Cummins, Maria Susanna
Maria Susanna Cummins 1827-1866
American essayist, and novelist.
Cummins was one of the most successful writers of domestic fiction in the mid-nineteenth century. Her first novel, The Lamplighter (1854), was a publishing sensation that sold seventy thousand copies in its first year.
Cummins was born in Salem, Massachusetts on April 9, 1827 to the Honorable David Cummins and his third wife, Maria F. Kittredge. She was first of four children from that marriage and the fifth of her father's eight children. Mr. Cummins's professional success allowed him to provide his large family with a comfortable, financially secure existence in Dorchester, Massachusetts. He tutored Cummins in her early childhood, giving her a classical education and encouraging her to develop her talents as a writer. She read widely throughout her youth, and later studied in Lenox, Massachusetts, at Mrs. Charles Sedgwick's Young Ladies School. There she met Catharine Maria Sedgwick, sister-in-law of the proprietor and one of New England's well-known novelists. Influenced by the women she encountered at school, Cummins returned to Dorchester and began publishing anonymous stories in various periodicals. She was twenty-six when The Lamplighter was released. Despite the phenomenal success of the novel, Cummins continued to live a quiet life with her family. She published three more novels with varying degrees of success: Mabel Vaughan (1857), El Fureidis (1860), and Haunted Hearts (1864). Cummins remained in Dorchester the rest of her brief, unmarried life, teaching Sunday school at the local First Unitarian Church, and writing regularly. She did some traveling and published two long essays about her experiences abroad in The Atlantic Monthly. “A Talk about Guides” (June 1864) and “Around Mull” (July 1865) discuss Cummins's visits to England, Scotland, and the Alpine region. She returned from her second European trip with failing health and died of an unspecified abdominal ailment on October 1, 1866 at the age of 39.
The Lamplighter brought sudden fame to Cummins when she was 26 years old. The novel was first published anonymously, but the author’s name was quickly revealed. The Lamplighter was one of the most notable American best sellers of the 1850s. It sold 20,000 copies in 20 days and twice that amount in its first two months. Thirteen different British firms published the novel, and it was later translated into six foreign languages. In Boston, The Lamplighter was adapted—unsuccessfully—for the stage. The novel was distributed in a variety of formats: lavishly illustrated editions for art lovers, diminutive versions for railroad travelers, and picture books with an abridged story for children. It tells the story of a severely neglected young orphan, Gerty, who—through the kindnesses of strangers and her own moral fortitude—rises from material and emotional impoverishment to graceful, spiritually mature adulthood. Like The Lamplighter, Cummins's second novel, Mabel Vaughan, was well received by the public. Attacking the materialism of American society, the novel offers a female protagonist that is antithetical to Gerty’s character. In order to achieve fulfillment, wealthy Mabel must witness the loss of her family's extravagant way of life, and avoid their moral dissipations. She then helps her family reestablish itself in rural Illinois. Unlike the first two novels, Cummins's final two—El Fureidis, and Haunted Hearts—were not as popular with the public. Set in Syria, El Fureidis tells the romantic tale of Havilah, a beautiful Rousseau-like child of nature who is innocently uninhibited. Haunted Hearts is a historical murder mystery set during the War of 1812. It depicts the personal decline of Angeline Cousin, a coy, fan-whipping coquette who, because of one thoughtless act of passion, is socially ostracized, and thus ruined. Her redemption comes only after years of suffering.
The extraordinary commercial success of Cummins's The Lamplighter elicited hostility from certain members of the literary establishment, who pejoratively called it “sentimental fiction.” Nathaniel Hawthorne famously asked his publisher, “What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of The Lamplighter, and other books neither better nor worse?” Comments such as these had considerable influence on the early critical reception of domestic fiction and helped to create a stigma of unoriginality around the genre. Yet despite the lack of critical acclaim, Cummins's novels were republished and continued to be read for generations after her death. By the early twentieth century, however, Cummins's reputation and her works fell into near obscurity. Awareness began to rise again in 1948, when Cummins's first three novels were re-released by the distinguished Tauchnitz Library. Contemporary criticism has since emancipated Cummins's fiction from the restrictive labels that had prevented it from being treated with greater respect. Cummins's novels reflect transformative changes in nineteenth-century American society, and modern critics find in them important articulations of the stresses these shifts impressed on Americans. Recent criticism portrays the author as an astute literary realist who recorded the hardships of the economically and politically disenfranchised, particularly women, during America's social transition from an agrarian to industrial nation. Elizabeth Barnes suggests that The Lamplighter displays a means by which “passionate individuals achieve their self-possession” and that the novel reveals a “relational model of selfhood that undergirds nineteenth-century notions of independence.”
