From Our Short Story Writers (Moffat, Yard & Company, New York: 1920)
Many years have gone by since a writer in Harper's Weekly stated, “It seems a supererogation to say aught in praise of her work now, but we are apt to take our literary benefactors so much for granted that we fail to realize their greatness, and fall short of that lively sense of appreciation which we accord the fresh and unaccustomed writer new to his laurels. Since A Humble Romance was written, other authors have come and gone, some have stayed, and will stay with honorable excellence, but to none do we owe so much during these years for that distinction and honor which upholds our literary ideals as to the name of Mary Wilkins Freeman.”
If this was true in 1903, it is superlatively so to-day; for Mrs. Freeman's succeeding books, her variety of subjects and the extension of her literary territory have strengthened her claim. A reviewer taking stock in 1900 of her short-story store might have put down to her credit: Item 1. Two containers of New England stories of contemporary life labeled, respectively, A Humble Romance (1887), and A New England Nun (1891). Contents indigenous to Massachusetts and Vermont, and recommended in particular to buyers of herbs and tonics. Item 2. Two containers of an odd mixture, seemingly for children but agreeing better with adults, labeled Young Lucretia (1892), and The Love of Parson Lord (1900). Item 3. One vessel of cunningly distilled colonial essence, marked — for lack of more appropriate symbol — Silence (1898). Accompanying this, a sort of baby sample, which may be transferred later to a larger vessel: In Colonial Times (1899). And the reviewer might have referred to her novels: See shelves above and below for similar substances, done up in individual packets.
A reviewer a score of years later must add to Mrs. Freeman's short-story stock: Understudies (1901), Six Trees (1903), The Wind in the Rosebush (1903), The Givers (1904), The Fair Lavinia (1907), The Winning Lady (1909), and The Copy Cat (1914). In general, he will observe that the six animals, six flowers and six trees included under the first two of these titles are used allegorically, that The Wind in the Rosebush is a set of six ghost stories, that The Givers, The Fair Lavinia and The Winning Lady carry on the traditions of her first two volumes, with perhaps a diminution of New England and a heightening of America, and that The Copy Cat is the most delightful book about children, for adult reading, which the author has yet turned out. And the same reviewer would note that her best novel, The Portion of Labor, was published in 1901. He might recall that Conan Doyle said in 1894 that her Pembroke of that year was the greatest piece of American fiction since The Scarlet Letter.
Any criticism or appreciation of this writer of short stories should take account, as well, of her novels. To do so is not possible in these limits. But since she is novelist second and story-writer first, tentative conclusions will need less correction than if drawn from her novels alone.
Mary Eleanor Wilkins was born in the year of Edith Wharton and O. Henry, 1862, at Randolph, Massachusetts. When very young she went to Brattleboro, Vermont, where she passed her childhood and girlhood. In 1874 she spent a year at Mt. Holyoke Seminary. On her father's death she returned to Randolph. There, with her friend, Miss Mary Wales, she lived until 1902. On January first of that year she was married to Dr. Charles Freeman, of Metuchen, New Jersey. The years since then have meant for her literary work a loss of intensity in exchange for a corresponding breadth. Uprooting her plant from New England has slightly changed its flower; it blows more freely, though it lacks the distinctive perfume of its native soil.
One of the first considerations attendant upon even the slightest reflections over Mrs. Freeman's stories is their number; a second is their variety, within a given range. Yet it is still the fashion to think loosely that Mrs. Freeman has written books only of New England genre life. She has been compared falsely to Gerard Dow, the painter, with whom the connection is one of subject matter only — as another critic has stated — and with whom the comparison holds in only one direction. The popular concept, it is true, has in its favor that this author's most distinctive achievement is the interpretation of the New England folk life of the last quarter of the twentieth century. But this is by no means to say that the rest is inconsiderable or that it would be negligible if her tales treating of the humbler classes were lost forever.
Her prolificness and her variety are explainable in part by her system of work. She told Margaret Hamilton Welch, a number of years ago, that she used two machines, on which were two novels going simultaneously. Conceivably, for rest from either, the two would be of as different types as she could manage. She recently expressed herself to the present writer as being of the “sequential” order. She sits down to write, not knowing what will come, but she begins and continues, thought following thought. She composes, sometimes, seven thousand words a day, typing as she goes; but such a strain may result in enforced idleness for a proportionate period. It has been stated in articles on her work that she plans before composition. This method would be preferable for the arguments of those who advise construction before writing; but the truth is that by her own confession Mrs. Freeman is one of the rare and vanishing craftswomen who progress by inspiration. Mary Brecht Pulver is another. Mrs. Freeman, however, joins to her first inspirational draft a professional finish. She revises two and three times.
