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


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.

    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.

  • 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.

    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.

  • 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.

    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.

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

    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.

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

    DOI: 10.9783/9781512816556

    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.

  • 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.

    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.

  • 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.

    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.

  • 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.

    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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