Waller, Mary Ella

views updated

WALLER, Mary Ella

Born 1 March 1855, Boston, Massachusetts; died 14 June 1938, Wellesley, Massachusetts

Wrote under: M. E. Waller, Mary E. Waller

Daughter of David and Mary Hallet Waller

The early deaths of Mary Ella Waller's father and brother made it necessary for her to earn her own living—in a manner compatible with her genteel New England descent. Four years in Europe, acquiring languages, qualified her to teach at an exclusive Boston finishing school. She later held a similar post at the Brearly School in New York and then founded Miss Waller's School for Girls in Chicago.

Waller's first writings were children's stories and translations of German verse. Forced by poor health to give up her school, she turned to writing fiction and became a popular novelist. Her earliest books were most successful: A Daughter of the Rich (1903), The Wood-Carver of 'Lympus (1904), and Sanna (1905) ran through more than a dozen editions each. She also published magazine verse, Our Benny (1909, a Civil War narrative poem honoring Abraham Lincoln), and From an Island Outpost (1914), a semiphilosophical work in journal form.

Waller's work is similar to that of her contemporary Gene Stratton-Porter The Wood-Carver of 'Lympus, published the same year as Freckles, strikes the same vein: the crippled hero lies in bed at the center of the house carving exquisitely detailed wildflowers which are bought by wealthy New Yorkers. He also provides a home for a girl cousin whose illegitimacy creates a subplot. Customers bring science and culture into the rural retreat and are in turn restored by the woodcarver's wholesomeness. Thus sentimentality, goodwill, and a healthy dose of coincidence reconcile opposites: nature with art, the work ethic with aristocratic privilege, urban culture with rural simplicity, and physical helplessness with the ability to control one's life and influence the lives of others.

As her journal reveals, Waller sympathized with the downtrodden, and particularly with the Native American. At the same time, she was a social Darwinist; her belief in progress and manifest destiny made her see life as a competition in which the fittest succeed. She made sentimental use of the issues of the Progressive era. Flamstead Quarries (1910) is about an exconvict's reform; both it and The Little Citizen (1902) deal with child labor, abandoned children, and the exploitation of children; Out of the Silences (1918) portrays Cree culture and religion; A Cry in the Wilderness (1912) deals with a working girl's loneliness and depression.

In a different vein, A Year Out of Life (1909), an epistolary novel about a German writer and his young American translator deals with the paradoxes of sexual politics. The heroine struggles not to fall in love for fear of losing her freedom; she aggressively declares her love because she knows forwardness will drive the man away and so save her from the decision of whether to marry him. The book, however, ends unsatisfactorily with an easy irony.

Waller was among the novelists considered safe for readers of all ages. Several elements in her usual story express a typically adolescent fantasy: the sense of being outcast, different, deficient, or unwanted and the belief that love can be earned by martyrdom. The lost-father plot solves the problems of the insecure adolescent or unhappy working woman by allowing a rich man to arrive and make all well. Waller has, however, given some deliberate thought to sex roles. Most of her heroines can catch and ride a horse; the nicest of her men can cook a meal or care for a baby without looking foolish. All of her admirable characters support themselves. Yet for both men and women the ideal is a life of cultured leisure. Though Waller pays lip service to hard work and the beauties of nature, express trains are continually rushing into her countryside laden with books, objects d'art, hothouse flowers, and out-of-season fruits.

Waller uses shifting viewpoints, with letters, diaries, and first-person narratives sandwiched in the midst of omniscient passages. She emphasizes the effect of events on people rather than the events themselves; only rarely does she write strong scenes. The sentimental tension works to sustain the early books; the lame newsboy's heroic ride to save the town from the bursting dam in The Little Citizen (1902) must touch responsive chords in the heart of anyone who has ever felt helpless and patronized. But because Waller deals primarily in melodramatic events of the sort usually found in plot-centered books and her emotional analysis is seldom profound, the novels are flat and anticlimactic. The vogue for Waller's sort of fiction ended with World War I, and, as her later novels failed to develop any new directions, they were dismissed by critics and public alike.

Other Works:

The Rose-bush of Hildesheim (1889). Giotto's Sheep (1889). Through the Gates of the Netherlands (1907). My Ragpicker (1911). Aunt Dorcas's Change of Heart (1913). Deep in the Hearts of Men (1924). The Windmill on the Dune (1931).


Overton, G., The Women Who Make Our Novels (1922).

Other references:

Nation (19 May 1904). NYT (15 June 1938).