Rose Terry Cooke Essay - Critical Essays

Cooke, Rose Terry


Rose Terry Cooke 1827-1892

American poet, essayist, and short story writer.

A poet by preference, Rose Terry Cooke is best known as a writer of short stories and as a New England local colorist; although she wrote over 300 poems, her poetry is now largely regarded as sentimental and derivative. Influenced by realism, Cooke contributed numerous unflinching depictions of New England life to the leading periodicals of the nineteenth century. Her portraits of bitter spinsters longing for the respect of their communities, and oppressed farm women suffering at the hands of their brutal husbands, were enormously popular among her contemporaries and have recently drawn the attention of feminist scholars. But despite her sympathetic treatment of downtrodden female characters, Cooke remained a strident anti-feminist who opposed women's suffrage and believed the proper way for women to improve their condition was through piety and devotion to duty.

Biographical Information

Rose Terry was born February 17, 1827, near Hartford, Connecticut, to Anne Wright Hurlbut and Henry Wadsworth Terry, a landscape gardener from the same New England family that produced Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The family was comfortable although her father, often described as a dilettante, was never successful in his profession. Nonetheless, he managed to instill in Cooke a love of nature as well as considerable knowledge of the local flora and fauna—knowledge that would later serve her in writing the detailed backdrops for her short fiction. Cooke's physical health was poor even in childhood, but she was intelligent and was reportedly reading by the age of three. At sixteen, Cooke graduated from the Hartford Female Seminary and served as a teacher and a governess for the next several years until a small inheritance enabled her to concentrate all her efforts towards her writing. She published her first poem in 1851 and her first story, “The Mormon's Wife,” in Putnam's Monthly in 1855. Two years later “Sally Parson's Duty” appeared in the first issue of the Atlantic Monthly, and her relationship with that magazine, begun under editor James Russell Lowell and continuing under his successor James T. Fields, lasted for several years. She continued to publish her work in Putnam's, Harper's, and the Atlantic.

Although her own health remained poor, Cooke assumed responsibility for her ailing sister Alice's children, and when Alice eventually died, Cooke raised them as her own. She remained unmarried until 1873, when she wed Rollin Cooke, a man sixteen years her junior who had failed in his numerous attempts to earn a living. Although her friend Harriet Prescott Spofford insisted they were perfectly suited for one another and the marriage was a happy one, there is no question that the match proved financially disastrous for Cooke. After losing her small inheritance, she was forced to support the family with her writing. Her stories, increasingly religious and didactic, appeared more often in religious and juvenile publications, which paid their authors faster, than in prestigious literary periodicals. The family moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and their financial situation became even more desperate after another of her husband's business ventures failed. By 1889 Cooke was begging her editor, Benjamin Ticknor, for any sort of hack-work. Under stress from her economic worries and weakened by a bout of pneumonia, Cooke contracted influenza and died on July 18, 1892.

Major Works

Cooke's early work consisted of poetry, a genre she much preferred to prose. Her first volume of poems appeared in 1861 and while Lowell gave it a positive review in the Atlantic, he reserved his more enthusiastic praise for her short stories. She produced over two hundred stories, most published originally in literary journals, religious publications, and juvenile magazines, and later reprinted in her four major collections: Somebody's Neighbors (1881); Root-Bound and Other Sketches (1885); The Sphinx's Children and Other People's (1886); and Huckleberries Gathered from New England Hills (1891).

Cooke's most critically acclaimed stories deal with the harshness of life in the rocky New England farm country. The character traits bred in such a landscape were, for many writers, strength and determination, but for Cooke they were more often rigidity and cruelty. Most of her female characters, particularly the wives, are downtrodden and abused, both physically and mentally, by the men in their lives, whose brutal behavior is sanctioned by the patriarchal religion of the region. “Freedom Wheeler's Controversy with Providence” (1877), often considered Cooke's masterpiece, deals with a hard-working farmer and his aptly-named wife Lowly, who is unable to produce a son to carry on Freedom's name. Lowly gives birth several times, but the babies are either female or die shortly after birth. As his disappointment grows, Freedom's treatment of his wife becomes more and more tyrannical until at last Lowly dies of exhaustion. Another of Cooke's abused wives, Mrs. Flint of “Mrs. Flint's Married Experience” (1880), leaves her husband, a deacon, at the urging of two unmarried friends, but the community is unsympathetic and insists that she return to her husband and an early death. In Cooke's stories, spinsters fare little better than married women because of their low status within the community—although their single life is still preferable to the brutalities of wedlock. In “How Celia Changed Her Mind” (1891), the title character rejects several suitors but eventually, craving the respect afforded married women, marries Deacon Everts. Celia comes to regret her decision almost immediately “as her husband's mean, querulous, loveless character unveiled itself.” She longs for the freedom of her single life and when the deacon dies, Celia is elated. She adopts two young girls and is determined that they will never marry.