SOURCE: Review of The Lamplighter, by Maria Susanna Cummins. Godey's Lady Book 49 (July 1854): 84-85.
[In the following review, the contemporary critic states that The Lamplighter provides enjoyable and edifying reading.]
We received a copy of the first edition of this popular work when it first appeared, but only had time to give it passing notice in the then forthcoming number of the “Lady's Book.” We have been since furnished with another copy, which we are pleased, but not astonished to see is one of the “thirty fifth thousand” that have already passed through the press. We can now say that we have carefully perused this work, and have no hesitation in pronouncing it to be, in our opinion, one of the best and purest of its class that has emanated from an American mind. Too many of our writers are in the habit, when attempting to sketch the realities of humble life, to draw extravagant and revolting pictures of viciousness, or of too suddenly reforming and transforming their most abandoned characters into angels of light, and then setting them up as miracles of virtue. There are, indeed, some few extravagances observable in the denouement of the plot of The Lamplighter; but, notwithstanding these, the reader will be gratified, entertained, and instructed by the graphic and feeling style of the author, and, it may be, made...
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SOURCE: Review of Mabel Vaughan, by Maria Susanna Cummins. North American Review 86 (January 1858): 287.
[In the following review, the critic exalts Cummins's second novel, applauding its moral truths and finding its plot development, characterization, and style superior to those in The Lamplighter.]
Mabel Vaughan has disappointed our expectations in a way in which we are glad to be disappointed. To our mind it very far outdistances its predecessor in merit. In The Lamplighter, we admired the personage that gives name to the book, and could not but sympathize with the fortunes of the heroine; yet the story did not seem to us skilfully constructed, and many of the incidents were beyond the range of even a novelist's probability. In this new tale, Mabel, the central figure, yields in interest to no character of recent fiction; the plot is strongly conceived, and developed naturally and happily; and the sketches of rural, city, and Western life are wonderfully fresh, vivid, and authentic. At the same time, the story, in its main series of events, in its by-plots, in its mere details, is fraught with the highest truths of morality and religion; and these are not obtruded upon the reader, but so incorporated with the whole texture of the tale, that he must either take them in, or leave the book unread. We note also a marked improvement in style, and cannot but predict for the accomplished...
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SOURCE: Cowie, Alexander. “The Domestic Sentimentalists and Other Popular Writers.” The Rise of the American Novel, pp. 416-24. New York: American Book Company, 1951.
[In the following excerpt, Cowie asserts that the controlling theme of The Lamplighter concerns the attainment of moral regeneration by means of humble submission to suffering.]
Not so prolific or indeed so long-lived as many of her kind, Maria Susanna Cummins wrote one novel, The Lamplighter, which with The Wide, Wide World and St. Elmo, probably represents the chief elements of the domestic novel in its most comprehensive and popular form. Miss Cummins was born at Salem, Massachusetts, and attended Mrs. Charles Sedgwick's fashionable school at Lenox. She was only twenty when she began to write stories for The Atlantic Monthly and only twenty-seven when she astonished and delighted an enormous public with The Lamplighter (1854).1 The book was published by John P. Jewett and Company, a house that was responsible for many pious publications in the mid-nineteenth century. It sold 40,000 copies in a few weeks, and it became so well known that literary references were subsequently made to the characters of True and Gertrude without citation of the title of the book.
The little girl in this story is Gertrude, and the ogre-aunt is Nan Grant. Gertrude is rescued from a...
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SOURCE: Baym, Nina. “Susan Warner, Anna Warner, and Maria Cummins.” Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870, pp. 140-74. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978.
[In the following excerpt, Baym investigates domestic fiction's emphasis on a woman's ability and responsibility for attaining religious grace by dutiful self-sacrifice, as demonstrated both in The Lamplighter, about an orphan's spiritual rise above her volatile temperament, and in Mabel Vaughan, about an heiress' fall from the superficialities inherent in her life of wealth.]
