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The rediscovery of Harriet Prescott’s (later Harriet Prescott Spofford’s) “Circumstance” is one of feminist scholarship’s many invaluable contributions to US literary history. Ironically, the purposes that motivated that short story’s reclamation have also partially obscured it. Many critics have emphasized the story’s treatment of gender and, less, of race; others have probed its engagement with Indian-captivity narrative, in part because of the importance of women to that genre.1 Yet its specific participation in the cultural life of its own time remains mostly unexamined. When first published by James Russell Lowell in The Atlantic Monthly in May 1860, it entered into discussions of eschatology, slavery, and even meteorology at least as directly and energetically as it addressed gender or race. The critical reception of Prescott’s short story tells a cautionary tale about the recovery of literary works: the objectives of a salvage operation can veil our perception of the treasure we raise dripping from the deep.
Once widely familiar, the story now requires recapitulation. In “Circumstance,”2 an unnamed woman sets out for her home in the “eastern wilds of Maine” after a day tending a sick neighbor. Her fatigue opens her to an apparition of a winding-sheet and a voice imploring the Lord to “have mercy on the people!” As she enters the “wilderness untrodden save [End Page 447] by stealthy native or deadly panther tribes” (558), a “swift shadow, like the fabulous flying-dragon”—an “Indian Devil,” or catamount—seizes her and carries her into a tree, where its preparation to eat her provokes her to scream. Recognizing “that while the beast listened he would not gnaw” (559), she forestalls death by singing, diverting the animal with cradle songs, sea-chanteys, reels and jigs, “vivid national airs” (560), “mournful ballads” (561), and finally “old Covenanting hymns” (562). When she pauses or tires, the animal restores her to her task by piercing her skin (560). Assured of God’s Providence by singing “sacred anthems” (562), she receives a vision of the New Jerusalem, straight from Revelation, as the dawn breaks. This “divine rapture” (563) is interrupted by the sound of her husband arriving to rescue her, their child on his arm. When awareness of his presence “snatch[es]” her back from her “fervent vision of God’s peace” (564), she loses her voice. As the beast, glimpsing the husband, grasps her to carry her higher, he shoots, bringing it to earth, where it breaks her fall. The little family emerges from the forest to find their home and the nearby farms burned and their neighbors massacred. Ironically, “[d]esolation and death” have ravaged the home that meant security to the woman during her ordeal, and “beneficence and life” have been in the wild, into which her suffering summoned the husband and child out of harm’s way (565).
Prescott had made a stir with “In a Cellar” and “The Amber Gods,” stories published by the Atlantic in the winters of 1859 and 1860, but “Circumstance” seems to have produced an even stronger reaction. At least two impressive witnesses, Emily Dickinson and William Dean Howells, testified to its impact. In April 1862 Dickinson informed Prescott’s (and her own) patron, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, apparently in reply to his inquiry about “certain American authors, then much read,” that she had inspected “Circumstance” but that it “followed me in the Dark, so I avoided her.” Years later, Susan Gilbert Dickinson remembered that her sister-in-law had called it “the only thing I ever read in my life that I didn’t think I could have imagined myself!” and that, far from avoiding Prescott, Emily had asked Sue to “[s]end me [End Page 448] everything she writes.”3 Howells—though, as Prescott Spofford’s biographer Elizabeth Halbeisen notes, he declined to publish her fiction in the Atlantic when he edited it4—honored “Circumstance” at the end of his life by including it in his anthology of Great Modern...