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Maria Cummins, 1827-1866
Old Cummins House
Click image for more information
 Born in Salem in 1827 to a family of some social standing and relative affluence, Maria Susanna Cummins moved, while still quite young, with her family to Dorchester, at that time still a rural suburb separate from Boston. Maria's father, David, had become a judge of the court of common pleas of Norfolk County. Her mother was David's third wife. He already had four children prior to this marriage, and three more followed Maria, making eight children in the family. Families of stepbrothers and sisters were common, so the characters of stepmother or father, orphan, etc., of the fiction of the day were not unrelated to the reality of the times. The Cummins Colonial home may have been the model for the country seat in the suburb of D------ in The Lamplighter. Maria attended Mrs. Charles Sedgwick's Young Ladies' School in Lenox, Massachusetts. Mrs. Sedgwick's husband, Charles, had a sister Catharine Maria Sedgwick who was the nation's foremost woman author and who lived with her brother and maintained an occasional literary salon. Maria could not have failed to be influenced by her association with this author.

Maria Cummins's The Lamplighter, first published in 1854, sold 40,000 copies in the first month and 100,000 by the end of a year. It is the story, as described in the Dictionary of American Biography, of a child lost in infancy, rescued from a cruel woman by an old lamplighter, adopted by a blind woman, and later discovered by her well-to-do father. It tells a woman's story: a young girl, without financial resources or family support, must find her own way. The plot focuses on the development and use of the main character's own talents, and he book is intended in this manner to be useful and instructive. Readers should examine their own circumstances and should develop self-contol and self-discipline. The characters in the book are mainly people from the country who have come to Boston from small towns and farms of New England, a trend reflective of society at the time. Nina Baym says "Rural women ... Could not merely replicate the behavior of the uplands they had left behind. To be a woman in a new social setting was, in effect, to be a new kind of woman."

The Lamplighter was published when Maria was tweny-seven years old. She became seriously ill ten years later and died in 1866. She was able to write a total of only four books: The Lamplighter (1854), Mabel Vaughan (1857), El Fureidis (1860) and Haunted Hearts (1864).

For a pdf version of an article on Cummins by Anthony Sammarco published in the Dorchester Community News on Jan. 10, 1991, Click here. But please note that contrary to Sammarco's statement in the article, Cummins did not write Wide, Wide World (actually by Susan Warner) nor Folkore.

For more information, consult:

Cummins, Maria Susanna. The Lamplighter. Edited and with an introduction by Nina Baym. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

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Created: August 17, 2003   Modified: February 19, 2008