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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

The postbellum appeal of regional fiction coincided with three aspects of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's life and circumstances: her deep appreciation of the people and culture of rural New England, her extraordinary skill as a writer, and her continuing need to write to support herself financially. Attuned by necessity to what she termed her stories' "selling qualities" and widely acclaimed for her literary art, she produced fifteen volumes of highly accomplished short stories, as well as some fifty uncollected stories and prose essays, fourteen novels, three plays, three volumes of poetry, and eight children's books, all centering primarily on the aspirations, quiet accomplishments, bids for independence, and circumscribed conditions of farmers, workers, and the poor (especially women) in New England and the middle states.

Born in Randolph, Massachusetts, and brought up there and in Brattleboro, Vermont, Mary Ella Wilkins observed the irreversible erosion of her parents' economic circumstances, circumstances that reflected the post-Civil War decline of the Massachusetts shoe industry and of small farming. Even though her delicate health and her mother's protectiveness tended to restrict her to indoor activities, many of which focused on orthodox Congregationalist religious functions, nothing could shelter her from the family's economic exigencies. When she was fifteen, her father, Warren, gave up house carpentry in Massachusetts and tried to make a go of it with a Brattleboro dry-goods store. Mary graduated from Brattleboro High School in 1870 and spent what seems to have been an uncomfortable year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. But her father's business failed, her closest friend moved away, her efforts to teach were unsuccessful, her younger sister died, and ultimately her mother, Eleanor, was forced, when Mary was twenty-five, to enter service in the household of the Reverend Thomas Pickman Tyler. The family's move into the Tyler home may particularly have troubled Mary because her love for Tyler's son, Hanson, was not reciprocated. Four years passed before Mary could sell her first piece of writing, a children's ballad entitled "The Beggar King," and thus help to relieve the family's economic plight. The beginnings of success came too late for her mother, however, for in 1880 Eleanor Wilkins had suddenly died. Perhaps to memorialize her mother's care and affection, Mary adopted as her own the middle name Eleanor.

Within two years, Mary Eleanor began to sell not only juvenile but adult fiction, publishing among other works a prize story, "A Shadow Family," in a Boston newspaper and "Two Old Lovers" in Harper's Bazaar. A few years more and she was recognized as a significant writer and a mainstay for the publishing firm of Harper and Brothers, which issued her first collection, A Humble Romance and Other Stories, in 1887. Her father did not live to share that pleasure; when he died in 1883, Mary Eleanor Wilkins moved back to Randolph, taking up residence in the farm family of her childhood friend, Mary Wales. There, in the seclusion of the second-floor room of the Wales homestead—where she continued to live for twenty years—and protected by Mary's care from household chores and her own nightmares, she wrote stories and novels steadily, often working ten hours a day. "Writing," she later said, "is very hard work...although nobody among the laboring ranks, or the resting ranks, thinks authors labor."

If writing was for her a labor of survival, it was also a labor of love. Her detailed explorations of women's interior lives and of female relationships frequently pivot on the power of the weak—though sometimes on the greater power of privilege as well. Many of her stories, including "A New England Nun," one of her most famous, explore unmarried women's secret enjoyment of the control spinsterhood gave them over their own lives: their relishing of their independence from blundering suitors and arbitrary husbands. Some also highlight such women's repudiation of judgmental ministers. Always a writer of extraordinary nuance, Freeman also illuminated unmarried women's yearning for what one of her characters calls "a real home of my own and a husband and children in it." Her fiction's contemporary force also stems from its highlighting of other enduring tensions, including the ongoing, intricate relationship between an America that was modernizing and the culture and economy of rural New England. Freeman did not flinch from portraying the depredations that modernization had wrought upon rural New England, but she also showed the region to be possessed of strength and endurance, and her portrayals of rural life often suggest ways in which country life existed in subtle relation to modernity, not apart from it. Even "The Revolt of 'Mother,'" which seems at a far remove from contemporary concerns, revolves around a mother's enactment of her responsibility for her family's well-being, something of general concern when the story was published.

Submitting to the need for a "real home," Mary E. Wilkins married when she was forty-nine. Her hesitation is apparent; although she met Dr. Charles Freeman in 1892, she did not marry him until 1902. By then, she was well known as a writer of what were called "local color" stories. Marriage meant uprooting: she moved from Randolph, the locale of so much of her work, to Metuchen, New Jersey, where, she said, "I have not a blessed thing to write about," though she did compose some stories about the people in her new environment and continued to write about rural New England. The marriage was not a success. Her husband, though initially supportive, proved to be an alcoholic and pushed her to write ever more for the income to sustain his habit. He was institutionalized a number of times before they legally separated in 1922.

Whatever the impact of the move and the marriage on her work, or on her own inner life, her reputation and financial success were sustained through the 1920s. In 1908 she won the New York Herald's trans-Atlantic novel-writing contest with The Shoulders of Atlas, and she participated with William Dean Howells, Henry James, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and others in writing a "cooperative" novel, The Whole Family. In 1926 she was awarded the William Dean Howells Gold Medal for Fiction by the American Academy of Letters, and later that year she and Edith Wharton became the first women inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters. When informed that the Institute might be divided on the question of admitting women, Freeman wrote with characteristic wryness that she could "very readily see that many would object." But the bronze doors of the Academy still carry the inscription "Dedicated to the Memory of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and the Women Writers of America."

Leah Blatt Glasser
Mount Holyoke College

In the Heath Anthology
A New England Nun (1891)
Love and the Witches (1891)
The Revolt of "Mother" (1909)

Other Works
A Humble Romance (1887)

Cultural Objects
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American Authors
Links to a multiude of sites containing Freeman's work and secondary materials as well.

Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman
Chronology of her life and a list of major themes in her work.

Perspectives in American Literature
Photo, primary and secondary bibliography, and suggested research prompts.

Scribbling Women
A performance of Louisa in Real Audio file "transcriptions."

Secondary Sources

Leah Blatt Blasser, In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, 1996

Michele Clark, ed., Afterword in The Revolt of Mother and Other Stories, 1974

Edward Foster, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, 1956

Charles Johanningsmeier, Fiction and the Literary Marketplace, 1997

Brent L. Kendrick, "Mary E. Wilkins Freeman," Legacy, 1987

Shirley Marchalonis, ed., Critical Essays on Mary Wilkins Freeman, 1991

Fred Lewis Pattee, A History of American Literature Since 1870, 1915

Mary Reichardt, A Web of Relationship: Women in the Short Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman, 1992

Perry Westbrook, Mary Wilkins Freeman, 1967