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Repplier, Agnes (1855–1950)

Repplier, Agnes (1855–1950)

American essayist. Pronunciation: Rep-LEER. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on April 1, 1855; died in Philadelphia on December 15, 1950; daughter of John George Repplier and Agnes (Mathias) Repplier; educated at Eden Hall, Sacred Heart Convent in Torresdale, near Philadelphia, and Agnes Irwin's private school in Philadelphia; never married; no children.

First published short stories and sketches (1871); received first national attention for a short story appearing in Catholic World (1881); traveled and lectured extensively, primarily in Europe (from 1890s); published last essay (1940).

Selected writings—essay collections:

Books and Men (1888), Points of View (1891), Essays in Miniature (1892), Essays in Idleness (1893), In the Dozy Hours and Other Papers (1894), Varia (1897), Philadelphia: The Place and the People (1898), The Fireside Sphinx (1901), Compromises (1904), A Happy Half-Century and Other Essays (1908), The Cat (1912), Americans and Others (1912), Counter-Currents (1916), Points of Friction (1920), Under Dispute (1924), Time and Tendencies (1931), To Think of Tea! (1932), In Pursuit of Laughter (1936), Eight Decades: Essays and Episodes (1937); (biographies) J. William White, M.D. (1919), Père Marquette (1929), Mère Marie of the Ursulines (1931), Junípero Serra (1933), Agnes Irwin (1934); (autobiography) In Our Convent Days (1905).

Agnes Repplier was born in Philadelphia in 1855, the daughter of Agnes Mathias Repplier and John George Repplier. Her father, who had been a widower when he married Agnes Mathias, was a financially successful retailer of coal for a mining business he owned with his brothers. Although Repplier often implied she was of French descent, both her parents were German.

Repplier received her early education at home from her mother, a woman of strong character with high expectations for her four children. Repplier disliked the formal lessons and the material she was required to learn. However, her incredible memory for verse and stories allowed her to recite much of what was read to her by her mother, and as a result, she did not learn to read for herself until she was almost ten years old. She then read with voracious interest, particularly the poetry of Tennyson and Byron.

In 1867, Repplier began her tumultuous years of formal education when she entered Eden Hall, a girls' school associated with the Sacred Heart Convent in Torresdale, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. She often rebelled against the strict rules, and in her second year was expelled for insubordination. Her parents then sent her to a new private school in Philadelphia run by Agnes Irwin , who later became the first dean of Radcliffe College. Within 18 months, Repplier was expelled again, reportedly for refusing to read a book she considered "stupid." Her school years were not without rewards, however, for she became friends with Elizabeth Robins (Elizabeth Pennell ), later a noted writer and art critic, at Eden Hall, and Agnes Irwin, who encouraged Repplier to pursue her writing, became her lifelong mentor and friend.

Repplier's father suffered financial losses in 1871, and she was required by necessity to help supplement the family's income. She began submitting stories to the Philadelphia Sunday Times and the Young Catholic. Over the next ten years, she continued to publish sporadically in these and other periodicals, and received nationwide notice in 1881 for a short story that appeared in Catholic World. In 1884, after she published

several more of her stories, Catholic World's founder and editor Father Isaac Hecker, who considered Repplier's plots uninspired, urged her to begin writing essays rather than short stories. Accepting the advice, she turned to writing essays, a form she would never abandon.

In 1886, the Atlantic Monthly published her essay "Children, Past and Present," a witty look at the ways in which various famous people had been kept in line during childhood. After that, her work appeared often in the Atlantic Monthly. Repplier's topics covered a wide range, including events in everyday life, and incidents from history and literature. Her essays were defined by her refined style, laced with a lightly ironical wit that enthralled her readers (writer Mary Ellen Chase once called her "the dean of American essayists"). Repplier began her career during a time when essays were highly popular, and soon she was consistently publishing collections of her essays. The first of these, Books and Men, appeared in 1888, and she published 17 more collections over the next five decades.

Encouraged by Irwin, Repplier delivered her first lecture in 1890. After that, she spent much of her leisure time traveling and lecturing, making numerous trips to Europe. She also wrote five biographies, two of which, J. William White, M.D. (1919) and Agnes Irwin (1934), were personal tributes to people important in her life (White had successfully treated her for cancer at the turn of the century). The other three biographies were of figures important in the history of the Roman Catholic Church: Père Marquette (1929), Mère Marie of the Ursulines (1931), concerning Marie de l'Incarnation (1599–1672), French educator and founder of the Ursuline Order in New France (Canada), and Junípero Serra (1933). Her only autobiographical works were In Our Convent Days (1905) and the collection Eight Decades: Essays and Episodes (1937), both of which deal with her experiences at Eden Hall.

Repplier, who never married, preferred the conversation and companionship of men to women, and through her travels and correspondences gained the friendship of such well-known men as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry James, Theodore Roosevelt, and Walt Whitman. Among the awards bestowed upon her were honorary degrees from the University of Pennsylvania (1902), Temple (1919), Yale (1925), Columbia (1927), Marquette (1929), and Princeton (1935), and the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame (1911). Repplier became one of the first women members of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1926 (Julia Ward Howe had been elected in 1907), and two years later she was elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society. In 1935, she received the National Institute of Arts and Letters' gold medal.

When she was not traveling, Repplier lived for many years with her cats in an old red brick house in downtown Philadelphia. She published her last essay in 1940 in the Atlantic Monthly, just months before turning 85 years old. She died ten years later, at age 94, and was buried in the family vault at the Church of St. John the Evangelist.

sources:

Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

McHenry, Robert. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Kari Bethel , freelance writer, Columbia, Missouri

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