantic, Harper’s, and Lippincott’s, to name only a few. She published her first book, a romance, Sir Rohan’s Ghost in 1860 and her first short-story collection, The Amber Gods and Other Stories, in 1863. Although her short stories received the most acclaim, she also published critical essays, poetry, and juvenile fiction. In 1865 she married Richard S. Spofford Jr., a minor poet himself. Her only child, a son, died in infancy. Harriet lived to be eighty-seven and died on Deer Island in Massachusetts in August 1921. Although a major success during her lifetime, she unfortunately remains in obscurity today.

General Overviews

The works listed here are designed to provide a general introduction to Spofford’s life and writings. So far, there exists only one biography on Spofford, which is by Elizabeth Halbesein. Those interested in Spofford must rely on only a handful of bibliographic reference entries along with Halbeisen 1935, her somewhat outdated biography. Interest in Spofford’s fiction declined after the celebration of her initial reception in the mid-19th century. At home in the realm of literary romanticism, Spofford had difficulty joining the realistic movement (although she wrote realistic sketches) that began to take over at the turn into the new century. Critics who celebrated her romantic vision and imagination began to ridicule the very prose that had sustained her for twenty years. Slowly, reception of her work dwindled and her writing languished in obscurity until Halbeisen 1935 appeared decades later. Bendixen 1987 and Bendixen 1989 are reprints of her supernatural tales at a time of revived interest in the gothic, which helped to renew interest in Spofford’s fiction. These tales made small appearances in anthologies such as The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Very few biographical and reference works exist on Spofford, but there are some, most notably Bendixen 1997, which provide an excellent introduction to Spofford. Jones 1995 and Shinn 1980 are useful for quick overviews of Spofford’s romantic fiction if one is unable to obtain Halbeisen 1935. Cooke 1884 and Hamilton 1901 offer a unique picture of Spofford and are essential for those interested in contextualizing Spofford as a New England writer.

  • Bendixen, Alfred. “Introduction.” In Haunted Women: The Best Supernatural Tales by American Women Writers. Edited by Alfred Bendixen, 1–9. New York: Ungar, 1987.

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    A brief introduction to Spofford and “The Amber Gods” and includes a concise close reading of the short story as unconventional for its time. This is really the first critical commentary on Spofford’s work since Halbeisen 1935.

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  • Bendixen, Alfred. “Introduction.” In The Amber Gods, and Other Stories/Harriet Prescott Spofford. Edited by Alfred Bendixen, ix–xxxvi. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

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    Provides a thorough inauguration into some of Spofford’s most well-known tales, including “Circumstance,” “In a Cellar,” and “The Amber Gods” and is based primarily on Bendixen’s close scrutiny of her unpublished letters. Provides some biographical information but presents more close textual analysis of some of her romantic and realistic tales.

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  • Bendixen, Alfred. “Harriet Prescott Spofford.” In Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Edited by Denise D. Knight and Emmanuel S. Nelson, 377–385. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1997.

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    Includes biographical information, major works and themes, and a short list of references. The go-to guide for students––graduates and undergraduates––researching Spofford, her works, and her life.

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  • Cooke, Rose Terry. “Harriet Prescott Spofford.” In Our Famous Women. By Rose Terry Cooke, 521–538. Hartford, CT: A. D. Worthington, 1884.

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    Somewhat guarded and appreciative of Spofford’s sensual prose, this biographical snapshot sheds additional light on the life and writings of Spofford in a New England setting. This is a unique slant by one of Spofford’s close friends and contemporaries.

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  • Halbeisen, Elizabeth K. Harriet Prescott Spofford, A Romantic Survival. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1935.

    DOI: 10.9783/9781512816556Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The first and only biography of Spofford. Situates Spofford within the tug of war between literary romanticism and realism that intensified during the latter part of the 19th century. Although dated in some respects, this biography provides summaries of several of Spofford’s novels, short stories, poetry, and juvenilia, including critical analysis and contemporary reviews of her work.

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  • Hamilton, Gail. Gail Hamilton’s Life in Letters. 2 vols. Edited by Hannah Augusta Dodge. Introduction by Harriet Prescott Spofford. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1901.

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    Even though this resource is a biography of Gail Hamilton, it provides a unique insight into Spofford’s life. Spofford provides the opening biographical sketch of Hamilton, who reports on incidents in Spofford’s life, such as the birth of her baby, that have not been discussed by other scholars.

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  • Jones, Jill C. “Harriet Prescott Spofford.” In The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. Edited by Elizabeth Ammons, 844. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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    Provides a concise overview of Spofford’s life and fiction. Not as complete or informed as Bendixen 1997, but worth glancing at as a brief overview. A bit marred by incomplete citations.