The most successful imitation (in Harold Bloom's sense, misreading) of The Wide, Wide World, The Lamplighter (1854) was both more benign in its vision of society and more social in its ideology. It would appear that the author, Maria Susanna Cummins, had grasped the antisocial implications of Susan Warner's view of life and striven to rectify them. Author of four novels all anonymously published (though their author's identity was soon known), Cummins (1827-1866) lived an intensely private life, unmarried, with her prosperous family in Dorchester outside of Boston. She was educated at home and in the young ladies' school run by Mrs. Charles Sedgwick, a sister-in-law of Catharine Sedgwick. Her father was a judge, and she felt no financial pressure to write; perhaps this accounts for her small output. The...
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SOURCE: Bauermeister, Erika R. “The Lamplighter, The Wide, Wide World, and Hope Leslie: Reconsidering the Recipes for Nineteenth-Century American Women's Novels.” Legacy 8, no. 1 (spring 1991): 17-28.
[In the following essay, Bauermeister asserts that Cummins's The Lamplighter pales in comparison to the cultural and ethical complexity of Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World. The critic also suggests that The Lamplighter's ethical system and emphasis on female independence is better understood when compared to Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie.]
For a variety of reasons, the critical work on American women novelists prior to 1860 has had a tendency toward generalization. Critics of the mid-twentieth century, including Fred Lewis Pattee, James D. Hart, Carl Van Doren, Henry Nash Smith, Alexander Cowie and Herbert Ross Brown, use vaguely defined terms such as “sentimental” and/or “domestic” to classify and then dismiss large numbers of women authors. Cowie, in fact, goes so far as to provide a “receipt” for the “domestic novel” (417) which is based directly upon the plot lines of The Wide, Wide World and St. Elmo, yet which he claims applies to eight specific women authors, as well as “others from 1850 to 1872” (419). Although Helen Papashvily attempts a more feminist interpretation, she also draws loose correlations in...
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SOURCE: Goshgarian, G. M. “Go Away and Die: The Lamplighter, ‘Lena Rivers, Ernest Linwood.” To Kiss the Chastening Rod: Domestic Fiction and Sexual Ideology in the American Renaissance, pp. 156-212. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.
[In the following excerpt, Goshgarian surveys the display of paternal power over wayward females in The Lamplighter, focusing specifically on the incestuous undertones.]
It is time we turned the light of Maria Susanna Cummins's The Lamplighter (1854) back on the source. The Lamplighter, it will be recalled, affirms, expressis verbis, that the secret of true happiness lies in kissing the Father's rod (“a foretaste of heaven”).1 One might reasonably expect the text to reinforce its unbending orthodoxy on this cardinal point by arranging, like the best-sellers we have already examined, for a fatherly martinet to discipline and then marry a congenitally wayward child-woman. But Cummins's novel develops and suppresses its patrimatrimonial implications with a lighter touch. Though it displays the typical features of the double plot—a pious-passionate heroine, a flawed but perfectible father figure, and an impressive array of chastening trials and tribulations—it scrambles them, fragmenting, in particular, the main incestuous relationship. Thus The Lamplighter's version of the Law-Man meets his appointed ward...
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SOURCE: Williams, Susan S. “‘Promoting an Extensive Sale’: The Production and Reception of The Lamplighter.” The New England Quarterly 69, no. 2 (June 1996): 179-200.
[In the following essay, Williams surveys the publishing history of The Lamplighter, and discusses John Jewett's strategies for advertising and promoting its various editions.]
Maria Susanna Cummins's novel The Lamplighter (1854) is best remembered today as the occasion for Nathaniel Hawthorne's infamous diatribe against women writers. “America is now wholly given over to a d——d mob of scribbling women,” Hawthorne wrote to his publisher William D. Ticknor in 1855. “What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of The Lamplighter, and other books neither better nor worse?”1 Several weeks later Hawthorne modified his position somewhat when he praised Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall, but his original comment has been taken as a shorthand description of the polarization between “popular” best sellers and “highbrow” literature originating in the antebellum American literary market.
