Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman 1852–-1930
(Full name Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman) American short story writer, novelist, playwright, and poet.
As a realist chronicler of post-Civil War New England life, Freeman is acknowledged as an important contributor to regionalist literature. She is frequently labeled a local colorist because she depicted the social and physical aspects of the New England countryside, including the flavor of local speech patterns. Yet Freeman's most exemplary writing, which focuses on the psychology of her characters, transcends the limitations of local color writing. Although Freeman wrote novels, plays, and verse, she is most known for her stories, particularly “The Revolt of Mother” and “A New England Nun.”
Born Mary Eleanor Wilkins on October 31, 1852, in Randolph, Massachusetts, Freeman descended from the seventeenth-century settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The daughter of Warren Wilkins, a carpenter, and his wife Eleanor Lothrop, Mary was the only child of four children to survive to adulthood. Her parents raised her in the rigid Congregationalist religious tradition of her forebears, and Mary proved to be a shy and socially challenged child, one who had few friends but a strong imagination. After the Civil War, the family moved from Randolph to Brattleboro, Vermont, where Warren Wilkins ran a dry-goods business. Upon graduating from Brattleboro High School in 1870, Freeman attended Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, but she left after a year due to poor health. During the mid- and late-1870s, the Wilkins family suffered a series of economic and personal setbacks. The dry-goods business failed, forcing Warren Wilkins to resume carpentry and Eleanor to take up housekeeping; in 1876 Anna, Freeman's sole sister, died; and three years later, Eleanor Wilkins died of a heart attack. In order to support herself, Freeman tried a number of endeavors before turning to writing. In 1882 her father, in poor health, moved to Florida, where he died a year later. Freeman returned to Randolph and took up residence with her childhood friend Mary John Wales, with whom she lived until her marriage to Charles Manning Freeman nearly two decades later. With an inheritance of commercial property and the support of the Wales family, Freeman was able to devote herself to writing. In 1881 she published her first works, ballads for a children's magazine. Freeman was an astute businesswoman, making the most of opportunities to publish and promote her works, which included both novels and plays. Eventually Freeman was able to support herself by writing. At age forty-nine, she married Dr. Charles Freeman and moved to his home in Metuchen, New Jersey. A short time later, the quality and quantity of her publications suffered. The Freemans' marriage was fraught with trouble, as Mary exhibited wild mood swings and Charles, an alcoholic, was eventually committed to a state hospital for the insane. Freeman gained a legal separation from her husband in 1922. By the time of her death in 1930, Freeman was planning a sequel to her most successful novel, Pembroke (1894).
Major Works of Short Fiction
Over the course of her career, Freeman wrote more than two hundred short stories, which were first published in the leading women's magazines of the time and then republished in collections, including A Humble Romance and Other Stories (1887) and A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891). Written with a female readership in mind, the stories usually portray women—the largest demographic in the post-Civil War years. During this time, New England suffered from economic decline as farming in the West proved more lucrative than eastern agriculture, and cottage industries collapsed in the wake of urban factories. Both the West and urban factories drew men from the East, leaving behind the women whose choices were largely limited to marriage or spinsterhood, which Freeman chose to depict in her fictions. After establishing a readership, Freeman explored other genres of short story, such as detective fiction and children's literature. She also wrote fourteen novels, which she considered to be the next step in her evolution as an author.
Freeman made her literary debut with the publication of “A Humble Romance” in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1884. Freeman's fiction appealed to Mary Booth, the magazine's editor, who published her work for many years. When she published a collection of short stories in 1887, A Humble Romance and Other Stories, her work elicited praise from such writers as William Dean Howells and Hamlin Garland, who also practiced their own forms of literary realism. Although she was a prolific author, some reviewers considered Freeman's writing to be of uneven quality. However, critics generally concur that Freeman's most successful stories are contained in A Humble Romance and the subsequent collection A New England Nun and Other Stories. Many early critics focused on her realistic portrayal of New England life, judging her work to be successful as local color writing. In 1891 her story “The Revolt of Mother” was judged to be one of the twelve best American short stories. The popularity of her work continued: in 1926 she won the William Dean Howells Gold Medal for Fiction and was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Yet during the last years of the nineteenth century, Freeman saw the readership for her work diminish, and by 1950 most of her works were out of print. However, the reprinting of her works as well as the publication of previously uncollected magazine stories in 1992 provided critics with more material to assess her body of work. Scholars found an abundance of themes and motifs to explore, from the narrative structure of her works, to characterization, imagery, and her use of humor.
