Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Cary, Alice

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CARY, Alice, author, b. near Cincinnati, Ohio, 26 April, 1820; d. in New York city, 12 Feb., 1871. Her parents were people of good education and training, but, from the privations incident to a newly settled country, her early advantages of education were very moderate. So far as regards the actual necessities of life, she was in comfortable circumstances. Her mother died in 1835, and two years afterward her father married again. The stepmother was wholly unsympathetic regarding the literary aspirations of Alice and her younger sister Phœbe; but while they were ready and willing to aid to the full extent of their strength in household labor, they persisted in a determination to study and write when the day's work was done. Sometimes they were refused the use of candles to the extent of their wishes, and the device of a saucer of lard with a bit of rag for a wick was their only light after the rest of the family had retired. Of the best current periodical literature they saw little, and the few newspapers that reached them were for the most part very unsatisfying. The household library, according to a list cited by Phœbe from memory, included only the Bible, a hymn-book, “History of the Jews,” “Lewis and Clarke's Travels,” “Pope's Essays,” “Charlotte Temple,” and a novel called “The Black Penitents.” This last was grievously tantalyzing to the young authors, for its concluding pages were missing, and they never learned the ultimate fate of the “Penitents.” Alice began to write verses at the age of eighteen, and wrote largely and acceptably for the press in prose and verse for the next ten years without compensation. In 1852, with her sister Phœbe, Alice came to New York city, and the two devoted themselves thenceforth to a literary life. The sisters had some property, a fair literary reputation, and habits of industry and frugality, which enabled them to content themselves with a moderate income, and they had just made their first successful literary venture, a volume of poems, when they decided to remove to New York. They prospered in their city career, with a gradual growth of income that eventually secured a competence. Alice was an indefatigable worker. She wrote for the “Atlantic Monthly,” for “Harper's,” for “Putnam,” for the “New York Ledger,” the “Independent,” and other literary periodicals; and her articles, whether prose or poetry, were gathered subsequently into volumes, which had a warm welcome both in this country and abroad. She also wrote novels and poems, which did not make their first appearance in periodicals. Her verses are marked by a rare delicacy and finish, and easily entitle her to a place very near the head of American female poets. Her prose is remarkable for its fresh grace and realistic character. Her descriptions of domestic life are delightful, and her plots well sustained and interesting. It is said that in the series of stories entitled “Clovernook” she depicted many passages in her own home-life; that in Mary Milford she sketched herself. “A Relic of Ancient Days,” “How Uncle Dale was Troubled,” and “The Old Man's Wing,” are episodes in the life of her paternal grandfather. John Dale represents the father of Alice, and Joseph Dale her uncle. With “The Sisters” she begins her own story, and it is continued to the end of the book. Ella is herself, Rebecca is her older sister Rhoda, and Zoe her sister Phœbe. The sisters lived a dual life: that of their New York home, and that of the farm where they naturally resumed the habits of their girlhood during their occasional visits. After the sisters had attained eminence in the literary world, their house became a centre of attraction for many of the brightest people in America. It was understood that on Sunday evenings they were “at home,” and their weekly receptions were for fifteen years among the most delightful known to the literary guild in New York. They were quite informal, and afforded small satisfaction to the merely fashionable people who now and then attended them. The biographer of the Cary sisters, Mrs. Ames, tells the following anecdote, which illustrates the character of the guests at these receptions: “A young man, poor, without friends, unattractive in speech and manner, had found his way to the house. One evening a friend hinted to Phœbe Cary that a certain somewhat fastidious lady was astonished that he was received at all. “He is so pushing and presumptuous, and his family is very common.” “Tell her,” replied Miss Cary, with a touch of indignation, “that we like him very much; that he is just as welcome here as she is, and we are always glad to see her.” Of course receptions conducted on such liberal principles as this could be exclusive only by a process of natural selection. In point of fact, however, the atmosphere of the place was agreeable only to persons of natural refinement, and if others occasionally drifted in, they rarely repeated the visit. Among the more distinguished of the frequenters of the Cary home were Horace Greeley, Bayard Taylor and his wife, Richard and Elizabeth Stoddard, Robert Dale Owen, Oliver Johnson, John Greenleaf Whittier, Mrs. Mary E. Dodge, Mrs. Croly, Mrs. Victor, the Rev. Edwin H. Chapin, D. D., Rev. Henry M. Field, D. D., and Rev. Charles F. Deems, D. D., Samuel Bowles, Thomas B. Aldrich, Anna E. Dickinson, George Ripley, Madame Le Vert, Henry Wilson, Justin McCarthy, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In short, all the noted contemporary names in the different departments of literature and art might fairly be added to the list. Probably New York has never seen assemblies so comprehensive in their elements and so harmonious in their disposition. Alice's last illness was protracted for several years, and attended by much suffering, but was borne with wonderful patience and resignation, and she was tenderly cared for by her stronger sister. Her published works are “Clovernook Papers” (two series, Boston, 1851-'3); “Hagar, a Story of To-day” (1852); “The Clovernook Children” (1854); “Lyra, and other Poems” (1853; enlarged ed., including “The Maiden of Tlascala,” 1855); “Married, Not Mated” (1856); “Pictures of Country Life” (New York, 1859); “Lyrics and Hymns” (Boston, 1866); “The Bishop's Son” (New York, 1867); “The Lover's Diary” (Boston, 1867); “Snow-Berries: a Book for Young Folks” (1869). — Her sister, Phœbe, b. near Cincinnati, 4 Sept., 1824; d. in Newport, R. I., 31 July, 1871. Her advantages for early education were somewhat better than her sister's, whose almost inseparable companion she became at an early age. They were very different in temperament, in person, and in mental constitution. Phœbe began to write verse at the age of seventeen — crudely and imperfectly, she herself said; and yet one of her earliest poems, written in 1842, has literally won a world-wide reputation. Its title is “Nearer Home,” and its first line, “One sweetly solemn thought.” In the joint housekeeping in New York, she took, from choice (Alice being for many years an invalid), the larger share of the household duties, and hence found less leisure for literary labor. She wrote very little prose, and her poetry was so different in style, so much more buoyant in tone and independent in manner, that the verses of one sister were rarely ascribed to the other. To most readers Phœbe's poems are, perhaps, more attractive than those of Alice. In society she was brilliant and witty, but always kindly and genial. She wrote a beautiful and touching tribute to her sister's memory, published in the “Ladies' Repository,” a few days before her own death. She had seemingly enjoyed robust health till her sister's death; but her constitution, weakened by intense sorrow, was shattered by exposure to malarial influences, and she did not rally from the intensity of the attack, though removed to Newport in the hope that a change of air and cheerful surroundings might prove beneficent. Of the volume of “Poems of Alice and Phœbe Cary” (Philadelphia, 1850), only about one third were written by Phœbe. Her independently published books are “Poems and Parodies” (Boston, 1854); “Poems of Faith, Hope, and Love” (1868); and a large share of the “Hymns for all Christians,” edited by Charles F. Deems (1869). See “Memorial of Alice and Phœbe Cary,” by Mary Glemmer Ames (New York, 1873).