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  • Shinn, Thelma J. “Harriet Prescott Spofford.” In American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. Vol. 4. Edited by Lina Mainiero, 138–140. New York: Ungar, 1980.

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    Although this source pulls most of its information from Halbesein’s biography, it is interesting in its brief discussion of Sir Rohan’s Ghost and Spofford’s critical essays on domesticity, which have received very little attention. Includes a helpful list of her novels.

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Library Archives

Correspondence by and about Spofford and other personal material—such as photographs and books from her library—remain uncollected and scattered throughout several libraries, most notably in New England. The most noteworthy are the Harriet Elizabeth Prescott Spofford Collection at Smith College, the Harriet Prescott Spofford Papers at the University of New England, and the Parkman Dexter Howe Library at the University of Florida, since these contain quite a bit of correspondence regarding Spofford’s publishing history and her remarks about certain stories. An edited collection of Spofford’s letters would be most welcome.

Primary Texts

Although mostly read today for her short stories, Spofford published several novels, critical essays, juvenile fiction, and poetry during her writing career, none of which has been reprinted. Recently, some of her work has been made available electronically through various mediums such as that of the Hathi Trust Digital Library. Listed here are works that received the most attention during her life. Editions of these works can also be accessed through interlibrary loan or by visiting one of the collections listed under Library Archives.

Novels

Spofford’s most well-known novels include Sir Rohan’s Ghost, Azarian: An Episode, and The Thief in the Night, all of which are romantic in nature and include supernatural elements.

  • Spofford, Harriet Prescott. Sir Rohan’s Ghost. Boston: J. E. Tilton, 1860.

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    Appearing anonymously in 1860, this debut novel is reminiscent of Monk Lewis, Ann Radcliffe, and Edgar Allan Poe with its tale of mental hauntings, haunted houses, and incest. Sir Rohan’s ghostly guilt plagues him wherever he goes; but he is undone by his lover, who turns out to be his daughter. This tale weaves colorful language with an imaginative plot.

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  • Spofford, Harriet Prescott. Azarian: An Episode. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864.

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    More romantic in nature than Sir Rohan’s Ghost and certainly less gothic, this story quotes extensively from William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Milton as it delves into unrequited love, a woman’s passion, and the main character’s inability to choose between two suitors.

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  • Spofford, Harriet Prescott. The Thief in the Night. Boston: Roberts, 1872.

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    An imaginative tale that begins in medias res with the discovery of a body, only to return in time to the events leading up to the murder. This gothic romance unravels a passionate courtship that leads to the resurrection of one, the lover, and the repudiation of another.

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Critical Essays

Spofford wrote critical essays on domestic issues, which can be seen in Spofford 1878 and Spofford 1881. Her essays on life and friends are captured in Spofford 1897 and Spofford 1916, while family history, the Salem witch trials, and the Indian conflict is the prime focus in Spofford 1871.

  • Spofford, Harriet Prescott. New England Legends. Boston: J. R. Osgood, 1871.

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    Captures history in various sketches of New England from Captain Kidd, the witch trials of Salem, and the burning of a convent in Charlestown to ornate descriptions of the coastal town of Newburyport and the Indian conflicts at Dover.

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  • Spofford, Harriet Prescott. Art Decoration Applied to Furniture. New York: Harper, 1878.

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    A collection of essays published originally anonymously as a series in Bazaar in 1876 and in response to essays published in Godey’s Lady’s Book that dealt with furniture. Generously illustrated, as it summarizes the history of furniture from its early beginnings.

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  • Spofford, Harriet Prescott. The Servant Girl Question. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1881.

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    Includes personal experience as she writes on problems encountered with caring for a home and methods of dealing with housekeeping difficulties, such as creating special schools.

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  • Spofford, Harriet Prescott. Stepping-Stones to Happiness. Bible House, NY: Christian Herald, 1897.

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    Mixes advice on keeping an orderly home along with literary quotation, ethical considerations, short stories, anecdotes, legends, and historical sketches. Deals with topics ranging from agriculture to disinfectants.

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  • Spofford, Harriet Prescott. A Little Book of Friends. Boston: Little, Brown, 1916.

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    Provides reminiscences on some literary friends in its personality sketches of such famous writers as Annie Fields, Sarah Orne Jewett, Gail Hamilton, Jane Andrews, Rose Terry Cooke, and Louise Chandler Moulton, among others.

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Juvenile Fiction

Stafford’s juvenile fiction can be found primarily in Spofford 1882 and Spofford 1898. Spofford’s stories were first serialized in The Youth’s Companion and tell of various experiences encountered by a young girl while attending a boarding school. There are no current editions of these works.

  • Spofford, Harriet Prescott. Hester Stanley at St. Mark’s. Boston: Roberts, 1882.

