Born on 26 February 1849 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, writer Katharine Sherwood Bonner was the eldest of three surviving children of the five born to physician Charles Bonner and Mary Wilson Bonner. Kate was educated at a local academy except for a brief term in 1863 at Hamner Hall, an Episcopal boarding school in Montgomery, Alabama. She witnessed the Civil War firsthand when Holly Springs was occupied by Federal troops: Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his officers commandeered local residences, including Cedarhurst, the Bonner home. In 1865 Mary Bonner died, leaving fourteen-year-old Kate and younger siblings Ruth and Sam to be cared for by their father; his sister, Martha; and the family’s black “Grandmammy” to several generations, Molly Wilson.
On Valentine’s Day 1871 Kate married a persistent beau, Edward McDowell. Their only child, Lilian, was born the following December. They soon moved to Texas, where Edward had relatives, but by the fall of 1873, Kate and Lilian had returned. Leaving the baby with disapproving relatives, Kate went on alone to Boston. Secretarial positions with a series of prominent Bostonians—editor Nahum Capen, reformer Dr. Dio Lewis, and renowned poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—provided her entrée to the city’s highest social and literary circles. In Longfellow, Kate found a lifelong friend and literary patron.
She took Sherwood Bonner as her pen name and discovered a marketable voice with a series of southern-slanted reports about Boston written for the Memphis Avalanche in 1874–75. She gained notoriety with “The Radical Club,” a satiric poem that appeared in the Boston Times; she subsequently financed an 1876 European tour with travel columns prominently featured in Boston and Memphis newspapers. Over the next few years, she placed short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in respected periodicals, including Harper’s Monthly. In particular, her five “Grandmammy Tales,” affectionate memoirs featuring Wilson’s character and voice, helped to launch the nationally popular genre of black-dialect fiction. Other stories in the raucous tradition of Mark Twain built her a substantial reputation as an atypical female humorist. Several biographical sketches hint at emerging feminist themes, and two evocative historical essays describe wartime events in Holly Springs and the 1878 yellow fever epidemic there that claimed the lives of Bonner’s father and brother.
In 1878 Harper Brothers published Bonner’s unconventional Reconstruction novel, Like unto Like, set in Yariba, a fictional blend of Holly Springs and Huntsville, Alabama. The Valcours, a lighthearted novella with a tomboy heroine, was serialized in Lippincott’s in 1881. She continued to mine the profitable vein of local-color fiction with four Tennessee mountain stories as well as four later tales that represent the first published fiction to depict realistic characters and dialects of southern Illinois. After Bonner finally obtained an Illinois divorce from Edward McDowell, her daughter and her aunt, Martha Bonner, returned with her to Boston.
When Bonner’s health declined, she returned to Holly Springs and a diagnosis of advanced breast cancer. She died at home on Salem Street on 22 July 1883 and is buried, at her request, in an unmarked grave in the local cemetery.
Sherwood Bonner’s literary reputation remains linked to her local-color and black-dialect fiction, which is collected in Dialect Tales (1883) and Suwanee River Tales (1884). Her travel letters, essays, and representative short fiction are reprinted in A Sherwood Bonner Sampler, 1869–1884.
- Anne R. Gowdy, ed., A Sherwood Bonner Sampler, 1869–1884 (2000)
- Hubert McAlexander, The Prodigal Daughter (1981)
- Katherine B. McKee, Reading Reconstruction: Sherwood Bonner and the Literature of the Post-Civil War South (forthcoming)