6: Late Nineteenth Century
Mary Eleanor Wilkins
Mary Eleanor Wilkins
| A Brief Biography |
Source: Legacy Photo Gallery
A Humble Romance and Other Stories, 1887.
A New England Nun and Other Stories, 1891.
Young Lucretia, and other stories. NY, Harper & brothers, 1892. PS1712 .Y55
Silence, and other stories. NY, Harper 1898. PS1712 .S5
The people of our neighborhood, illustrations by Alice Barber Stephens. Philadelphia, Curtis Publishing Company, 1898 . PS1712 .P45
The portion of labor. NY, London, Harper 1901. PS1712 .P6
The givers; short stories. NY, London, Harper 1904. PS1712 .G5
The shoulders of Atlas; a novel. NY, London, Harper 1908. PS1712 .S49
The revolt of mother and other stories. Afterword by Michele Clark. Old Westbury, N.Y. Feminist P, 1974. PS1712 R4
A Mary Wilkins Freeman Reader. Ed. Mary R. Reichardt. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1997.
Collected Works of Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman. Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2008.
Short Works of Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman. Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2008.
Selected Bibliography 1980-Present
Armbruster, Karla, and Kathleen R. Wallace. eds. Beyond Nature Writings: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2001.
Bergman, Jill, and Debra Bernardi. eds. Our Sisters' Keepers: Nineteenth-Century Benevolence Literature by American Women. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2005.
Glasser, Leah B. In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1996.
Howard, June. Publishing the Family. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2001.
Marchalonis, Shirley. ed. Critical essays on Mary Wilkins Freeman. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1991. PS1713 .C75
Reichardt, Mary R. Mary Wilkins Freeman: A Study of the Short Fiction. NY: Twayne, 1997.
- - -. A Web of Relationship: Women in the Short Fiction of Mary Wilkins Freeman. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2007.
Showalter, Elaine. ed. The Vintage Book of American Women Writers. NY: Vintage, 2011.
Terryberry, Karl J. Gender Instruction in the Tales for Children by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.
Thomson, Douglass H., Jack G. Voller, and Frederick S. Frank. eds. Gothic Writers: A Critical and Bibliographical Guide. Greenwood, CT: Westport, 2002.
Warren, Joyce W. and Margaret Dickie. eds. Challenging Boundaries: Gender and Periodization. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2000.
Weinstock, Jeffrey A. Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women. NY: Fordham UP, 2008.
Westbrook, Perry D. Mary Wilkins Freeman. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988. PS1713 .W4
A Student Project by Lesa Z. Myrick
Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman was born the second child to Warren Wilkins and Eleanor Lothrop Wilkins on October 31, 1852, in the small New England town of Randolph, Massachusetts. Having lost their first child in infancy just ten months prior, the Wilkins were especially doting parents to the pretty and somewhat spoiled Mary. Despite their concerns regarding her health, they held to the Puritan tradition of child rearing, and Mary was expected to conform to both a strict code of behavior which demanded obedience to her parents, elders, teachers and religious leaders, as well as the exhibition of such godly virtues as temperance, honesty and piety.
When Mary was six years old, her three year old brother died. Her sole surviving sibling was a sister, Anna, who was seven years her junior. Anna died at the age of seventeen, and her death became one of the preeminent themes in Freeman's ghost stories, that of the lost or forlorn child. This is especially evident and poignant in her short story "The Lost Ghost."
Randolph was a characteristic New England town where life centered around the Calvinistic church. It was a mill town with a large agricultural community, a racially and culturally homogenous town. It would serve as the backdrop for many of Freeman's later works. It was also in Randolph that Freeman's friendship with Mary John Wales began. Mary John was one of her few friends, and it was a friendship of such intensity and love that it would survive until Mary John's death in 1914. In fact, it is at the Wales home where Freeman will seek shelter during her brief estrangement from Dr. Charles Freeman when she is in her forties.
Freeman's father, Warren, worked both as a carpenter and a house builder before the post-Civil War depression affected his ability to provide for his family. He came from a long line of prestigious Salem families. Among her ancestors on her father's side, Freeman shared a common bond with Hawthorne. Her family lineage could be traced to their involvement with the Salem witchcraft debauchery of the seventeenth century. Freeman wrote a play dealing with the persecution of witches in New England, Giles Corey, Yeoman. Eleanor Lothrop, Freeman's mother, was also descended from New England settlers, though not from as prestigious a family as her husband's. Her family's presence in New England went as far back as the 1640s.
The Wilkins, orthodox Congregationalists, strictly observed the Sabbath. Sunday was a day of intense indoctrination in the Bible, as interpreted through the teachings of Calvinism, and in the church tenets. It was also a day in which children and adults were taught to apply scripture and doctrine to their every day lives. This profoundly influenced the thought process of Freeman. In fact, though she later struggled with her beliefs, she must at least have learned that theology in her family was bound up with deep personal feelings and that somehow faith and goodness were related to one's material success in the world. In her house, it was always assumed that the poverty of the poor was punishment for sin (Westbrook, 7).
