Literary Notes

by Laurence Hutton

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine Volume 95 Issue 570 (November 1897)

The natural tendency of Miss Wilkins's stories is one of sadness. That of Jerome, A Poor Man2 is particularly so. He is not only poor in purse and physical strength, but he begins life by being poor in friends, although he is always rich enough in spirit, in honesty, and in independence. He will make as many friends among his readers, however, as did Jane Field, Madelon, and the people of Pembroke; and he is one of the most interesting and strongly drawn figures in modern American fiction.

In this work, as in those which preceded it, Miss Wilkins has been peculiarly happy and correct in her portrayal of life and character in New England, at the present day; mingling, as she always does, a smile or two with all her pathos. The scene at the funeral of Jerome Edwards's father has only been equalled by the picture of Jane Field, as she sat through that long night of loneliness and of morbidly haunting fancies, trying to assert what she thought were her rights, and fighting, in solitude and in darkness, her fight with her own soul. The idea of the obsequies is a ghastly one, but it is very true to the nature of the descendants of the Puritans. The elder Edwards had disappeared in a mysterious way, in a way, they feared, of his own making. Perhaps they hoped he was dead, and they tried to believe he was dead: and then followed the dreary ceremony of a country funeral, without the burial, the widow and her boy sitting through it all, and quite as much alone as was Jane Field. But they had their funeral!

“‘I don't see how you can have a funeral, no way, Ann. There won't be any coffin, nor any hearse, nor any procession, nor —’ ‘There'll be mourners,’ broke in Ann. ‘They're what makes a funeral,’ said Paulina Maria, putting up an apron she had brought. ‘Folks that's had funerals knows.’” Paulina Maria was right. Folks that's had funerals knows. There are always mourners!

Equally good in its way, and a little more cheerful, is the description of the country store. It “was more than a store — it was the nursery of the town, the place where her little commonweal was evolved and nurtured, and it was her judgment-seat. There her simple citizens formed their simple opinions upon town government and town officials, upon which they afterwards acted in town meetings. There they sat in judgment upon all the men who were not within reach of their voices, and upon all crying evils of the times which were too mighty for them to struggle against. This great country store of Cyrus Robinson's, with its rank odors of molasses and spices, whale oil and West India rum; with its counters, its floor, its very ceiling heaped and hung with all the paraphernalia of a New England village — its clothes, its food, and its working-utensils — was also, in a sense, the nucleus of this village of Upham Corners.” How true to the life it is, with its sights and its sounds and its odors! The simple reading of this paragraph will make homesick many a New-Englander who has been away from home so long that he thinks he has almost forgotten how “home” looks and feels and smells!

It is hard to resist the temptation to quote the bright and characteristic things which Miss Wilkins puts in the mouths of her characters, or says herself. Speaking of the brand-new suit Jerome had purchased to wear at the party at Squire Merritt's she writes: — “The most intimate friends in unwonted gala attire are always something of a revelation to one another. Butterflies meeting for the first time after their release from chrysalis might well have the same awe and confusion of old memories. … As for Jerome, he felt awkwardly self-conscious in his new clothes, but bore himself so proudly to conceal it. It requires genuine valor to overcome new clothes, when one seldom has them. They become, under such circumstances, more than clothes — they are at least skin-deep.”

Jerome, Poor Man, does not have many new clothes, but he always bears himself proudly, and his worth and his valor extend very much deeper than the mere cuticle of his character.

2 Jerome, A Poor Man. By Mary E. Wilkins. Illustrated by A. I. Kellar. 16mo, Cloth, $1 50. New York and London: Harper and Brothers.