The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Mary S. B. Shindler
(LATE MRS. MARY S. B. DANA.)
The Southern muse has had few harps that have awakened a warmer echo than that of Mrs. Mary S. B. Dana, now Mrs. Shindler. Born and nurtured upon Southern soil, her fame has been cherished with peculiar affection in the region of her birth, while her name has been no unfamiliar or unwelcome guest in Northern hearts and homes.
Mrs. Shindler was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, February 15, 1810. Her maiden name was Mary Stanley Bunce Palmer. She was the daughter of the Rev. Benjamin M. Palmer, D. D., who at the time of her birth was pastor of the Independent or Congregational church in Beaufort. In 1814 her parents removed to Charleston, her father having been called to the charge of the Independent church in that city. Her father’s congregation consisted principally of planters of the neighbourhood, who spent their summers in the city, and their winters upon their plantations.
In reference to this period of her life, Mrs. Shindler remarks, “I well remember the delight with which we children used to anticipate our spring and Christmas holidays, which we were sure to spend upon some neighbouring plantation, released from all our city trammels, running perfectly wild, as all city children were expected to do, contracting sudden and violent intimacies in all the negro houses about Easter and Christmas times, that we might have a store of eggs for sundry purposes, for which we gave in exchange the most gaudy cotton handkerchiefs that could be bought in Charleston. It was during these delightful rural visits that what little poetry I have in my nature was fostered and developed, and at an early age I became sensible of a something within me which often brought tears into my eyes when I could not, for the life of me, express my feelings. The darkness and loneliness of our vast forests filled me with indescribable emotions, and above all other sounds, the music of the thousand Eolian harps sighing and wailing through a forest of pines, was most affecting to my youthful heart.”
Besides the advantage of the best Southern society, she had also the opportunity of most extensive acquaintance with clergymen and others from various Northern States—the hospitality of her parents being unbounded.
She was educated by the Misses Ramsay, the daughters of Dr. David Ramsay, the historian, and grand-daughters, on the maternal side, of Mr. Laurens, who figured so conspicuously in the early history of our Independence. The summer of 1825 her parents spent in Hartford, Conn., and she was placed for six months at the seminary of the Rev. Mr. Emerson, in the neighbouring town of Wethersfield. In 1826 she was placed at a young ladies’ seminary in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, with the expectation of remaining eighteen months, in the hope that so long a residence in the North would invigorate her constitution, which was rather delicate; but she pined for her Southern home, and at the expiration of six months was allowed to return to the arms of her parents. She subsequently spent several months at the seminary of the Rev. Claudius Herrick, in New Haven.
On the 19th of June, 1835, she became the wife of Mr. Charles E. Dana, and accompanied him to the city of New York, where they resided for two or three years. During this time she occasionally wrote little pieces of poetry, but did not publish them. Before her marriage, however, she had written considerably for the “Rose-Bud,” a juvenile periodical published in Charleston by Mrs. Gilman.
The tone of subdued melancholy that pervades her first publications is explained by the sad story of her afflictions, which can be told in no way so well as in her own simple and affecting language.
“In the fall of the year 1838,” says she, in a letter now before me, “accompanied by my parents, we removed to the West. I was then the mother of a beautiful boy, who was born in May, 1837. We spent the winter in Cincinnati, and, as soon as the river rose in the spring, we all went to New Orleans. While in that city, a letter was received from Alabama, acquainting my parents with the fact that my only brother, who was a physician, and was on a tour of inspection for the purpose of finding a pleasant location for the practice of his profession, was in Greene county, sick, and failing rapidly. A favourite sister had died of consumption at my house in New York, just a week after the birth of our little boy, and the news of my brother’s illness filled us with the saddest apprehensions. The letter, too, bore rather an old date, having first being mailed to Cincinnati, and forwarded from thence to New Orleans. My afflicted parents immediately hastened to the spot, but they arrived too late even to take a last fond look upon their only son. He had been buried several days when they arrived. Almost heart-broken, yet submissive to the dreadful stroke, they returned to New Orleans, but instead of accompanying us in our western journey, they decided to return to Charleston.
“In a short time we also embarked in a steamer for St. Louis, where we remained for a month or six weeks. We then ascended the Mississippi as far as Bloomington, Iowa; at which place we landed, and we were so much pleased with the appearance of the place, that we decided on spending the summer there. The place had been settled about three years, and contained nearly or quite three hundred inhabitants, and had, so far, proved quite healthy. But the summer of 1839 was a very sickly one. There was a long-continued drought; the Mississippi river was unusually low, and the consequence was the prevalence of congestive fevers in all that region. Indeed, throughout the whole West and South, it was a summer long to be remembered.
“I was the first to take the fever, and had scarcely recovered, when our little Charlie, our only child, became alarmingly ill. The only experienced physician in the village was likewise ill, so that we laboured under a serious disadvantage. After lingering for a fortnight the dear little fellow died. Two days before his death, my husband was taken with the same fever, and also died, after an illness of only four days. Nothing but the consolations of religion could have supported me under this double bereavement. Left entirely alone, thousands of miles away from every relative I had on earth, there was no human arm on which I could lean, and I was to rely on God alone. It was well, perhaps, for me, that I was just so situated. It has taught me a lesson that I have never forgotten, that our heavenly Father will never lay upon us a heavier burthen than he will give us strength to bear. And here I must record my warm and grateful tribute to the genuine kindness and sympathy of Western hearts. If I had been among my own kindred, I could not have received more earnest and affectionate attention.