Miss Wilkins was in her twenties when she was emboldened to send to Miss Mary L. Booth, Editor of Harper's Bazar the manuscript entitled Two Old Lovers. It is an old story now, that Miss Booth was about to lay the script aside, thinking from the immature style that some child had written it — in the middle eighties Miss Wilkins was using her pen — when her attention was arrested. She read it three times in as many moods and accepted it. The payment was twenty-five dollars. This tale is somewhat more anecdotal in type than are its successors, though it is handled in the short-story manner, with accent on the period of waiting and suspense, rather than upon the snap at the close.
An Honest Soul appeared in Harper's, July, 1884, and is neither better nor worse than the average companion pieces of A Humble Romance. Its theme is unique, if apparently trivial — Martha Patch, over seventy, who weaves rag carpets, pieces quilts and braids rugs, has been engaged by two of her neighbors, “Mis' Bliss and Mis' Bennet,” to piece a quilt for each, respectively. After Martha has finished the quilts, she decides she has confused the scraps, painfully takes out her stitches, transfers the bits of cloth — and then finds that she was right at first. In her effort to do the right thing and in her battle with pride and poverty, she very nearly dies. But “Mis' Peters” finds her and restores her with a bit of toast, a dropped egg, and the inevitable New England tea. The tale is of representative length — four or five thousand words — and it is further illustrative of the characters brought for the first time in a democratic way before American readers — old, poor old, women.
Old Lady Pingree's case is more pathetic than that of Martha. She is lame in one hip, so old she has not only taken thought of her burial clothes and money but has directed “Mis' Holmes” where to look for each in the event of her sudden demise. But one yet poorer than she died first, to whom Old Lady Pingree gave away her shroud and her eighty dollars of burial money. The pathos of these worn-out bodies, aged without having lived, is not emphasized by sob-getting stuff; but he will be a wretched sort of reader whose eyes will not burn at the final words of Old Lady Pingree. After she has received the gift of two hundred dollars, she looks fondly after Benny and Jenny and wonders whether “they are any happier thinkin' about gettin' married than I am thinkin' about gettin' buried.”
Her old women show, on occasion, a strength of character, a kind of masculine determination, which somewhat controverts the theory that they live in a man-ruled world. An Independent Thinker is one of this type, and later Old Woman Magoun (in The Winning Lady, 1909). Mrs. Magoun has taken care of her grandchild Lily since the mother's death. After Lily is fourteen or so, still at heart a little girl carrying about her doll, her father catches sight of her — and her beauty. Old Woman Magoun divines that he is about to make an evil bargain with regard to Lily, and she sets off with the child to Lawyer Mason's. She pleads vainly that the lawyer and his wife adopt the little girl. On the way home she permits Lily, who has partaken of a sour apple and a glass of milk, to eat night-shade berries. The result is inevitable — as the old woman had foreseen.
These aged ladies are frequently spinsters living alone, like Betsey (A Poetess, of A New England Nun); or in pairs, like Charlotte and Harriet Shattuck, who ran away from the Old Ladies' Home (A Mistaken Charity), back to their poor hovel and its pumpkin vines. Nor are the old ladies always poor or humble. In The Willow Ware (of The Fair Lavinia) young Adeline Weaver lives with her stately and conventional Aunts Elizabeth and Jane; Caroline Munson is the heroine of A Symphony in Lavender (A Humble Romance), the title alone being adequately descriptive. Louisa Ellis, the New England Nun, is endowed with a sufficiency of worldly goods. Elizabeth and Emily Babcock (of A Gala Dress in A New England Nun) are poor, but distinctly of a class above that of flat-footed Matilda Jennings; the Allerton sisters (The Travelling Sister, in The Winning Lady), though of dwindled possessions, are “college educated” and their very names — Helen, Camille, Susanne — point to a higher social stratum than that of A Poetess, An Old Arithmetician and the humble sisters of these.
