A Novelist of the Nineties
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

by Doris H. Hamilton

From Hobbies — The Magazine for Collectors Vol. 60, No. 9 (November, 1955)

Writing has always been a field in which the “female of the species” has excelled. Even Lucretia Mott or Elizabeth Cady Stanton would never have denied that the field of authorship was open to women. Mrs. Stanton would doubtless have argued that if women had better educational facilities, more women would write and they would write more frequently. I am sure she would not have disputed the fact that a publisher's final criterion is quality, not gender. Confronted with quill and folio, or with typewriter and quarto, there is an equality between the sexes. Whereas the professions of medicine and law require special training, a good general education, imagination, keen sense of observation, and a modicum of leisure enabled women from Sappho to Marianne Moore and from Margaret of Navarre to Margaret Mitchell to pour forth their spirits in verse and in prose.

Letters of most American women writers are abundant and reasonably priced. A particularly large number of letters of writers from the period 1875 to 1925 is on the market. Mary Mapes Dodge, Gale Hamilton, Grace Greenwood, Anne D. Sedgwick, Nora Perry and Lucy Larcom, to mention just a few, are readily available for purchase at prices that would put only a small dent in a weekly allowance. Autograph letters of Emily Dickinson and Anne Bradstreet would, of course, require considerable, but infrequent, financial outlay. Miss Dickinson occasionally comes on the market. Mrs. Bradstreet is of great rarity.

One of the most prominent of the novelists of the 1890's was Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Miss Wilkins was born in 1852 and spent most of her life in Randolph, Massachusetts, until her marriage in 1902 to Dr. Charles M. Freeman. She then made her home in Metuchen, New Jersey.

Miss Wilkins' literary career had a very modest beginning … her earliest stories and poems were published in a Sunday-school magazine for children. Her next contribution was mainly in the form of verse for the juvenile monthly, Wide Awake. Her first story for adults was “A Shadow Family” which appeared in a Boston newspaper. Her second story, “Two Old Lovers,” was published on March 31, 1883. Her stories were collected and her first book to be published was A Humble Romance, in 1887. Her most famous work, A New England Nun, appeared in 1891, and her literary reputation rests mainly on these two books.

Mrs. Freeman wrote mainly about New England rural life and characters. She is what we would call today a “regional writer.” Critics credit her with objectivity and restraint at a time when much of the writing was very sentimental.

Her other major publications include the following novels: Giles Corey, Yeoman (1893); Jane Field (1893); Pembroke (1894); Jerome, A Poor Man (1897); The Heart's Highway (1900); and The Portion of Labor (1901). The Wind in the Rose Bush (1903) is a collection of stories of the supernatural and Edgewater People (1918) is another group of New England short stories.

I recently came across a group of Miss Wilkins' letters and I found them extremely interesting. The letters cover the period 1889 through 1902, with one letter dated 1907. They are written mainly to Harper & Bros. There are also a few addressed to Richard Watson Gilder and Henry M. Alden. The earlier letters are handwritten, mostly on a grayish-blue octavo folded sheet. A few of the later letters are typewritten. All, except the 1907 one, are signed: Mary E. Wilkins.

During the course of the correspondence Miss Wilkins mentions several of her short story collections and her novels: Pembroke; Giles Corey, Yeoman; A Humble Romance; The Love of Parson Lord; and Understudies.

To Harper & Bros. she writes on the royalties received on a stage adaptation of Giles Corey, Yeoman, which dealt with Salem witchcraft. In a letter of April 11, 1893, she states:

“I was very pleased and surprised myself at the considerable success of Giles Corey as an acting play. I think since it has your approval, that it might be wise to have it further presented. Should it not prove, and it probably will not, a really popular play, still I am inclined to think from the nature of the reviews and from the general opinions that the book sales will not be injured from its presentation.

“With regard to terms, those you propose seem to me to be very good. Of course in the impossible event of the receipts from Giles Corey exceeding five thousand or so per week, our profits thereby would fall below five percent at the rate you propose.”

There follows, chronologically, a letter dated May 22, 1893, to Harper & Brothers in which Miss Wilkins transmits the remaining portion of her novel, Pembroke. On June 9, Miss Wilkins writes to her publisher and says she is pleased that they find her terms — $2,500 for serial rights of Pembroke — satisfactory. However, the book royalty is another matter since Miss Wilkins states:

“ … With regard to the publication of Pembroke in book form, could you kindly consider the payment of fifteen instead of ten percent royalty after the first thousand copies? That is the arrangement which Mr. Osgood made with me for the English editions. I should be greatly obliged if you could see your way toward giving me this larger royalty upon this book.”

Harpers readily acceded to this request by their popular writer as there is a letter dated June 14, 1893, in which Miss Wilkins says:

“The terms which you mention for the publication in book form of Pembroke are quite satisfactory and I am much obliged to you for acceding to my request for larger royalty.”

