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Marion Harland: The making of a household word

Karen Manners Smith, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Forgotten today by all but a handful of women's domestic and literary historians, Marion Harland (1830-1922) was one of the best known American women in the nineteenth century. She was the author of some 75 works of fiction and domestic advice, hundreds of magazine articles and short stories, and a series of syndicated newspaper advice columns. It is not extravagant to say that Marion Harland was, for many readers, the Julia Child, Danielle Steel, and Dear Abby of her day. Marion Harland was born Mary Virginia Hawes in rural Virginia. After a young womanhood spent in Richmond, where she adopted her pen name and published her first best-selling novel, Alone (1854), she married Reverend Edward Payson Terhune, and thereafter lived in the North. Her most famous volume, Common Sense in the Household (1871), was a cookbook enlivened with pungent commentary. It sold over a million copies and remained in print for half a century. A lifelong supporter of the cult of domesticity, Marion Harland was never a feminist, and was in fact briefly allied with the anti-suffrage movement. Nevertheless she promoted an ideal of womanhood that was strong, intellectual, and capable of independent living. A wife and mother herself, she was supremely well-organized and managed a full time career as a writer while running a household, assisting her husband's ministry, and directing charities. Her prodigious activity was fueled by a powerful ego and a need for adulation that appear starkly at odds with the modest domestication she recommended for other women. But she remained largely unconflicted herself, serenely managing her life, work, and those around her with imperiousness tempered by a warmth and vivacity that endeared her to many. Marion Harland continued to write and publish until just before her death at ninety-one. This dissertation is a narrative biography of Marion Harland's life and a look at her works through the prism of women's history. It makes extensive use of manuscript sources, including collected letters, the recently discovered diaries of Marion Harland and her husband, and a family memoir, also unpublished and previously unknown.

Subject Area

American history|Womens studies|American studies|Biographies|American literature

Recommended Citation

Smith, Karen Manners, "Marion Harland: The making of a household word" (1990). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9022746.