The Three Sisters and the Old Beau (in The Love of Parson Lord) strikingly relates Mrs. Freeman to Hawthorne. Rachel, Nancy, and Camilla — of whom the youngest is nearly seventy — entertain the old man who is said to be as old as the oldest sister. After the death of the other two, he weds Camilla. The bridal procession cannot but recall that of The Wedding Knell. The kinship between the two writers emerges more strongly in Silence, a story for which the author has expressed a preference because of its dramatic nature. The time is that of colonial days, and besides this period-kinship with The Scarlet Letter, the mood and the diction of the two are similar. The story of the Hawthorne vein that we prefer, however, is The Gold (The Fair Lavinia). In no respect does it disappoint one who seeks a good story in character and action, a shock at the end — not at all calculated, in the mechanical sense — and a reflection of the period chosen. No reader will forget the substance of the dénouement: “She looked at the letter again, and called out its contents again in a voice shrill with hysteria: ‘The andirons, the fire-set, the handles on the high-boy, the handles on the desk, the trimmings of the clock, the pendulum, the trimmings on the best bed, the handles on the dresser, the key of the desk — Gold.’”
Of the stories in Silence, we have a weakness for The Buckley Lady. It takes one back to samplers, Watts's Hymns, and gravestones bearing crude cherubim heads and wings; but also to one of the loveliest ladies of fiction. Persis Buckley was, quite literally, made a lady by her own family, that she might be worthy of the gentleman who would return for her in a coach and four. Her heavy sister Submit offers a good foil for her beauty: “Her complexion, although she had lived so much within doors, was not sickly, but pale and fine as a white lily. Her eyes were like dark stars, and her hair was a braided cap of gold, with light curls falling from it around her face and her sweet neck.” And Tabitha admitted that she could play, had a pretty voice for a song, and could dance — “though that's not to be spoken of in this godly town.” Her loveliness was so poignant that when the ultimate hero came and looked upon her, “a tremor ran over him, his lips twitched, and all the color left his face.” The Fair Lavinia is described as of such beauty that when Harry Fielding fails, time after time, to catch a glimpse of her, you become convinced she is another Marjorie Daw. But he eventually finds her — only to prefer the real heroine, Isabel Done. Evelina's Garden, of this same collection, is the story for which, out of all she has written, Mrs. Freeman has an expressed predilection.
Her young women of the modern era are too frail and negative for one always to sympathize with them. Levina (of Brakes and White Vi'lets) is a slender young girl, whose “fair colorless hair was combed smoothly straight back from her high, pale forehead; her serious blue eyes looked solemnly out from beneath it.” Nanny Penn, of The Revolt of “Mother,” is blonde, heavy, and not very strong. Most of these girls, you know, will continue their non-complaining, laborious existence as wives of farmers or day laborers. But, occasionally, long repression breaks out, as with Narcissa Stone, past middle age. After her father's death, as may be recalled, she took her mother to New York with the intention of remaining one year on the fifteen hundred dollars insurance money. (See One Good Time, in The Love of Parson Lord.) There is no humor, only satisfaction, in Narcissa's account of her six days in New York, for her or her faithful William Crane; but there is for the reader. And there is a deep understanding of the rebellion that long had smoldered toward this flare. Repression may emerge as successful rebellion in the married woman's life; as with Mother of the famous Revolt. This story first appeared in Harper's, September, 1890. Theodore Roosevelt, then Governor of New York, in addressing a gathering of mothers recommended them to read it, for its strong moral lesson. Probably this reference accounts for its popularity. It has been reprinted in half a dozen collections of stories (outside of the author's A New England Nun) and lauded as a “model” by story technicians.
But it has been a bête noire to its author. She says in The Saturday Evening Post, December 8, 1917, as she has said many times in substance: “People go right on with almost Prussian dogmatism, insisting that the Revolt of Mother is my one and only work. It is most emphatically not. Were I not truthful, having been born so near Plymouth Rock, I would deny I ever wrote that story. I would foist it upon somebody else.
“In the first place, all fiction ought to be true, and the Revolt of Mother is not in the least true. When I wrote that little tale I threw my New England traditions to the wind and trampled on my New England conscience. I have had and still have retribution.” She insists that the story is spineless. “There never was in New England a woman like Mother. If there had been she most certainly would not have moved into the palatial barn. … She simply would have lacked the nerve. She would also have lacked the imagination.” And she adds that, as a rule, women in New England villages do hold the household reins, and with good reason. “They really can drive better.”