The Cow with Golden Horns and Other Stories 1884
The Adventures of Ann: Stories of Colonial Times 1886
A Humble Romance and Other Stories 1887; republished in two volumes as A Humble Romance and Other Stories and A Far-Away Melody and Other Stories, 1890
A New England Nun and Other Stories 1891
The Pot of Gold and Other Stories 1892
Young Lucretia and Other Stories 1892
Silence and Other Stories 1898
The Love of Parson Lord and Other Stories 1900
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 of Mary E. Wilkins 1927
Collected Ghost Stories by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman [introduction by Edward Wagenknecht] 1974
Selected Stories of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman [edited by Marjorie Pryse] 1983
The Uncollected Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman 1992
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SOURCE: “Mary Wilkins Freeman,” in Our Short Story Writers, Moffat, Yard & Company, 1920, pp. 160–81.
[In the following excerpt, Williams discusses Freeman's characters, particularly the female ones, from a variety of her short stories.]
Many years have gone by since a writer in Harper's Weekly stated, “It seems a supererogation to say aught in praise of her work now, but we are apt to take our literary benefactors so much for granted that we fail to realize their greatness, and fall short of that lively sense of appreciation which we accord the fresh and unaccustomed writer new to his laurels. Since A Humble Romance was written, other authors have come and gone, some have stayed, and will stay with honorable excellence, but to none do we owe so much during these years for that distinction and honor which upholds our literary ideals as to the name of Mary Wilkins Freeman.”
If this was true in 1903, it is superlatively so today; for Mrs. Freeman's succeeding books, her variety of subjects and the extension of her literary territory have strengthened her claim. A reviewer taking stock in 1900 of her short-story store might have put down to her credit: Item 1. Two containers of New England stories of contemporary life labeled, respectively, A Humble Romance (1887), and A New England Nun (1891). Contents indigenous to Massachusetts and Vermont, and...
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SOURCE: “Subdued Meaning in ‘A New England Nun,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 2, No. 2, Winter, 1965, pp. 124–36.
[In the below essay, Hirsch examines the compulsive behavior of Louisa, the female protagonist of “A New England Nun.” This behavior creates an undercurrent of tension throughout the story, due to which, according to Hirsch, the story transcends local color writing.]
One of the most beautifully achieved scenes in the American “local color” fiction of the nineteenth century occurs in Mary Wilkins Freeman's “A New England Nun.” The plot of the story is characteristically straightforward and uncomplicated. Louisa Ellis, who has waited fourteen years for her fiancé, Joe Dagget, to return from Australia, “where he had gone to make his fortune,”1 greets his return with some apprehension. In fourteen years of waiting, Louisa has grown set in her ways. The prospect of immediate marriage fills her, quite understandably, with misgivings. As things turn out, Louisa's fears never materialize, for Joe Dagget, while unwilling to break his troth, nevertheless falls in love with a younger girl, Lily Dyer, his mother's maid. Louisa, unseen, happens to overhear Joe and Lily discussing their feelings for each other, whereupon she subsequently provides Joe an honorable exit, which he hesitantly takes, leaving Louisa in peace to resume her celibate existence....
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SOURCE: “The Great Goddess in New England: Mary Wilkins Freeman's ‘Christmas Jenny,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 2, Spring, 1980, pp. 157–64.
[In the following essay, Sherman explicates the goddess imagery in the story “Christmas Jenny” from A New England Nun.]
Mary Wilkins Freeman's story “Christmas Jenny” could easily pass unnoticed in a reading of her 1891 collection, A New England Nun. However, a closer look brings to light an archaic, even mythic, aspect to this “realistic” story. It is an aspect most clearly seen in the characterization of Christmas Jenny herself.1
Christmas Jenny is Jenny Wrayne, a “love-cracked” spinster who has taken the animal and vegetable kingdoms under her sheltering wing. Within her spare mountain home she provides food for hungry birds, healing and sanctuary for wounded animals. She earns her living selling produce from a small garden in summer and evergreens at Christmas. This business gives rise to her name among the villagers—this and their own conception of her “fantastic” character. For although Jenny is considered sane, an unhappy love affair in early youth “was supposed to have tinctured her whole life with an alien element” (pp. 166–167). While Jenny presents only a benign, if eccentric, figure to the villagers, “strange shadows, that their eyes could not pierce lay upon such,...
