From The Best Stories of Mary E. Wilkins (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1927)
“To one who was a reader in the 'nineties it seems almost ludicrous to ‘introduce’ Mary E. Wilkins. Her tales in Harper's were a part of the natural order of things. If you were an expatriated New Englander, it was almost equal to going back and listening to your own people, perhaps really understanding them for the first time; or if you chanced to be an unreconstructed Southerner, your delighted comprehension of these Yankees at home was probably spiced a bit by a titillating sense of superiority to some of their oddities and whimsicalities.” — Henry Wysham Lanier.
Mary E. Wilkins was one of the first American writers to practice the art of the short story with distinction. Since the first of her studies of New England life were published in Harper's magazine her reputation has grown steadily, and despite changing standards her work has not lost any of its amazing vitality and fascination. The twenty-five stories which Mr. Lanier has chosen for this volume range from “A Humble Romance” and “The Revolt of Mother” to such a technically modern story as “The Gospel According to Joan.” The volume is for the reader of short stories, whether or not he cares particularly about literary evaluations. For those who do, the Lanier Introduction is a delightful, just, and informative appreciation of what Mary E. Wilkins is in American fiction. There are also complete bibliographical data covering all the Wilkins books.
How many living writers are there from whose work could be gathered a group of stories comparable with those in the present volume?
I'll not even insist on the “living.” For it happens that I have concentrated into the last two and a half years the reading of perhaps five thousand short stories, the majority classed as the finest examples of that art, in all times and countries; and I think the masters who produced those would be the first to invite some of these tales to a place beside their own.
Indeed, to one who was a reader in the 'nineties, it seems almost ludicrous to “introduce” Mary E. Wilkins. (Just a little like introducing Babe Ruth anywhere in the United States, in these latter days!) Her tales in Harper's were a part of the natural order of things, some better than others, but always providing a distinctive flavor in the menu. If you were an expatriated New Englander, it was almost equal to going back and listening to your own people, perhaps really understanding them for the first time; or if you chanced to be an unreconstructed Southerner, your delighted comprehension of these Yankees at home was probably spiced a bit by a titillating sense of superiority to some of the oddities and whimsicalities.
Certainly, should one wish to help a foreigner, say an intelligent transplanted Afghan Mussulman, to “get along” comfortably from the start in a New England community, little would be necessary except to get him to read a dozen or two of Mrs. Freeman's stories. For the very essence of her people is there.
Since Mr. George Moore's eye is not likely to fall upon this page, one may insist that “local color” like this is an expression of true literary art. It is completely different from the external tags, and cataloguish details whose cheap pretentiousness he excoriates with such savage contempt. The world is so full of a number of things — and each of the infinite number speaks so clearly in its own language — that no writer with a seeing eye can fail to express the particular local color of the scene and people he is describing; comprehendingly viewed, there's no such thing as an “insignificant” detail, whether of a butterfly's wing or a human being — as the Chinese painter has known for thousands of years, and Count Keyserling has recently discovered. These individual minutiæ grow from something inside. They flare with beauty and significance when they take their place in the pattern. Each one merely offers a fresh entrance for the mind, if the narrator himself has penetrated beneath the surface. And in the case of Mary Wilkins, one feels that she never had to penetrate, but that she is telling with childlike directness things she has always lived and known.
She was born at Randolph, Massachusetts, in 1862, but her family moved to Vermont when she was quite young, and she was brought up in a much more rural community than the suburban town south of Boston. Since a main strength of her work is its direct reflection of real people and scenes about her, it was perhaps fortunate that there were these years of contact with folk who preserved so much of the original character.
I asked her how she came to start writing:
“I did not want to write at all. I wanted to be an artist. But, for lack of paint, etc., and sufficiency of pens, ink, and paper, I wrote.
“I started with poems, religious. I took myself quite seriously then, also my Work. I showed these pious efforts to a Vermont clergyman, and he told me I was a genius, or to that effect. I thought he knew. Fortunately, I never offered those early poems for publication, and they are nonexistent.
