This story was originally published April 4, 2023 by the Ohio History Connection. It is being republished here as part of a collaborative agreement.
LURAY, Ohio — To work in the Ohio History Connection Archives & Library is to be surrounded by remarkable Ohio stories.
The story of author Mary Hartwell Catherwood reads like a real-life Horatio Alger tale, or perhaps one of her own plots featuring plucky heroines. Like Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton, she wrote her way out.
Mary Hartwell was born in 1847 in the village of Luray, Ohio, in Licking County. Her parents decided to try their luck for greater opportunities in the West, but the luck didn’t pan out. Both parents died in short journey to Illinois, leaving 10-year-old Mary dependent on relatives in Hebron, Ohio.
The experience was stultifying for her, as described by M. L. Wilson, “…there were times when poverty and her environment griped her, and so obstructed the path of her aspirations that she would feel, and give expression to, bitter reflections and sadness.” (Milton 1904, 23).
Mary’s path to independence took the road open to young women. She obtained a teacher’s certificate at 13 and began boarding out and teaching in area schools. Her talents brought her to the attention of some kind people who helped her acquire an education and become a professional writer.
Hartwell’s poetry first came to the attention of Wilson, editor of the Newark North American newspaper in 1863. He published her first short story, The Hospital Nurse, the following year.
Judge Green, with whom she boarded, arranged for her admission to Granville Female College, on credit. She completed the four-year course in three. She returned to teaching to pay for her education, but she didn’t stop writing.
In 1873, Hartwell sold at least 13 stories to literary magazines. Sufficiently encouraged by her success, she left teaching. In 1875, she published her first novel, moved to Cincinnati, wrote articles for several magazines including Golden Hours and The Ladies’ Repository, and paid off her college bill.
At the center of many of her stories are young women with determination. She developed a literary style depicting Midwestern small-town life that anticipates Sherwood Anderson. Her characters are recognizable, as neighbors, plain in their manners and speech, sometimes sympathetic and sometimes not.
“In those days neighborhoods were intensely local. The people knew what historians have not yet learned about the value of isolated bits of human life.”
— from “The Stirring-Off” in The Queen of the Swamp and Other Plain Americans. Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin, & Co., 1899.
Mary left Cincinnati for Illinois and married James Steele Catherwood in 1877. She became friends with the “Hoosier Poet” James Whitcomb Riley and together with other regional authors, they formed the Western Association of Writers.
Mary Hartwell Catherwood’s later works moved away from small-town realism toward more florid historical romance, but they continued to feature ambitious and independent women. She died in Chicago in 1902.
“About her she found all manner of young girls-working; girls-some of whom drooped, some of whom strutted defiantly; girls without homes, groping fearfully around the world; girls whose parents had given them nothing but life, and of them demanded all things; girls hiding peculiar talents for fear of custom. These she drew toward herself.”
— from A Woman in Armor. New York, NY: G. W. Carleton & Co., 1875.