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SOURCE: “The Artistry of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's ‘The Revolt,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer, 1980, pp. 255–61.
[In the following essay, McElrath explores the four-phase narrative structure in “The Revolt of Mother” that culminates in an ending that is “vintage Howellsian realism” and literary artifice.]
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's “The Revolt of Mother” is a short story which is now receiving a good deal of attention because of its relevance to the history of American feminism. The mother in revolt is one of those tough-minded, self-aware, and determined females that began to appear at the close of the nineteenth century when the so-called New Woman was assuming clear definition. And there's no need to quibble over feminists' characteristic distortions and general hobby-horse riding: Sarah Penn is the real thing, a female who successfully revolts against and liberates herself from a familial situation of pernicious male dominance. There is, however, a more important reason for modern readers to focus upon this particular Freeman tale. It is one of her best. Artistically, it transcends the many, many similar pieces that Freeman produced for the American magazine and book reading public of the 1880s and '90s.
It should be stressed here that “The Revolt of Mother” is magazine fiction, first published in Harper's Monthly (1890)...
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SOURCE: “Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and the Tree of Knowledge,” in New England Local Color Literature: A Women's Tradition, Frederick Ungar, 1983, pp. 119–51.
[In the following excerpt, Donovan surveys the various mother-daughter relationships and strong female characters in Freeman's short stories.]
Something is dying in the fictional world of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. A way of life—the woman-centered, matriarchal world of the Victorians—is in its last throes. The preindustrial values of that world, female-identified and ecologically holistic, are going down to defeat before the imperialism of masculine technology and patriarchal institutions. In Sarah Orne Jewett's vision the world of the mothers holds its own against the historical forces that impend its demise. With Mary E. Wilkins Freeman the mothers are taking a last stand, going down to apparently inevitable defeat. The hopelessness of their prospect drives many of them to a kind of obsessive protectiveness of their daughters; at times their behavior becomes almost perversely destructive.
Freeman, the last of the New England local color school, came close to a modernist sensibility. In many of her stories she seems to have distilled the local color topos down to its essence. One has often a sense of a script of gestures reduced to mechanical repetition, as if the heart or soul had been removed, as if somehow the meaning had...
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SOURCE: “The Haunting Will: The Ghost Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman,” in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4, December, 1985, pp. 208–20.
[In the following essay, Oaks analyzes Freeman's ghost stories, maintaining that they portray the negative consequences possible when individual will overrides social conventions.]
Mary Wilkins Freeman's ghost stories do not have a good critical reputation. Critics use the ghost stories to illustrate the decline in the quality of Freeman's fiction after her 1902 marriage. Westbrook summarizes this stance in the following statement:
As early as 1903 the deterioration in … Freeman's art had become catastrophically noticeable in a volume of ghost stories, The Wind in the Rose-Bush and Other Tales of the Supernatural. Deficient in suspense and atmosphere, these tales rely on the most ludicrous devices for their interest. … With the exception of an occasional flash of … Freeman's old flair for presenting the distortion of village characters … these stories are without merit.1
Freeman's strength as a writer, for Westbrook, is in her presentation of the New England village life in which people are “free to work out their own destinies by their own devices.”2 Freeman's ghost stories lack the impact of her earlier short fiction, according to this standard. In...
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SOURCE: “Signs of Undecidability: Reconsidering the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman,” in Crossing the Double-Cross: The Practice of Feminist Criticism, University of North Carolina Press, 1986, pp. 21–38.
[In the essay below, Meese discusses how Freeman uses conflicting cultural/literary, public/private, and personal/social codes to portray the complexity of the feminine gender. Meese also criticizes early biographers and commentators for misreading Freeman's works as well as misunderstanding their author.]
Recent developments in critical strategies for approaching texts and new understandings of how the patriarchal regime of truth plays within criticism equip us for the defensive, resistant re-reading of women's writing that critics like Annette Kolodny and Judith Fetterley urge us to undertake. By exposing the masculinist misreadings upon which criticism has relied, we can begin to understand more specifically what it means for women writers to become feminist writers. The case of the New England local colorist Mary Wilkins Freeman, who published from 1881 to 1918, illustrates a transitional phase when the interplay of feminism and antifeminism are textually inscribed, and responses to her work demonstrate how this struggle is both suppressed and simplified through misreading.
Although she was one of the women writers who managed to “ascend” to the novel, Freeman's twelve...
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SOURCE: “About ‘Two Friends’ and Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman,” in American Literary Realism, Vol. 21, No. 1, Fall, 1988, pp. 43–57.