Having satisfactorily settled the problem of royalties, Miss Wilkins had another matter to discuss with her publishers. There is a letter of November 1, 1893, to Harpers concerning an unauthorized edition of A Humble Romance — by another publisher! Miss Wilkins writes: “They did not ask me for my sanction. The book was published when they wrote (to me).” To make matters worse, Miss Wilkins had already granted permission to another person for an edition of the same work!

Miss Wilkins may have written melodious verse but evidently she did not have a melodious voice as she writes on January 13, 1895 to Mr. Chas. A. Burkhardt:

“I regret to say, in response to your kind invitation to take part in the “Authors Reading” that I never read in public and am obliged to refuse in this case, as in all others. My voice is not suitable for public reading. But please be sure that I am very sorry not to assist you in such a good cause.”

There follows a series of letters during the latter part of 1895 which give the outline of an argument between Miss Wilkins and J. E. Chamberlain of The Youth's Companion on one side and Irving Bacheller of the firm of Bacheller, Johnson & Bacheller (and the author of D'ri and I) on the other. With “The Long Arm,” a story published in The Youth's Companion, Miss Wilkins won a prize in a contest conducted by Bacheller, Johnson & Bacheller — a newly formed publishing syndicate. Because of the large amount of money paid for the story, Mr. Bacheller claimed all serial rights. The question arose of whether publication in magazine form would not injure the book sales. Bacheller contended that it would not. Miss Wilkins and Chamberlain contended that it would, but they did not wish to put the matter in the courts. In the last letter on this argument Miss Wilkins writes on October 20, 1895: “While I regret the necessity, I cannot of course fail to agree with you in your opinion that it is wise to defer publication of “The Long Arm” unless Mr. Bacheller should decide not to publish his “Pocket Magazine.”

A break occurs in the correspondence and there are no letters until August 4, 1899, when Miss Wilkins writes to Richard Watson Gilder as follows:

“Randolph, Mass.
August 4, 1899

Dear Mr. Gilder:

Do you think you could use in “The Century” a play — a realistic, New England, modern New England, play — a tragedy? I wish to have it published, before trying to place it in the stage — and think I may ultimately include it in a volume with others.

I dare say you cannot possibly use anything of such a nature but it can do no harm to inquire. The play is as realistic as Ibsen's. I wish it were as good.

Yours very sincerly,

Evidently Mr. Gilder said he would read it as in Miss Wilkins' letter of August 12, she writes: “I am sending you the play, though understanding that you in all probability cannot make use of it, and hoping that you understand that I understand. If it is not too much trouble, I would like you to read the play; there is not the slightest haste. Will you please do so at your own convenience, and be sure that I expect its return, and shall regard the reading as a favor. I would like to know what you think of it, that is all.” She refers to him later in the letter as a “great and rival Power” as a publisher to whom she would be glad to send a short story if her “stories proper” were not bespoken for.

The best literary letter of the group is Miss Wilkins' explanation of a sonnet she wrote. On December 10, 1899, she explains to Mr. Gilder:

“I am open to all sorts of conviction when it comes to my poetry, for I never did think much of my efforts in that line. It seems to me that I can understand that sonnet, but I daresay it is vague. Let me see if I can explain. I do not mean by Lode Star, the North Star, but a guiding star. I think Lode Star has that general significance — given in the Century Dictionary, if I am not mistaken. And I mean a spiritual, not a material star, and, of course, spiritual stars can easily outshine all the others, and storms, and night, and day. And he is any man who has been going along — possibly somewhat after the fashion of Saint Paul before his conversion — and suddenly realizes his guiding light and sees clearly for the first time the orbit of his race toward the highest goal and then follows on consciously through life and death. This may seem as vague as the sonnet, and very likely is but I have “risen” and tried to explain.

“Thank you for reading it. I wish I did have something which you would like to offer you. I hope I may have some time.

Very sincerly,

The only letter of the group written after Miss Wilkins' marriage is a brief note.

“Metuchen, N. J.
March 29, 1907

Dear Mrs. S—:

Thank you so much for the delicious frost fishes. It was very, very kind of you to remember me again. I have not had much appetite lately and these little fishes just met my need. I don't know when anything has tasted so good. Thank you.

Very sincerely,

This group of Miss Wilkins' letters shows some of the trials and tribulations of an important American writer. The letters contain data that would be important to Miss Wilkins' biographer and her bibliographer. These letters are typical of the sort of material which is available on famous American women writers. Mrs. Bertha Overbury of San Marino has formed a distinguished collection of American women authors and I am sure Mrs. Overbury would heartily recommend this field for collecting. Whether a single or a group of authors is collected, the abundance and high quality of material at relatively low prices make this an attractive field for the collector.