The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Mary Elizabeth Lee

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Mary Elizabeth Lee was born on the 23d of March, 1813, at Charleston, which her own writings have contributed something to render classic ground. Her parents were William and Elizabeth Lee. Her father practised the profession of the law in early life, and sat for a period as member of the State Legislature. Her uncle, Judge Thomas Lee, was, for many years and in several respects, one of the most distinguished citizens of South Carolina. Several others of her connexions were ardently devoted to intellectual cultivation, and thus Mary’s lot fell in a family where every literary tendency was sure to be kindly encouraged and happily developed.

The extreme susceptibility of her feelings prevented her parents from placing her at school until after her tenth year. She was then consigned to the tuition of A. Bolles, Esq., a distinguished teacher of young ladies in Charleston. Here she availed herself with much diligence of her advantages, and laid the foundation of a solid and accurate education.

Genius is seldom destitute of some channel through which to communicate its inspirations to the world. It so happened, that when about twenty years had matured the mind of Mary Lee, and had stored it with a wide range of suggestive acquisitions, a little periodical for youth, edited by Mrs. Caroline Gilman, had been recently started in Charleston, under the title of “The Rose Bud,” which soon after changed its name to “The Southern Rose,” and aspired to some rank of literary pretension. To the pages of this publication Miss Lee contributed her earliest productions, prompted alike by the dictates of generous friendship and of tremulous ambition.

For a considerable time, the signature attached to her pieces was the modest and general one, “A Friend.” As they increased in merit, inquiries as to the authorship began to be multiplied, and at last her personal relationship to them became so well and favourably known, that she discarded the timid disguise, and adopted ever after as a signature in the Rose, the initials “M. E. L.” In all other publications, I believe, it was expanded into her full name.

Several brilliant and beautiful effusions now continued to increase her reputation. Among others, “The Lone Star” was admired by every one, so that for a long time the authoress herself, when she was mentioned in her native city, received generally the name of “The Lone Star.” “The Blind Negro Communicant” gave her something of a national fame, and was copied into religious and other newspapers in every part of the country.

Miss Lee’s incessant aspirations after perfection in every accomplishment, were in nothing more signal than in her studied efforts to acquire a correct style of writing. For many years she published no poem before exhibiting it to the literary friend of her early youth. His criticisms were always unsparing; each questionable phrase, or halting line, or ambiguous rhyme, was faithfully pointed out, and surprising often were the patience, talent, and ingenuity, with which, in availing herself of his suggestions, she surmounted every difficulty and remedied every defect.

To prose composition she devoted as much attention as to poetical. Many prefer her writings in the former department, and an edition of them would no doubt prove alike acceptable to the public and honourable to her name. Her style is characterized by graceful ease and well chosen expressions.

About this time she prepared a volume for the Massachusetts School Library, entitled “Social Evenings, or Historical Tales for Youth.” The publishers have declared it to be one of the most popular and useful on their list. The style is at once chaste and vivacious, the topics are selected from a wide range of national histories, indicating a great amount of reading, the poetical illustrations, chiefly by the writer herself, are numerous and beautiful, the pathos is genuine, the characters are marked, and the whole structure of the work exhibits talents of a high order. Eight evenings are supposed to be occupied by a little youthful circle in listening to an experienced friend, who reads to them the successive tales. Each “Evening” is preceded by some animated, descriptive scene, involving throughout the book a separate narrative thread of affecting interest, thus serving to vary the attention, to make the necessary transitions from subject to subject, and to combine the different parts into one harmonious whole.

In the mean time, her literary labours and successes were advancing in every direction. As she was desirous of maintaining for herself an honourable independence, she supplied continual contributions to several widely circulated magazines. The journals and annuals for which she wrote were Graham’s Magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, New Orleans Miscellany, Philadelphia Courier, Token, Gem, Gift, Mr. Whitaker’s Journal, Southern Literary Messenger, and Orion Magazine.

This gifted young lady died at Charleston, September 23, 1849. In 1851 a volume of her poems was published, with an interesting biographical memoir by the Rev. Dr. Gilman, from which this brief notice has been compiled. Her prose writings have never been collected.