Sandra Harbert Petrulionis
Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard was an unusually gifted and imaginative writer; unfortunately, critics agree that she suffered from writing for modern tastes during an age when her audience favored sentiment. Born on May 6, 1823, in the seafaring community of Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, Stoddard was the second of nine children born to Betsy Drew and Wilson Barstow. She descended from two old New England families, and her father continued the family business of shipbuilding. He earned a place in literary history not only by fathering Elizabeth but also by building the Acushnet, the whaler on which Herman Melville sailed. Her father's bankruptcies and business failures would figure prominently in Stoddard's best-known novel The Morgesons ( 1862), as would her preoccupation with the coastal setting in which she was raised.
James H. Matlack notes that the sea "might be . . . the closest thing to a god Elizabeth ever acknowledged" ( "Literary Career"23). She spent her days exploring the coast, sailing and skating, always entranced by the ocean, "so fixed and ever-varying," as she described it in a story ( Buell and Zagarell288). As a grown woman, Stoddard spent many summers in her native town where she relived her childhood and gathered inspiration for her literary endeavors.
Another pervasive influence upon the adolescent Stoddard, as with most New England writers during the nineteenth century, was the inheritance of the region's Puritan tradition. Like her literary neighbor Emily Dickinson, Stoddard refused to make a public profession of religious faith, an expected component of the Calvinist faith. She routinely scoffed at institutional religion in her newspaper columns and created fictional characters who reveled in their secular sensibility. Stoddard read voraciously, particularly the popular eighteenth-century