“Then I wrote children's verses for a little Fall River magazine. It did not pay, but the editor was extremely kind: she wrote me encouraging letters which really meant more than dollars, though the family purse was very lean.
“Next I wrote verses and stories for the defunct Wide Awake, for $10 per. They were later collected in book form. The verses today sell better, comparatively, than any of my books. I do not know about the collection of stories, The Pot of Gold, for I never had royalty for that. I assume it circulates, from the number of letters which I have received about it, from both this country and abroad.
“I wrote my first adult story, a fifty-dollar-prize tale, for a Boston paper. It was called ‘A Shadow Family,’ and was a poor imitation of Dickens. I loaned that and it was never returned, and no copy exists.
“Then I wrote ‘Two Old Lovers,’ and Miss Booth accepted it for Harper's Bazar, and sent me a check for $25.
“She accepted it by the merest chance, for she thought at first sight it was written by a child — the writing was so unformed; she nearly tossed it away, but something arrested her attention: she read it and accepted it.
“After that very little was returned. ‘A Humble Romance’ was taken by Mr. Alden for Harper's; afterward he published my first novel, Jane Field, as a serial.
“I could not readily abandon my desire to be an artist. With a portion of that twenty-five dollars I bought paints, and started in to paint. I found I could mix colors, but could not paint, and had sense enough to relinquish art.”
Nothing could be more unpretentious than the author's attitude, throughout the long list of novels and stories she has produced. There is no attempt at fine writing; she never challenges the attention with epigram or paradox or “daring” situations. Yet the most subtle French analyst might well be satisfied with the quiet certainty of artistic touch which builds up a convincing human character in the heroine of “A New England Nun”; as for humor — those who have once gotten the flavor of “Little-Girl-Afraid-of-a-Dog” or “The Revolt of Mother” need no asseveration on that point! And I think almost the final triumph is the way in which she makes truly interesting old worn-out drudges, and immature girls, and the “dull” round of everyday life under bitterly hard conditions.
To find the bright hues of romance amid such harshness of nature and human nature is perhaps to deserve better of one's fellows than to become a painter.
It is quite interesting to find so sophisticated a critic as Arthur Machen striving successfully to justify by his own formula his pleasure in Miss Wilkins's work. He lays down, first, the measuring rod of ecstasy — “rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown”; “if ecstasy be present, then I say there is fine literature”; and, after eliminating Thackeray, Jane Austen, and Stevenson by this test, and placing at the summit Pickwick, Don Quixote, and Pantagruel — he finds Miss Wilkins almost unique among contemporaries. Not only are the tales “delightful,” but he points out (with T. P. O'Connor) that there is no incongruity in finding “ecstasy” in these life episodes of reserved folk, for “passion does come through the reserve, and occasionally in the most volcanic manner.” Also he discerns a remoteness and isolation of soul, each human being living a life of his or her own, — strong, full of character, tense with feeling, however restrained; and “literature proceeds” from this lonely reverie and ecstasy.
All of which is sufficiently striking, from a cultivated Englishman of the modern school — which is often highly disdainful of eternal simplicities.
And I think every thoughtful reader will agree that there is truth in this attempt at analysis. Mrs. Freeman's work offers just one more instance in the formidable list of proofs that the writers who produce literature are apt to be those who do not start out with any such intention, but are moved to set down simply pictures of people and happenings which have deeply stirred them.
It would be easy to dilate, and analyze, and point out many special things in this collection. But writing about writing is, after all, rather a second-hand business. The stories which follow are their own best justification and explanation.
Whether these are the “best” stories of Mrs. Freeman's long list (nearly two hundred and fifty short tales), I do not know. They are the ones I have liked best in re-reading the mass of her work.
Far more important, they are characteristic examples of her power. And that says enough to all who have made her literary acquaintance.
H. W. L.