“It is a dreadful confession, but that woman called ‘Mother’ in The Revolt of ‘Mother’ is impossible. I sacrificed truth when I wrote the story. … My literary career has been halted by the success of the big fib in that story. Too late I admit it. The harm is done. But I can at least warn other writers. When you write a short story stick to the truth. If there is not a story in the truth, knit until truth happens which does contain a story.”
It is not amiss to parenthesize over that figure drawn from knitting. Mrs. Freeman knitted during the World War, though she has been taken to task by at least one critic for producing in its progress the child stuff of The Copy-Cat! The stories of The Copy-Cat had been produced before war was declared. …
But to revert to The Revolt. Mrs. Freeman is a story-maker, preëminently, and although she combines assurance with “merciless modesty,” she does not always, we are inclined to believe, distinguish between her better and her inferior work. Stevenson knew that you can make a story true by finding the right key for it. The Revolt is pitched right; the characters are clear, like the people you see standing before you, or that you recall from last year through vibrant memory. The fact is that whether any New England woman ever has moved into a barn or ever will move, “Mother” did so. We know it. It is entirely useless for the author to repent and to try to convince us otherwise. The truth in fiction is stronger than the fact in life. It is lamentable that this narrative, as a coin held near the eyes will cut off the sun, has obscured many other good tales by this author. It is not superior to A Gala Dress, A New England Nun, A Church Mouse, or A Kitchen Colonel, all of the same collection, not to mention four stories of as many other volumes: The Gold, The Buckley Lady, The Givers, and The Shadows on the Wall.
Mrs. Freeman has stated that she does not lift characters from life. “All in my books who are real, are dead,” she once stated. But she also admitted that her making the characters do the things that individuals of the type they represent would do in similar environment is remarkably confirmed. One is perfectly convinced that energetic Sophia Lane (of The Givers) was capable of returning useless and undesirable wedding gifts sent her niece, and equally convinced that she was capable of securing desirable ones to take their places. And, again, one is equally sure that somewhere Sophia Lane has her counterpart in real life.
Her most successful heroine of the homely type is she of A Humble Romance. Critics have commented upon the indelibility of the events and the portrait of Sally. “Her finger joints and wrist bones were knotty and out of proportion, her elbows which her rolled-up sleeves displayed, were pointed and knobby, her shoulders bent, her feet spread beyond their natural bounds — from head to foot she was a little discordant note. She had a pale, peaked face, her scanty fair hair was strained tightly back and twisted into a tiny knot, and her expression was at once passive and eager.”
A girl above her sisters in beauty is required for one type of heroine; but one below them, in fortune and looks, is more frequently preferred. And this is true, in particular, when she happens to be one of the numberless variants of the Cinderella heroine, who finally comes out ahead. If she possesses some master virtue, as Sally possessed loyalty, she will win. No reader can forget Sally, her marriage to the tin peddler, Jake's disappearance, her long waiting, her peddling the tins, and her child-like joy over Jake's return.
Her old men are complements of the female characters; they are either set like “Father” of The Revolt, and Alfred Tollet of Gentian, or ascetic, like Nicholas Gunn, The Solitary. Else, they are old men who are terribly in subjection to the females. Barney Swan, described in the title, A Village Lear, dies in the house of Sarah Arnold, with delirious visions of Ellen and Viny, his ungrateful daughters, coming to him across the fields. A Kitchen Colonel portrays Abel Lee, aged seventy-eight, as self-effacing, from the first picture wherein he cleans dandelions, to the last, wherein he hastens from the room of the wedding, missing the essential ceremony, to see that the milk does not burn. Within closer limits she differentiates her old men well. The kitchen colonel is handsome, though his face is spare; his features show gentle patience. Old Ephraim, his neighbor, has sharp features, “his old blue eyes took on a hard twinkle, like blue beads.”
