Caroline Howard Gilman (October 1, 1794-September 15, 1888), one of the most popular women writers of the first half of the nineteenth century, was born in Boston on October 1, 1794. Her parents, Samuel Howard and Anna Lillie, were prosperous and well-connected. Her father died when she was two, and she was raised by an older sister after her mother’s death in 1804. While her formal education was limited and sporadic, Caroline developed an early interest in literature. One of her poems, “Jephthah’s Rash Vow” (based on Judges 11), was published without her permission in 1810, when she was sixteen. In that same year, she met Samuel Gilman, then a Harvard undergraduate, and began spending winters with a brother who lived in Georgia. In 1818 Caroline published a second biblical poem, “Jarius’s Daughter,” in the prestigious North American Review.
Caroline and Samuel were married in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on September 25, 1819, and then moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where Samuel was to serve for almost forty years as the minister of the Archdale Street Unitarian Church. Caroline’s previous contact with life in the South helped her to adjust rapidly to Charleston society. She and her husband conformed to local custom and owned house slaves, and the couple quickly became central figures in the city’s social and literary life. Samuel was supportive of Caroline’s writing but nonetheless had reservations about women who chose “to move on the agitating theatre of public life.” He expected his wife to perform her domestic duties, to assist with his ministerial responsibilities, and to impress “upon the tender minds of youth the precepts of religion.” The couple had seven children, three of whom died in infancy.
Caroline Gilman probably never planned to be a public literary figure. In 1852 she recalled that she had “wept bitterly, and was alarmed as if I had been detected in man’s apparel” after the unauthorized publication of “Jephthah’s Rash Vow.” As she looked back on her career, she reflected the same feeling that writing and publishing were somehow unfeminine: “I find myself, then, at nearly sixty years of age, somewhat of a patriarch in the line of American female authors—a kind of Past Master in the order.” That career, while extremely successful, was also very brief and appears to have been a reaction to family tragedy rather than a conscious choice. Gilman had written only a few poems after she moved to Charleston, but threw herself into writing and publishing following the birth and death of her sixth child in 1831.
In 1832, she founded The Rose Bud, one of the first juvenile weeklies published in the United States. Renamed The Southern Rose Bud in 1833 and The Southern Rose from 1835 until it ceased publication in 1839, the journal gradually expanded its audience to include adults and was widely read throughout the country. Gilman herself produced most of its content, including three serialized novels later published in book form (Recollections of a Housekeeper, 1834; Recollections of a Southern Matron, 1838; and Love’s Progress, 1840), the verse and prose included in her Poetry of Travelling in the United States, 1838, and dozens of tales and poems for both juvenile and adult readers. Between 1837 and 1839 she also edited the Boston Lady’s Annual Register and Housewife’s Memorandum-Book. She did not earn as much money from her writings as later women writers, but most of her books were strong best-sellers by the standards of the time. By 1839 she was the most famous female writer of the South.
Caroline Gilman’s works are marked by a number of striking contradictions. Her first two novels are first-person narratives that promise readers entry “into the recesses of American homes and hearths,” as Gilman put it in 1852, and deny their own fictionality. Both of the Recollections, however, were fictions: unlike Clarissa Packard, the narrator of the Housekeeper, Caroline had never set up housekeeping in Boston, nor had she ever lived on a vast plantation like that of Cornelia Wilton, her aristocratic southern matron. And while the two novels promised a realistic account of married life, recounting “events of actual occurrence,” Gilman largely avoided any discussion of serious marital conflict, focusing instead on the details of household administration.
Much of Gilman’s prose and poetry emphasized women’s limited supporting roles in marriage and in society. At the same time, however, she was far outstripping her husband’s literary efforts and reputation, vigorously negotiating financial matters with her publishers and gently advocating greater rights for women in the Rose series. Her poem “Household Woman” asserted that a woman should perform every “homely task” with “cheerful duty,” always looking “meekly upward to her God”—a God who is at once her divine creator and her husband, the ruler of the domestic sphere. Gilman also made it clear, however, that such submission and self-sacrifice were psychologically costly, noting that a wife’s “first study must be self-control, almost to hypocrisy.”
