Maria Susanna Cummins Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”