Mary Moss once estimated in an article for The Bookman: “In the census of a Mary Wilkins village the proportion of inhabitants would approximate sixty women upwards of seventy years old, five old men, fifteen middle-aged women, eight middle-aged men, seven girls, three eligible bachelors, two children.” One may extend the principle: two of the three bachelors would live together, forty of the old women singly, and seventeen in various combinations with her own class or the other possible inhabitants; the eight middle-aged men and the seven girls would be shared in various relationships among the fifteen middle-aged women. The houses in which they lived would be dominated by the kitchen, with emphasis on the sink; in the living room a center table would boast a lamp mat and lamp, or else an array of albums; the mantel-piece would support an old-fashioned clock; and a bracket on the wall, wax flowers under a case of glass. A hair-cloth sofa, chairs and pictures might complete the list of remaining properties. The author introduces a typical family in One Good Time: “Richard Stone was nearly seventy-five years old when he died, his wife was over sixty, and his daughter Narcissa past middle-age.”
You will observe that the season Mrs. Freeman favors is usually one of snow. Her country is cold and barren; but from it spring flowers clean and rare, like those on all high and stony places; over it is the bracing mountain air, and throughout its length and breadth a homely sympathy. And blue houstonias bloom in the cemeteries.
There are now more than two children in proportion to the other members of the village. Chronologically, Young Lucretia — who placed Christmas presents for herself on the tree, because, as she told her aunts, “they said you was cross and stingy. … an' I didn't want 'em to think you were” — is followed by The Little Maid at the Door (in Silence), a story of deserted childhood set in the days of the Salem witchcraft terror. Mrs. Freeman has a canny knowledge of childish mental processes: “She turned about and went back to the house, with tears rolling over her cheeks; but she did not sob aloud, as she would have done had her mother been near to hear.” This Little Maid finds comfort in a corn-cob after her “poppet” had been thrown down the well, recalling Cosette, in Les Misérables, who crooned over her make-shift doll before Jean Valjean presented her with the beauty from the shop. Again, Love Lord's doll has been taken away from her. She finds it in the garret: “She gazed at its poor old rag face, its wide mouth painted grotesquely with pokeberry juice, its staring eyes outlined in circles of India ink. She stroked lovingly the scanty locks made from a ravelled brown silk stocking. She knew that the doll was miserably ugly, but, by a sort of under-knowledge of love, she also knew she was fair. … She kissed her as she had never kissed any living thing.” So does this author reveal her understanding of one type of little girl. Lucy, of The Givers, is the sister of the Little Maid and of Love Lord. She illustrates, still further, the author's ability to get under the skins of her very young people. You are sure had you been in Little Lucy's place you would be uncertain whether you were Lucy Ames or Lucy Hooper and whether you had come from Brookfield, Massachusetts, or Cleveland, Ohio. Little Girl-Afraid-of-a-Dog (in The Winning Lady) is equally well psychologized, with respect to fear succeeded by fearlessness.
In The Copy-Cat (1914), the author has created types which become epitomes of living individuals we all know. The Cock of the Walk, Little Lucy Rose and Big Sister Solly are in the gallery with Penrod, William Sylvanus Baxter's sister Jane, and Randolph H. Dukes. Big Sister Solly represents the child who, out of her loneliness, invents, creates — nay, to whom comes — a Big Sister Solly. Perhaps your own lonely little sister, who came along after you grew up and went to college, was visited by one of these loving and lovely companions. “Little Hon” came to your small sister and “went away” when the vacation time took you to her again. If the being that Content Adams envisioned may be regarded as an evoked ghost, she represents only one of the numerous spirit types Mrs. Freeman has created. The Little Maid, we know, is dead and buried in her straight, white robe. But when sweet Ann Bailey came to the Proctor house she leaned eagerly from her pillion and smiled and kissed her hand.
“Why look you thus, Ann?” her husband asked, looking about at her.
“See you not the little maid in the door?” she whispered low, for fear of the goodly company. “I trow she looks better than she did. The roses are in her cheeks, and they have combed her yellow hair, and put a clean white gown on her. She holds a little doll, too.”
This story seems to say at the close that we see only the ghosts we wish to see. Ann's husband had caught sight of others, when first he and she rode by. But in the atmosphere of witchcraft, the represented facts bring you a strange thrill.
