An Unheralded Gem: Mary Wilkins Freeman - Michael Sacks

An Unheralded Gem: Mary Wilkins Freeman – Michael Sacks

There are plenty of good writers who are not famous.  One such writer is Mary Wilkins Freeman. Freeman (1852 – 1930) was an American writer who wrote several remarkable novels and short stories. Her novels include Pembroke (1894), The Jamesons (1899), and The Shoulders of Atlas (1908).

Freeman’s novels are well-regarded by literary scholars, and some of her short stories are even more critically acclaimed. Freeman’s most celebrated short stories include “A Humble Romance” (1884) and “A New England Nun” (1887).  Many of Freeman’s short stories were published initially in periodicals and were subsequently collected in book form.

Freeman’s works frequently depict the integrity, the humility, and the independence of people in the small towns of New England.  The characters often face moral dilemmas, and the events usually reveal the inherent goodness of the protagonists.  Her characters are often poor financially, yet rich spiritually.  Freeman affirms the unassailable dignity of her humble characters.

“A Humble Romance” recounts the story of Sally and Jake Russell.  Sally, a shy yet courageous and determined woman, marries Jake, a traveling salesman, after Jake rescues Sally from a life of servitude.  The marriage goes smoothly – until Jake’s former wife (whom he believed had died) resurfaces.  The ex-wife (who had cheated on Jake) tries to blackmail Jake into getting back together with her.  The ex-wife threatens to expose Jake as a bigamist if he does not give her what she wants.  Jake handles the situation so deftly that he remains loyal to Sally while also preventing a scandal from arising.

“A New England Nun” tells the story of Louisa Ellis.  Louisa is described as a “nun” in a figurative sense of the word because of her devotion to an ascetic lifestyle.  Louisa is engaged to Joe Dagget.  Joe has just returned to New England after 14 years in Australia, where he went to make a fortune.  Having achieved his goal, Joe believes that he can support Louisa financially, so they plan to embark on their marriage.  However, the relationship between Joe and Louisa faces two obstacles.  Joe has developed feelings for Lily Dyer, who takes care of Joe’s mother.  Meanwhile, Louisa has grown accustomed to being single and has become set in her ways.  Though she still likes Joe, Louisa perceives marriage as a threat to “her happy solitary life.”  Louisa and Joe call off the engagement, and the story ends happily for both of them.

Mary Wilkins was born in 1852 in Massachusetts.  Her maiden name is Wilkins; her married name is Freeman.  Wilkins grew up in Randolph, Massachusetts, a suburban city located about 15 miles south of Boston.  She and her family moved to Vermont and lived there for a few years before returning to Randolph.

Wilkins eschewed marriage for a long time – until she was 49.  Mary Wilkins married Dr. Charles Freeman in 1902.  The couple moved to Metuchen, New Jersey, where they embarked on a marriage that proved to be strenuous.  Charles Freeman’s alcoholism and mental instability took a heavy toll on their relationship.  The couple divorced in 1922.

Mary Wilkins Freeman died of a heart attack in 1930 at age 77.  Her work endures and remains available to readers today.

The collected works of Freeman are available at wilkinsfreeman.info.  This collection provides an invaluable resource for anyone who enjoys good literature.

Two of the best critical studies of Freeman and her work are the following: Mary Wilkins Freeman by Perry Westbrook (1967) and In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman by Leah Blatt Glasser (1996).

Although she is not particularly famous nowadays, Freeman was a household name during her lifetime.  Her fame peaked in the 1890s.  In the introduction to The Best Stories of Mary E. Wilkins (1927), Henry Wysham Lanier describes Freeman’s popularity in the following way: “To one who was a reader in the [1890s], it seems almost ludicrous to ‘introduce’ Mary E. Wilkins. (Just a little like introducing Babe Ruth anywhere in the United States, in these latter days!)”  One should keep in mind that Lanier made this comparison in 1927 – the year in which Ruth hit 60 home runs and helped the New York Yankees win the World Series.

Freeman received several prestigious honors for her work, including the William Dean Howells Medal for Distinction in Fiction.  In 1926, Freeman was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

These honors are fitting forms of recognition for Mary Wilkins Freeman, a writer of extraordinary quality.

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