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    Drawing from her school days at Putnam Free School, Spofford’s first juvenile collection of stories focuses primarily on Hester Stanley, a somewhat exotically described character, as readers see the encounter between an energetic South Sea Islands girl and her overbearing instructor. The stories also confront racial attitudes faced by younger people.

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  • Spofford, Harriet Prescott. Hester Stanley’s Friends. Boston: Little, Brown, 1898.

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    Following the appearance of Hester Stanley at St. Mark’s, this collection also appeals to the female youth culture of various ages, focusing on a variety of themes, such as the natural environment, conflict among friends, and interest in the opposite sex.

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Poetry

Her most celebrated poetry, which William Dean Howells deemed better than her prose, is best exhibited in Spofford 1897. There are no recent editions of her poetry.

  • Spofford, Harriet Prescott. In Titian’s Garden and Other Poems. Boston: Copeland and Day, 1897.

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    The poems in this volume use brilliantly colorful language and engage the reader with their versatility, including blank verse alongside Spenserian stanzas. Her subject matter ranges from Emersonian transcendentalism to an interest in death and the strange, reminiscent of Keats and Poe.

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Short Story Collections

Much of Spofford’s short fiction remains uncollected but can be found in both digital form and in the library archives that house some of her original work. Thanks to scholars such as Alfred Bendixen, Catherine Lundie, Thomas Maik, and Elaine Showalter, reprinted versions of some of her short fiction have been made available. The following two subsections list the original collections, followed by where to access reprintings of some of these stories.

Original Editions

Many of Spofford’s stories were collected in book form after their magazine publication and although many of these stories include romantic and realistic elements, most of her fiction revels in the imagination. Her short stories range from light satire, as seen in Spofford 1894, to madness and the supernatural in 1900 and Spofford 1863. Sentimentality emerges in Spofford 1906, while local color occupies most of Spofford 1920, which was her last published collection. Many of her stories carry the theme of sisterhood between women.

  • Spofford, Harriet Prescott. The Amber Gods and Other Stories. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863.

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    In this collection, “The Amber Gods,” “Desert Sands,” “Midsummer and May,” and “Circumstance” reveal intense romantic passion, color, and elements of the supernatural while “Knitting Sale Socks,” and “The South Breaker,” are more realistic in their representation of New England life. Many of these stories delve into racial attitudes of the time and include pairings between two women, one fair and good and the other dark and rebellious: this is a theme that has been noted by several critics.

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  • Spofford, Harriet Prescott. A Scarlet Poppy and Other Stories. New York: Harper, 1894.

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    This was Spofford’s first collection of stories to appear in the 1890s and is characterized by social satire and a light and humorous tone. Some of these stories have a surprise ending or exhibit domestic tyranny through caricature.

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  • Spofford, Harriet Prescott. Old Madame and Other Tragedies. Boston: R. G. Badger, 1900.

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    Stories in this book include historical romance, shipwrecked characters, and insanity, but the focus is more on emotionalism and unconventional love. Teetering between romantic elements, clearly evident in unrequited love, the stories here also interject realistic elements with reference to how women and mental illness are treated. This can be seen most clearly in “Her Story.”

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  • Spofford, Harriet Prescott. Old Washington. Boston: Little, Brown, 1906.

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    These stories grew out of the time Spofford spent while living with her husband in Washington, DC. The timeframe of these tales immediately follows the Civil War in Washington and the settings include aristocratic homes, stately mansions as well as the less lavish boarding houses. The most prominent themes throughout are youthful love and southern characters seeking to repair their fallen lots.

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  • Spofford, Harriet Prescott. The Elder’s People. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920.

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    The last collection Spofford published before her death, these stories tend toward the realistic and contain many recurring characters throughout. These stories include dialectical prose that is phrased simply, emphasizing the simple lives of the people depicted in them. This collection resembles most closely character sketches of a specific community typically seen by regionalist and realist writers such as Rebecca Harding Davis.

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Reprintings

Spofford is best known for her short stories. Only a few of these, mostly those that focus on the supernatural and include gothic elements, have been reprinted in collections published in the late 20th century. Bendixen 1989 is the most authoritative and complete collection of fifteen of her stories, while Lundie 1996 includes Spofford in this collection of twenty-two ghost stories. Howells 1920 includes Spofford in this anthology and reaffirmed her place in literary circles. Bendixen 1989 and Lundie 1996 discuss the literary tradition of the supernatural and provide enlightening introductions to Spofford’s contribution to this genre. Bendixen 1989 and Lundie 1996 are the first to place Spofford within the realm of the gothic tradition, and the authors’ introductions merit consideration. Showalter 2011 includes “Circumstance” in this anthology along with an introduction to the author and her writing, while Crowe 2013 reprints “Circumstance” and “Her Story” in this collection of gothic tales, interesting in that “Circumstance” has not always been seen as gothic. Crowe 2013, however, in the introduction, helps to place this story within a gothic subtext. Maik 1999 reprints “Miss Maggaridge’s Provider,” and provides a paragraph introduction to Spofford as a New England writer. The Hathi Trust Digital Library is a fairly recent resource that allows for electronic access to several of Spofford’s Novels, Short Story Collections, Poetry, and Juvenile Fiction. Making of America Digital Library provides access to Spofford’s shorter works and her critical commentary on subjects such as dowries and domesticity.