[In the following excerpt, Koppelman draws parallels between Freeman's life and her uncollected story “Two Friends.”]
“A young writer should follow the safe course of writing only about those subjects she knows thoroughly, and concerning which she trusts her own convictions.”
—Mary Wilkins Freeman, “Good Wits, Pen and Paper.”1
Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman wrote two stories which today we identify as lesbian stories: “Two Friends,” published in 1887, and “The Long Arm,” written in 1895.2
“Two Friends” is absent from checklists of her work, including the most recent one in Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, edited by Brent L. Kendrick.3Poole's Index, the only periodical index for nineteenth-century U.S. periodical publications, excludes Harper's Bazaar. Although a few of her stories published in other periodicals were never collected, they have never been entirely unavailable, because Poole did index Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Lippincott's, Century, and others that published her stories.
But “Two Friends” was published in a non-indexed periodical...
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SOURCE: “Frontiers of Language: Engendering Discourse in ‘The Revolt of Mother,’” in American Literature, Vol. 63, No. 2, June, 1991, pp. 279–91.
[In the following essay, Cutter examines the different psychological orientations of the male and female characters in “The Revolt of Mother” as expressed through the characters' use of language.]
Sarah Penn, the heroine of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's well-known short story “The Revolt of ‘Mother,’” wants a comfortable home for her family.1 But her husband, although well off, insists on building more barns and buying more cattle, thereby confining his family to their meager, run-down hovel of a home. So while Father is away, Sarah takes control of the situation, subverting her husband's intentions by moving her family and all their possessions into Father's newest barn. When Father returns, Sarah tells him: “we've come here to live, an' we're goin' to live here. We've got jest as good a right here as new horses an' cows.”2 And Father tearfully agrees.
On the surface, this domestic drama may seem comic, and indeed some critics have called it funny.3 Behind this folksy humor, however, there is a serious subtext. Sarah Penn is forced repeatedly to understand her powerless status, a status that stems from her position in a patriarchal, frontier society more oriented towards animals than...
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SOURCE: “The ‘Faces of Children That Had Never Been’: Ghost Stories by Mary Wilkins Freeman,” in Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women, edited by Lynette Carpenter and Wendy K. Kolmar, 1991, pp. 41–63.
[In the excerpt below, Fisken considers Freeman's ghost stories, particularly those featuring a lost girl, which she suggests may represent Freeman's ambivalence about her own choice to suppress her nurturing impulses—marriage and family—in favor of an artistic career.]
On August 12, 1889, after Sarah Orne Jewett wrote to Mary Wilkins1 praising “A Gentle Ghost,” her earliest printed ghost story, Wilkins made two different responses to that praise in a single day. To her friend, Kate Upson Clark, she wrote dismissively: “I do not care much about that story, and do not approve of this mystical vein I am apt to slide into if I don't take care” (Infant Sphinx, 96), while to Jewett she replied hesitantly: “You don't know how glad I am that you do like my Gentle Ghost, for I have felt somewhat uncertain as to how it would be liked. It is in some respects a departure from my usual vein, and I have made a little lapse into the mystical and romantic one for which I have a strong inclination, but do not generally yield to” (97). Wilkins liked to tell ghost stories around an open fire. She was unsure, however, as to how she...
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SOURCE: “Beyond Stereotypes: Mary Wilkins Freeman's Radical Critique of Nineteenth-Century Cults of Femininity,” in Women's Studies, Vol. 21, No. 9, 1992, pp. 383–95.
[In the following essay, Cutter probes Freeman's attitudes toward post-Civil War stereotypes of femininity, focussing on “The Selfishness of Amelia Lamkin.”]
The nineteenth century was undoubtedly a time period when images of femininity became particularly fixed. During the first half of the century, changing economic conditions created a cult-like worship of “True Womanhood” and entrapped women in the domestic sphere, where they were to dispense love and morality.1 And yet, even in the post-civil war era when the predominant stereotype of the “True Woman” gave way to the “New Woman” and women began to enter the work-force in greater numbers, they were not set free from constraining images of femininity.
Much critical attention has been paid to Mary Wilkins Freeman as a writer of the post-civil war period of decline in New England, and yet few literary critics have attempted to examine Freeman's attitudes towards these stereotypes of femininity which were so prevalent at the turn of the century.2 However, a later short story by Freeman titled “The Selfishness of Amelia Lamkin” (1909) does demonstrate her awareness of the constraining and ultimately destructive nature of late...
