Skip to content
Eliza A. Dupuy, Mississippi literary...

Eliza A. Dupuy, Mississippi literary pioneer largely forgotten

By: NK Wessman - April 22, 2023
Antique Books

NK Wessman explores the fascinating background of Mississippi’s first professional female writer, Eliza Ann Dupuy. Dupuy is largely forgotten, but was a pioneer at a time when women authors were sparse.

Though not born in the Magnolia state, the first woman of Mississippi to earn her living as a writer published her first novel at age twenty-one and her most successful work when she was only thirty-six. Even so, her name does not appear among Mississippi’s most famous authors, nor does she have a marker on the Southern Literary Trail.

Eliza Ann Dupuy, one of nine children born to Jesse and Mary Anne Dupuy in Petersburg, Virginia, enjoyed a rich heritage from both parents, tracing her family ties to the French Huguenots and the American Revolution. Though her father had been a successful businessman in the shipping industry in Virginia, his financial losses prompted family moves to Ohio and then Kentucky in the 1820s.

NK Wessman

Determined to help restore their fortune, Miss Dupuy expanded her formal studies through self study to qualify as a teacher, one of few respectable vocations open to women in the mid-1800s. She wrote and sold short stories to such popular periodicals as Godey’s women’s magazine, The New World newspaper published in New York, and The Knickerbocker, a monthly literary magazine of New York City, and in 1835 published her first novel, Merton: A Tale of the Revolution. No copy survives of that novel based on family stories.

After her father’s death, Dupuy accepted a tutor/governess job in Natchez, where she would work for the family of Thomas G. Ellis, who likely knew of her through her published words. Did she travel alone for that move or with another, perhaps her brother—blind, and for whom she provided sole support? Did she or they travel over land, southward through Nashville and down the Natchez Trace, or by riverboat, down the Ohio and then the mighty Mississippi?

Neither Dupuy nor her biographers reveal such. Historians do disclose that she fit well into the Ellis family’s life and moved gracefully among their acquaintances: “She was thrown continually into the society of such women as Eleanor and Catherine Ware, and such men as Seargent Smith Prentiss, John Ross, Boyd, and Bingaman. Natchez at that time boasted a brilliant intellectual circle, and the young governess, with her dignified reserve, was well received.”

Her charge, Sarah Ellis Dorsey, herself became an accomplished author of novels and a biographer of Louisiana’s governor during the Civil War. By that time a widow, Dorsey befriended Jefferson Davis and eventually bequeathed to him her Gulf Coast property, now known as Beauvoir.

With the young Miss Ellis, Dupuy moved in gentility and focused on literature, art, and other intellectual and social activities the wealthy enjoyed. Half the country’s millionaires also claimed Natchez as their home, their fortunes formed by the rich resources of land—cotton!—and the Mississippi River. In that vibrant port city, the center of the young state’s economic activity, the elite experienced international and domestic trade, lived in antebellum mansions or on vast plantations, and remained largely unscathed during the Civil War.

Without modern distractions of hourly news and social media, Miss Dupuy taught and wrote. Her creative imagination produced some two dozen Gothic thrillers, domestic novels, and many short stories. Of the novels, many containing up to five hundred pages, The Conspirator sold nearly 25,000 copies. Published as a book in 1850, its 298 pages first appeared as serialized narratives in The New World.

The Conspirator, Dupuy’s most successful novel, traces the story of Aaron Burr’s conspiracy to establish an independent country. The third vice president of the United States, famous for his duel with Alexander Hamilton, Burr had looked to the American frontier, to land of the Louisiana Purchase and Mexico, for new economic and political opportunity. Although nobody knows Burr’s true intent, scholars now cite Dupuy’s account of his story as “culturally important…part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.”

Three more novels followed in quick succession. The Country Neighborhood, likely based on real life around Natchez; The Huguenot Exiles: Or, The Times of Louis XIV. A Historical Novel that reveals romantic family traditions in the life of Bartholomew Dupuy; and The Planter’s Daughter: A Tale of Louisiana, all published before 1860 and all recognized by scholars as “culturally important.”

Dupuy’s writings draw both criticism and praise, often called melodramatic with well-written scenes and diction, yet dismissed as lurid and sensational, sub-literary, and “sentimental potboilers.” Her stories involved madness and murder, teas, revolutions and robbery, corpses, confusion, guilt, threats, lovemaking, and Italian gallantry. Known to have written for hours in the mornings and spending the afternoons in reviews and revisions, Dupuy is credited both for suspended writing and prolific output during the War, when she had moved to live in New Orleans.

Described as “Southern to her core,” during her final twenty years, Dupuy wrote primarily for The New York Ledger, a weekly story paper Robert E. Bonner established in 1855 in Manhattan. One biographer wrote that “she was bound by contract to furnish Bonner with a thousand pages annually.” She earned $2,500 a year for two novels of five hundred pages each she wrote from 1869 to 1880. “She was a littérateur by profession. In consequence, she improved in her writings. Her novel of The Evil Genius, furnished to the The Ledger, was regarded by many readers as the best of her numerous writings.”

The book Notable American Women reports that her writing declined in her final years as she adapted to The Ledger’s formula for fiction. In the mid to late 1870s, however, Bonner allowed Peterson of Philadelphia to reprint as new titles fourteen of her serials: The Mysterious Guest, The Hidden Sin, and The Clandestine Marriage.

Dupuy herself never married. Literary historians credit her work as hard and regular and describe the woman as “tall, large, nobly developed … reticent in nature and deportment.” In later years, she returned to live in Flemingburg, Kentucky, and died in 1880 on a trip to New Orleans.

The largest collection of Dupuy’s papers, including fifty-three letters to Robert Bonner, reside at Duke University Library. Reprints of many of her works are available online.

Editor’s Note: It warrants mentioning that the period in which DuPuy lived was a tumultuous one, with the Civil War bisecting much of her professional life. Much of the gentility and wealth accrued in Natchez during DuPuy’s time there was a biproduct of the slave trade. While Natchez evaded physical damage common in other parts of Mississippi during the Civil War, it was forever impacted by it.

About the Author(s)
author profile image

NK Wessman

NK Wessman authored Katrina, Mississippi: Voices from Ground Zero, the compelling story of first responders who stayed behind when the worst natural disaster in our history slammed the Gulf Coast. She co-wrote You Can Fix The Fat From Childhood—And Other Heart Risks, Too in collaboration with Dr. Gerald Berenson, founder and senior researcher of the Bogalusa Heart Study. Wessman also has worked as a journalist, public relations practitioner/consultant, and now as a book coach and editor.