Mary Hartwell was born in Luray, Ohio, and at
the age of nine her family moved to Milford, Illinois. Within
a year of this move her father died of pneumonia. Her mother
passed away just a few months later, orphaning Mary and her
two younger siblings, Roxana and Marcus. The children’s
maternal grandfather was appointed their guardian. They moved
to Hebron, Ohio, to live with him, and attended the local
public school. When Mary was thirteen, she received her teaching
certificate, and she started teaching the following year.
Catherwood taught at small country schools until
she was able to enter Granville Female College in Ohio. She
managed to put herself through the four-year course in only
three years, finishing in 1868. During this time her work
began to be published, and she was able to support herself
with her writing. She married James Steele Catherwood in December
of 1877, and they moved to Oakford,
Indiana. In 1879, they moved to Indianapolis.
During that time, Mrs. Catherwood developed a friendship with
James Whitcomb Riley, another influential
Indiana author. She was quite involved in literary circles
in Indianapolis, and was fairly prolific while living there.
In 1882, the Catherwoods moved to Hoopeston, Illinois, and
in 1897, Mary moved to Chicago, where she lived until her
death in 1902.
Catherwood began writing at
a very young age. When asked when she first wanted to write,
she replied “I think it must have been when I was in
my cradle” (qtd. in Wilson 13).
Her work first was published while she was
still in her mid-teens.
Although many of Catherwood's
stories are based in the Midwest, a handful of them are actually
set in Indiana. One of her short stories takes place in a
town she calls Fairfield, which is the original name of Oakford,
Indiana, where the Catherwoods lived for a time. This story,
"Mallston’s Youngest,” was
published in Lippincott’s Magazine in August
of 1880. It contains a particularly vivid description of the
forest outside of Oakford:
There was a joyful hurry of birds all around.
That leopard of the Indiana woods, the sycamore, repeated
in vistas. "Sycamores always look like dazzling marble
shafts blackened with patches of moss," said the young
In 1884, Catherwood published
a novel called Old Caravan Days,
which is about a family moving from Ohio to Illinois during
the 1800s. The story is intended for juvenile readers, but
contains passages detailing Indiana’s pristine environment
before massive deforestation
of the wetlands occurred.
The woods of Indiana ran to moss, and sometimes
descended to bogginess, and broad-leaved paw-paw bushes
the shade; mighty sycamores blotched with white leaned over
the streams: there was a dreamy influence in the June air
and pale blue curtains of mist hung over distances (158).
Later in the book, Catherwood virtually places
readers in the untouched Indiana forests
with a strikingly detailed section. In this passage, she personifies
nature itself, conveying the feeling of fear and awe that
these huge, dark woods must have contained for the early settlers:
It was dark in the woods. A rustle could
be heard now and then as of some tiny four-footed creature
moving the stiff grass; or a twig cracked. The frogs in
the creek were tuning their bass-viols. A tree-toad rattled
on some unseen trunk, and the whole woods heaved its great
lungs in the steady breathing which it never leaves off,
but which becomes a roar and a wheeze in stormy or winter
Finally, Catherwood describes Indiana’s
landscape in a way that is quite different from how many of
us know it today. The Indiana that we are familiar with is
mainly composed of wide stretches of open farmland, broken
only by a few scattered patches of trees. In contrast, she
relates the following:
The Indiana landscape was beautiful in tones of
green and stretches of foliage. Whoever calls it monotonous
has never watched its varying complexions or the visible
breath of Indian summer which never departs from it at any
Another of Catherwood’s
children’s novels, The Secrets at Roseladies,
published in 1888, is set in east
central Indiana along the Wabash River. She depicts the
at the end of a summer day:
It was about sunset, and the Wabash River had all the
milk and fire and changeable green tints of opals. It
a broad volume round a bend betwixt hills in the north,
and spread around sand-banks, islands, and across pebbled
shallows, in some places pouring a swift current and in
others oozing half asleep against drift; so the distance
seemed long from the east shore to the west (21).
Later in the novel, Catherwood portrays the darkness
of the forest at night:
Gray, damp twilight was on the river, but in the
woods night itself made awful glooms among the barky trunks
and close-huddled thickets. The bunchy foliage of pecan trees
would have shut out all after-glow had there been any (54-55).
In an environmental context, Mary Catherwood's
works are of great importance because they provide descriptions
of the landscapes of an Indiana that once was. The drastic
changes in the forest and wetlands become
apparent when reading her rich portrayals of the land as it
was a century and a half ago.
Catherwood, Mary Hartwell. “Mallston’s
Youngest.” Lippincott’s Magazine Aug.
---. Old Caravan Days. Boston,
---. The Secrets at Roseladies.
Price, Robert. A Critical Biography
of Mrs. Mary Hartwell Catherwood: A Study of Middle Western
Regional Authorship, 1847-1902. Columbus, OH: Ohio State
Robb, Kenneth A. “Mary Hartwell
Catherwood.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. 1989.
Wilson, M.L. Biography of Mary
Hartwell Catherwood. Newark, OH: American Tribune Printery,
"'...and touch the universal
heart.' The Appeal of James Whitcomb Riley."
The Lilly Library: Indiana U Libraries. Oct. 2002