Editor's Study

From Harper's Monthly Magazine Volume 102 Issue 610 (March 1901)

About the same time that Miss Rives's work was first published, Miss Mary Wilkins was contributing to Harper's Bazar short stories that first arrested and then absorbed the attention of readers. She had no more idea of what she was doing than a child at play, and she was little more than a child in years — wholly a child in the quality and manner of her writing. It was a daring adventure, though the boldness was unconscious, to enter a field where such writers as Mrs. Stowe, Harriet Prescott, Rose Terry Cooke, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps had won, and Miss Sarah Orne Jewett was rapidly winning, wide applause. But Mary L. Booth, then editor of the Bazar, detected in her work a quality quite apart from anything distinguishing the writings of these others — not a literary quality, but something indefinable, yielding to the test of sensibility but not to that of analysis. Almost any other literary mentor would have seen “promise” in the little stories, but would have thought them impossible because of their evident crudity of form, and would have advised the young author to work and wait, forming her style meanwhile on accepted models — counsel that if followed would have meant ruin for her, as it has for many a young writer. Miss Wilkins was as much surprised by the acceptance of her work as she afterwards was by its success with the public, a success which promptly justified the wise editor's appreciation. Some of those who read this will recall the demure maiden yet in her teens as she appeared in those days at one of the receptions which Miss Booth was wont to give, when such gatherings were less common than they are now. There had been no struggle for the position won, and the author had no consciousness of the rare distinction of her genius that had enabled her to win it without strain. There is no truth in the formula that genius is only another name for painstaking or hard work. Certainly in Miss Wilkins's case it was play before it meant work; and it meant that very soon — as if she determined upon achievement to justify the praise that had at first confounded distinction with merit.

That way, too, there lay a certain danger — the peril of losing the distinction in the achievement — of forgetting, in strife for the prize of merit, that she belonged to the Kingdom of Grace. We shuddered, therefore, when she attempted the novel, fearing that she might bury her native heritage out of sight beneath the elaborate structure; but Pembroke and Jane Field dispelled our apprehension, which again was keenly alive when Madelon appeared, and to some extent justified. How often we have trembled when she who could write poetry as quaint as the old ballads set herself to elaborate sonnets which any fairly good poet might have done equally well!

At first it seemed that the effectiveness of Miss Wilkins's appeal was gained in a negative way — by what she did not attempt. Her imitators tried to produce a like effect by presenting a transcript of life, without effort, without elaboration, without reflective comment, and without style. Of course such experiments were futile. Miss Wilkins did not make transcripts from life, and her simplicity was not mere barrenness. She created; the dream-power and the dream-truth were there, and the impression made was a surprise, just as in a great painting or musical composition. The painter may be in the simplest terms an impressionist and yet creative — that he must be; and lacking that, no technical perfection will make him an artist. There was something almost primitive in the earliest products of Miss Wilkins's art, whether in prose or verse — a reversion to the magical secret of the first embroidery, the first pottery, the first folk-tales, the first ballads; yet the stuff, the mere material, was of her own time, open to direct observation, like the stuff all dreams are made of, whatever their moving spirit. Because of this primitive plastic potency she has with greater spontaneity and subtlety than any other of our writers reproduced for us the fleeting subjective impressions of childhood. The same power was peculiarly manifest in some pastels in prose dreamed out by her when such things were in vogue.

The author has had the culture of her dream, and has taken upon her the full investiture of her art — a mature but not formal style, deep reflection, complex effects in her synthesis of life — without the surrender of her creative power. All this is evident in her new novel, The Portion of Labor, begun in this number of the Magazine.

In this novel the spiritual motive is predominant. No previous work of the author has yielded an equal measure of intellectual satisfaction, but the thought precipitates no corrosive acid and is never strained to an edge of smartness; though the story deals with industrial conditions, it is not a problem novel; it is the story of Ellen Brewster's spiritual development in the peculiar circumstances of her life. However much the original insouciance of manner may have given place to the solicitudes of more strenuous endeavor, there is still the old play, the fresh plasticity, the characteristic charm.

The fruits of genius lie nearest to the “fruits of the spirit” in that transcendent field where the human blends with the divine. The supreme reality in life, as in literature, is spiritual. This is beautifully illustrated in the just published Life and Letters of Phillips Brooks, by Professor Alexander V. S. Allen. It is true of the highest emotional as it is of the most exalted religious life. In Mrs. Trask's latest book of short stories, Lessons in Love, the lessons are spiritual, and have therefore the living reality which gives them their strong hold upon sympathetic readers.