Friday, January 29, 2021

Mary Hewitt Stebbins: 
A Poet Poe Liked

They say that fame is  fleeting. That was especially true in the era before the media became mass, and it seemed to be the case with Mary E. Hewitt, once called “one of the most charming of the ‘Poetesses of America.’” 

The poet and editor, who produced a half dozen books in the mid-19th Century and who counted Edgar Allen Poe among her friends, died virtually forgotten in a Ridgefield farmhouse. Forgotten, that is, except by a novelist editor of The Ridgefield Press.

“In character she is sincere, fervent, benevolent, with a heart full of the truest charity — sensitive to praise and to blame,” Poe described her in 1846. “In temperament, melancholy (although this is not precisely the term); in manner, subdued, gentle, yet with grace and dignity; converses impressively, earnestly, yet quietly and in a low tone. In person she is tall and slender, with black hair and large gray eyes; complexion also dark; the general expression of the countenance singularly interesting and agreeable.”

Mary Elizabeth Morse was born in 1807 in Malden, Mass. Her farming father, Joseph, died when she was a child and her mother, Betsey Moore, moved the family to Boston where Mary grew up. Little is known about her youth, but she must have received an excellent education and been exposed to people in the arts. In 1827, she married James Lang Hewitt, who was to become a prominent music publisher, and by 1829 they were living in New York City.

By the early 1840s, Mary Hewitt was writing poetry that was appearing in such magazines as The Knickerbocker, sometimes under the pseudonyms of “Ione” or “Jane.” Her first book, The Songs of Our Land, and Other Poems,  was published in 1845 by W.D. Ticknor, a major publisher of the era. The book consists mostly of her poems that had appeared in magazines. 

In a lengthy review of The Songs of Our Land appearing in Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine,  Edgar Allan Poe said her “compositions evince poetic fervor, classicism, and keen appreciation of both moral and physical beauty. No one of them, perhaps, can be judiciously commended as a whole; but no one of them is without merit.” He concluded that the writer has talent that needs to develop. “Mrs. Hewitt has, upon the whole, given indication rather than immediate evidence of poetic power. If not discouraged, she will undoubtedly achieve, hereafter, a very desirable triumph.”

Nine years later, her second collection, Poems, Sacred, Passionate, and Legendary appeared, but Poe was unable to review this book — he had died in 1849 at the age of 40. Her poems also appeared in several anthologies published in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Hewitt was the editor of four books, often contributing prose pieces to each: The Gem of the Western World (1850), The Memorial: Written by Friends of the Late Mrs. Osgood (1851), Heroines of History (1852), and Lives of Illustrious Women of All Ages (1860). “Mrs. Osgood” was Frances Sargent Osgood (1811-1850), a close friend of both Poe and Hewitt.

James Hewitt died in 1853. Two years later, Mary Hewitt married widower Russell W. Stebbins Sr., a wealthy New York cotton merchant and native of Ridgefield, who was 14 years her senior. Mary continued to write and edit under the name of  Mary E. Hewitt.


Russell and Mary lived in New York City but Russell also had a farm on North Salem Road, inherited from Stebbins ancestors, that the couple used as a summer home. Russell Stebbins’s close relations with The South in connection with his cotton dealings may have prompted him to retire to the Ridgefield farm in 1861, the year the Civil War broke out.   According to Barbara Wardenburg, who once owned the farmhouse at 180 North Salem Road, the place dates back to the 1700s. A past owner may have been a Stebbins who was a Loyalist and fled during the Revolution, only to later return and reclaim the property.

Once Russell retired to Ridgefield, Mary seems to have retired from writing. No more books by her were published and no poems seemed to appear in magazines.

By 1870, the household included Mary, then 64 years old; Russell, 78;  Delia Moore Osgood, 66, Mary’s widowed sister; Carlotta Moore, 25,  probably a niece; Delia Stebbins, 67, sister of Russell; and Abigail Stebbins, 57,  daughter of Russell by his first wife.  With five “senior citizens” in the household, it’s not surprising they also had two young Irish maids plus a 19-year-old “laborer” to help out.

