Freeman, Mary E(leanor) Wilkins

views updated

FREEMAN, Mary E(leanor) Wilkins

Nationality: American. Born: Randolph, Massachusetts, 31 October 1852. Brought up in Randolph then in Brattleboro, Vermont; returned to Randolph, 1883. Education: Brattleboro High School; Holyoke Female Seminary, South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1870-71; Glenwood Seminary, West Brattleboro, 1871. Family: Married Charles M. Freeman in 1902 (died 1923). Career: Lived in Metuchen, New Jersey after 1902. Award: American Academy Howells medal, 1925. Member: American Academy, 1926. Died: 13 March 1930.



Selected Short Stories, edited by Marjorie Pryse. 1983.

Short Stories

A Humble Romance and Other Stories. 1887; as A Far-Away Melody and Other Stories, 1890.

A New England Nun and Other Stories. 1891.

Silence and Other Stories. 1898.

The Love of Parson Lord and Other Stories. 1900.

Understudies. 1901.

Six Trees. 1903.

The Wind in the Rose-Bush and Other Stories of the Supernatural. 1903.

The Givers. 1904.

The Fair Lavinia and Others. 1907.

The Winning Lady and Others. 1909.

The Copy-Cat and Other Stories. 1914.

Edgewater People. 1918.

The Best Stories, edited by Henry Wysham Lanier. 1927.


Jane Field. 1892.

Pembroke. 1894; edited by Perry D. Westbrook, 1971.

Madelon. 1896.

Jerome, A Poor Man. 1897.

The People of Our Neighborhood. 1898; as Some of Our Neighbours, 1898.

The Jamesons. 1899.

In Colonial Times. 1899.

The Heart's Highway: A Romance of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century. 1900.

The Portion of Labor. 1901.

The Debtor. 1905.

"Doc" Gordon. 1906.

By the Light of the Soul. 1907.

The Shoulders of Atlas. 1908.

The Butterfly House. 1912.

The Yates Pride. 1912.

An Alabaster Box, with Florence Morse Kingsley . 1917.


Giles Corey, Yeoman. 1893.


Goody Two-Shoes and Other Famous Nursery Tales, with ClaraDoty Bates. 1883.

Decorative Plaques (verse), designs by George F. Barnes. 1883.

The Cow with Golden Horns and Other Stories. 1884(?).

The Adventures of Ann: Stories of Colonial Times. 1886.

The Pot of Gold and Other Stories. 1892.

Young Lucretia and Other Stories. 1892.

Comfort Pease and Her Gold Ring. 1895.

Once Upon a Time and Other Child-Verses. 1897.

The Green Door. 1910.

The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters, edited by Brent L. Kendrick. 1985.



in Bibliography of American Literature by Jacob Blanck, 1959; "A Checklist of Uncollected Short Fiction" by P. B. Eppard and M. Reichardt, in American Literary Realism 23, Fall 1990.

Critical Studies:

Freeman by Edward Foster, 1956; Freeman by Perry D. Westbrook, 1967, revised edition, 1988; In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman by Leah Blatt Glasser, 1996.

* * *

Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman was a popular and prolific author whose career spanned 50 years, during which she published 16 novels and 13 collections of short fiction. With the exception of her novel Pembroke, her best writing was confined to the short story form. For material for most of her works she drew from the environment in which she had been born and brought up—the small towns and farms and villages of New England. Her chief interest was in people and character, though she was skilled in creating atmosphere and realistic settings. She may be classed as a local colorist, but her profound insights into human nature and social relationships make that classification much too narrow. Early in her career she was recognized as a realist (e.g., by William Dean Howells and Hamlin Garland) and an accurate reporter of life and conditions in the New England of her day—a time of ruinous economic decline and social change.

In the preface to a British edition of her first collection of stories, A Humble Romance and Other Stories, Freeman wrote: "These little stories were written about village people of New England. They are studies of the descendants of the Massachusetts Bay Colonists, in whom can still be seen traces of those features of will and conscience, so strong as to be almost exaggerations and deformities, which characterized their ancestors."

Will and conscience, then, are ubiquitous preoccupations in Freeman's writings; for either separately or, more often, in combination, they provide the motivation of her characters, and their effects are quite varied. They may be an almost psychopathic, disabling force, or they may appear as a somewhat humorous eccentricity, or they can be directed toward the fulfillment of useful, constructive goals.

In the story "Gentian" the will in a morbid and destructive form ungrounded in conscience controls and makes miserable the lives of a married couple. The husband refuses to take the gentian prescribed for a serious illness because on principle he hates doctors and medicines. When his wife, prompted by conscience, confesses that she has been dosing him with gentian disguised in his food, he insists on cooking his own meals; and when she offers to leave and live with her sister, he answers, "Mebbe 'twould be jest as well." The husband's will is broken finally by the worsening of his illness. The wife returns and cares for him. Among other stories in which excessive willpower is exerted toward unreasonable and destructive ends are "On the Walpole Road" and "A Conflict Ended."

By contrast, in some of Freeman's fictional characters a strong will and sensitive conscience are presented as desirable assets. Such is the case in the story "Louisa." Louisa is a young woman who has lost her job as a schoolteacher. Her widowed mother wants her to marry a rich suitor, but she refuses because she does not love him. Instead she supports herself, her mother, and her senile grandfather by farming the family plot of land and by working as a field laborer for other farmers. Another better-known example of a New England woman's determined will exerted for a useful end is in "The Revolt of Mother," in which a wife prevails over the greed and stubbornness of her husband in acquiring a decent home for her family. In stories like these two, in which women overcome severe handicaps by their own efforts, sometimes over the opposition of their menfolk, Freeman has attracted the attention and approval of feminist critics. Though she did not consider herself a feminist, she had a deep and sympathetic understanding of the difficulties and frustrations faced, and frequently surmounted, by rural village women in an economically depressed region in which they had been to some extent stranded by the exodus of large numbers of the more intelligent and ambitious men to the industrial cities and to the farmlands of the West. The world of Freeman's fiction was largely a woman's world, and she admired the way so many women coped in it.

All of Freeman's women, however, do not cope, as evidenced, for example, by the impoverished seamstress Martha Patch in "An Honest Soul." Driven by a tyrannical conscience and an unyielding will, Martha, in sewing a patchwork quilt for each of two customers, finds that she has included in one quilt a rag belonging to the other customer. She tears apart and resews the quilts only to find that she has made the same mistake again. She once more resews the quilts; but, finishing them, she faints from hunger and lies helpless on the floor until a neighbor comes to her aid. Freeman ponders whether this were not "a case of morbid conscientiousness."

Martha Patch was only one of the victims of the poverty that blighted the New England countryside as Freeman knew it. More extreme cases, the real paupers, were gathered in town poorhouses in which the mentally deranged were also often housed. With an unsparing realism comparable to that of the naturalistic writers of her time, Freeman depicts in the story "Sister Liddy" life and conditions in one of these grim establishments. The inmates, all women or children, sit in meaningless or incoherent conversation while children play in the corridors, and in the background are heard the moans of the sick and the screams of the insane. The stark hopelessness of the interior scene is accentuated by the cold autumnal rain sweeping across the surrounding fields.

In "Sister Liddy" Freeman has isolated and presented to the reader the very essence of misery—misery as it might be found at any time in any place. This achievement typifies the basic strength of her writing. Her people are New England villagers or farm folk, and their outer lives, their manners, and their speech are shaped by their environment. But their inner lives, the forces and emotions that determine their destinies, are recognizable as universally human, whether fulfilling or self-defeating, joyous or despairing.

—Perry D. Westbrook

See the essay on "A New England Nun."

More From