Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowell
Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowell (February 1849 – July 22, 1883) was a female author of America's Gilded Age. She is highly significant both as an author and as a feminist icon in an age when it was difficult for women to break away from the accepted norm of husband and household and as such may be considered a romantic heroine of Gilded age feminism. She is also simply known as Sherwood Bonner, which was her pen name.
Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in February 1849 to a wealthy and aristocratic family, Bonner turned tradition on its head and left both husband and child behind to pursue her literary dreams. Achieving nothing more than a pleasant mediocrity in the literary world and a financial drain on her benefactors, Bonner was nonetheless recognized as an influential and inspirational figure by her contemporaries as well as current students of her work and life.
Childhood and early life
Bonner's father was an Irish immigrant who married the daughter of a rich plantation family during the antebellum period. However, the Bonner family luck changed drastically during the American Civil War when her home was occupied by Union soldiers. A childhood of luxury and privilege gave way to an early womanhood of decreased possibilities and genteel poverty. Despite being "innately literary" from early childhood and the fact that Bonner wrote several stories that were published in small periodicals before she turned fifteen, her traditional upbringing and the prevailing societal attitudes offered Bonner little recourse other than marriage, and she married Edward McDowell on Valentines Day in 1871 at the age of twenty-one. She moved with her new husband to Texas shorty thereafter. Edward McDowell, however, emerged as a weak man unable to support his wife financially, and the birth of a daughter, Lilian, in November of that year left the family lodged first with the father of the bride and later with the mother of the groom.
The road to Boston
The period following the Civil War saw a large number of previously wealthy young men struggling to make a living, and the young McDowell couple found the same difficulties. However, as Bonner witnessed other young husbands make positive moves towards self-support, her frustration with Edward and her strong desire to make something of herself sowed the seeds of a rebellion that was to confound and frustrate close family and friends. On September 3, 1873, when her daughter was not yet two years old, Bonner left her in the care of her mother-in-law and took a train to Boston, arriving with very little money and no acquaintances, save a literary correspondent by the name of Nahrum Capen.
Capen proved to become a firm friend of Bonner's, supporting her from the outset with contacts and finance, evidently considering her as one of his own daughters. Bonner's own father, Charles Bonner, would not communicate with his daughter in the months following her flight to Boston, and a letter from Capen to Bonner upon first meeting Katherine highlights his patronage of the young writer as well as some insights into her character and motivations; "Her aspirations were stronger than her sense of duty, that is, she felt she must first do justice to herself, to her own powers, before she could do justice to others... I have done what I feel would be right and kind in another extended to my own children...She has high aspirations - and she has been unhappy because she could not find or see the means for their development and realization."
Early literary career
Bonner's first months in Boston were lonely and frugal. Her privileged background and pride clashed painfully with her new circumstances, and at first she lived on crackers and ginger snaps and was forced to "trot up and down with coal and things", tasks previously reserved for servants. Capen secured for her a place at a Boston school for young women, and she worked hard to make the most of the prospects offered her, but at twenty-four she was some years older than most of the young ladies that attended and found herself subsequently on the outside of their society. Despite this culture shock Bonner persisted in the face of literary rejection, family pressure and poor living conditions. She thrived on the literary criticisms offered by editors that rejected her early work and was brash enough to prevail upon the renowned poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It is a credit to Bonner's social grace and personality that within one hour's audience with Longfellow, she secured a lifelong patronage; he provided both financial support and professional encouragement.
The work provided her by Longfellow, such as the role she played as his editorial assistant on Poems of Places, and the contact his society afforded her with editors and publishers gave Bonner many opportunities to advance herself. In 1876 Bonner toured England and Europe for ten months with the well-known novelist Louise Chandler Moulton and wrote "more than a dozen travel articles that were published simultaneously in the Boston Times and the Memphis, Tennessee, Avalanche." Success at writing articles for magazines gained her a contract to write what was to be her only novel, Like unto Like (1878). Bonner's literary career was off the ground at last.
Most notable among Bonner's publications were her local color stories in which she is said to have an "adept and skillful handling of Negro dialect", basing many of her stories around the "gran'mammy" figure she knew in her youth, Bonner's stories of Southern life were not tinged with bitterness over the victory of the North in the Civil War, rather she viewed the war as the crisis of the nation as a whole. Going so far as to disparage critics of reconstruction such as Wendell Phillips, she wrote that "The Cassandras have never saved a country yet… the critic is always and always has been overestimated as an intellectual force in his life time… The everlasting 'no' gets monotonous in the long term." Bonner favored creators over critics. Other works of note include her Dialect Tales and Suwanee River Tales. For a more thorough discussion of her works and literary merits see McAlexander's The Prodigal Daughter: A Biography of Sherwood Bonner.
The end of the road
Tragedy struck in Holly Springs in 1878 when a Yellow fever epidemic struck, carrying away Bonner's father and brother. She returned to the town, risking infection, and removed her daughter to safety before nursing her father and brother before they died. Sadly, tragedy followed close on the heels for Bonner herself when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in 1882 and was told she had only a year to live. Desperate to leave her mark on the literary world and a financial legacy for her daughter and aunt, Bonner hid her illness from all but her closest of friends and threw herself into her work. The work produced at the later stages of her life has been described as revealing "a greater vision and… technical skill; but the pattern of development is obscured by considerable hackwork." This "hackwork" may by sympathetically attributed to the desperate hurry she was in to meet financial needs, and then to complete her work before she died. Bonner was dictating a novel up until four days before she died in Holly Springs on July 22, 1883; her literary legacy was slight, but her legacy to women of the Gilded Age and beyond has been immense. Struggling in a patriarchal, misogynistic era, Bonner exemplified the sacrifices women were to make for a professional life, she was described by her daughter in adulthood as a person "whom I wish to resemble in every way."
- McAlexander, Hubert Horton, The Prodigal Daughter: A Biography of Sherwood Bonner (Baton Rouge, * Louisiana State University Press, 1981).
- Frank, William, L., Sherwood Bonner (Catherine McDowell), (Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1976).
- Frank, William, L., "Sherwood Bonner" in American National Biography Online database.
- Sherwood Bonner Collection (MUM00037) owned by University of Mississippi Department of Archives and Special Collections