Russell died in 1878 and is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn — the same cemetery where Mary’s first husband, James Hewitt, is interred. Mary, who died in 1894, is buried with neither spouse, but in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Mass., next to her sister Delia Moore Osgood. Nearby is the grave of Mary’s good friend, Frances Sargent Osgood, whose husband, artist Samuel Stillman Osgood, had painted a portrait of her now owned by the New-York Historical Society. (Osgood also painted Edgar Allen Poe. He was not closely related to Delia.)

By the time she died in her 87th year, Mary Moore Hewitt Stebbins had been all but forgotten in literary circles.  While her husband’s death 16 years earlier had gotten substantial mention in the New York press, including a 190-word obituary in The New York Times, Mary received only a 21-word notice in the New York Tribune, which mentioned nothing of her career as an editor and poet and cited only her function as a wife of Russell Stebbins. (Russell’s Times obituary said only that he was survived by an unnamed wife; his Tribune obituary did not even mention he had a wife.)

The Ridgefield Press  had barely covered Russell’s passing, giving him 40 words, but  the newspaper was effusive at Mary’s death, turning out more than 250 words about her. 

“There died in the northern part of Ridgefield Tuesday a very intellectual woman, one whose personality was stamped with the higher thought and whose character withal was sympathetic, full of love and tenderness,”  the account began.

“Mrs. Russell Stebbins died at her home in North Ridgefield at 4 o’clock Tuesday morning. She had been confined to her home but a week, but during the past two years since the death of her sister, a most lovable companion, Mrs. Delia M. Osgood, she had gradually declined.” 

After briefly describing the funeral at St. Stephen’s, The Press noted that Mrs. Stebbins would be buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery “where her friend, the venerable poet-physician, Oliver Wendell Holmes, has also been laid this week.”

The obituary goes on to tell something of her life, noting that “Mrs. Stebbins had numerous warm friends high in art and literature, and her own writings in prose and verse were by no means of an inferior order. Her contributions to the better periodicals were choice gems at the time when Emerson, Whittier, Holmes, Hawthorne, and Lowell were making American literature of a superior standard. 

“Her life was thrown into a rare literary channel indeed. The atmosphere she breathed during her active life was one long day of higher pleasure. Her Songs of Our Land breathe a sentiment of earnestness, a desire to reach a higher plane of living. Innately refined, she craved those associations which could not fail to mellow her life into a very ideal of early existence...

“She is not dead. She lives in a realm unfettered by finite uncertainties. Let her past be an inspiration to those who read her beautiful words left on printed pages.”

The obituary was undoubtedly written by Press editor Edgar Bross who himself turned out two novels around this time, and who probably knew many of the local literati. 

• • • 

Thirty years after Mary Hewitt Stebbins died, a “holocaust of letters that had accumulated in the attic” of an old house took place on Governor Street. 

“As one heaped basket after another was carried down and its contents emptied upon the bonfire in the backyard, a bystander casually picked up a letter, and opening it looked at the signature, Sarah H. Whitman, then glancing over the pages saw references to Mr. Poe,” reported Edith Dickson of the Edgar Allan Poe Society in 1925.  Sarah Whitman was once slated to marry Poe, and the breakup of their engagement sparked lurid newspaper accounts of what had happened. In the rescued letter, Whitman debunks the sensational stories the media told, and relates what actually happened. Dated Oct. 4, 1850,  the letter was addressed to Whitman’s good friend, Mary E. Hewitt. 

So were several other letters rescued from the fire that are now in the archives of the Poe society in Baltimore. Who knows how many  priceless historical letters to Mary Hewitt were destroyed that day, but to offer a hint of their monetary value: An 1845 letter from Poe to Mary Hewitt — in which Poe admits he was an autograph collector — sold at an auction in 1972 for $3,300. That’s about $20,000 today.

Be careful what you burn.

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