Caroline Lee Whiting Hentz (June 1, 1800-Feb. 11, 1856), novelist, was born in Lancaster, Mass., the youngest of eight children of John & Orpah (Danforth) Whiting & a descendant of Samuel Whiting, the first minister of Lynn, Mass., who had arrived in the colonies in 1636. Caroline’s father had served as a colonel in the Revolutionary War, & three of her brothers were soldiers; the eldest, Henry, who served in the War of 1812 & the Mexican War, became a brigadier general. No details of her education are recorded, but it was evidently a sound one, prepays partially acquired through private reading, since her father owned a bookstore until his death in 1810.
Caroline learned early to write with ease & fluency. According to family tradition she composed poems & a tragedy before the age of twelve & in her teens completed a novel. She grew up to be an intelligent, curious, & vivacious young woman who enjoyed new places & people, parties & pretty clothes.
On Sept. 30, 1824, she was married to Nicholas Marcellus Hentz (1797-1856), who had come to the United States from France eight years before with his father, once a Montagnard member of the French National Convention, who had been banished upon the restoration of Louis Philippe. At twenty-seven, Hentz was spare, shy, & inclined to ill health, depression, & by a son’s testimony, an “unreasoning…jealousy of disposition.” He had studied medicine in Paris & for a year at Harvard, spoke three languages, & was an expert entomologist, a skillful engraver & miniature painter, & the author of two French texts, a novel, & a treatise on alligators. At the time of his marriage he was teaching under George Bancroft at the Round Hill School in Northampton, Mass. In 1826 Hentz received an appointment as professor of modern languages & belles lettres at the new University of North Carolina, to which he took his wife & their infant son, Marcellus Fabius (born in 1825). The son died in 1827, but three more children were born at Chapel Hill: Charles Arnold (1827), Julia Louisa (1828), & Thaddeus William (1830). Despite her family responsibilities, Mrs. Hentz began writing a drama in verse, De Lara, of The Moorish Bride, & also found time to edit the works of a Negro slave, George Moses Horton.
After four successful years at the university, Professor Hentz resigned because of new academic regulations which he found restrictive. He & his wife spent the next two years in Covington, Ky., keeping a school for young ladies. Mrs. Hentz finished De Lara t here, entered it in a contest sponsored by William Pelby, a prominent Northern actor-manager, & won the first prize of $500. Encouraged by favorable reviews of Boston & Philadelphia productions of De Lara in 1831, Mrs. Hentz wrote two other dramas, Constance of Werdenberg, or The Forest League, produced in New York in 1832, & Lamorah, or The Western Wilds, which played in Cincinnati in 1832 & in New Orleans the following year. She also sold some stores to the Western Monthly & began a novel.
In 1832 the Hentzes moved to Cincinnati to establish another school. The following year saw the birth of their last child, Caroline Theresa, & the publication of Mrs. Hentz’s first novel, Lovell’s Folly, set in the American Midwest, which was reportedly withdrawn from publication because of its “libelous content.” A frequent guest at the “literary social reunions” of Dr. Daniel Drake, attended also by the young HARRIET BEECHER (STOWE), she dominated the gatherings with her wit & charm. A friend later described her as “a little above medium height,” graced of motion, with “a broad forehead, firm sweet mouth, [&] deep violet eyes”; “her arm could lave been a sculptor’s model.”
The Hentzes left Cincinnati after an incident involving Hentz’s jealousy of attentions paid his wife by another member of their literary group. There followed fourteen years of conduction girls’ schools in frontier towns of Alabama, first in Florence, then in Tuscaloosa & Tuskegee. For Mrs. Hentz it was a life of drudgery which left little time or privacy for her literary efforts, although she had no difficulty in selling occasional pieces to magazines; her one novel of this period, Aunt Patty’s Scrap Bag (1846), enjoyed a long popularity. Besides caring for her own children, she managed, with little or no help, a school household of twenty or more boarding pupils & sometimes a farm, & assisted in the teaching & discipline of some sixty day students. “You need,” she wrote in her diary, “the patience of Job, & wisdom of Solomon,-the meekness of Moses, & the adaptive powers of St. Paul to be sufficient for the duties of our profession.”
During these years Nicholas Hentz, although suffering from an illness that his wife called “unsheathed nerves,” managed to write & illustrate a number of scholarly papers on spiders which, later collected as The Spiders of the United States (1875), long constituted a definitive study. He also completed & sold to the Boston Museum a great insect collection. By 1849, however, he had become what his eldest son (a physician) described as a “miserable hypochondriac-unfit to work,” & the Hentzes closed their last school in Columbus, Ga., where they had been living since 1847. With her children grown, Mrs. Hentz now began writing in earnest. In the next six years she had eight novels & seven collections of short stories published, winning a competence if not a fortune.
Mrs. Hentz’s novels, which appeared first in serial form, were highly popular for over thirty years. They had weak plots, little suspense, & no humor, but her talent for self-dramatization gave them life & intimacy, & her keen sensory perception & facility of expression supplied the “exquisite color” & “elegant style” her generation admired. Reviewers found that “an ennobling morality & Christian grace” pervaded her work. (The Hentzes had joined the Presbyterian Church during the revivals of 1835.) In an age increasingly aware of women’s individuality & rights, Mrs. Hentz glorified the ideal of self-sacrificing womanhood, creating beautiful & angelic heroines who endured & triumphed despite the tyranny of masculine characters who were often of striking instability. By setting her tales against a Southern background, she did much also to popularize a romantic conception of plantation life, which she had observed from the outside, living as she did on the fringe of Southern society. Her defense of slavery in The Planter’s Northern Bride (1854)-a rebuttal of Uncle Tom’s Cabin- so pleased the citizens of Columbus that they presented her with two hundred dollars & piece of jewelry.
Mrs. Hentz’s last novel, Ernest Linwood, or The Inner Life of the Author (1856), portraying a saintly wife unjustly suspected by a jealous husband, is apparently a melodramatic version of the episode that had ender her residence in Cincinnati. It was published posthumously. In 1854 Professor Hentz, in failing health, went to live with their married daughter in St. Andrews. Fla. Mrs. Hentz stayed with their son in Marianna, Fla., going back & forth to nurse her husband through his worse relapses. In doing so she contracted pneumonia. She died in Marianna in February 1856, her husband in the following November. Both are buried in the Episcopal Cemetery there.