Authors: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist and short-story writer

October 31, 1852

Randolph, Massachusetts

March 13, 1930

Metuchen, New York


Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman is best known for her depiction of the people who inhabited the New England villages of the late nineteenth century. She was born into the Wilkins family in Randolph, Massachusetts, a rural New England farming community fourteen miles south of Boston. Growing up here gave Freeman firsthand knowledge of village life, and in her short stories and novels she captures the qualities of the people who inhabited these villages, where activities centered around the church and town meetings. During this time New England villages were suffering from the effects of industrialization that had driven young men out of the villages and into the cities. The Civil War and westward migration had also drained people. Yet some villages retained the old Yankee character. It was the people who stayed in those communities of whom Freeman wrote, people of character who were used to hard work, eccentrics, and those who lacked the will or opportunities to move on. {$I[AN]9810001904} {$I[A]Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins} {$I[geo]WOMEN;Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins} {$I[tim]1852;Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins}

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

(Library of Congress)

In 1870 Freeman graduated from Brattleboro High School, then spent one year at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary. Although she took courses at Glenwood Seminary in West Brattleboro and read avidly, she received no more formal education. In 1873 she met and fell in love with Hanson Tyler, but he did not return her affection and eventually married someone else. Freeman maintained strong feelings for Tyler for many years. She took a job as a teacher but resigned after one year and began writing religious poetry and children’s poems, which were published in obscure magazines.

A series of misfortunes began when Anna, the Wilkinses’ other daughter, died in 1876 at the age of seventeen. When Mr. Wilkins’s dry goods business failed, the family was forced to move into the house of Hanson Tyler’s father, the Reverend Thomas Tyler, where Mrs. Wilkins served as the housekeeper. When Mrs. Wilkins died at the age of fifty-three, the family moved out, and thereafter Mary kept house for her father.

In 1881, after years of writing without financial remuneration, Freeman received her first fee, ten dollars for the “The Beggar King,” a ballad that was published in the children’s magazine Wide Awake. She went on to sell work to the best children’s magazine of the time, St. Nicholas, and in 1882 won a fifty-dollar prize from the Boston Sunday Budget for her first adult story, “The Shadow Family.” Decorative Plaques, a volume of poems for children, was published in 1883.

Harper’s Bazaar published “Two Old Loves,” the story of two people who continued a love affair from youth to old age but never married. This lack of will to act frequently occurs in Freeman’s work. In 1887 the stories from Harper’s Monthly and Harper’s Bazaar were collected into a four-hundred-page book, A Humble Romance, and Other Stories, which featured taciturn, fiercely independent characters and became one of her most successful books. In “A Humble Romance,” the title story, an orphan, brought up as a servant, suddenly leaves her job to marry a tinker. This theme, too, that of the revolt of a previously meek and downtrodden character, was one Freeman used often. “A Patient Waiter” exemplifies yet another favorite character trait in Freeman’s work; here, the main character, refusing to admit that her lover has jilted her, goes to the post office every day for forty years looking for a letter from him.

Like many nineteenth century women writers, Freeman wrote from economic necessity. She was a fast and prolific writer, and she had found a market for her work. In her 1891 collection A New England Nun, and Other Stories she repeated her themes of revolt and the struggle of the individual toward self-fulfillment. The main characters are often lonely people living lives of monotonous routine.

Jane Field, Freeman’s first novel, which was originally serialized in Harper’s New Monthly, tells the story of a poor widow who, struggling to support herself and her daughter, makes a false claim to an inheritance by pretending to be the sister designated in the will; eventually her conscience and pride forbid her continuing the deception, and she confesses her sin to the whole village. Pembroke, which many consider to be her finest novel, offers realistic descriptions of the daily life of the New England village. In Jerome, a Poor Man Freeman focuses on the psychological effects of poverty and the pride of the poor.

In 1902, after many postponements, Mary Wilkins married Dr. Charles Freeman, who encouraged Mary to write because it was a source of income. As Freeman was pushed to produce more work, at times working on two typewriters, the quality of her writing declined. Her marriage soon disintegrated because of her husband’s alcoholism and mental instability. He was periodically confined to a hospital for the insane, and the unhappy marriage ended in separation.

In 1926 Mary Wilkins Freeman won the Howells Medal for Fiction presented by the American Academy of Letters, and she was among the first four women elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She died of a heart attack in 1930. As a regionalist, Freeman made a significant contribution to the development of realism in American literature. Her strength lay in her depiction of strong, eccentric characters who struggled against the repressive atmosphere of rural villages.