Criticism

To date, no collection of criticism exists on Spofford’s work. Some notable contemporary reviews of her work are listed here followed by more recent scholarship on her juvenile fiction and short stories.

Reception

Many 19th-century reviews tended to praise her vivid description and use of adjectives, such as in Anonymous 1860 and Lowell 1860; but as her work straddled the romantic and realistic periods, reviews such as James 1863, James 1865, and Higginson 1864 derided her overwrought style. Reviews of Spofford’s work run the gamut from praising her ingenuity and attention to detail to seeing her prose as a “redundancy of epithets” and a “jumble of brilliant adjectives” (James 1897, p. 275). Although one anonymous reviewer found Spofford’s language to be powerful, he/she nonetheless dismissed her poetry as too full of emotion.

Critical Assessment

Despite the steady increase in critical attention on Spofford, thanks to prominent scholars, criticism of Spofford’s work is still somewhat limited, and there is no extant book length-study of her work (excluding Halbeisen 1935, cited under General Overviews). But there are valuable readings of some of her short stories and even her juvenile fiction. Most scholars tend to discuss issues of gender and sexuality, since Spofford often wrote about the plight of domestic oppression or even the circumstances female writers faced. Other scholars find that race is a substantial theme in her works in that she had abolitionist leanings, yet her fiction reveals underlying racist attitudes. Still others acknowledge Spofford’s allegiance to the captivity and detective genres. Importantly and most recently, criticism has begun to focus on the role of nature and the environment in her works, giving way to readings of her fiction through the lens of animal studies, new historicism, and narratology. Her relationship to and influence on other well-known writers during her time is also discussed among scholars: unlike other authors she likely influenced, Spofford remains to a great extent critically ignored.

Gender and Sexuality

Much of the scholarship on Spofford tends to center on issues of gender and sexuality, specifically with respect to “Circumstance” and “The Amber Gods.” Critics, in works such as Saint Armand 1983, Fast 1994, Bendixen 1989, and Shinn 1984, acknowledge that Spofford tested the limits of female sexuality in her more well-known and even lesser-known works, while rewarding the virtuous and punishing the rebellious; but they also note that at times Spofford may have pushed transgression a bit too hard for her contemporaries. Murillo 2013, for example, shows how “Her Story” actually punishes the virtuous through ghostly doubling. On the other hand, Weinstock 2008 addresses not female rebellion but domestic abuse in Spofford’s fiction. Weinstock 2008, Bendixen 1989, and Gold and Fick 1993 acknowledge Spofford’s use of the ghost story as a commentary on domestic issues. Such readings help place Spofford’s stories within the realm of women’s writing in the 19th century, in that women had to placate a male-dominated publishing public. Bennett 1995 and Beam 2010 both deal with sexuality through the language of nature, analyzing Spofford’s prose as indicative of female sexuality.

  • Beam, Dori. “Harriet Prescott Spofford’s Philosophy of Composition.” In Style, Gender, and Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Writing. By Dori Beam, 131–163. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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    Chapter 3 in this book, “Harriet Prescott Spofford’s Philosophy of Composition” (pp. 131–163), is devoted to Spofford’s extravagant prose as revealing an alternative feminist art form. Focusing primarily on “The Amber Gods,” Beam emphasizes the lively interchange of color, sound, and visual ornament that functions not as literary excess but as the stylistic power of artistic development and the feminine.

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  • Bendixen, Alfred. “Introduction.” In The Amber Gods, and Other Stories/Harriet Prescott Spofford. Edited by Alfred Bendixen, ix–xxxvi. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

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    Also cited under Short Story Collections and General Overviews. Devotes part of his introduction to discussing female pairings as critiquing feminine stereotypes.

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  • Bennett, Paula. “‘Pomegranate-Flowers’: The Phantasmic Productions of Late-Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Women Poets.” In Solitary Pleasures: The Historical, Literary, and Artistic Discourses of Autoeroticism. Edited by Paula Bennett and Vernon A. Rosario, 189–214. New York: Routledge, 1995.

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    Examines the metaphoric power of flowers and fruit used in the poetry of Dickinson, Spofford, and Christina Rossetti as indicative of female sexuality, more specifically masturbation. Highlights such autoeroticism as completely female-centered.