The Wind in the Rosebush, including six tales of the supernatural, contains one remarkable vampire story — though no such word is used of Luella Miller — and one capital, real ghost tale — The Shadows on the Wall. This story, which successfully challenges the reader to believe in the shadow of a ghost makes use of a principle most modern technicians have seized. One believes in shadows sooner than realities because the shadow implies the reality; suggestion is stronger than statement. If, then, the shadow of a ghost falls upon the wall, the ghost, even though invisible, must be present. This story, one of Mrs. Freeman's very best, has been justly admired. Julian Hawthorne reprinted it in his Library of Mystery and Detective Stories (American); W. Patten included it in his first volume of International Short Stories.
Mrs. Freeman's work has been criticized as lacking color. The nature of her subject-matter would bar it — except in the tales of young love and her later stories about children — but her fondness for green looks out here and there from her earliest to her latest pages. It is well adapted to her slight and fair girls: Adeline (of The Willow-Ware) dresses in a cross-barred muslin, sprigged with green leaves, ties a green ribbon about her waist and puts on her necklace of emeralds before she descends to meet Elias Harwell. The Buckley Lady, in her green silk pelisse, green petticoat and green bonnet, sits “undistinguishable as a green plant against the trunk of the tree.” The Ring with the Green Stone (Harper's, February, 1917) throws a green atmosphere over the reader, at the outset of the tale. No writer better understands, though it may be unconscious art with this author, the value of integrating her effects, in color and sound. If they are sparingly needed, these harmonies, she gets along without them.
She also manages well her story clues. If a little girl is to die of eating poisonous berries, she will not eat them too unexpectedly and fortuitously. She will notice them much earlier in the action and ask whether she may have them. If Barney Swan is to be taken in at the last by Sarah Arnold, then Sarah will appear in the opening of the story, not at the last moment by coincidence.
Emphasis has been laid upon Mrs. Freeman's characters, rather than her plot, for the purpose of suggesting her people and her locale who give significance to the plots. In stories however brief, these characters are struggling; sometimes they are involved in complications. It may be only a struggle to be honest in the matter of scraps; it may be a struggle between two strong wills, as between “Father” and “Mother” of The Revolt; it may be a struggle of a young girl to “bear up” and have faith until her husband returns, a struggle combined with another line of interest which brings about the complication in A Humble Romance. Mrs. Freeman seldom writes a “story” that is other than a story, resting on solid, if slight, groundwork of plot or fable. It will be observed that neither her Understudies nor her Six Trees has been drawn upon for illustration. The titles are accurate: these are studies, like those of People in Our Neighborhood. They were listed above because of the kinship they bear to the short story and because of their brevity. The author's object was to create pictures detached from action. Yet even here, her narrative often does the describing. When we think of Amanda Todd: the Friend of Cats (People of Our Neighborhood), we think rather of the ten saucers filled with milk, for the cat, one for each day of Amanda's absence. In recalling Morning-Glory (of Understudies), we remember that Alexander Bemis was a boy of promise, but that he had a love affair which, ending disastrously, may have had something to do with his ultimate failure. We may lose sight of the morning-glory comparison, that is, in following the actual incidents.
Mrs. Freeman's short-stories are always units. Very occasionally a character of one story may reappear in another; but the stories themselves are separate and independent; there is no interlinking. Rather are some of her so-called novels a series of interlinking tales. Her best work will stand, a collection of stories of village and country life, reflecting a phase of society in an era that is passing.
Her style is marked by extreme clearness. It is the notable quality in her fiction as it is the quality she urges upon The Girl Who Wants to Write: “Above all things in the matter of style strive for clarity. … If you lack complete mastery of a language, use short sentences and simple words.” Her own sentences, of French brevity, etch her clear pictures upon the reader's brain. And her contribution is American, as she urges Americanism upon the young writer: “If a writer is American, she should carry her patriotism into her work. Look upon the scene with American eyes, and from an American viewpoint.”
Mrs. Freeman's volumes of short stories:
A Humble Romance, 1887.
A New England Nun, 1891.
Young Lucretia, 1892.
Silence, and Other Stories, 1898.
In Colonial Times, 1899.
The Love of Parson Lord, and Other Stories, 1900.
Six Trees, 1903.
The Wind in the Rosebush, 1903.
The Givers, 1904.
The Fair Lavinia and Others, 1907.
The Winning Lady, 1909.
The Copy-Cat, 1914.
changed [ A Humble Romance appeared in Harper's, July, 1884, and is neither better nor worse than the average companion pieces of A Humble Romance. ] to [ An Honest Soul appeared ] as this makes sense and is true and consistant.