University of New England - Innovation for a Healthier Planet

Harriet Elizabeth Prescott Spofford collection, 1891-2004

Full finding aid (pdf)

Collection Scope and Content

This collection consists of the author’s pieces published in late 19th and early 20th century magazines, biographical material, a pencil sketch of Spofford, and research about Spofford by scholars. Approximately one dozen periodicals containing over 40 of the author’s works are housed in the periodical collection. Approximately two dozen books from the author’s personal library, listed in folder 009, are also available.

Biographical/Historical Note

In Calais, Maine, on the Canadian border, Harriet Elizabeth Prescott was born on April 3, 1835, the seventh generation of the distinguished Prescott family of New England. An inquisitive child, “Hallie” received private schooling in the home of one Miss Porter. At fourteen, she entered the coeducational Putnam Free School and for four years, she followed a demanding curriculum where she read widely and won numerous prizes in composition.

During the 1850s, at still a young age, Harriet Prescott had begun to contribute to family income by publishing anonymously; this earliest work, however, is lost. She often wrote for fifteen hours a day, the price for a story being as little as $2.50. In 1858 she was emboldened to submit a detective story, “In a Cellar,” to the two year-old Atlantic Monthly, where it appeared in February 1859. James Russell Lowell (1819-91), then editor of the Atlantic, doubted that an unknown young woman could have written so striking a tale, but Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911) vouched for its authenticity. Harriet Prescott joined the writers’ circles of Boston, beginning with a birthday dinner to honor Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), where she met Lowell as well as poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) and John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). She next wrote two romances, Sir Rohan’s Ghost (1860) and Azarian: An Episode (1864). But the work that better augurs Spofford’s future reputation is her second book, a critically acclaimed collection of seven short stories ranging between romanticism and realism, The Amber Gods and Other Stories (1863).

She wrote throughout her life, publishing 32 books and an unknown number of stories, essays, poems, and juvenilia never collected from magazines where they had appeared. Spofford’s best stories appeared in the top magazines-Atlantic, Harper’s Monthly, Galaxy, Lippincott’s, Scribner’s, and Century. Harriet placed some 74 stories in Harper’s Bazar. Engaged about 1860, in 1865 Harriet married Richard Smith Spofford (1833-88), a lawyer (and poet), who practiced in Newburyport and Washington, D.C. In 1867 a son, Richard Spofford, was born in January and died in September. In 1874 Richard Smith Spofford bought Deer Island-in-the-Merrimack [River], which became a summer community of extended family. After the deaths of her husband Richard, her sister Mary, and other relatives, Harriet Prescott Spofford found emotional outlet in her own writing and collecting of past work. Seven strong stories were in Old Madame and Other Tragedies (1900). Next came a book of five local color stories, called Old Washington (1906). A final well-received collection, The Elder’s People (1920), included fourteen regional, realistic stories. A circle of Boston women writers revolving around Annie Adams Fields (1834-1915) provided companionship. From this group, she socialized most closely with Rose Terry Cooke (1827-92), Gail Hamilton (Mary Abigail Dodge, 1833-1896), Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909), Celia Thaxter (1835-1894), and most especially Louise Chandler Moulton (1835-1908). Harriet Spofford died of arteriosclerosis on August 14, 1921, while at Deer Island-in-the-Merrimack.