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  • Fast, Robin Riley. “Killing the Angel in Spofford’s ‘Desert Sands’ and ‘The South Breaker.’” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 11.1 (1994): 37–54.

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    Discusses the nature of women’s sexuality as it relates to social expectation and spirituality. “Desert Sands” and “The South Breaker” break through the walls of feminist proscription to argue that the angel in the house must be annihilated if women are to be complete and empowered. Angel and demon stereotypes are discussed alongside racial assumptions, which limit a gendered alterity.

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  • Gold, Eva, and Thomas H. Fick. “A ‘Masterpiece’ of the ‘Educated Eye’: Convention, Gaze and Gender in Spofford’s ‘Her Story.’” Studies in Short Fiction 30.4 (1993): 511–523.

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    The gothic mode is used to examine stereotypical representations of women as either fair/chaste or dark/sexual, which serves to reinforce male fears of female sexuality. Such polarization of female types undermines women’s intellect and highlights women’s dependence. Although “Her Story” critiques such stereotypes, the authors argue that Spofford’s story serves to reinforce a patriarchal hegemony that sanctions women’s silence.

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  • Murillo, Cynthia. “The Spirit of Rebellion: The Transformative Power of the Ghostly Double in Gilman, Spofford, and Wharton.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 42.7 (2013): 755–781.

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    Compares Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “Her Story” to Works by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Edith Wharton where ghostly doubles emerge as rebellious Others, who punish the passive “true woman.” Challenges conventional criticism where two women are paired in order to extinguish the “bad” woman. Works well to pair with the chapter on Spofford in Weinstock 2008.

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  • Saint Armand, Barton Levi. “‘I Must Have Died at Ten Minutes Past One’: Posthumous Reverie in Harriet Prescott Spofford’s ‘The Amber Gods.’” In The Haunted Dusk: American Supernatural Fiction, 1820–1920. Edited by Howard Kerr, John W. Crowley, and Charles L. Crow, 99–119. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1983.

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    Analyzes Yone in “The Amber Gods” as vampiric and horrific. Relates Yone to other fatal women of European and American romantic tales, specifically Hawthorne. Sees the tale’s posthumous reverie as an original contribution to American fiction.

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  • Shinn, Thelma J. “Harriet Prescott Spofford: A Reconsideration.” Turn-of-the-Century Women 1.1 (1984): 36–45.

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    Discusses Spofford’s use of domestic imagery to convey the realities of women’s lives during the 19th century. Looks at Azarian: An Episode, “Circumstance,” “The Amber Gods,” “Desert Sands,” and “Mrs. Claxton’s Skeleton.” What makes this article so intriguing is its focus on Spofford’s understanding of sisterhood and gaining strength through a connection with other females through female stereotypes.

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  • Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew. “The Ghost in the Parlor Harriet Prescott Spofford, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Anna M. Hoyt, and Edith Wharton.” In Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women. By Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, 26–55. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

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    “The Ghost in the Parlor” opens this insightful study of American women writers and the supernatural, an “unacknowledged tradition” (p. 2). Weinstock’s discussion of Spofford focuses on the use of the supernatural as a means to express domestic abuse and women’s lack of subjectivity. This chapters paired with Bendixen 1989 is most informative.

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The Female Artist

Criticism on gender and the feminine in Spofford’s fiction is not limited to sexuality. Dalke 1985 and Fetterley 1985 discuss “Circumstance” in terms of feminine creativity, while Spengler 2004 looks at visual technology and the gendered gaze in “Circumstance.”

  • Dalke, Anne. “‘Circumstance’ and the Creative Woman: Harriet Prescott Spofford.” Arizona Quarterly 41.1 (1985): 71–85.

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    Discusses Henry James’s criticism of Spofford’s use of descriptive detail in her stories and sets this against Spofford’s own response to this reception. Argues that Spofford’s creativity carries with it realistic concerns about the power of creation to question the complexities of life, showing forth a realistic element in what is perceived as her romantic fiction. Through her analysis of “Circumstance,” Dalke demonstrates how Spofford radically revises male views of the creative process.

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  • Fetterley, Judith. “Introduction to ‘Circumstance.’” In Provisions: A Reader from Nineteenth Century American Women. Edited by Judith Fetterley, 261–268. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

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    Preface to Spofford’s much-discussed short story includes biographical information and publication history of some of her most well-known works. Also discussed is her writing style and literary reputation, her friends, and her influences. Then the essay moves into a brief reading of “Circumstance” as revealing the plight of the female artist. Religious overtones are seen in the faith in God as the savior.

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  • Spengler, Birgit. “Gendered Vision(s) in the Short Fiction of Harriet Prescott Spofford.” Legacy 21.1 (2004): 68–73.