Recent studies of this market have gone far in answering Hawthorne's question about the “mystery” of these “innumerable editions.” The Lamplighter was a best seller, the studies tell us, because it articulated so fully the values of feminine self-sacrifice and...
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SOURCE: Barnes, Elizabeth. “Corporate Individualism: The Lamplighter.” States of Sympathy: Seduction and Democracy in the American Novel, pp. 74-99. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
[In the following excerpt, Barnes asserts that Gerty's physical return to her family, as well as her spiritual return to Christianity, are presented in uniquely modern terms in The Lamplighter. The critic focuses on how Gerty's independence is reinforced rather than reduced by her reconnection to paternal figures.]
CORPORATE INDIVIDUALISM: THE LAMPLIGHTER
Written more than forty years after A New-England Tale, The Lamplighter (1854) constitutes one of the last and most popular of the domestic novels. It also reveals the extent to which literary depictions of Christian individualism have facilitated the reconstruction of paternal authority in the intervening years. Whereas Sedgwick's novel assumes from the outset its heroine's “habit of self-command,” The Lamplighter traces the psychological mechanisms by which passionate individuals achieve their self-possession. What the novel's investigation reveals is, paradoxically, a relational model of selfhood that undergirds nineteenth-century notions of independence. Through the trope of conversion, The Lamplighter links self-determination to sympathetic mediation: in order to be reformed, the...
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SOURCE: Schueller, Malini Johar. “Missionary Colonialism, Egyptology, Racial Borderlands, and the Satiric Impulse: M. M. Ballou, William Ware, John DeForest, Maria Susanna Cummins, David F. Dorr.” U.S. Orientalisms: Race, Nation, and Gender in Literature, 1790-1890, pp. 75-108. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.
[In the following excerpt, Schueller discusses Cummins's use and dissection of contemporary stereotypes of the “Near Eastern Orient” in her novel El Fureidis.]
Like DeForest, Maria Susanna Cummins, in El Fureidis (1860), also uses the figures of the male archaeologist and the missionary woman to provide a basic structure for the raced imperial narrative of the new frontier. In El Fureidis, however, the racial-cultural hybridity of the Near East powerfully intervenes into the dynamics of imperialism by making the Oriental subject resistant to definition and by providing gender possibilities that question the phallocentric basis of imperialism.
Cummins's very authoring of a Near Eastern Orientalist novel suggests the importance of the region in the cultural imaginary and the possibilities offered by the racial-cultural borderlands there. Cummins was, after all, the author of one of the most popular romances of her time, The Lamplighter (1854), which sold forty thousand copies in eight weeks and led to Hawthorne's well-known outburst against...
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SOURCE: Kupinse, William. “Household Trash: Domesticity and National Identity in The Lamplighter and the ‘Nausicaa’ Episode of Ulysses.” South Carolina Review 32, no. 1 (fall 1999): 81-87.
[In the following essay, Kupinse considers The Lamplighter's relationship to James Joyce's “Nausicaa,” noting that Joyce's use of Cummins's novel draws attention to the manner in which discourses of domesticity and established roles of womanhood are subsumed within larger discourses of national character and identity.]
Although the role of consumer culture in Ulysses has received significant recent critical attention, what is frequently overlooked is how often Joyce presents society's “massproducts” both in the process of consumption and as the remainder that that consumption leaves in its wake as waste, rubbish, and trash. The violent trajectory of the missile the Citizen hurls at Bloom in “Cyclops” involves an empty tin of Jacobs' biscuits, thus revealing the material trace of a commercial product that remains once its content has been digested. Returning home in “Ithaca,” Bloom discovers pieces of more static, if nonetheless threatening trash, when he encounters flakes of Plumtree's Potted Meat, evidently the residue of Molly and Blazes Boylan's post-coital snack. While these pieces of trash in the text bear personal significance for Ulysses'...
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SOURCE: Newberry, Frederick. “Male Doctors and Female Illness in American Women's Fiction, 1850-1900.” In Separate Spheres No More: Gender Convergence in American Literature, 1830-1930, edited by Monika M. Elbert, pp. 143-57. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Newberry demonstrates how the feminization of medical care in the nineteenth century—with love, kind attention, and deference to female-specific needs—either supplants altogether the role of a male doctor or enhances that doctor's abilities, as illustrated by both Gerty and Emily in Cummins's sickness-ridden The Lamplighter.]
