From A Library of the World's Best Literature Ancient and Modern Vol. XXXIX. (The International Society, New York: 1897)
Some of the most artistic and pleasing fiction by the younger school of American writers has been that dealing with the rural types of New England. Half a century ago, Sylvester Judd in his ‘Margaret’ revealed the possibilities of this field. With increasing skill and carefulness of observation it has been cultivated since by capable native authors. A pioneer like Mrs. Stowe has been followed in later days by Mrs. Rose Terry Cooke, Mrs. Slosson, Miss Jewett, and Miss Wilkins; and the depiction of New England character has been fruitful for literature.
Mary E. Wilkins, of the younger school, has been markedly popular and successful. She began in the 1880's to publish unpretentious magazine stories, not striking enough to make a sensation, and hence not attracting general attention until gathered into book form. But they revealed an intimate knowledge of the poetry, humor, and pathos of the life of plain country folk, a deep though not obtrusive sympathy with their every-day lot. The plot with Miss Wilkins is little: the analysis of character, the picture of a bit of human nature, much, — everything, indeed. She has come naturally into a first-hand acquaintance with the people and scenes she elects to represent. Born in the little Massachusetts village of Randolph, Miss Wilkins was educated at that typical New England institution, Mt. Holyoke Seminary. For a time she lived at Brattleboro, Vermont; but in 1883 returned to her native town, which has since been her headquarters. Thus she has been able to study long and closely the New England men and women — the latter in especial — who throng her pages. Old maids in the pale virginal round of their days; children with their homely little doings and very actual pleasures and heart-aches; day laborers with their touches of uncouth chivalry; almshouse inmates sunning themselves in memories of bygone better times; weather-worn farmers and their work-worn wives; girls love-smitten, whose drama is none the less dramatic because expressed in dubious grammar, — such are the folk of her creation. The idyls and tragedies of the rustic community — a world in little — are writ large in her sketches; the New England traits are caught unerringly.
In spite of the strong work she has recently done in full-length fiction, Miss Wilkins's art and talent are at the happiest in some of the short tales to be found in such collections as ‘A Humble Romance,’ ‘A New England Nun,’ and ‘Young Lucretia.’ The first volume — ‘The Adventure of Ann,’ in 1886 — was an earnest of much short-story fiction which has been recognized both in the United States and England as distinguished and interesting work. In 1893 the play ‘Giles Corey, Yeoman,’ a graphic portrayal of colonial times, indicated a desire to present life more romantically and objectively; and the novels ‘Jane Field’ (1893), ‘Pembroke’ (1894), ‘Madelon’ (1895), and ‘Jerome: A Poor Man’ (1897) bore further attestation to this change in method. There is in these stories more interest of incident, and a definite attempt to paint more broadly, presenting life in its more spectacular aspects. Plain country people are still her subject-matter. The construction of this later fiction has grown steadily firmer; and it may be that eventually Miss Wilkins's most powerful writing with be cast in this mold, — though this is hardly the case at present.
Mary E. Wilkins, then, may be described as a realist increasingly leaning towards romanticism. She has declared her two favorite heroes to be Jean Valjean in ‘Les Misérables,’ and Thackeray's Colonel Newcome; her favorite novel and play to be Hugo's story named above, and Shakespeare's ‘King Lear.’ The choice is significant as indicating one who would appear to sympathize with the romantic treatment and view of life. Miss Wilkins's most mature work shows this tendency plainly; and indeed, in the best and most typical of her earlier short tales, their charm comes from something more than faithfulness in transcription. They have a delicate ideality, an imaginative suggestiveness, and a selective presentation of the inner life of thought and feeling, which is to most human beings the realest and most important part of existence. And these qualities in the author remove her entirely from the category of those whose sole stock-in-trade is a hard, narrow, vulgar insistence on so-called fact.