Cary Sisters

Alice Cary
Alice Cary
Phoebe Cary
Phoebe Cary

Alice Cary (April 26, 1820-February 12, 1871) and Phoebe Cary (September 4, 1824-July 31, 1871) were in their day well known and loved for their poetry and other writings. Alice also wrote prose sketches of rural Ohio and short stories. Phoebe was popular for parodies and religious verses. Raised in a Universalist household, their political and religious views were liberal and reformist. From adolescence to death, the two were inseparable and dependent on each other.

Born on a farm eight miles north of Cincinnati, Ohio, Alice and Phoebe were the fourth and sixth of nine children of Robert and Elizabeth Jessup Cary. Their grandfather, Christopher Cary, had moved there from New Hampshire in 1802, having received a land grant on the western frontier for serving in the Revolutionary War. Although their early years on the farm were a time of hard work and financial deprivation, the children enjoyed love of family. Fond memories of the house and countryside figured prominently in the sisters’ later writing, notably in Alice’s sketches.

Robert and Elizabeth Cary were converts to Universalism. Pious and bible-oriented, they were theologically liberal and passed to their children a strong sense of equality and social justice. From their shy, tender father who often recited poetry, hymns, and scriptural passages while doing farm work, the sisters derived their literary temperament and a love of nature. Their mother, though burdened with household duties, found time to pursue interests in history, biography, and politics. From her they inherited a common sense attitude and an abiding interest in public affairs.

Although the Cary sisters occasionally attended the local common school, they were most often needed at home to help with chores and children. With few books of their own and no libraries available, the girls eagerly read what they could. Despite considerable self-education in later years, their lack of early formal schooling left the sisters feeling inferior to others. Although Alice socialized with New York City’s intellectual elite, she remained shy and self-effacing, always undervaluing her knowledge and talents and underestimating the respect of friends and colleagues.

In 1833 an older sister, Rhoda, whom Alice adored, died of tuberculosis as did 3-year-old sister Lucy. Just two years later, the sisters’ mother also died. Alice’s first published poem as a teenager was “The Child of Sorrow.” She later wrote a story, “The Sisters,” in memory of Rhoda and a poem, “My Little One,” which lamented Lucy’s death. Alice often claimed that the ghost of little Lucy, in her favorite red dress, was seen a number of times on the farm, once by a young nephew unaware of the child’s existence.

The only newspaper the Cary family read, The Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, had a poet’s corner the girls loved. The parents recognized and encouraged their daughters’ writing talents. Two years after Elizabeth Cary died, however, Robert Cary married a harsh, childless widow who thought such activities a sinful waste of time. Though sad and discouraged, the sisters wrote secretly at night and began sending poems to editors. In 1838, when Alice was 18 and Phoebe 14, they each had a poem printed in a newspaper.

Eventually Robert Cary built a new house on the farm for himself and his new wife, leaving his children in the old one. Away from their stepmother’s authority, the sisters were free to let the creative muse reign. Alice was the more prolific, writing diligently, compulsively, every day. For ten years she published without pay wherever she could, mostly in Universalist and Cincinnati publications. In 1847 she received her first payment, $10.00, from the Cincinnati Sentinel (a Universalist paper, later called Star of the West). The Sentinel took her poems for many years afterwards. She also began writing regularly, both poetry and prose, for the National Era in Washington, D.C., the abolitionist paper that serialized Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Soon the works of both sisters were winning acclaim. Edgar Allen Poe declared Alice’s poem, “Pictures of Memory” “one of the most musically perfect lyrics in the English language.” John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the sisters several letters of appreciation. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, became a life-long friend and admirer. He visited them for the first time at their farm home in Ohio and later wrote: “I found them, on my first visit to Cincinnati, early in the summer of 1849; and the afternoon spent in their tidy cottage on ‘Walnut Hills,’ seven miles out of the city, in the company of congenial spirits, since departed, is among the greenest oases in my recollection of scenes and events long past.”

The previous year, editor Rufus W. Griswold included the Cary sisters’ poetry in The Female Poets of America. He also gathered their first volume of poetry, Poems of Alice and Phoebe Cary, 1850. It earned them $100. In 1850 they took a three-month trip to the East-mainly New York and Boston-and met some of the people who had given them praise and encouragement. Whittier, who remained an affectionate friend, wrote a poem in memory of the surprise visit, published after Alice’s death. Called “The Singer,” one verse reads:

Years passed; through all the land her name
A pleasant household word became;
All felt behind the singer stood
A sweet and gracious womanhood.