It might be supposed that Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wall Paper” (1892), featuring a host of cultural conflicts involving a woman's mind and body as perceived by male doctors, would have a discernible lineage in American women's fiction of the nineteenth century. After all, the gradual and highly successful efforts of men to secure control over medical care in nineteenth-century America often took place in public arenas and thus brought with them a fair amount of social controversy. But it would seem to be a fact that Gilman's story does stand rather resolutely alone in pointing a finger of blame at male physicians for their failure to understand, let alone diagnose with some degree of accuracy, the physiological and psychological conditions of female patients. The...
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SOURCE: Weinstein, Cindy. “‘A Sort of Adopted Daughter’: Family Relations in The Lamplighter.” ELH 68, no. 4 (winter 2001): 1023-47.
[In the following essay, Weinstein shows how Gerty's story in The Lamplighter is itself a paradigm of the production of domestic-relations laws, specifically those of adoption, which were formulated and debated concurrently with the novel's publication and which legally reconstituted “family” from a biological basis to that of choice based on domestic stability.]
My title comes from a passage in Maria Cummins's The Lamplighter (1854). Throughout the novel, Gerty, the main character, has no stable place in any one family. She is alternately Trueman Flint's “adopted child” or the child of True and Emily Graham who have “adopted her jointly.”1 She is both a “doubly-orphaned girl” (176), according to Mr. and Mrs. Arnold, and she is an “orphan child” of the “good foster-mother world” (278). Exactly what it means to be an adopted child in Gerty's world, or to be doubly orphaned, is tantalizingly imprecise. The array of relational possibilities is quite stunning, whether from the parental perspective or the child's. This imprecision has significant consequences in terms of Gerty's development in the novel, most importantly in producing her capacity to dispense what I shall be calling “judicious sympathy”; that is,...
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SOURCE: Chantell, Claire. “The Limits of the Mother at Home in The Wide, Wide World and The Lamplighter.” Studies in American Fiction 30, no. 2 (autumn 2002): 131-54.
[In the following essay, Chantell explores the way The Wide, Wide World and The Lamplighter embrace and critique conservative domestic ideologies relating to women and child-rearing.]
By the middle of the nineteenth century, domesticity had gained a position of prominence, if not dominance, in American culture; this discourse of home, family, and private life influenced everything from home design to social reform movements.1 A primary feature of this ideology concerned the mother's role as child nurturer and educator, a role for which women were supposed to be divinely intended and biologically designed. As historian Mary Ryan has observed, “the feminization of child-rearing, in literature and in practice, dovetailed neatly with the gender system enshrined in the cult of domesticity. The true woman was the perfect candidate for the role of child nurturer. She was loving, giving, moral, pure, and consigned to the hearth.”2
Much mid-nineteenth-century domestic literature, in the form of advice manuals, articles in ladies' magazines, and published sermons, reiterated and reinforced this message through reverent portrayals of the mother as “tutelary seraph,” a...
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Brown, Herbert Ross. The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860. Durham: Duke University Press, 1940, 407 p.
Provides both theoretical and critical information about the sentimental novel in general and Cummins in particular.
Cowie, Alexander. “The Vogue of the Domestic Novel, 1850-1870.” South Atlantic Quarterly 4 (October 1942): 416-24.
Investigates the influences and generic stylistic devices of the domestic novel, including references to Cummins's The Lamplighter.
Easson, Angus. “Elizabeth Gaskell, ‘An Incident at Niagara Falls,’ and the Editing of Mabel Vaughan.” English Language Notes 17, no. 4 (June 1980): 273-77.
Discusses Elizabeth Gaskell's editing of Mabel Vaughan—her additions, notes, small deletions—for the London edition published by Samuel Low.
Howard, June. “What is Sentimentality?” American Literary History 11, no. 1 (spring 1999): 62-81.
Provides a theoretical foundation with which to critique Cummins's novels, focusing especially on their adherence to the sentimental genre's anti-Calvinist tradition of elevating the goodness of human nature.
Papashvily, Helen Waite. All the Happy Endings: A Study of the Domestic Novel in America, the Women Who Wrote it, the Women Who...
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