Maria Susanna Cummins Essay - Critical Essays

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.

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.”

Principal Works

The Lamplighter (novel) 1854

Mabel Vaughan (novel) 1857

El Fureidis (novel) 1860

Haunted Hearts (novel) 1864

“A Talk About Guides” (travel essay) 1864

“Around Mull” (travel essay) 1865


Godey's Lady Book (review date July 1854)

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 better in heart by the just, generous, and charitable sentiments that profusely flow from her pen. We hope the work will go up to another “thirty-fifth thousand,” because we think its perusal is calculated to do a great deal of good, independent of the delight it affords as a source of amusement.

North American Review (review date January 1858)

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,...

(The entire section is 243 words.)

Alexander Cowie (essay date 1951)

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,...

(The entire section is 1188 words.)

Nina Baym (essay date 1978)

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...

(The entire section is 3747 words.)

Erika R. Bauermeister (essay date spring 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 7845 words.)

G. M. Goshgarian (essay date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 5285 words.)

Susan S. Williams (essay date June 1996)

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....

(The entire section is 7492 words.)

Elizabeth Barnes (essay date 1997)

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.]


Written more than forty years after A New-England Tale, The...

(The entire section is 3398 words.)

Malini Johar Schueller (essay date 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 3391 words.)

William Kupinse (essay date fall 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 4069 words.)

Frederick Newberry (essay date 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 3528 words.)

Cindy Weinstein (essay date winter 2001)

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...

(The entire section is 11267 words.)

Claire Chantell (essay date autumn 2002)

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...

(The entire section is 9483 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 213 words.)