Rose Terry Cooke Critical Essays

Introduction

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.”