While Freeman was still in elementary school, her family was forced to move due to economic hardships in Randolph. In Brattleboro, Vermont, Warren Wilkins opened a dry goods shop next to a book store owned by Joseph Steen. The move to Brattleboro, Vermont, proved to have a profound influence on Freeman's future career as an author. Many afternoons following high school, she would spend hours gleaning over books in Steen's book store. Her love for literature would later encourage her to try her hand at writing.
It was also in Brattleboro that Freeman had her first taste of psychic horror which would find its place in her gothic stories. Only forty yards from the small home the Wilkins lived in was the Marsh Building of the Vermont Insane Asylum. Many patients from the Asylum were allowed to roam freely through the neighborhood in the daytime, and several would end up at the doorstep of the Wilkins. Although Freeman would later claim that she was not particularly fond of people, she became skilled at analyzing a person's character, motives, and emotion. She studied people, both through literature and through watching those people who made up the world around her, including the insane elements.
| Top | Following graduation from high school in 1870, Freeman attended Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary. The zealous religious indoctrination at Mt. Holyoke was too intense for Freeman. The purpose of the school was to "sharpen the religious sensitivities of its students. . . to bring to conversion every girl who had not previously had that experience . . . ." (9) Freeman felt stifled in this rigid learning environment. She lasted there one year. Of her time at the seminary, Freeman later wrote:
I was very young. . . and went home at the end of the year a nervous wreck, so I fancy I may be somewhat confused about the whole. What I am sure of is that I ate so much beef in different forms and so many baked apples that I have never wanted much since. I have often wondered why they looked out so beautifully for our young morals, and did not vary our menu more. As I remember, I did not behave at all well at Mt. Holyoke, and I am inclined to attribute it to monotony of diet and too strenuous goadings of conscience (31).
After a brief and unsuccessful stint as a teacher at Miss Sawyer's School for Girls, and after an equally unproductive try at a career as an artist, Freeman turned to writing. Her first works were religious poems that were never published. However, she did share them with her father and a Vermont clergyman. Encouraged by the positive response from both of her chosen readers, she then wrote a children's verse for a Fall River magazine. Although it was an unpaid publication, the praise and encouragement from the editor spurred Freeman on.
In 1873, Freeman fell madly in love with Hanson Tyler, a navy ensign home on leave from service in Havana, Cuba. Unfortunately, Tyler did not return Freeman's intense feelings of love. Till her death, Freeman kept a photograph of Tyler and held on to his memory throughout her life. The single women in Freeman's stories often reflect the unrequited love Freeman felt for Tyler, and addresses the issue of the male hesitancy to commit to a monogamous relationship.
In 1877, following the death of Freeman's sister Anna the previous year, and the continuing deterioration of the family's economic status, the family moved into the home of Hanson Tyler's parents. Reverend Thomas Pickman Tyler, Hanson's father, allowed the family to live there in return for Freeman's mother working as a maid and her father doing lawn work. This was exceptionally hard for strict Calvinists like the Warrens who believed that poverty was a direct punishment from God for sin. Throughout Freeman's future writings, many of her "fictional characters regarded such subserviency as the ultimate disgrace that could befall them." (10) It was an additionally degrading experience for Freeman because of her love for Tyler, and the fact that he was fully cognizant of her family's financial situation.
In 1880, following the untimely and unexpected death of Freeman's mother, at the age of 53, Freeman and her father were forced to leave the Tyler home. Freeman continued writing and taking care of her father. Her first paid publishing success came a year later with the publication of "The Beggar King," a ballad published in the children's magazine Wide Awake. For her work, Freeman was paid ten dollars and her career as a children's writer began to flourish. In addition to several children's books and a continuing series of poems and prose published for children, by 1882 Freeman became a regular contributor to St. Nicholas, widely considered to be the best of all children's magazines.
Freeman began to expand her writing horizons, and in 1882, she won a fifty-dollar award from the Boston Sunday Budget for her first story for adults, "The Shadow Family." Following this, she wrote "Two Old Lovers" and a short story which would later be included in her first major book, A Humble Romance and Other Stories. Freeman sent the manuscript of "Two Old Lovers" to Harper's Bazaar. Mary Louise Booth, Harper's editor, accepted the manuscript for publication and became Freeman's dear friend and her literary advisor as well. In 1887 Freeman's book A Humble Romance and Other Stories was published, followed by 1891's A New England Nun and Other Stories and Pembroke, one of her greatest works, published in 1894. Freeman's passion for writing intensified as she began to garner praise and a literary following.
After years of longing for and dreaming of Hanson Tyler, much as the fictional women in her works waited for their long-lost loves to return or to commit to marriage, in 1892 Freeman learned that Tyler had married someone in California. That same year, during a trip to New York, Freeman met "the hard-drinking, gay-living, horse-loving Dr. Charles Freeman . . . the man she was to marry eight years later." (71) Freeman and Charles developed a close bond, and she respected his knowledge and taste in literature and his place in the intellectual world. For Freeman, who was already in her mid-forties and a spinster by the era's standards, Charles Freeman appeared to be the perfect match. Their engagement in 1897 was no surprise to their colleagues and friends.
