Chapter 3: Nineteenth Century to 1865

Maria Susanna Cummins

© Paul P. Reuben
October 15, 2016


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Domestic Fiction (1820-1860) |

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 "America is now wholly given over to a d****d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash--and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these innumberable editions of The Lamplighter and other books neither better nor worse? Worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the hundred thousand." - Hawthorne's 1855 letter to his publisher William D. Ticknor, quoted in Pattee, Fred L. The Feminine Fifties. NY: Appleton-Century Co., 1940. p. 110.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts, on April 9, 1827, Maria Cummins was educated at home and at a fashionable girls' school in Lenox, Massachusetts. She thereafter lived all her life with her family in Dorchester, Massachusetts. She developed an interest in writing during her school days, and the publication of some of her early short stories encouraged her. In 1854 she published her first novel, The Lamplighter, which was a huge and immediate success, selling 40,000 copies in a few weeks and 70,000 in a year. The Lamplighter combined sentimentality, piety, and improbability in about equal portions and was perfectly suited to the rudimentary taste of a newly awakened reading public. It was the book to which Nathaniel Hawthorne specifically referred in his famous complaint that "America is now wholly given over to a d__d mob of scribbling women." English, French, and German editions were equally successful; the book had few peers as a literary phenomenon. Cummins' later novels, Mabel Vaughan (1857), El Fureidis (1860), and Haunted Hearts (1864), showed some progress in technique but failed to achieve the popularity of her first. She died in Dorchester, Massachusetts, on October 1, 1866.

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 Primary Works

The Lamplighter, 1854; Mabel Vaughan, 1857; El Fureidis, 1860; Haunted Hearts, 1864.

Selected Bibliography

Elbert, Monika M. ed. Separate Spheres No More: Gender Convergence in American Literature, 1830-1930. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2000.

Estes, Glenn E. ed. American Writers for Children Before 1900. Detroit: Gale, 1985.

Knight, Denise D. ed. Writers of the American Renaissance: An A-to-Z Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2003.

Knight, Denise D., and Emmanuel S.Nelson. eds. Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1997.

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 3: Maria Susanna Cummins" PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. WWW URL: (provide page date or your date of logon).

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