Books and Bookmen

by James MacArthur

From Harper's Weekly Vol. XLVIII No. 2484 (July 30, 1904)

“Everybody in this world means to be pretty good to other folks, and when they ain't, it ain't always their fault; sometimes it's other folks.” Sophia's philosophy, the outcome of experience and a good heart, is, in the main, Mary E. Wilkins's philosophy in her new book of short stories, The Givers. The title, though borrowed from the initial story to cover the whole collection, is indicative of the character of all the sketches wherein the spirit of charity or “giving” in one form or another is exemplified. Yet the common denominator to which these stories may be reduced seems more of coincidence than of design, and the title, one perceives, was an afterthought, for when the first story in the volume appeared in Harper's Magazine it was called “The Revolt of Sophia Lane.” “The Givers,” however, is most aptly appropriated by this story in which Sophia plays an original rôle in fiction. The story has that unexpected turn, that element of surprise which long ago we became accustomed to in Mrs. Wilkins Freeman's work, but which never loses its power to bring an old situation or truth home to us with fresh, and sometimes startling conviction. She may always be trusted to recount an experience as no one else would. Take this story of “The Givers.” Flora Bell and Herbert Bennett are to be married on the next day but one. Her Aunt Sophia had adopted her when her parents died, when she was a baby, and had brought her up on a pittance a year. To-day Flora Bell and Sophia Lane are hurrying the bridal preparations, when Sophia's second cousin, Mrs. Adoniram Cutting, her married daughter Abby Dodd, and her unmarried daughter Eunice, who have driven over from Addison with their wedding presents, arrive on the humble scene of triumph and happiness. There is tea and kindly gossip for a while, and then the Cuttings invite Flora to uncover the packages they have brought her. The first one — from Mr. and Mrs. Cutting to “Flora, with all best wishes for her future happiness” — is an afternoon tea-kettle — “real silver; it ain't plated,” said Mrs. Cutting with emphasis — in three pieces. “It is beautful,” Flora murmured, in bewilderment, but Sophia said nothing. The next package, quite bulky with expectation, proves to be finger-bowls from Abby. Sundry guesses and explanations as to their use follow. “They are real pretty,” said Flora. Sophia said nothing. Eunice's gift, “with dearest love,” disclosed six dainty squares of linen embroidered with violets. “They are finger-bowl doilies,” said Eunice, radiantly. “They are lovely,” said Flora. Sophia said nothing. By this time the three visitors look as if they had good cause to be aggrieved. The air has become electric. So far the story seems to present a not uncommon experience in a deftly humorous and observant way. But it is just here that the genius of Mrs. Wilkins steps in and leads you by a way you know not. “Flora has got many good presents,” Sophia remarks to her visitors at last, “and a few tomfool ones, thanks to me and what I did last Christmas. … I'd jest as soon tell you as not.” I must leave the author to disclose what it was Sophia did “last Christmas,” for that is her story. Folks are generous enough in this world, she finds, only they don't know how to steer their generosity. The story is told with that unequalled humor and pathos which have given the author an unrivalled position among New England story-tellers. This sketch, with “Joy,” “The Reign of the Doll,” and “The Chance of Araminta,” are equal to the best stories Mrs. Wilkins Freeman has written. In “Lucy” and “Eglantine” there is something forced in the situation, yet her art in telling the stories redeems the artifice of the stories themselves. I confess to liking Mrs. Wilkins Freeman best in her short stories. There has never been her match in this country, and few in any other. It is seldom that one story-teller is capable of adjudging the work of another; too often their own creative mind leads them to see a different development of character and situation, and stands in the way of a just and sympathetic appraisal. For this reason, a recent statement made in an article on “Is American Literature Bourgeois?” by Josephine Daskam in the North American Review is as remarkable for its insight and justice concerning Mrs. Wilkins Freeman's work as for its generous appreciation. “To what must we attribute the immense vogue of Mary Wilkins?” she asks. “Not to the information she gave us of the New England character. She did not discover the field. … What was the first claim, to both critical and general attention, of these famous sketches? Their amazing novelty. This author based her success quite as much on novelty of method as on freshness of material, and stands in consequence head and shoulders above them (comparing her with other contemporary authors) artistically; but she unquestionably owes her first brilliant reception, on whatever deeper and more enduring foundation her reputation with posterity may rest, to her originality.”