Maria Susanna Cummins was born in Salem, Massachusetts, the eldest of four children in an affluent family, and grew up in Dorchester. Her father was a judge who also had children from a previous marriage. Maria's father encouraged her to become a writer from an early age. She went as a boarder to the fashionable Mrs. Charles Sedgwick's Young Ladies School in Lenox, Massachusetts.
There she met Mrs. Sedgwick's sister-in-law, author Catharine Maria Sedgwick, who presided over a literary salon and must have had some influence on the young Maria. In 1854, at age 26, Maria published her first novel, The Lamplighter, a sentimental tale of a Boston orphan that became an immediate bestseller and made its author famous. Her subsequent three books Mabel Vaughn (1857), El Fureidis (1860), and Haunted Hearts (1864) achieved varying degress of success. She traveled in England, Scotland, and the Alpine region and published two long essays about her experiences in The Atlantic Monthly in 1864 and 1865. She returned from her second European trip in failing health and died at the age of 39.