Walker, Mary Spring
WALKER, Mary Spring
Born circa 1830s or 1840s; death date unknown
Married Reverend J. B. R. Walker
Mary Spring Walker's works are all temperance novels set in Connecticut. No biographical information, aside from her marriage to a minister, could be found to indicate the origins of her concern with the temperance movement. Her novels anticipate the great women's temperance crusade of 1873-74, and they precede Frances E. Willard's Women and Temperance: or, The Work and Workers of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (1883); nevertheless, reference to Walker's name or writing does not appear in connection with either of the two.
In The Family Doctor; or, Mrs. Barry and Her Bourbon (1868), Walker interweaves the stories of the Barry and Barton families. The narrator is Lizzie Barton whose father, a heavy drinker, squanders the family's income and drowns himself. From her vantage point as a lady's maid, Lizzie relates the tragedy of Mrs. Barry, a beautiful aristocrat, who becomes addicted to bourbon after her doctor prescribes it as a tonic. Lizzie reports the deterioration of the Barry household and, in graphic detail, the death of the eldest son, Philip, who also falls victim to alcohol. She attempts to help the Barry family, particularly the younger son and the father, salvage their lives.
Walker's primary theme is the irresponsible prescription of alcohol as medication. She blames the medical profession for ignoring the harmful consequences of alcoholism and portrays Dr. Sharpe, the offending family physician, as selfish and pompous. Sharpe becomes more villainous as the novel progresses; his careless prescription, while drunk, of a poisonous drug causes a death and serves as his own punishment for destroying many families.
Walker links a religious theme with temperance concerns in The Rev. Dr. Willoughby and His Wine (1869). In this novel, she launches an attack upon "ministers who do not minister." Scholarly Dr. Willoughby prefers conversation in his study to spiritual work among the needy. He and his fellow ministers enjoy port and cognac to lift their spirits after their Sabbath labors, which, ironically, are pious sermons on Christian charity.
Dr. Willoughby, the eldest and most influential minister in Hartford, undermines his position by his contradictory attitudes toward alcohol. Walker's long, complicated plot dramatizes the inability of many ministers and church members to recognize that even occasional intoxication leads invariably to incapacity and ruin. Because she establishes the church as an institution affecting all parts of society, Walker can involve numerous minor characters and subplots in extending her message to widely diverse socioeconomic groups. She is skillful in describing the impact of alcoholism on the family and home. Although her emphasis is on tragic effects, Walker redeems the ministry and congregations by also presenting a "teetotal parson" who leads an entire town in a successful war against rum sellers.
Walker's novels indict those in responsible positions for their social and moral complacency. She addresses a professional and middle class audience which does not realize that alcoholism affects not merely the poor and the laboring classes. Walker creates a large multilayered society which grows in awareness of mutual concerns through its connection with temperance issues. But she seldom penetrates her characters' exteriors or explores their reactions to problems other than lives ruined by drink. Her descriptions of a young wife's loyalty divided between her husband and her parents and of a poor mother's conflicting desires to keep her son or give him to wealthy foster parents show she had abilities beyond proselytizing that she rarely used.
Both Sides of the Street (1870). Down in a Saloon (1871). White Robes (1872).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
—THADIOUS M. DAVIS