Books and Bookmen

From Harper's Weekly Vol. XLIX No. 2558 (December 30, 1905)

The essential untruth of the saying that “figures never lie” has been repeatedly pointed out, and it might be said, perhaps with almost equal mendacity that photographs never falsify. Not a few who have suffered from the subtle caricature of the camera, made all the worse because of its reputation for truth, will doubtless agree to this point. Certainly the photographic instrument is a dull beast, and seldom catches the spirit of the face it copies. And so long as this remains true there is no danger that the ancient and honored art of portrait-painting will fall into disuse. Every author in writing draws a picture of himself intellectually, and the intimacy and naturalness of such an impression can only be matched — if indeed it can be matched — by the delicate art of the painter. In reproducing the spirit, as well as the outward form of his original, it will be judged that Mr. W. D. Stevens has succeeded in a marked degree with his picture of Mrs. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, reproduced on the opposite page. It is a delicate matter to comment upon the portrait of a living person, yet it may be permissible to say that Mr. Stevens's likeness of Mrs. Freeman seems to express a certain mingling of severity of ideals with broad human sympathy, which is very characteristic of her work.

It is true, indeed, that while Mrs. Freeman in her stories has dealt mainly with the narrower and humbler paths of life, her work is informed with a warm sympathy for those ordinary sorrows which are the hardest to bear, and a thorough comprehension of just how grievous they are for the ordinary man or woman, which lifts it to a high plane of realism and makes it universal in its appeal. And there is abundant sense of joy in her stories, too. There are passages in the reading of which one feels the same elation and reconcilement with life as on a glorious day in spring after the rigors of a hard winter.

Mrs. Freeman is always true in her psychology. She understands equally well the foibles of the old or middle-aged, who are mentally somewhat stiff in the joints, and the impulses of the young, whose minds are still supple. But it is in the clearness with which she realizes natural emotions that a great part of her power lies. She shows us the feelings of which we are all a little ashamed, but which we instantly recognize as true. We would all like to fall into fine rages or make eloquent avowals of love, but, in fact, our emotions make us incoherent or ridiculous. Mrs. Freeman exhibits us as we are, and as a result her work has an almost poignantly intimate quality.

To say that this author is thoroughly American would be superfluous, and to say that she is entirely democratic in spirit seems inadequate. The democratic ideal is, of course, included in the breadth of her view. In The Portion of Labor she pictured the hard life of the factory-worker, and brought out all the nobility and pathos of that life. In The Debtor, her latest book, she has taken up a new phase of the struggle for existence — the career of a man, accustomed to the best that life affords, who is reduced to uneasy makeshifts in avoiding the payment of his debts. In both books she writes in a spirit that puts all men on a common plane of responsibility, and ennobles them all by common opportunity for good. Probably no other writer has so truly and feelingly portrayed the greatness and the pettiness, the real joys and sorrows, little and big, of our homekeeping American life.

The perfect sincerity of her writings gives them a rare and precious quality. In her stories there is none of that careful expression of proper feeling, that assumed frankness of author to reader, which is well enough in its place, but which we all know how to estimate at its true worth. Mrs. Freeman has an honest sympathy with her story people, good, bad, and indifferent, irrespective of dress or grammar. How rare is the writer who does not jeer, however good-naturedly, at the weaknesses of human character! The amusement Mrs. Freeman inspires in us is always generous. Within the scope of her themes she is the feminine realist of her day and country. Compare the spirit in which she writes with the robust cynicism of Kipling. To the power of the realist she has joined the essentially womanly qualities. Without bathos she can write of the homely and genuine, and with a certain restrained and gentle force portray the crisis of a life-story. All in all, she is one of those writers, which every age does not have, who approach their work not with a new conception of art, but with a fresh, unbiased understanding of humanity.