Gilman saw the preservation of family harmony as one of a wife’s most important duties and hoped that her writings could do the same thing on a national level, attracting “both the Northern and Southern reader” in order “to increase a good sympathy between different portions of the country.” Her strong support of slavery, however, alienated many readers in the North and ultimately made reconciliation more difficult. Gilman’s defense of an institution she defined as “the strength and almost the very life-blood of this Southern Region of the Confederacy” was based less upon racism than upon her view of the natural hierarchy of society—a hierarchy visible in male-female relationships as well—and her belief that slaves provided a more stable and efficient work-force than free white servants, liberating women like herself from household drudgery.
Gilman’s career as a creative writer ended almost as suddenly as it had begun. In the fall of 1839 when she was almost 45 years old, Gilman bore and lost her seventh child, Frederick Samuel. She wrote her sister in January, 1840, that she had developed “something amounting to aversion to the whole writing process,” a process which now “seemed to be almost a disease.” Gilman wrote only a handful of original poems during the rest of her long life, though she continued to recycle material from the Rose journals in gift-books and annuals and produced an anthology of her poetry and a series of popular fortune-telling games based on quotations from other poets.
Following Samuel’s death in February, 1858, Caroline Gilman remained in South Carolina through the Civil War, vehemently supporting the southern cause to the very end. She outlived all but one of her children and died in Washington on September 15, 1888, at the age of 94.
Although Gilman wrote a large number of letters to family and friends, those which survive represent a very small and, it would seem, carefully selected portion of her correspondence. 48 letters are in the South Caroliniana Library of the University of South Carolina. Most of them are reprinted in Mary Scott Saint-Amand, A Balcony in Charleston (1941). In addition to the works mentioned in the above article Gilman published Tales and Ballads (1839), Stories and Poems for Children (1845), Oracles from the Poets (1845), The Sibyl (1848), Verses of a Life Time (1849), The Rose-Bud Wreath (1851), Oracles for Youth (1853) and a poem, Recollections of the private centennial celebration of the overthrow of the tea, at Griffin’s wharf, in Boston harbor, December 16, 1773, in honor of Samuel Howard, one of the actors (1874). With one of her daughters, Caroline Howard Jervey, she wrote Stories and Poems by Mother and Daughter (1872). Gilman edited The Letters of Eliza Wilkinson, During the Invasion and Possession of Charlestown by the British in the Revolutionary War (1839), in which she implicitly compares the city’s self-defense against English invasion to contemporary southern self-defense against northern abolitionist attacks, and the Record of inscriptions in the cemetery and building of the Unitarian, formerly denominated the Independent Church, Archdale Street, Charleston, S. C., from 1777-1860 (1860). For The Female Prose Writers of America (1852), edited by John S. Hart, Gilman wrote “My Autobiography.”
Gilman is the subject of two articles by Jan Bakker, “Another Dilemma of an Intellectual in the Old South: Caroline Gilman, the Peculiar Institution, and Greater Rights for Women in the Rose Magazines,” The Southern Literary Journal (1984) and “Caroline Gilman and the Issue of Slavery in the Rose Magazines, 1832-1839,” Southern Studies (1985). Other relevant studies include Mary Kelley, Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America (1984); Steven M. Stowe, “City, Country and the Feminine Voice,” Intellectual Life in Antebellum Charleston, ed. Michael O’Brien and David Moltke-Hansen (1986); Jane H. and William H. Pease, Ladies, Women, and Wenches: Choice and Constraint in Antebellum Charleston and Boston (1990); Elizabeth Moss, Domestic Novelists in the Old South: Defenders of Southern Culture (1992); Cindy Ann Stiles, “Windows into Antebellum Charleston: Caroline Gilman and the Southern Rose Magazine,” dissertation, University of South Carolina (1994); Christine Macdonald, “Judging Jurisdictions: Geography and Race in Slave Law and Literature of the 1830s,” American Literature (1999); and John Allen Macaulay, Unitarianism in the Antebellum South: The Other Invisible Institution (2000).
Article by David Haberly
Posted March 11, 2002