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    Looks at notions of vision and gender focusing on visual technology in innovations, artistic renditions within the fine arts, and sociocultural vision with respect to gender. Unlike Logan 2001 (cited under Race), which focuses on color as indicative of race, color here is seen as tied to visual technology and the crisis of observation and the gendered gaze.

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Historicism and Narratology

Other scholars move away from a discussion of gender toward one of historicism and narratology, such as in Luciano 2009 and Bode 2004, which analyze the narrative framework of and historical presence in “The Amber Gods.” Jacobsen 2008 takes a Marxist approach in an analysis of The Elders People.

  • Bode, Rita. “Narrative Revelations: Harriet Prescott Spofford’s ‘Amber Gods’ Revisited.” ESQ 50.4 (2004): 233–267.

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    Where scholars acknowledge the significance of Yone’s narrative voice in the “The Amber Gods,” Bode expands this to include Louise’s version of events, which exists on the margins and offers an alternative version to Yone’s perception of what takes place. This analysis is important in that it highlights new revelations of irony that have been missed by other critics.

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  • Jacobsen, Karen. “An Alternative Vision: Regional Production of Community in Harriet Prescott Spofford’s The Elder’s People.” Journal of the Georgia Philological Association (November 2008): 197.

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    A short literary criticism of the book The Elders People arguing that it reflects not only on Spofford’s moral vision in response to cultural anxieties, but also reveals how market economies were shaping rural New England regions as the United States moved into the 20th century.

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  • Luciano, Dana. “Geological Fantasies, Haunting Anachronies: Eros, Time, and History in Harriet Prescott Spofford’s ‘The Amber Gods.’” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 55.3–4 (2009): 269–303.

    DOI: 10.1353/esq.0.0041Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Characters recollect a prehistorical past through the amber beads, which calls humanity into question. A bit jargon-ridden, but otherwise worthwhile reading. This analysis shows how the text anticipates later queer theory in its scouring of human sensory possibilities outside normative development.

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Ecocriticism

As early as 1993, work on Spofford and the environment emerged as in Marshall 1993 and Sivils 2010, who look at how nature and confrontations with the panther in “Circumstance” can be both debilitating and empowering.

  • Marshall, Ian. “Literal and Metaphoric Harmony with Nature: Ecofeminism and Harriet Prescott Spofford’s ‘Circumstance.’” Modern Language Studies 23.2 (1993): 48–58.

    DOI: 10.2307/3195034Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Looks at the role of nature in “Circumstance.” Argues that the story celebrates women’s encounter with nature after an initial antagonism toward it. The story anticipates and reworks ecofeminism’s concern with women’s oppression and the destruction of the environment to show that women, through Christianity, can come to appreciate nature’s beauty and power.

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  • Sivils, Matthew Wynn. “The Base, Cursed Thing: Panther Attacks and Ecotones in Antebellum American Fiction.” Journal of Ecocriticism 2.1 (2010): 19–32.

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    Focusing on the panther enslavement scene in “Circumstance,” analyzes the relationship of the protagonist to the panther and its effect on the environment.

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Captivity Narratives

“Circumstance” has been analyzed the most, with several scholars acknowledging the story as a captivity narrative. Gaul 2002, Coleman 2008, Anderson 2004, and Logan 1998 trace the elements of the captivity narrative and analyze Spofford’s use and modification of the genre. Since Spofford’s short story is included in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, teaching this story alongside The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682) would be beneficial. These articles would serve as excellent resources. Gaul 2002, Anderson 2004, and Logan 1998 also work in issues of race.

  • Anderson, Gary. “Captivity and Freedom in Eliza Bleecker, Harriet Prescott Spofford, and Washington Irving’s ‘Rip Van Winkle.’” In A Companion to American Fiction, 1780–1865. Edited by Shirley Samuels, 342–352. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631234227.2004.00031.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Situates Spofford with other authors such as Washington Irving and Eliza Bleecker who drew on the captivity narrative during its increasing popularity during the early and mid-19th century. This short assessment discusses “Circumstance” as Spofford’s attempt at reworking the captivity tale, reconfiguring this popular genre in its questioning of racial attitudes and skepticism about freedom.

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  • Coleman, Robert. “A Miniaturization of Epic Proportions: Harriet Prescott Spofford’s ‘Circumstance’” In Scribbling Women and the Short Story Form: Approaches by American and British Women Writers. Edited by Ellen B. Harrington, 15–27. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.

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    Explicates Spofford’s complicating reconfiguration of the traditional captivity narrative in favor of a more ambiguous representation of subjectivity. Spofford is compared to other writers of this genre, such as Mary Rowlandson and Charles Brockden Brown.