Other popular stories include “My Visitation” (1858), about a love affair between two women; “Too Late” (1875), a story of repressed passion and the cruelties associated with strict Calvinism; and “The Ring Fetter” (1859), involving a woman literally imprisoned by her sadistic and murderous husband.

Despite her apparent sympathy for the grim lives of many New England women, Cooke was stridently anti-feminist. Late in life she produced a series of essays attacking the women's rights movement in general and women's suffrage in particular. According to Cooke, differences between men and women were divinely ordained, and although her anti-feminism was apparent as early as 1857 in some of her religious fiction, her conservative theories on women's proper role were not fully articulated until the appearance of her later anti-suffrage writings.

Though Cooke wrote approximately 300 poems, three novels, and a play, most of these texts are either unavailable today or are dismissed as overly sentimental and far inferior to her more innovative short stories.

Critical Reception

Although Cooke preferred writing poetry, her poems were not well received and more importantly, they earned her little income. Her short stories, however, proved enormously successful during her lifetime and although her work as a whole has been neglected since her death, some of her stories are still anthologized. She is credited by some critics, Fred Lewis Pattee among them, with perfecting the local color genre. According to Pattee, “her tales mark a distinct advance in American short-story art; they used for the first time consistently and with distinction what later was widely proclaimed as ‘local color,’ and they tempered the vulgarity of their material with humor.” Cooke's vast knowledge of regional vegetation gave her fiction an element of authenticity, and her concentration on the humbler inhabitants of New England villages and rural areas set her apart from her contemporaries who were more interested in the lives of the high-born.

Such feminist scholars as Josephine Donovan and Susan Allen Toth have embraced Cooke's stories for their realistic representations of oppressed women and tyrannical men. Toth praises the innovative elements in Cooke's fiction—“development of the sketch form, her use of dialect speech, and her introduction of uncompromisingly commonplace characters”—as well as her “fierce diatribes against marriage.” Donovan, among others, celebrates Cooke's work as a departure from the sentimental romances of her contemporaries into a world of “grimly authentic realism.” She goes even further in her belief that Cooke was ahead of her time, suggesting that occasionally “her vision anticipates that of the naturalists: a bleak, uncompromising view of humanity, and particularly of men, as dull brutes.” But both Toth and Donovan acknowledge the contradictions between Cooke's sympathy with women's condition and her conventional approach to their “proper place.” Other critics, such as Eileen Razzari Elrod and Sherry Lee Linkon, have made these contradictions the focus of their scholarship. According to Elrod, although Cooke's fictional stories “suggest her anger over the disastrous effects for women of traditional religion, her non-fiction statements regarding the condition of women reveal surprisingly regressive notions of religion and gender.” And Linkon believes that the contradiction is apparent not just between the short stories and the essays, but also within the fiction itself. Linkon points out that not all of Cooke's stories were realistic; many were as sentimental and conventional as those of her contemporaries, and in these Cooke preached that the role of good women was to create happy homes and to reform brutal men—not to petition for equal rights. As early as 1857, Linkon reports, Cooke produced a short story whose heroine rails against the women's rights movement. The title character of “Rachel's Refusal” claims that if men were loving and good, women would have no need to vote or own property, but would be willingly obedient to their mates. Linkon writes about the inability of modern critics to reconcile Cooke's criticism of male behavior with her stated beliefs about the appropriate manner in which that behavior should be changed: “When we read both the more well-known realist tales and her more ‘sentimental’ works in light of her anti-suffrage essays, the complexity and contradictions of Cooke's political ideology becomes clear.”

In addition to the ambiguities about the condition of women that Cooke's writings reveal, several critics have also noted the uneven quality of the work, contrasting Cooke's carefully-detailed portraits of New England farm life with some of the moralizing tales she published in Christian periodicals. According to Donovan, Cooke's work is “inconsistent, ranging from derivative Sunday-school moral tales to strange romantic fantasies to some of the finest literature produced by the local color school.” Other scholars have suggested that her financial woes contributed greatly to the poor quality of some of her later pieces. Katherine Kleitz, for one, claims that “most of Cooke's children's stories and some rather sermonizing journalistic pieces were the result of the pressure for money.”