“As soon as I could settle my affairs, and find suitable protection, I started for my distant home, longing to lay my aching head on the bosom of my own dear mother, and to be encircled in my father’s arms.
“I was received in St. Louis with the greatest kindness, and remained there for a week. Placed under the charge of a kind physician, we took a steamer for Cincinnati, but found the river so low, it would be next to impossible to reach there. After sticking fast upon every sand-bar we encountered for a day or two, the captain all the while assuring us that we should soon arrive at Cincinnati, we determined to take advantage of the first boat that passed us, and return to the Mississippi. Nor was it long before we were enabled to put this design into execution.
“In New Orleans the fever was raging to an alarming degree. My kind protector had now reached his home, and could accompany me no further, and I could hear of no one who was going in my direction at that season of the year— the human tide was all setting the other way. At length a friend called to inform me that a schooner was about to sail for Pensacola. Knowing my intense anxiety to reach home, he had called to let me know of the opportunity, thinking that from Pensacola I would be able to reach Charleston without difficulty, though, for his own part, he strongly advised me not to attempt going in the schooner. But I had grown desperate, and caught eagerly at the proposal. Accordingly, that very afternoon, I was conducted to the schooner by my friend, and introduced to the captain, who kindly promised to take good care of me. I must confess my heart almost failed me when, after crossing the deck on the tops of barrels, with which the vessel was loaded, I dived into a cabin, dark, low, and musty, and found that I was the only female on board.
“But the case was a desperate one, and I submitted to necessity, but bade my friend ‘farewell’ with a heavy heart. We were towed down the canal by horses to the entrance of Lake Ponchartrain, where we were quietly to lie till the next morning. Never shall I forget the sufferings of that dreadful night. The cabin was infested with roaches of an enormous size, and as soon as candles were lighted, they came out of their hiding-places by hundreds and thousands, and literally covered the bed where I was to sleep. Mosquitos also were swarming around; but this was not all. I was taken so ill that it seemed as if I could not live till morning. I shudder even now when I think of it.
“By daylight I called the captain to my side and begged him to get me back to the city. He said there was a schooner which had just come in from the lake, and was going up to the city, and offered to put me aboard of her. I joyfully consented, and he took me in his arms like an infant, carried me on board of the newly-arrived schooner, and seated me in a chair on a pile of wet boards, of which her cargo appeared to consist. After two or three hours of intense suffering, for I was really very sick, I once more reached my friends in New Orleans, who were overjoyed to see me, and who fully determined to prevent me, by force, if necessary, from making any more such travelling experiments. In a few days the steamer between New Orleans and Pascagoula commenced running, and finding company, I at length reached home in safety.”
To give herself mental occupation, she now began to indulge in literary pursuits. She had always been very fond of music, and finding very little piano music that was suitable for Sunday playing, she had for several years been in the habit of adapting sacred words to any song which particularly pleased her. To wean her from her sorrows, her parents encouraged her to continue the practice, and this was the origin of the first work she published, “The Southern Harp.” At first she had no idea of publishing these little effusions, but having written quite a number of them, she was advised to print a few for the use of herself and friends. The work, however grew under her hands, till finally, becoming much interested in the design, she decided to publish, not only the words, but the music. She visited New York for this purpose in 1840, and the work appeared early in 1841.
She now used her pen almost incessantly. It is not wonderful that her thoughts ran principally upon the subject of affliction, nor that the scenes through which she had passed during her short sojourn at the West, should have formed the theme of her muse.
In the summer of 1841 she again visited New York for the purpose of publishing a volume of poems. This appeared under the title of “The Parted Family, and other Poems.” She undertook, also, at the request of her publishers, to prepare another volume similar in design to the “Southern Harp,” to be published under the title of the “Northern Harp.” Both of these publications succeeded well. They passed through several large editions, and in a pecuniary way were very profitable, more than twenty-five thousand copies having been sold.
Her next publication was a prose work, entitled “Charles Morton; or, the Young Patriot;” a tale of the American Revolution. This, also, was very successful. It was issued in the early part of the year 1843.
About this time she experienced a change in her religious views, which attracted considerable attention, and led to her next publication. She had been bred a Calvinist, but during the year 1844 she began to entertain doubts about the doctrine of the Trinity, and finally, to the grief of her revered parents, and numerous friends, early in the year 1845, she avowed herself a Unitarian.
The matter having become one of some notoriety, she felt called upon to publish a volume of “Letters to Relatives and Friends,” stating the process through which her mind had passed. This, by far the largest of her prose volumes, appeared in Boston, in the fall of 1845, and was republished in London. It went through several editions, and was finally stereotyped.
In 1847 she wrote several “Southern Sketches,” the first of which appeared in the “Union Magazine” for October of that year.
At this time another severe affliction befell her. This was the sudden death, within two or three weeks of each other, of both her parents, at Orangeburg, South Carolina.
On the 18th of May, 1848, she became united in marriage to her present husband, the Rev. Robert D. Shindler, a clergyman of the Episcopal Church. Her views on the subject of the Trinity have also experienced a change, or rather have reverted to their original condition, and she is now in communion with the church of her husband.
In April, 1850, Mr. and Mrs. Shindler removed to Upper Marlboro’, Maryland, near to his native place, which was Shephardstown, Virginia.
In August, 1851, they removed to Shelbyville, Kentucky, Mr. Shindler having accepted a Professorship in Shelby College.