Goodwin, Maud Wilder

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GOODWIN, Maud Wilder

Born 5 June 1856, Ballston Spa, New York; died 5 February 1935, New York, New York

Daughter of John and Delia A. Wilder; married Almon Goodwin, 1879

Maud Wilder Goodwin did not begin to write until the age of thirty-three and evidently ceased to write for publication at sixty-three, 16 years before her death. Her 30-year literary career was productive and varied, but her motivation remains unclear, for few details of her life are recorded.

Goodwin clearly writes for a young or at least naive audience. Her phrasing is frequently quaint, formally correct, and occasionally intimate. Her interest in the past seems in part nostalgic, but she is at the same time a solid if occasionally sentimental scholar. The Colonial Cavalier (1894) contains scholarly notes as well as a "List of Authorities" on Southern life before the American Revolution. The account is entertaining, factual, and suggestive of a mind actively interpreting colonial history. Historic New York, which Goodwin edited in four volumes in 1898, is also competent history and hints at a society and a past that fascinated Goodwin in much the same way these forces captivated her contemporary, Edith Wharton.

Goodwin's finest factual work is her biography of her relative, Dolly Madison (1896). It is affectionate, generous, and occasionally sentimental, but throughout Goodwin presents impressive insights along with sound evidence and numerous quotations from Dolly Madison's letters and from those of her friends. Despite its dated qualities, it is a penetrating study of one woman by another and still seems the best available biography of Dolly Madison.

Goodwin's historical novels are generally mechanical, predictable, and forced. The Head of a Hundred (1895) chronicles the courtship of Dr. Humphrey Huntoon, who flees England for Virginia in the first years of the 17th century because of a silly misunderstanding with his lover, Elizabeth Romney, who soon also flees to "James City." The conversation is particularly stilted and pretentious. Sir Christopher (1901) is an unfortunate sequel; but Goodwin's attempt to reconcile Catholic and Protestant beliefs and her honest treatments of anti-Catholic sentiment in colonial Maryland are interesting. White Aprons (1896) is a similar romance, set during Bacon's rebellion in Virginia in 1676, and Veronica Playfair (1909) is clearly from the same pen; set in England during the reign of George I, the novel follows the trials of a hero and heroine who are ultimately secretly married at Alexander Pope's villa.

Goodwin's impressive contemporary novels reveal a sharp wit and penetration of character, while her historical fiction of the same time is pedantic and formulaic. Flint (1897) is the study of a misperceived young man, Jonathan Edwards Flint, who appears harsh and cold but is actually generous and reflective. Goodwin's treatment of the independent woman he finally marries, Winifred Anstice, is compelling. While Flint is still slow and rough, Four Roads to Paradise (1904) and Claims and Counterclaims (1905) are accomplished novels of wit and satire. The latter is at times coincidental and farfetched, but it is psychologically sound and sprinkled with epigrammatic wit.

Four Roads to Paradise is certainly Goodwin's best work. The author studies several characters with delicate penetration, and various figures come to the fore, gain the reader's sympathies—or at least understanding—and then fade properly into the background, as the most admirable characters dominate the end of the book. Thus the young, finally self-centered Episcopal priest, Stuart Walford, controls the first chapters as he follows Bishop Alton's advice and defers his desire to minister to the lepers at Molokai; the bishop, wise in the ways of the world, tells him that "Selflove…has many forms. One of them is altruism." To learn the world he thinks he wants to reject, Walford goes to New York and then to Europe, where much of the novel takes place, and is attracted to Anne Blythe, the bishop's niece. Initially selfish, Anne is, unlike Walford, a basically good character who befriends by stages her dead husband's illegitimate child and finally marries her shy, reflective, honorable lawyer, Fleming. Even Goodwin's minor characters are realistically developed. This fine novel reminds one most of Edith Wharton in its deft handling of characters and their society. Along with Goodwin's Dolly Madison it perhaps best deserves to be read today.

Other Works:

Open Sesame! Poetry and Prose for School Days (edited by Goodwin, 1889). Dutch and English on the Hudson (1919).


Reference works:

A Dictionary of American Authors (1904). A Guide to Historical Fiction (1914). A Guide to Historical Literature (1936).