Just Released: New Scholarly Book on Acclaimed Writer Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

“Dedicated to the Memory of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
and the Women Writers of America”

Bronze Doors Inscription, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York.

If the wheels of progress turn exceedingly slow–and they do–then the wheels of scholarly publishing turn even more slowly. Many steps are involved in publishing a book, especially an academic one with multiple contributors: finding a publisher; issuing the call for proposals (CFP); accepting proposals; writing; peer reviewing; revising; copy editing; and, finally, publishing. On average, it takes about two years for a scholarly book to find its way into print.

But the quality of the scholarship and the advances made by the research make the wait worthwhile.

New Perspectives on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman: Reading with and against the Grain is a perfect example. The editors–professors Stephanie Palmer (Nottingham Trent University, United Kingdom); Myrto Drizou (Boğaziçi University, Turkey); and Cécile Roudeau (Université Paris Cité, France) issued the book’s CFP all the way back in April 2019.

As a well-known Freeman scholar, I responded and proposed a chapter. I am sharing my chapter’s abstract below, not to promote myself but rather to provide general background information for my blog readers who may not be familiar with Freeman.

The distinguished accolades enjoyed by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman are numerous and well known. At the start of the Twentieth Century—when her career was at its height—she and Mark Twain were considered America’s most beloved writers. She was the first recipient of the William Dean Howells Gold Medal for Distinguished Work in Fiction (1925). She was among the first women elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1926). And the bronze doors at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York (installed at its West 155 Street Administration Building in 1938) bear the inscription, “Dedicated to the Memory of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and the Women Writers of America.”

What is not well known, however, is Freeman’s financial success as a businesswoman. Freeman started her career in 1883 with $962.09 in cash and with one-half interest in a piece of Brattleboro, Vermont, property. Yet after her death in 1930, the value of her estate at the height of the Great Depression—even after her personal property had been auctioned off at embarrassingly low prices—came to a grand and spectacular finale of $117,285.41. Adjusted for inflation, that would be equivalent to starting out with $24,214.38 in 1883 and ending up with $1,804,925 in 1930 when the market was at its worst.

By any standard, that’s quite a financial success story, especially for a writer who at the start of her career maintained, “I know so little about business and business customs.”

Careful research into the business side of Freeman’s life demonstrates that necessity taught her a lot about business and business customs.

This chapter zooms in on Freeman’s career not only as a successful writer but also as an independent woman. Single for most of her life and without financial backing (unlike her contemporaries Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Kate Chopin), she knew that she had to fend for herself.  Or, as she herself commented in a 1919 letter to American literary scholar Fred Lewis Pattee, “I wrote no more vers de societe. No more Cherries in Blossom. My dear Sir, do you remember I wrote you that I had to earn my living? I did not write this, but I had an Aunt to support. How could I have accomplished these feats on poetry?”

She couldn’t accomplish it by poetry alone, but she could by exploiting multiple genres: 3 plays, 14 novels, 3 volumes of poetry, 22 volumes of short stories, over 50 uncollected short stories and prose essays, and 1 motion picture play.

Over the course of a career that spanned nearly 50 years and through nothing more than the power of her pen and her astute business acumen, she amassed a fortune. Hers is a story of phenomenal magnitude, unparalleled in all of nineteenth century American literature, especially among women writers, and this paper will chronicle her financial success story.

Now, nearly four years later (delayed, no doubt, by the COVID-19 Pandemic), the book was published this month by Edinburgh University Press.

Edinburgh University Press; 1st edition
(February 28, 2023)
Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 328 pages
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1399504479
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1399504478

My contribution–“Literary Businesswoman Extraordinaire”–appears as Chapter 9 in the section Women’s Work: Capital, Business, Labor.

Kinship Outside of Normative Structures
1. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s Neighborly Encounters and the Project of Neighborliness – Jana Tigchelaar
2. “Her Own Creed of Bloom”: The Transcendental Ecofeminism of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman – Susan M. Stone
3. “Preposterous Fancies” or a “Plain, Common World?” Queer World-Making in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Prism” (1901) – H.J.E. Champion

Violent, Criminal, and Infanticidal: Freeman’s Odd Women
4. The Reign of the Dolls: Violence and the Nonhuman in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman – Donna M. Campbell
5. Transatlantic Lloronas: Infanticide and Gender in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Alexandros Papadiamantis – Myrto Drizou
6. Redefining the New England Nun: A Revisionist Reading in the Context of Pembroke and Irish American Fiction – Aušra Paulauskienė

Women’s Work: Capital, Business, Labor
7. Hunger Strikes:Queer Naturalism and the Gendering of Solidarity in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s The Portion of Labor – Justin Rogers-Cooper
8. “It Won’t Be Long Before the Grind-Mill in There Will Get Hold of Him”: The Theft of Childhood in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s The Portion of Labor – Laura Dawkins
9. Literary Businesswoman Extraordinaire – Brent L. Kendrick
10. “Deconstructing Upper-Middle-Class Rites and Rituals: Reading Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s Stories Alongside Mary Louise Booth’s Harper’s Bazar“– Audrey Fogels

Periodization Reconsidered
11. Mobilizing the Great War in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s Edgewater People – Daniel Mrozowski
12. A Cacophony of Voices: Freeman’s Modernism – Monika Elbert
13. Underground Influence: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Pastiche of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman – Stephanie Palmer
14. Untimely Freeman – Cécile Roudeau

Afterword: Why Mary E. Wilkins Freeman? Why Now? Where Next? – Sandra A. Zagarell

New Perspectives on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman is rich and robust, adding new dimensions to earlier book-length studies:

Edward Foster, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (Hendricks House, 1956). Foster started his Freeman biography right after her death in 1930. At the time, he was a doctoral student at Harvard. One of the book’s many strengths is its inclusion of information gained from interviewing Freeman’s friends and relatives.

Perry Westbrook, Mary Wilkins Freeman (Twayne, 1967; rev. 1988). Westbrook explores some of Freeman’s richest and most significant works, anchoring them to the New England local color tradition as well as to women writers.

Brent L. Kendrick, ed., The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (Scarecrow, 1985). Praised by The Journal of Modern Literature as “the most complete record to date of Freeman’s life as writer and woman.” I have a new two-volume update in progress: Dolly: Life and Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Vol I: The New England Years (1852-1901). Vol II: The New Jersey Years (1902-1930).

Leah Blatt Glasser, In a Closet Hidden (University of Massachusetts Press, 1996). Glasser’s work is a literary biography that “traces Freeman’s evolution as a writer, showing how her own inner conflicts repeatedly found expression in her art.”

Aside from book publications, Freeman has merited state-wide celebrations, too.

In 1991, Newark Public Library, the New Jersey College English Association, and the English Department of Kean College celebrated Freeman’s life and works in a series of free public programs. Jim Florio, New Jersey’s governor at the time, issued a formal proclamation, declaring “November, 1991 as Mary E. Wilkins Freeman Month.”

Additionally, in October 2019, Freeman was featured as part of the Brattleboro (VT) Literary Festival. Recognizing her connections to Brattleboro and to the Green Mountain State, Vermont Governor Phillip B. Scott proclaimed October 17, 2019, as “MARY E. WILKINS FREEMAN DAY
in Vermont.”

On January 17 the next year, Freeman’s home at 207 Lake Avenue in the Borough of Metuchen in Middlesex County, New Jersey, where she lived and wrote from 1902 to 1907, was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

New Perspectives on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman is a welcome addition to Freeman scholarship. Taken as a whole, the book provides a greater understanding of Freeman’s unequivocal–and sometimes unrivaled–impact on American letters.