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A Sherwood Bonner Sampler, 1869-1884
(June 2000)
Like Unto Like
(June 1997)

Home:  >Browse Listings   >Authors   >Bonner, Sherwood

Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowell

Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowell

Until recently, Sherwood Bonner was mostly remembered — when she was remembered at all — for her short fiction published in northern magazines between 1875 and 1884, fiction notable for its humor and local-color dialect. Her reputation well into the 20th century rested largely on two volumes she compiled while literally on her deathbed, Dialect Tales (1883) and Suwanee River Tales (1884), which together are a collection of 29 stories Bonner selected for their popularity in an attempt to provide a financial legacy for her young daughter. The true breadth of her talent as writer, however, is now beginning to be realized as works long out of print are being rediscovered and republished, works that include short fiction, a novella, a novel, two series of journalistic travel letters, celebrity profiles, historical/autobiographical sketches, and poems.

Catherine Sherwood Bonner was born February 26, 1849, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. “Kate,” as she was called, experienced the Civil War first-hand in Holly Springs, which served for a time as headquarters for Union General Ulysses S. Grant during his Vicksburg campaign of 1862-63.

On February 14, 1871, she married Edward McDowell in Holly Springs and on December 10 gave birth to a daughter, Lilian. In an attempt to provide for his family in the postwar South, McDowell took his family to Texas, but they returned to Mississippi in 1873 when his plans failed to blossom. Bonner left her child with relatives and traveled alone by train to Boston in hopes of seeking education and opportunities to earn money. Bonner had published her first story in 1869 and had corresponded with editor Nahood Capun; now, he helped her to get her start in Boston, first as his secretary and later working for temperance reformer Dr. Dio Lewis and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who would become her literary patron and lifelong friend.

Through her association with Capun, Lewis, and Longfellow, and her friend James Redpath, director of Boston’s first Lyceum Bureau, Bonner gained acceptance among Boston’s literati, and over the next ten years she built a successful freelance writing career, first signing her work as “Katherine McDowell,” and then “Kate McDowell” or “Kate Bonner” before settling on the gender-ambiguous “Sherwood Bonner” in 1875.

Up until that point, she had published in a number of genres and styles, including humorous travel letters, sentimental romances, and satiric poems, and had patterned her works upon similar work by such writers as Mark Twain, Sir Walter Scott, and Edgar Allan Poe. In 1875, however, after a friend criticized her work because “the influence of your reading was noticeable through every composition,” Bonner published “Gran’mamy’s Last Gift,” a story later expanded and collected as “Gran’mammy’s Last Gifts” in Suwanee River Tales.

Bonner’s Gran’mammy tales appeared in publication from 1875 to 1880. The tales — whose title character was based on Molly Wilson, the black matriarch who had nurtured Bonner’s family for three generations before the war — were among the first and most popular black dialect tales published in northern magazines following the Civil War. Preceding such classics in the genre as Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus by more than a year and Irwin Russell’s “Christmas Night in the Quarters” by three years, Bonner’s Gran’mammy tales were, according to critic Wade Hall in The Smiling Phoenix: Southern Humor from 1865-1914, “probably the first Negro dialect stories widely read in the North,” and Bonner was “the first Southern woman to deal with the Negro, and the first writer to treat him separately from the white man.”

It was in 1878 that Bonner reached the pinnacle of her career when she published her novel Like Unto Like, a regional romance set in the Deep South during Reconstruction but departing significantly from the so-called reconciliation novels of the period in which national union was represented by a marriage between a southern beauty and a northern hero. Instead, the novel follows the romantic involvements of three young women, but most especially Blythe Herndon, a free-spirited intellectual who becomes engaged—and later breaks off that engagement—to Roger Ellis, a former abolitionist and Union soldier. The novel is notable for its strong local color and regional dialects, its frank depiction of post-war politics, and its depiction, twenty years before Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, of a southern woman’s search for herself.

The partially autobiographical novel also revealed some of the problems Bonner faced in acceptance in Boston. Though she was eventually able to bring Lilian to live with her in Boston, her lifestyle and ambiguous marital status scandalized some of the patrons who had initially supported her. She and her husband tried several times to reconcile, but finally, she divorced him in 1881 on the grounds of abandonment and nonsupport.

Soon after the divorce, periods of ill health Bonner had suffered were diagnosed as breast cancer. She returned to her childhood home in Holly Springs, where she died on July 22, 1883.

Though assessing her value as a writer is complicated by her short life, her literary diversity, and the fact that many of her final works were completed hastily during her illness or after her death by an executor, Bonner’s works are increasingly being recognized as the work of a talented writer. In a recent article in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Anne Razey Gowdy recognizes Bonner as “an astute, talented, witty observer of the American scene whose work reveals much about cultural and literary trends during crucial decades of the nineteenth century.” Among the important traits Bonner demonstrated in her writing, Gowdy says, are an “irrepressible sense of humor, lighthearted but not always tempered by discretion,” “candid southern views, broadened but unintimidated by brushes with the elite of New England, [which] provide an alternative perspective for understanding postwar regional differences,” and a “skepticism about organized religion.” Most important, however, is “her articulation of emerging feminist concerns.... New readers of her work will discover that Sherwood Bonner has been too lightly estimated and too narrowly classified.”

John B. Padgett

(Article first posted February 2002)

Related Links & Info

Frontispice from Dialect Tales

This illustration, titled “De Parster of de Fust Methodis’ Church, Limited,” is the frontispiece from Dialect Tales, published originally in 1883. This entire text of this book and its original illustrations are available for reading or viewing online as part of the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South web site.