In her late 20’s Alice fell in love with a man she hoped to marry. Influenced by his prosperous parents, who considered her too poor and rustic for their refined family, he broke the relationship and later married someone else. Depressed by this rejection, Alice moved to New York City in late 1850 determined to make her living as a writer-a daring step for a shy, gentle, farm woman. The move may have been motivated by romantic interest in her editor and close friend Rufus Griswold, as much as by the cosmopolitan allure of New York City. Phoebe and the frail youngest sister Elmina, who also wrote stories and poems, joined her the following year.

Poetry by itself has never been a lucrative way to make a living for most writers. Nevertheless the Cary sisters persisted, earning whatever they could and living frugally within their meager income. Alice’s poems appeared regularly in leading magazines such as Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, New York Ledger, New York Weekly, and Packard’s Monthly, while Phoebe had success in Scribner’s Monthly, Galaxy, and Putnam’s Monthly. Together they developed a circle of admiring, supportive friends.

In 1855 Alice bought a modest house on 20th Street which became a popular salon for intellectuals, artists, and social reformists in New York City and beyond. For over 15 years the sisters hosted tea and conversation every Sunday evening. Besides Greeley and Whittier, participants included George Ripley, who founded Brook Farm; Mary E. Dodge, author of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates; poets Richard and Elizabeth Stoddard; Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Mary Booth, editor of Harper’s Bazaar; William Lloyd Garrison; and P. T. Barnum. Actors, writers, clergy, feminists, reformers, and philanthropists, both known and unknown, flocked to these congenial evenings.

In 1852 Alice published Clovernook: or, Recollections of Our Neighborhood in the West. These sketches lovingly portrayed the country life of her childhood, but also dealt realistically with the hardship, economic deprivation, and death so common to that experience. She followed this success with more Clovernook sketches the next year, Clovernook Children, 1854, and Pictures of Country Life, 1859. The books sold well in England as well as America. Modern day critic Judith Fetterley has described Alice as “an early realist”…and “one of the originators of the genre of regionalism, a distinctly female mode.”

Alice also wrote novels and short stories, including Hagar, a Story of To-Day, 1852; Married, Not Mated; or, How They Lived at Woodside and Throckmorton Hall, 1856; Adopted Daughter, and Other Tales, 1859; Pictures of Country Life, 1859; The Bishop’s Son, 1867; and Snow-Berries: A Book for Young Folk, 1867. Fetterley characterizes Alice, as a writer of fiction, as “a master of the uncanny, of the dream sequence, of narrative generated by the logic of deeply interior and nonrational psychic life,” in the tradition of Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Alice’s poetry appeared as Lyra and Other Poems, 1853; Maiden of Tlascala, 1855, a 72-page narrative poem; Ballads, Lyrics and Hymns, 1866; and Ballads for Little Folks, 1874.

Phoebe, less prolific, edited Hymns for All Christians, 1869, and published two books of poetry, Poems and Parodies, 1854, and Poems of Faith, Hope, and Love, 1868. Her inspirational lyrics appeared in many church hymnals, on Sunday School cards, and in household scrapbooks. The well loved, “Nearer Home,” was often sung at funerals, including Alice’s and her own. It is better known by its first phrase, “One Sweetly Solemn Thought.”

The youngest sister, Elmina, also had writing talent, but inherited the family’s poor health and became an invalid at 20. She was tenderly cared for by Alice and Phoebe until her death in 1862 at 31. Alice wrote a book of poems, A Lover’s Diary, 1868, as a tribute to Elmina. Although the book itself was not critically acclaimed, many of the individual poems have been included in other publications.

The constant need to publish in order to support themselves took its toll on the Cary sisters’ literary reputation. Though loved by the public, their poems and stories appeared too often for critics to take them as seriously as they might have done otherwise. But writing daily was a psychological as well as financial need for Alice and, later, for Phoebe. Their work was the center of their existence and their means of expressing who they were and what they believed. Alice was the most well-known and respected during their lifetimes. Phoebe’s reputation grew relatively greater afterwards.

