Rose Terry Cooke Introduction

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Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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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...

(The entire section is 1,713 words.)