Principal Works

Poems (poetry) 1861

Happy Dodd (novel) 1878

Somebody's Neighbors (short stories) 1881

Root-Bound and Other Sketches (short stories) 1885

The Sphinx's Children and Other People's (short stories) 1886

No (novel) 1886

Poems (poetry) 1888

Steadfast: The Story of a Saint and a Sinner (novel) 1889

Huckleberries Gathered from New England Hills (short stories) 1891

(The entire section is 45 words.)


Atlantic Monthly (review date 1861)

SOURCE: Review of Poems. Atlantic Monthly VII, no. XLI (March 1861): 382.

[In the following review, the critic concedes that although readers are accustomed to reading prose by Cooke, her poetry also elicits a favorable response.]

We forget who it was that once charitably christened one of his volumes “Prose by a Poet,” in order that the public might be put on their guard as to the difference between it and the others,—inexperienced critics are so apt to make mistakes! The example seems to us worth following, and, were this dangerous frankness made a point of honor in title-pages, we should be able at a glance to distinguish the books that must be bought...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

Harriet Prescott Spofford (essay date 1888)

SOURCE: Spofford, Harriet Prescott. “Rose Terry Cooke.” In Our Famous Women: An Authorized Record of Their Lives and Deeds, pp. 174-206. Hartford: A. D. Worthington & Co., 1888.

[In the following essay, Spofford, a friend of Cooke, discusses the fictional and autobiographical writings of the author.]

A quarter of a century ago, most of us can recall the joyous pride with which the birth of the Atlantic Monthly was hailed, and the eagerness with which each number was anticipated. Into what charming company it took us! There the Autocrat of the Breakfast-table held his genial sway; Motley fought over the “Battle of Lepanto”; Colonel Higginson led us...

(The entire section is 11027 words.)

Harriet Prescott Spofford (essay date 1916)

SOURCE: Spofford, Harriet Prescott. “Rose Terry Cooke,” in A Little Book of Friends, pp. 143-156. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1916.

[In the following essay, Spofford offers her personal observations on Cooke's life and career.]

With what pleasure the circle of girls of which I was one read Rose Terry's stories in the first Atlantic magazines! We went across the river to a place of woods and rejoiced in the Autocrat and in Rose Terry. That we could ever know Rose Terry and call her Rose never entered our heads. She was far away in upper skies. Hers were the first of the dialect stories (although Mrs. Stowe's were nearly of the same period) since the...

(The entire section is 2209 words.)

Babette May Levy (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: Levy, Babette May. “Mutations of New England Local Color.” New England Quarterly XIX, no. 3 (September 1946): 345-57.

[In the following excerpt, Levy argues that the criticism present in Cooke's writing is targeted towards ungrateful, affluent New Englanders.]

Rose Terry Cooke, born in 1827, … came of a well-to-do family that included in the immediately preceding generations a congressman, a bank president, and a ship builder. She taught school and reared her dead sister's family before she married, in 1873, Rollin Hillyer Cooke, an iron manufacturer and private banker. Mrs. Cooke's stories and sketches had been appearing in various magazines, including...

(The entire section is 1476 words.)

Jay Martin (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Martin, Jay. “Rose Terry Cooke,” in Harvests of Change: American Literature 1865-1914, pp. 139-42. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

[In the following essay, Martin examines Cooke's regional short stories, claiming that her characterizations of New England farmers and their wives constitute her best work.]

Rose Terry Cooke had attended the Hartford Female Seminary, which Catherine Beecher, Harriet's sister, founded and organized on the principles she had derived from her conversion to a personal religion based on love rather than sin. There Miss Terry was influenced by the Rev. John Pierce Brace, who had been Harriet's instructor at Litchfield...

(The entire section is 1667 words.)

Susan Allen Toth (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Toth, Susan Allen. “Rose Terry Cooke (1827-1892).” American Literary Realism 1870-1910 4, no. 2, (spring 1971): 170-76.

[In the following essay, Toth provides an overview of scholarship on Rose Terry Cooke.]


Although her romantic poetry, religious tracts, and sentimental love stories may have been justly forgotten, Rose Terry Cooke's New England local-color tales have never won deserved recognition, either in proportion to their wide publication or to their varying literary merit. James Russell Lowell praised her early collection of poems in 1861, but he spoke more enthusiastically of her “as a writer of...

(The entire section is 2596 words.)

Perry D. Westbrook (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Westbrook, Perry D. “Willfulness and Wrongheadedness: The Hill People of Rose Terry Cooke,” in Acres of Flint: Sarah Orne Jewett and Her Contemporaries, revised edition, pp. 78-85. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Westbrook discusses the comic and tragic characters created by Cooke. Where other New England writers saw the hardships of farm life resulting in tough, self-reliant individuals, Cooke believed the harsh conditions destroyed the women, both mentally and physically, and turned the men into hardened bullies.]