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SOURCE: “The Subversion of Genre in the Short Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman,” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 3, September, 1992, pp. 447–68.
[In the following essay, Gardner discusses how the relationships among characters in Freeman's short fiction run counter to prevailing treatments in sentimental literature of the era.]
When we first enter it, the fictional world of Mary Wilkins Freeman seems both familiar and strange. Weddings close the stories of lovers; heroines pine away of broken hearts; parents stand in the way of love, but love prevails. Many characters live “happily ever after,” while occasionally a character dies for a cause, leaving the world “better,” if poorer, than before. Yet each of these plot lines, familiar from traditional comedy or tragedy, receives a curious twist at Freeman's hands.1
Whereas the lovers in traditional comedy are young, Freeman's are likely to be over forty; if younger, it is not their story at all but someone else's. The parents who block this love—familiar figures in comedy—succeed for much longer than convention dictates (forty years in “In Butterfly Time” for instance), and they are not the angry patriarchs of classical comedy, but instead powerful mothers. The heroines break their hearts and health sometimes over love, as expected, but also over work, as in “A Village Singer” and “A Poetess.” In...
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SOURCE: “Pieces: Artist and Audience in Three Mary Wilkins Freeman Stories,” in Colby Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 1, March, 1993, pp. 43–56.
[In the essay below, Johnsen explores Freeman's use of cloth and clothing as principal images representing the artist's relationship to society in “An Honest Soul,” “On the Walpole Road,” and “Sister Liddy.”]
Even at the end of the nineteenth century, most apparel was homesewn, and all girls were taught needle skills. Consequently, writing women often clothed their literary visions in the woven materials that covered furniture, adorned beds, and dressed bodies, rather than borrowing the whales, forests, and ledgers that inspired men. As young Mary Wilkins watched dressmakers and reluctantly stitched her own patchwork, she imbibed knowledge. When she began writing, those childhood images of women sewing naturally found their way into her work. After all, etymologies of word pairs like “textile”/“text” and “fabric”/“fabrication” suggest that constructing with cloth is not so different from constructing with words. Thus when Wilkins writes about relationships between artist, subject matter, and audience, it is not surprising that the material of her fiction is often material—patchwork, cloth, and clothing.
Derived from common female experience, references to fabric and sewing in nineteenth-century literature and art...
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SOURCE: “Another Mary Wilkins Freeman: Understudies and Six Trees,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, June, 1995, pp. 89–101.
[In the following essay, Marchalonis focuses on the stories in Understudies and Six Trees, maintaining that Freeman employed an “Other” from the natural world—a tree or an animal—against which she measured the human characters.]
Readers and admirers of Mary Wilkins Freeman know her chiefly as the writer of what is often described as classic Freeman: short, sharp examinations of village life and the quirks and conflicts of the human beings who live in her microcosms. These tales are available in three modern collections (Clark, Pryse, Solomon), which, with a few exceptions, reprint stories from her first two books, A Humble Romance (1883) and A New England Nun (1887). These collections present the writing that seems to be typical Freeman and that she does superbly well. Not only do most readers know Freeman through these tales, but most critical analysis has focused on them as well. This essay, however, will examine some lesser-known and seemingly different stories, those collected in Understudies (1901) and Six Trees (1903), to look at the way they connect with and illuminate Freeman's better-known fiction; it will also suggest another and less confining approach to her work than the one that...
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SOURCE: “Redefining Place: Femmes Covert in the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 69–77.
[In the below essay, Daniel interprets Freeman's use of enclosure imagery.]
In writing about women and their “place” in nineteenth-century New England society, Mary Wilkins Freeman frequently used images that emphasize the places, spaces, and environments occupied by her female protagonists. Settings typically include houses, porches, yards, churches, parlors, and kitchens—spheres in which the “True Woman” of the times could fulfill society's expectations of her and where the emerging “New Woman” could still serve in her duties to others rather than to herself. At first glance, one might assume that, “as a realistic recorder of the status and sensibility of the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century New England woman” (Reichardt xi), Freeman is simply perpetuating that century's stereotypical images of woman's limited “place.”
In addition, these stories further the concept of restrictive spaces with numerous images that reflect covering or containment. Freeman's women “cover” themselves with shawls, bonnets, gloves, and parasols; they “enclose” their homes with fences, rails, paint, and flowers; they “shield” interior furnishings with carpets, wallpaper, curtains, and quilts; and they...
