From The Critic Vol. 29 No. 837 (Mar 5, 1898)

Miss Mary E. Wilkins at Randolph, Mass.

by Joseph Edgar Chamberlin

There is a curious delusion current about Miss Wilkins, which undoubtedly grows out of the determination of most people to make all writers as much as possible like their books. I have heard people, who really knew better, insist that Miss Wilkins must be a countrified little person, looking and acting as if she had just stepped out of her own stories. This notion may claim to derive some color, perhaps, from the fact that she lives in the village where she was born, and in an old house of vernacular New England architecture, with its side toward the road and its front door in the middle of this side, with a north parlor and a south parlor, and a flower-garden in front of the house. There is not much more to sustain the delusion. Miss Wilkins's tastes are only slightly rustic. It is a long time since Randolph, which is not so far out of Boston as the northern boundary of Greater New York is from the Battery, ceased to be a real New England village. It is now a mixture of the suburb and the “shoe town” — both of which are very foreign to the thing which Miss Wilkins likes to describe, but does not affect in her life at all. Most of the faces you see in the streets of Randolph now are those of the blessed irish; they swarm at the railroad station and give the life about the stores and the post-office its characteristic color.

Miss Wilkins's heredity is not rural even, though it is intensely New England — which is only another way of saying that her race is perfectly unmixed English. Her father came out of Salem, where his people had always lived; and Salem, you know, used to be almost metropolitan in New England. He was descended from old Bray Wilkins, witch-inquisitor and prominent Puritan generally of the old time. Miss Wilkins's father (who, like her mother, died in middle life) had, as nearly as I can make out, nothing of the countryman in him at all; and the Puritanism seemed to survive in him, as it does in thousands of other Yankees of the finer and unsordid type, merely in a sort of exaggerated nervousness, conscientiousness and general unworldliness. He was an architect of the old kind, trained in the building trades rather than in the schools; and he varied this, his true occupation, with a little unsuccessful store-keeping up at Brattleboro. Miss Wilkins's mother's people were of the Holbrooks of Holbrook — fine “genteel” people of the old sort. The sun-bonneted Jane Field kind of women are not in her ancestral line at all — unless it be in some of her great-grandmothers.

But this is not a study of Miss Wilkins's heredity (though I own I should like to make such a study). She regards herself as a come-outer from her line, and says she “never liked the things she was brought up on.” As I said, she does live in a real, old, village house, on the long, straight main street in the most old-fashioned part of Randolph, which street alone is straight and severe enough to inspire one born and resident in it with stories of hard unbending wills. But her rooms in the house do not much more than suggest the old time. She has an old brick kitchen-fireplace, with the iron door of the bean-oven in plain view in the chimney, to be sure, but the piled-up logs on the andirons gather a certain amount of dust while a steam radiator keeps the room quite warm enough. The beautiful old bellows that hang by the fireplace look obsolete and futile in the unwelcome glare of this gilded radiator — which is there not because Miss Wilkins likes radiators, but because the ancient means of heating the house became quite inadequate.

On the high mantel-shelf in the chimney are Scott's novels, and not another book! I asked Miss Wilkins why she kept them there, and she said it was partly because they filled out the middle of the shelf nicely and partly because she liked to read them often. And she does read Scott not a little, and also Dickens and Thackeray — much to the sorrow of my friend (and hers) Hamlin Garland, who thinks Miss Wilkins wastes too much of her extraordinary gift for realism by persisting in writing and thinking ideally.

However, Miss Wilkins has lots of other books besides the Waverly novels. Many of them are such accidental drift as most of us possess; but she has some queer and ancient volumes tucked away in odd corners. One of them that I saw the other day was an old memoir of a marvelous child belonging to one of the families that Miss Wilkins is descended from — a girl who lived a life of wonderful Christian grace, meditating much, nevertheless, on her sins, and exhorting all about her to holy works, and died a long time ago at the age of six, in the odor of a fully grown-up sanctity. Perhaps it will do no harm if I betray the fact that this child will figure in a minor way in a short story which will soon appear.

If Miss Wilkins reads Scott, she also reads Hardy, Tolstoï and even Dostoievsky. She said to me of Dostoievsky's “Crime and Punishment”: — “I am at odds with the whole thing, but it is a wonderful book. He writes with more concentrated force than Tolstoï. This book seemed to me like one of my own nightmares, and told on my nerves. It belongs to the Laocoön school of literature.” So too, she thinks, does “Jude, the Obscure.” No one feels more than she the power of such a book as the latter, but she is not inspired to write in the same way.

The ancient kitchen which is Miss Wilkins's sitting-room is not also her writing-room. Though it is nicely retired, and out of the noise of the exceedingly quiet household in which she has her home, its window commands a view of nothing but the side of the adjoining house, which affords but slight inspiration. She writes up-stairs, in a room that looks off eastwardly over the street and its electric cars to the low coast hills and woods in the distance. Another incongruity is to be observed here: Miss Wilkins has a typewriter! The machine is a new arrival, and an experiment, in some sense forced upon her by the bad blunders which compositors are continually making in her thoroughly picturesque and intensely individual but sometimes strangely illegible handwriting. Nothing that Miss Wilkins has ever published, the sensitive literary reader may be assured, has ever yet been written by her on a typewriter.

Her way of writing is not, usually, to re-write anything once fully written out, but to elaborate a good deal as she goes along, throwing away a great many closely written sheets which are her trial-lines. And indeed, though Miss Wilkins says of herself that she does not seem to “compose,” but to write out something which she already knows or else which comes to her from some source outside or inside of her — she scarcely knows which, — she nevertheless does work out passages or portions of her stories with great pains.