And how, we ask, would New England's rocky soil and icy hills have been made mines of wealth...

(The entire section is 3902 words.)

Katherine Kleitz (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Kleitz, Katherine. “Essence of New England: The Portraits of Rose Terry Cooke.” American Transcendental Quarterly, nos. 47-48 (summer/fall 1980): 127-39.

[In the following essay, Kleitz explores Cooke's use of local features of landscape and climate as determining factors in the lives of her characters.]

In 1857, thirty-year-old Rose Terry Cooke was respected enough to be honored by an invitation to write the first short story for the inaugural issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Yet, a hundred and twenty-five years later, Cooke's work has slipped out of a canon of literature which prefers to emphasize the writings of nineteenth-century male Romantics and...

(The entire section is 5566 words.)

Josephine Donovan (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Donovan, Josephine. “Rose Terry Cooke: Impoverished Wives and Spirited Spinsters,” in New England Local Color Literature: A Women's Tradition, pp. 68-81. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1983.

[In the following essay, Donovan examines Cooke's short stories, claiming that the author rejected romanticism and sentimentality and chose instead to depict the grim reality of rural life in New England and its devastating effect on women.]

Born to an inheritance of hard labor … fighting with … the instinct of self-preservation, against a climate … rigorous [and] fatally changeful; a soil bitter and barren … without any excitement to...

(The entire section is 5515 words.)

Elizabeth Ammons (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Ammons, Elizabeth. Introduction to “How Celia Changed Her Mind” and Selected Stories, by Rose Terry Cooke, pp. ix-xxxv. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Ammons discusses Cooke's popularity in the nineteenth century as a writer whose short stories record the hardships of women's lives and the cruelty of their fathers, brothers, and husbands.]

Rose Terry Cooke is unfamiliar today. That was not the case one hundred years ago when there seemed to be an abundance of women eager to pose as the popular New England regionalist. One such impersonator, a magnetic Christian zealot who dove into trances that provoked wild...

(The entire section is 11209 words.)

Cheryl Walker (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Walker, Cheryl. “Profile: Rose Terry Cooke, 1827-1892.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 9, no. 2 (fall 1992): 143-49.

[In the following essay, Walker provides an overview of Cooke's career as a prolific writer of realistic short stories and romantic poetry.]

At least two Rose Terry Cookes command our attention a hundred years after the historical woman's death. One, the writer of realist short stories, has long been recognized as a pioneer of New England regional fiction, an innovator in the use of dialect, and the forerunner of works by Rebecca Harding Davis and Harriet Beecher Stowe, among others.1 This Rose Terry (as she was known...

(The entire section is 3156 words.)

Sherry Lee Linkon (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Linkon, Sherry Lee. “Saints, Sufferers, and ‘Strong-Minded Sisters’: Anti-suffrage Rhetoric in Rose Terry Cooke's Fiction.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 10, no. 1 (1993): 31-46.

[In the following essay, Linkon explores the strong female characters in Cooke's fiction—characters that the author used to illustrate what she considered the proper means by which women should exercise power and influence over men.]

In an 1857 story for Harper's, Rose Terry Cooke presented the first of her many arguments against women's rights, beginning a critique of her “strong-minded sisters” that would continue throughout her life. In a long...

(The entire section is 7548 words.)

Eileen Razzari Elrod (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Elrod, Eileen Razzari. “Truth is Stranger than Non-Fiction: Gender, Religion, and Contradiction in Rose Terry Cooke.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 13, no. 2 (1996): 113-29.

[In the following essay, Elrod discusses the contradictions between Cooke's apparent feminism as revealed in her fiction and her conservative and anti-feminist non-fiction writing.]

Like many of the nineteenth-century New England writers who were her contemporaries, Rose Terry Cooke spent much of her literary career examining the effects of the religious history of her region on the lives of ordinary women and men. In particular, she explored the ways traditional New...

(The entire section is 9724 words.)

Further Reading


Brooks, Van Wyck. “The New England Scene.” In New England: Indian Summer 1865-1915, pp. 66-88. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1940.

Compares Cooke's stories with those of Harriet Beecher Stowe and praises the New England stories of the two writers as superior to others in the field.

Linkon, Sherry Lee. “Fiction as Political Discourse: Rose Terry Cooke's Antisuffrage Short Stories.” In American Women Short Story Writers: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Julie Brown, pp. 17-31. New York: Garland Publishing, 1995.

Studies the strong antisuffrage sentiment in Cooke's writings despite her...

(The entire section is 326 words.)