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SOURCE: “New England Gothic by the Light of Common Day: Lizzie Borden and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's ‘The Long Arm,’” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 2, June, 1997, pp. 211–36.
[In the following essay, Shaw describes how Freeman utilized the conventions of mystery and detective fiction as well as elements of the infamous Lizzie Borden murder case in “The Long Arm.”]
When Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's 1895 prize-winning detective story, “The Long Arm,” first appeared in newspapers across the country, she had begun to make decisions about her professional writing that complicated both her career and her later critical reception. After firmly establishing her reputation as a leading regional realist with the periodical short fiction collected in A Humble Romance (1887) and A New England Nun (1891), she began to experiment with a range of genres in the mid-nineties that ultimately led her to produce over forty volumes of poetry, drama, and fiction. Most of this work remains relatively unexplored even though Freeman has benefited from the recent reappraisal of nineteenth-century women writers.1 Of that work—and Freeman tried her hand at most of the dominant fictional genres of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—perhaps the most intriguing is her detective and ghost fiction.
Critics of nineteenth-century culture have increasingly...
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SOURCE: “‘I Never Say Anything at Once So Pathetic and Funny’: Humor in the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3, September, 1999, pp. 215–31.
[In the essay below, Canfield interprets what he sees as the humorous aspects of “A Conflict Resolved,” “The Poetess,” and “A New England Nun.”]
In the tradition of American comic literature, Mary Wilkins Freeman's comic stories of the 1880s and 1890s do not shy away from the paradoxical connections between death and creativity, and they are obsessively concerned with individual freedom and the consequences to freedom of social and biological constraints.1 Freeman's work repeatedly confronts choices between individual freedoms and social connections, between justice and compatibility. But unlike much American comedy that, in its satiric argument, demonstrates a preference for freedom, Freeman's tales use comedy less to resolve these tensions in favor of freedom than to face frankly the costs, both social and individual, of resolving these tensions in either direction. Showing that each of us has no choice but to make choices, Freeman's humor finally serves as compensation for those costs by celebrating the existence of choice itself.
Before I can discuss how her humor works, though, I must first address the question of whether Freeman's works are humorous at all....
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SOURCE: “Must Age Equal Failure?: Sociology Looks at Mary Wilkins Freeman's Old Women,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3, September, 1999, pp. 197–214.
[In the following essay, Turkes uses Erik Erickson's psychological development model to evaluate various elderly female characters in Freeman's stories.]
The revival of interest in the work of Mary Wilkins Freeman is generating some new and interesting criticism, but much exploration of her work remains shadowed by earlier critical dicta. Considering her a major American voice, her contemporary readers and both British and United States critics appreciated her humor—a favorite phrase used to describe her work noted her combination of “humor and pathos”—and saw as well her women protagonists, old and young, as well-drawn, individual characters. Awareness both of Freeman's humor and the importance and variety of her elderly women characters seems to be lost today.
In the early years of this century, critics and scholars like Fred Lewis Pattee and his contemporaries were working to make the study of American literature not only respectable but masculine; in this process, critical judgment declared that Freeman's place and her subject were no longer relevant, since she pictured a dead society, and her works should be read as snapshots of a dismal past, if read at all. While we may suspect that the basis of...
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Barnstone, Aliki. “Houses within Houses: Emily Dickinson and Mary Wilkins Freeman's ‘A New England Nun.’” Centennial Review 28, No. 2 (Spring 1984): 129–45.
Compares the protagonist of Freeman's “New England Nun” to the real-life poet Emily Dickinson.
Behling, Laura L. “Detecting Deviation in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's ‘The Long Arm.’” American Literary Realism 31, No. 1 (Fall 1998): 75–91.
Asserts that Freeman based her detective story “The Long Arm” on several contemporary crimes.
Blum, Virginia L. “Mary Wilkins Freeman and the Taste of Necessity.” American Literature 65, No. 3 (March 1993): 69–94.
Views Freeman as a transitional female writer of her period who attempted to balance the style requirements for magazine stories with those of her artistic credo.
Getz, John. “Mary Wilkins Freeman and Sherwood Anderson: Confluence or Influence?” Midamerica 19 (1992): 74–86.
Comparative discussion of the escape motif in the stories of Freeman and Anderson.
Luscher, Robert M. “The Uncollected Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman.” Studies in Short Fiction 30, No. 3 (Summer 1993): 423–26.
Focuses on Mary R. Reichardt's editing of the Uncollected Stories of...
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