The Bonner Home in Holly Springs is featured on this web site about historic homes and buildings in Marshall County, Mississippi. Holly Springs at the time of the Civil War is also explored in this virtual tour of the town on the Civil War Web site.



  • Like Unto Like. New York: Harper, 1878; republished as Blythe Herndon. London: Ward, Locke, 1882.
  • Dialect Tales. New York: Harper, 1883.
  • Suwanee River Tales. Boston: Roberts, 1884.

Modern Editions:

  • Dialect Tales. Facsimile edition. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1972. Available online at docsouth.unc.edu/bonner/
  • Suwanee River Tales. Facsimile edition. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1972.
  • Dialect Tales and Other Stories. Edited, with an introduction, by William L. Frank. Albany, N.Y.: NCUP, 1990.
  • The Uncollected Works of Sherwood Bonner (Katharine Sherwood Bonner McDowell, 1849-1883): An Annotated Edition. Edited by Anne Razey Gowdy. Dissertation, University of Mississippi, 1996.
  • Like Unto Like. Introduction by Jane Turner Censer. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
  • A Sherwood Bonner Sampler, 1869-1884: What a Bright, Educated, Witty, Lively, Snappy Young Woman Can Say on a Variety of Topics. Edited by Anne Razey Gowdy. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000.


  • Biglane, Jean Nosser. An Annotated and Indexed Edition of the Letters of Sherwood Bonner. M.A. thesis, Mississippi State University, 1972.


Some personal correspondence, an unpublished manuscript poem, a fragment of a Revolutionary War story, and other miscellaneous papers of Sherwood Bonner are held by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson. Some Bonner materials exist in the special collections of the libraries of the University of Mississippi in Oxford and Mississippi State University in Starkville, as well as in the Marshall County Public Library in Holly Springs.



  • Biglane, Jean Nosser. “Sherwood Bonner: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Materials.” American Literary Realism 5 (1972): 38-60.
  • Owen, Thomas McAdory. “A Bibliography of Mississippi.” Annual Report of the American Historical Association 1 (1900): 654.


  • Bondurant, Alexander. “Sherwood Bonner — Her Life and Place in the Literature of the South.” Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society 1 (1899): 43-68.
  • Frank, William L. Sherwood Bonner. Boston: Twayne, 1976.
  • McAlexander, Hubert Horton The Prodigal Daughter: A Biography of Sherwood Bonner. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1981; republished, with a new introduction, by McAlexander. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999.


  • Burger, Nash Kerr, Jr. “Katherine Sherwood Bonner: A Study in the Development of a Southern Literature.” M.A. thesis. University of Virginia, 1935.
  • Faranda, Lisa Pater. “A Social Necessity: The Friendship of Sherwood Bonner and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” Patrons and Protegees: Gender, Friendship, and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. Ed. Shirley Marchalonis. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988. 184-211.
  • Frank, William L. “Sherwood Bonner’s Diary for the Year 1869.” Notes on Mississippi Writers 3 (1971): 111-30.
  • Gilligan, Dorothy. “Life and Works of Sherwood Bonner.” M.A. thesis. George Washington University, 1930.
  • Gowdy, Anne Razey. “Katherine Sherwood Bonner.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 202: Nineteenth-Century American Fiction Writers. Ed. Kent P. Ljungquist. The Gale Group, 1999. 47-56.
  • Hall, Wade. The Smiling Phoenix: Southern Humor from 1865 to 1914. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1965.
  • McAlexander, Hubert, Jr. “A Reappraisal of Sherwood Bonner’s Like unto Like.” Southern Literary Journal 10.2 (1978): 93-106.
  • McAlexander, Hubert, Jr. “Sherwood Bonner (Katharine Sherwood Bonner McDowell).” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, 8 (1975): 203-04.
  • McKee, Kathryn B. “Writing in a Different Direction: Women Authors and the Tradition of Southwestern Humor, 1875-1910.” Dissertation. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, 1996.
  • Moore, Rayburn S. “‘Merlin and Vivien’?: Some Notes on Sherwood Bonner and Longfellow.” Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Culture 28 (1975): 181-84.
  • Pajo, Darlene. “The Woman Question in the Life and Fiction of Sherwood Bonner.” M.A. thesis. University of Louisville, 1989.
  • Skaggs, Merrill M. “Southern Compost.” Southern Literary Journal 10.2 (1978): 155-60.
  • Sutherland, Daniel E. “Some Thoughts Concerning the Love Life of Sherwood Bonner.” Southern Studies 26 (1987): 115-127.

Internet Resources

Works by the Author:

Short works cataloged in the Library of Congress’ American Memory Collection:

  • Hieronymus Pop and the Baby.” Harper’s new monthly magazine. Volume 61, Issue 361, June 1880. Pages 20-25. View page images (at Cornell University) or text (generated by OCR without correction).
  • On the Nine-Mile.” Harper’s new monthly magazine. Volume 64, Issue 384, May 1882. Pages 918-928. View page images (at Cornell University) or text (generated by OCR without correction).
  • The Revolution in the Life of Mr. Balingall.” Harper’s new monthly magazine. Volume 59, Issue 353, October 1879. Pages 753-764. View page images (at Cornell University) or text (generated by OCR without correction).
  • Two Storms.” Harper’s new monthly magazine. Volume 62, Issue 371, April 1881. Pages 728-748. View page images (at Cornell University) or text (generated by OCR without correction).

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