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.