She does not go about at all looking for “material” for her stories. She never puts Randolph people into them; though she has, indeed, put into them dead and gone people. Barnabas, in “Pembroke,” with the awful will, was a man who had lived. Her creations are mainly drawn purely out of her imagination, and squared to Nature and reality by the exercise of a keen and omnivorous faculty of observation which has grown instinctive, and is as unconscious as it is accurate — like the minutely true eye-measurements with which the Japanese carpenters astonished us at the World's Fair. And for her nature-settings and decorations she depends rather on the sharp recollections of childhood than on more recent observations. She never had a bit of the spirit of the naturalist.

The rock on which her pathetic little hero basks in the spring sunshine in “Jerome” is truly to be found in Randolph. Down the long street, perhaps a quarter of a mile from the house in which Miss Wilkins now lives, stands the somewhat grim two-story dwelling — this one unaccountably with its gable, not its side, to the road — in which she was born. The house is interesting because she was born in it, and for some things about its environment, and for nothing more. It is eminently commonplace. Next door to it is the queer little one-storied house, all front door and windows, and not at all commonplace, which Miss Wilkins's Grandfather Holbrook built and lived in, and constructed in that exceedingly clinging-to-the-ground way because there had been an awful wind-storm in Randolph, and Grandfather Holbrook would not live in a house that was susceptible of being blown down; moreover, he had a “dark room” constructed in it, not to develop photographs in — pace Grandfather Holbrook! — but to retire to during thunderstorms. It is evident that this man's granddaughter might have come of good right by her nervous sensibility, even if she had not had a father of nervous temperament. Ah, well; what I started out to tell was not all this, but that a little way behind and to the southward of the house in which Miss Wilkins was born there rises a big, picturesque granite ledge, quite a hill in itself, which is or was called the Great Rock. Flanked by some houses with a new suburban look, it seems to bulge out of the earth with an intention to be out of place — to be a kind of cosmic anachronism in Randolph. However, a few years ago it doubtless fitted into the landscape well enough; and from the sunny side of it Miss Wilkins nourished her imaginative childhood. To this extent that charming bit at the opening of “Jerome” is autobiographic: —

“Three fields to the northward from the Edwardses' house was a great rock ledge; on the southern side of it was a famous hiding-place for a boy on a windy spring day. There was a hollow in the rock for a space as tall as Jerome, and the ledge extended itself out beyond it like a sheltering granite wing to the westward. … He lay there basking like some little animal that had crawled out of its winter nest. At the side of the gentle hill at the left a file of blooming peach trees looked as if they were moving down the slope to some imperious march music of the spring.”

There are, in spite of the changes I have noted, a good many surviving traces of a more picturesque and gentle time in Randolph. An old and fortress-like stone house just across the way from her father's house was well calculated to haunt her fancy; and further down the street stands a fine old mansion, with gardens and lawns, which preserves the true flavor of colonial elegance. It is no wonder that we see such places cropping out in Miss Wilkins's stories. And yet her formative period was not spent in Randolph, but in Brattleboro — which also has its old-time flavor. So far as local influences have affected her work, I fancy that those of southern Vermont have preponderated.

This work of Miss Wilkins's goes on placidly enough, but not in any way that is systematic enough to distress us. She speaks of a stint of a thousand words a day, but she has the artist's susceptibility to times and moods, and her work is really done by spurts. She is not one of those fortunate ones who can say, “Go to! I will sleep from ten until six, and then be fresh for my work.” Sleep with her has to be wooed with subtle arts, and will follow no program. Sometimes her work goes reluctantly, and sometimes she is mastered and possessed by it, and it leaves her nervously exhausted, as well as désorientée regarding every-day affairs. After writing her Deerfield massacre story, which the Messrs. Harper are now bringing out in a new collection of her short stories, she found it hard to make herself realize that she was not living in the time and place of the story: she really believed that the story — her story — was true.

Of course she would get out of such obsessions of genius anyway, but it is probable that she is helped out of them the sooner by her strong sense of humor, to which certain homely circumstances are constantly appealing. She wrote not long ago to a friend: — “Well, I have had one thing to be thankful for lately — the rooster that lived next door, that didn't know how to crow, but crowed all the same every three minutes, has been executed and cooked. So there are always mercies, if we only see them.”

Naturally, Miss Wilkins is almost as much at home in Boston as she is in Randolph; I think she feels more at home there. Some people may find that hard to believe, because at Boston she goes in neither for Browning nor Ibsen, and she is without a fad; but it is nevertheless true. You cannot discover about Miss Wilkins's home a vestige of the influence of any hobby — unless it is possibly her chafing-dish; she has a beautiful time with that, and so do her friends. “Views” she has none, in the strenuous Bostonian sense, though good, solid principles she has in plenty. As between Boston and Randolph, I am sure that one thing that makes her prefer the latter as a place of residence is the possibility of living there in a way to one side of her literary reputation. She is not at all fond of the strong light that beats upon authorship; but when she is in Boston she is continually getting into it, as a matter of course. In Randolph she lives with a family of excellent people who have known her since she was a child, and to whom, though they rejoice with perfect happiness over her success, she is always the girl whom they knew before she had made that success. She is more like a daughter and a sister in this household than anything else, and she accepts the relation with the completest loyalty and devotion. She has retirement here without solitude, and, with what people call “literary society” well within her reach if she feels the want of it, it certainly need not be too much with her at Randolph.