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  • Gaul, Strouth Theresa. “Captivity, Childbirth, and the Civil War in Harriet Prescott Spofford’s ‘Circumstance.’” Legacy 19.1 (2002): 35–43.

    DOI: 10.1353/leg.2003.0008Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Looks at sexual violation that permeates Spofford’s story, reading the relationship between the protagonist and the panther as sexually charged. Draws on the captivity narrative to show that sexual violation, motherhood, and childbirth are inextricably linked in “Circumstance.” Such a reading complicates the history of motherhood and childhood that have glossed over such violence.

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  • Logan, Lisa. “‘There Is No Home There’: Re(Hisstor(iciz)ing Captivity and the Other in Spofford’s ‘Circumstance.’” In Creating Safe Space: Violence and Women’s Writing. Edited by Tomoko Kuribayashi and Julie Tharp, 117–130. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

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    Discusses how racialized “Others” disrupt safe space for Anglo females. Explores “Circumstance” as a captivity narrative that transforms historical spaces. Public and private spaces serve to reinforce patriarchal ideology, which, in turn, annihilates female subjectivity. Through such discursive practices of female identity, racial cues call into question stable categories or gender, race, and American/national space.

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Race

Spofford’s fiction exemplifies the increasing racism that pervaded the 19th century and questions long-held beliefs about racial coding. Some worthwhile criticism has been done on the subject of race and Spofford. Both Logan 2001 and Ellis 2006 address racial anxiety and the Orient subtext in “The Amber Gods,” while Schueller 1998 looks at the Orient in “Desert Sands.” Little has been done with respect to Spofford’s children’s literature, so Bode 2008 helps illuminate another angle on Spofford’s understanding of race, somewhat contradicting both Logan 2001 and Ellis 2006.

  • Bode, Rita. “Shut-Ins, Shut-Outs, and Spofford’s Other Children: The Hester Stanley Stories.” In Enterprising Youth: Social Values and Acculturation in Nineteenth-Century American Children’s Literature. Edited by Monika Elbert, 115–129. New York: Routledge, 2008.

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    Shows that Spofford’s Hester Stanley stories undermine racist attitudes by making race indeterminate, challenging racial hierarchies that privilege whiteness, and questioning accepted distinctions between “savage” and “civilized.”

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  • Ellis, R. J. “‘Latent Color’ and ‘Exaggerated Snow’: Whiteness and Race in Harriet Prescott Spofford’s ‘The Amber Gods.’” Journal of American Studies 40.2 (August 2006): 257–282.

    DOI: 10.1017/S002187580600137XSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Focuses on “The Amber Gods” and conspicuous consumption of the rising middle class in America as a result of imperialist adventures overseas during the mid-19th century. Anxiety about racial mixture undergirds this tale as successful trading with Africa and the Orient increased.

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  • Logan, Lisa M. “Race, Romanticism, and the Politics of Feminist Literary Study: Harriet Prescott Spofford’s ‘The Amber Gods.’” Legacy 18.1 (2001): 35–51.

    DOI: 10.1353/leg.2001.0006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Spofford’s use of race is problematic and redefines notions of imperialism that until then had remained hidden. Spofford, according to Logan, participates in and resists this racist agenda. Subtext includes issues of “true womanhood” and the “Asian Other” woman.

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  • Schueller, Malini Johar. “Subversive Orientalism: Edgar Allan Poe, Harriet Prescott Spofford, and Herman Melville.” In U.S. Orientalisms: Race, Nation, and Gender in Literature, 1790–1890. By Malini Johar Schueller, 109–140. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.15708Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses how control over the Orient in Spofford’s work helps to establish nationhood. Analyzing “Desert Sands,” the author persuasively argues that current notions about the East can be better understood as latter-day manifestations of the earlier US visions of the Orient refracted variously through millennial fervor, racial-cultural difference, resistance, and ideas of westerly empire.

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Detective Fiction

Spofford is rarely mentioned alongside other writers of detective fiction, but Bode 2007 (the most worthwhile study here) and Sussex 2010 demonstrate that she led the way for later writers of this genre with her series detective Mr. Furbush. Jacobson 2008 conflates detective fiction with domestic disturbance, while Pattee 1923 criticizes Spofford’s writing in this genre.

  • Bode, Rita. “A Case for the Re-covered Writer: Harriet Prescott Spofford’s Early Contributions to Detective Fiction.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 26.1 (2007): 23–36.

    DOI: 10.3172/CLU.26.1.23Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses Spofford’s “In a Cellar,” “Mr. Furbish,” and “In the Maggueriwock” as important literary contributions to the detective genre with their use of technology, concern with ethics, and criticism of society. Spofford is most likely the first female detective writer. Her Mr. Furbush, the second serial detective in American fiction, is similar to Poe’s Dupin but is much more fully developed and much more fully American.

