English, Department of


Date of this Version



Legacy (2012) 29(1).


Copyright 2012, University of Nebraska Press. Used by permission.


E.D.E.N. Southworth's correspondence with Henry Peterson of the Saturday Evening Post and Robert Bonner of the New York Ledger, both of whom serialized her novels in their weekly story papers, is sometimes dramatic and emotional. In September 1849 Peterson chided Southworth for a “capital literary error” in an installment of her novel The Deserted Wife, in which the Reverend Withers uses his patriarchal authority to maneuver the young, unwilling Sophie Churchill into marriage. The incident would make readers “thro[w] down the tale in disgust,” he warns, and he omitted it from the serialization. In December 1854 he raised objections to a chapter of Miriam, the Avenger in which Marian Mayfield succumbs to Thurston Willcoxen’s demands for a secret marriage. Explaining that publishing the installment “would have ruined you and the Post,” he proclaims, “I stand between you and literary perdition.”1 In her letters to Bonner, for whose paper she started writing in 1857 after leaving Peterson’s Post, Southworth repeatedly praises Bonner for saving her (implicitly from Peterson). In December 1869, she proclaims, “The first day that you entered my little cottage” fifteen years ago was “a day, blessed beyond all other days of my life.” She dramatically describes herself “as dying from the combined effect of over work and under pay, of anxiety and of actual privation” before he “saved [her] life” by hiring her to write for the Ledger. These letters, part of a substantial collection of Southworth materials held by the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University and available for loan on microfilm, are quoted frequently, including in two influential, multi-figure biographical studies of nineteenth-century women’s authorship, Mary Kelley’s Private Woman, Public Stage and Susan Coultrap-McQuin’s Doing Literary Business. Drawing on these emotional, dramatic letters and others at Duke, scholars have portrayed Peterson as an overbearing villain, Bonner as Southworth’s gentlemanly savior, and Southworth herself as relatively passive, chafing under Peterson’s patriarchal bullying but powerless to improve her situation until Bonner made her a salaried contributor to the Ledger.2