During the first year after their engagement, Freeman temporarily called off the impending wedding. It was a period of emotional and mental turmoil for her in which her sleep was haunted by severe nightmares. While staying with the Wales family, she was forced to sleep with someone near her so that she could be roused from the horrific images that plagued her sleep. As her situation worsened, "she had to resort to sedatives in such quantities that she became partly addicted to them," (107) an addiction that would follow her through the rest of her life. During this time, she wrote a fragment of a story that was never completed, revolving around an unmarried woman, Jane Lennox who "agonizes over the state of her soul." (107) Although there has been much speculation about this time in Freeman's life and the meaning of the story fragment, Leah Blatt Glasser defines it as a declaration of the "rage, fear, disillusionment. . . in the life of a single woman." (108) Freeman did eventually marry Charles, on New Year's Day, 1902, and they made their home in Metuchen, New Jersey. It was a tumultuous and unhappy union in the end. Charles was an alcoholic who pressured Freeman to keep up the pace of her writing regardless of other responsibilities she had to care for. Although the amount of her work did not lessen after her marriage, the quality did. Reportedly, it is during this time that Freeman would work simultaneously on two stories at once.
| Top | After Charles's drinking reached a crisis point, Freeman had her husband committed to the New Jersey State Hospital for the Insane. The two obtained a legal separation in 1922, and in 1923 Charles died, having written his once beloved wife out of his will. In his will, he left one dollar to his wife. Although this will was ultimately contested by Freeman and Charles's sisters, Freeman eventually relinquished any hold on the Charles property (Foster 188).
By this time Freeman was in her seventies and had, for the most part, completely given up writing. However, her contributions to the literary world were recognized in the 1920s. On April 23, 1926, she was awarded the William Dean Howells Medal for distinction in fiction. At the presentation, her work was described as "an unparalled record of New England life." (Westbrook 133) In November of the same year, Freeman joined Agnes Repplier, Margaret Deland and Edith Wharton as the first four women ever elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Prior to her death, Freeman revisited Randolph and Brattleboro and reminisced about her life. She spoke frequently of her love for Hanson Tyler stating that "if there is an afterlife, he is the one person I should like to see." (Foster 194). In Randolph, she stood on the banks of a lake near her grandfather's home and recalled the early years there, and her friendship with Mary John Wales which had comforted her for most of her life. In Brattleboro, her weakness was becoming apparent to everyone and after two weeks she returned home to Metuchen. It was there, on the evening of March 15, 1930, that Freeman died of heart failure.
Freeman's contribution to the American gothic tradition, as well as her progressive feminist writings which explored the lives of women in 19th century New England, can not be understated. Though regarded as a New England regionalist, there is a powerful universality in her writing. In addition to the powerful themes of women's issues, her use of the ghost story "as a means of examining, indirectly, many of the social, personal, and economic pressures which often silenced or devalued women" should not be discounted (Grost 1).
Since the 1960s, Freeman's work has enjoyed renewed interest. In particular, much feminist criticism has been applied to her works. Many critics feel that "Freeman's women, whether married or not, when confronted by unreasonable and dominating male demands, muster latent and, to the men, unexpected strengths, and reveal an impressive spirit of independence.' (Westbrook 140) Likewise, these are women who, while stranded in economically floundering towns, have divined for themselves a life that is not dependent upon marriage, maternity and mothering, or taking on the role of housewife or homekeeper in a patriarchal family. Freeman's major themes reflect the issues that were her life: the inner sanctum of women, Puritanism, religion and the effects it has on the psyche, poverty and degradation, marriage, and the supernatural mysticism found within the history and natural beauty of her New England home.
Foster, Edward. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. New York: Hendricks House, 1956.
Marchalonis, Shirley. ed.Critical Essays on Mary Wilkins Freeman. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1991.
Reichardt, Mary R. Mary Wilkins Freeman, A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1997.
Westbrook, Perry D. Mary Wilkins Freeman. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
1. Identify the common theme (or themes) that link A New England Nun and Chopin's The Awakening and briefly discuss the way each work develops its theme.
2. One central theme in nineteenth-century American literature portrays the individual in conflict with the community. Discuss the specific ways in which Louisa Ellis enacts this conflict.
3. Both The Revolt of "Mother" and A New England Nun portray women who triumph over the material conditions of their existence. Describe the nature of that triumph and the process by which they achieve it.
4. Examine the use of the window and the barn doors as framing devices in the two anthologized stories. As an option, read other stories in which Freeman uses framing devices (see An Honest Soul, A Mistaken Charity, A Village Singer, or A Church Mouse from Selected Stories of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, edited by Marjorie Pryse). Compare form in Freeman's fiction with form in Howells, James, or Jewett.
5. Compare and contrast Oakhurst in Harte's The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Freeman's Adoniram Penn. Do they triumph or are they defeated men?
MLA Style Citation of this Web Page
Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 6: Mary Wilkins Freeman." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: http://www.paulreuben.website/pal/chap6/freeman.html (provide page date or date of your login).
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