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  • Jacobson, Karen J. “Investigating Domestic Disorder: Harriet Prescott Spofford’s Detectives.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 26.4 (2008): 5–23.

    DOI: 10.3172/CLU.26.4.5Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores Spofford’s contribution to detective fiction, analyzing how Spofford’s detectives in “In a Cellar,” “Mr. Furbush,” and “In the Maguerriwock” are used to investigate domestic anxiety.

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  • Pattee, Fred Lewis. Development of the American Short Story: An Historical Survey. New York: Harper, 1923.

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    A few pages on Spofford that discuss her writing style, paying particular attention to “In a Cellar” and “The Amber Gods.” Derides Spofford’s inability to write true detective fiction.

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  • Sussex, Lucy. Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230289406Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Part of the Palgrave Macmillan Crime Files series, this book fills the gap in existing crime and detective fiction scholarship. Discusses Spofford’s crime fiction alongside other known and lesser-known authors who wrote detective fiction.

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Animal Studies

Within the past decade, a recent interest in Spofford and the role of animals in her short fiction has made its way into scholarship, as we can see in Achilles 2004, which focuses on the role of the panther in “Circumstance.”

  • Achilles, Jochen. “Monkey Business in Intercultural and Intertextual Perspective: Species and Ethnos-Orientation in Poe’s ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ Le Fanu’s ‘Green Tea,’ and Spofford’s ‘Circumstance.’” In Animal Magic: Essays on Animals in the American Imagination. Edited by Jopi Nyman and Carol Smith, 87–111. Joensuu, Finland: Faculty of Humanities, University of Joensuu, 2004.

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    Argues that the panther appears in “Circumstance” in response to gender and cultural oppression. Compares the role of the panther to that of the ape in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

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Religion

Scholarship has clearly made the connection in Spofford studies between Race and Imperialism, yet this angle has also directly influenced the way scholars understand Spofford’s use of religion in her work. Holly 2001 provides a mostly new and lively reading in its connection of race with Manifest Destiny and religious revelation, while Elbert 2013 associates the allure of Catholicism with European racial oppression and Protestant New England writers penning in the gothic genre.

  • Elbert, Monika. “The Paradox of Catholicism in New England’s Women’s Gothic.” In Transnational Gothic: Literary and Social Exchanges in the Long Nineteenth Century. Edited by Monika Elbert and Brigett M. Marshall, 113–137. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013.

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    As of late, Spofford’s “Amber Gods” has been analyzed in its association with New England gothic, and the oppressive, but attractive lure of Catholicism in the new world. Traces gothic oppression from European Catholicism as a means of absolving Protestant writers from the evils of slavery.

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  • Holly, Carol. “‘Grand and Sweet Methodist Hymns’: Spiritual Transformation and Imperialistic Vision in Harriet Prescott Spofford’s ‘Circumstance.’” Legacy 18.2 (2001): 153–166.

    DOI: 10.1353/leg.2001.0025Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that the Methodist spiritual renewal that is offered the protagonists at the end of “Circumstance” inadvertently rests on anti-Indian rhetoric and a vision of imperialistic domination. Going against Logan 2001 and Ellis 2006 (both cited under Race), Holly demonstrates that this story favors a type of Manifest Destiny, extending the empire in favor of a Christian typology that tended to appear in Spofford’s later work.

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Spofford and Other Authors

Spofford had a significant place in literary circles, and both her prose and her poetry were influential. Ellis 2006 finds connections between a little-known short story by Spofford and Mark Twain’s most famous novel, while both Rodier 2000 and Garbowsky 1981 discuss Spofford’s influence on Emily Dickinson.

  • Ellis, R. J. “‘No Authority at All’: Harriet Prescott Spofford’s ‘Down the River’ and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.” Mark Twain Annual 4.1 (2006): 33–53.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1756-2597.2006.tb00040.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Makes a case for considering Spofford’s “Down the River” (1865) as sharing similarities with Twain’s novel.

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  • Garbowsky, Maryanne M. “A Maternal Muse for Emily Dickinson.” Dickinson Studies 41 (1981): 12–17.

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    Argues that Spofford served as a precursor and inspiration for Emily Dickinson. Compares Spofford’s “Circumstance” to Dickinson’s poem “Twas Like a Maelstrom” through similar imagery and vocabulary.

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  • Rodier, Katharine. “‘Astra Castra’: Emily Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Harriet Prescott Spofford.” In Separate Spheres No More: Gender Convergence in American Literature, 1830–1930. Edited by Monika M. Elbert, 50–72. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000.

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    Discusses Higginson’s urging to Dickinson that she read Spofford and highlights the influence Spofford had on Dickinson.

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