Notable Women, Notable Manuscripts: Celia Thaxter

In celebration of Women’s History month, this is the second post in a series by blogger Kim Reynolds (Curator of Manuscripts) focusing on BPL's special collections featuring notable 19th century American women.

Celia Thaxter (1835-1894) was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She grew up on the Isle of Shoals and Appledore Island, Maine, where her father Thomas Laighton owned Appledore House, one of the first resorts in New England. She married Levi Thaxter when she was 16 and moved to Watertown, Massachusetts in 1851. “Land-Locked,” Thaxter's first poem, was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861. In it, she expresses her misery at being separated from nature and the ocean.

Ten years later, Thaxter moved back to Appledore Island. She became hostess of Appledore House, where writers and artists such as Annie and James Fields, Sarah Orne Jewett, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Morris Hunt, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Childe Hassam gathered. 

Thaxter continued to write for The Atlantic Monthly and other influential magazines including Harper’s and Scribner’s, and she wrote several books of poems and prose.

Two of her most well-known works are her autobiographical essays Among the Isle of Shoals (1878) and An Island Garden (1894). Among the Isle of Shoals appeared in a fifty-cent guidebook edition and was sold in railway stations. In An Island GardenThaxter recounts the year she spent working on her legendary garden, which was painted several times by the American impressionist artist Childe Hassam. The library is fortunate to have eight of Hassam's illustrations from an Island Garden, part of nearly one hundred works by Hassam in its Prints & Drawings collection.

 

The BPL's Collection of Celia Thaxter Manuscripts

The Rare Books & Manuscripts Department holds 269 letters written by Thaxter between 1869 and 1893. Most of these letters address friend and fellow author Annie Fields and her husband, publisher James Thomas Fields.

In this collection of correspondence, Thaxter describes her domestic life, writing and other artistic endeavors, gardening, and experiences with Spiritualism. The collection also contains letters regarding the infamous murders at Smuttynose Island; Thaxter later wrote an essay about them entitled “A Memorable Murder.”

The complete Thaxter manuscript collection has been digitized and can be browsed and downloaded through Digital Commonwealth. A finding aid for the collection is also available.

 
 
 

For Further Reading:

Celia Thaxter Book List

Suggestions for further reading on Celia Thaxter.


Drawing on previously unexamined letters and family papers as well as Thaxter's own writings and other sources, Mandel not only reveals new details about the author's life but also places her in a broader literary and cultural context.

Much attention has been focused on this celebrated author's poetry and on her life as a literary figures and artist whose family maintained a resort hotel on the Isles of Shoals. One Woman's Work focuses on a relatively unexplored facet of Thaxter's gifts: her hand-illustrated books, watercolors, and painted china.

A gardening classic, this elegant and charming edition is for anyone who loves an island, a garden, the paintings of Childe Hassam, or beautiful bookmaking.

Celia Thaxter was already a popular poet when she began to publish the essays of Among the Isles of Shoals in the Atlantic Monthly in 1869; they were an immediate sensation. Charles Dickens called Thaxter's essays "admirable" and Horace Greeley declared, "The best prose writing I have seen for a long time is Mrs. Thaxter's 'Isles of Shoals' in the Atlantic. Her pen-pictures are wonderfully well-done."

Includes Thaxter's famous essay "A Memorable Murder," about the 1873 murders on Smuttynose Island.

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