The Cary sisters went to church regularly, attending Universalist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist services and were friendly with ministers of all these denominations and others. They nevertheless considered themselves Universalists. According to Phoebe, “Though singularly liberal and unsectarian in her views, [Alice] always preserved a strong attachment to the church of her parents, and, in the main, accepted its doctrines. Caring little for creeds or minor points, she most firmly believed in human brotherhood as taught by Jesus; and in a God whose loving kindness is so deep and so unchangeable that there can never come a time even the vilest sinner, in all the ages of eternity, when if he arises and go to Him, his Father will not see him afar off, and have compassion upon him.”

Alice’s poem, “Reconciled,” ends:

Yea, when mortality dissolves,
Shall I not meet thine hour unawed?
My house eternal in the heavens
Is lighted by the smile of God!

The Cary Sisters had a passion for justice and hated oppression of any kind. They especially disliked the wrongs done to women in their day. Although Alice was in sympathy with the goals of the suffrage movement, she never actively joined, preferring to do her part through writing. Her novels and stories sometimes depicted the plight of poor, single, pregnant, abandoned women. Others portrayed self-confident, happily married women who remained true to themselves instead of conforming to societal expectations. At the urging of editor and Unitarian feminist Jane Croly, Alice agreed reluctantly to become the first president of the New York Woman’s Club, later named “Sorosis.” This organization was created to help women think for themselves, gain new means of honorable employment, and overcome barriers that denied them opportunities.

Lively, outgoing Phoebe, on the other hand, was much more vocal in her support of the rights of women. For a short time she was assistant editor of The Revolution, a newspaper published by Susan B. Anthony. One of her most popular poems was “Was She Hen-Pecked?”, a dialogue between husband and wife that caricatured the view that a woman’s place was in the home where she would be enclosed and protected, and not allowed to think, speak, or vote-for fear that she might rise above her husband.

During Alice’s last two years she became increasingly crippled and was finally bedridden in great pain. She continued to write and was cared for faithfully and lovingly by Phoebe. In 1870 Alice died in her sleep. She left an unfinished novel, The Born Thrall, 1871, and enough uncollected poems to fill two more volumes.

Almost every newspaper across the United States carried an obituary that lauded Alice Cary’s contributions. Those who regularly read her poetry felt they had lost a personal friend. The funeral service, held at the Church of the Stranger, was packed with her literary, intellectual, and artistic acquaintances. The pallbearers included P. T. Barnum and Horace Greeley, who said that he had never seen so many distinguished men and women together in one place. Unitarian and Independent Liberal minister Octavius Brooks Frothingham attended the burial.

For several years Phoebe had been courted by an affectionate man and briefly considered marriage. Love and duty toward her sister had a stronger claim on her, however. Phoebe was also ill during Alice’s last year. Battling fatigue and fever, probably caused by malaria, she attended to Alice’s needs and ignored her own. When Alice died, the light went out of Phoebe’s life. Exhausted, grieving, and in poor health, she became severely depressed. She sat in a darkened room unable to eat or work, rejecting all visitors.

Some concerned friends arranged for Phoebe to visit Newport, Rhode Island, in hopes that a different environment would revive her spirits. The result was contrary to expectations. She soon was bedridden with fever and chills. Only six months after Alice’s death, Phoebe passed away. One of the officiants at her funeral was A. G. Laurie, a Scottish Universalist minister who had known her from her youth. She was laid to rest in a grave in New York’s Greenwood Cemetery next to her beloved sisters, Alice and Elmina.

An obituary in the New York Tribune summed up Phoebe’s beliefs, expressed by her life as well as her poems: “Her religious sentiments were deep and strong, her faith in the Eternal Goodness unwavering. Educated in the faith of Universalism, she believed to the last in the final salvation of all God’s children.”


Since neither of the Cary sisters kept a diary nor revealed much in their surviving letters to family and friends, biographical information comes primarily from a memoir written by long time editor and friend Mary Clemmer (later Mary C. Ames). Clemmer’s “A Memorial of Their Lives,” the introduction to The Poetical Works of Alice and Phoebe Cary (1876), is based upon interviews with the Cary sisters’ relatives and friends, a few letters, a memorial of Alice by Phoebe, and Clemmer’s own memories.

Article by June Edwards
Posted March 20, 2003