Author Works Long Fiction: Jane Field, 1892 (serial), 1893 (book) Pembroke, 1894 Madelon, 1896 Jerome, a Poor Man, 1897 The Jamesons, 1899 The Heart’s Highway: A Romance of Virginia, 1900 The Portion of Labor, 1901 The Debtor, 1905 “Doc” Gordon, 1906 By the Light of the Soul, 1907 The Shoulders of Atlas, 1908 The Whole Family: A Novel by Twelve Authors, 1908 The Butterfly House, 1912 The Yates Pride: A Romance, 1912 An Alabaster Box, 1917 (with Florence Morse Kingsley) Short Fiction: A Humble Romance, and Other Stories, 1887 A New England Nun, and Other Stories, 1891 A Pot of Gold, and Other Stories, 1892 Young Lucretia, and Other Stories, 1892 Silence, and Other Stories, 1898 The People of Our Neighborhood, 1898 In Colonial Times, 1899 The Love of Parson Lord, and Other Stories, 1900 Understudies, 1901 A Far-Away Melody and Other Stories, 1902 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 Best Stories, 1927 Collected Ghost Stories, 1974 The Uncollected Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman, 1992 A Mary Wilkins Freeman Reader, 1997 (Mary R. Reichardt, editor) Drama: Giles Corey, Yeoman, pb. 1892 Nonfiction: The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, 1985 (Brent L. Kendrick, editor) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Decorative Plaques, 1883 Goody Two-Shoes, 1883 (with Clara Doty Bates) The Cow with the Golden Horns, and Other Stories, 1886 The Adventures of Ann: Stories of Colonial Times, 1886 Comfort Pease and Her Gold Ring, 1895 Once Upon a Time, and Other Child Verses, 1897 The Green Door, 1910 Bibliography Daniel, Janice. “Redefining Place: Femmes Coverts in the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman.” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Winter, 1996): 69-76. Discusses the many images in Freeman’s stories that suggest covering or containing women. Argues that the women in the stories reject restrictive places imposed from the outside, choose their own places, and enclose themselves in choices that are conducive to their own affirmation of self. Feinberg, Lorne. “Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s ‘Soft Diurnal Commotion’: Women’s Work and Strategies of Containment.” The New England Quarterly 62, no. 4 (1989): 483-504. “How is women’s work to be valued in the marketplace” is the question Feinberg struggles with as she looks at Freeman’s short stories dealing with the conception of “women’s sphere” and the economics of women’s work. To help answer this question, Feinberg discusses Catherine Beecher and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ideas on the ways value was assigned to women’s work. Stories mentioned are: “A New England Nun,” “An Honest Soul,” “A Humble Romance,” “A Church Mouse,” and “The Revolt of ‘Mother.’” Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins. The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, edited by Brent L. Kendrick. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985. Kendrick suggests that although the author’s letters were written for practical literary reasons and are a bit mundane, they are a valuable source for autobiographical information. Kendrick warns that it may be difficult to recognize and appreciate the autobiographical details tucked away that reflect her external and internal life, but he insists that they do exist for the patient reader. Mann, Susan Garland. “Gardening as ‘Women’s Culture’ in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s Short Fiction.” The New England Quarterly 71 (March, 1998): 33-53. Claims that gardening in Freeman’s stories indicates women’s culture imposed by a hierarchical society. Argues that Freeman subverted woman’s sphere by focusing on domestic areas where they received personal gratification. Marchalonis, Shirley, ed. Critical Essays on Mary Wilkins Freeman. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. A collection of essays ranging from early reviews to a number of essays influential in starting a revival of interest in Freeman’s stories. Includes an essay that surveys a hundred years of criticism on Freeman’s work, as well as five essays written especially for this collection. Reichardt, Mary R. “‘Friend of My Heart’: Women as Friends and Rivals in the Short Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 22, no. 2 (1990): 54-68. Reichardt contends that evidence is lacking in Freeman’s canon for upholding current feminist ideas of nineteenth century matriarchal worlds and strong women’s friendships. Instead, Reichardt’s article shows a variegated pattern in Freeman’s work of domineering or proud women rejected or humbled, while meeker and more dependent women quietly triumph. Reichardt, Mary R. Mary Wilkins Freeman: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1997. An excellent examination of Freeman’s short stories. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Reichardt, Mary R. “Mary Wilkins Freeman: One Hundred Years of Criticism.” Legacy 4, no. 2 (1987): 31-44. Reichardt offers an extensive, although not complete, critical and historical context for Freeman and her work. Reveals specific areas of attention given to Freeman over time that serve as a “barometer of our cultural attitudes toward gender in the 100 years that have elapsed since Freeman embarked on her literary career in 1887.” Reichardt, Mary R. A Web of Relationship: Women in the Short Fiction of Mary Wilkins Freeman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992. Argues that Freeman’s best stories focus on women who struggle against forces that control them, such as marriage, family, and poverty. The book focuses on four types of conflicted relationships in Freeman’s stories: women and parents, women and husbands, women and friends, and women alone. Toth, Susan Allan. “‘The Rarest and Most Peculiar Grape’: Versions of the New England Woman in Nineteenth-Century Local Color Literature.” In Regionalism and the Female Imagination: A Collection of Essays, edited by Emily Toth. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1985. Freeman’s use of marriage, or lack thereof, in her short stories is the focus of Toth’s article. She maintains that one of Freeman’s specialties is the portrait of neurotic single women who eschew marriage and find other sources of emotional fulfillment. Curtailing the theme of marriage, Toth briefly mentions the protectiveness, strength, and sentimentality Freeman develops in her characters who are mothers. Westbrook, Perry D. Mary Wilkins Freeman. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1988. With an informative look at Freeman’s pre-1900 work written for adults, Westbrook provides background on the socioeconomic and religious situation of backcountry New England. Westbrook also offers information on the reception of Freeman’s work as it was published.

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