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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Regional Realism Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930)

[1546] Harper’s Weekly, Eight illustrations depicting a New England farmhouse, courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-102852].

In composing her well-received realist depictions of women’s lives in New England villages, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman wrote about the people and places she had known all her life. Born in Randolph, Massachusetts, Freeman grew up in intimate familiarity with the economically depressed circumstances and strict Calvinist belief system that shaped the lives of the majority of her characters. At the age of fifteen, Freeman moved with her family to Brattleboro, Vermont, where her father opened a dry goods store in an effort to better their financial situation. After graduating from Brattleboro high school, Freeman spent one year at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary but did not enjoy college life or living away from home. Returning to Vermont, she faced a series of misfortunes: her teaching career was unsuccessful, her sister died, her father’s business failed, and her mother was forced to support the family by working as a housekeeper for the town’s minister. Her family’s poverty was difficult for Freeman to deal with; she found it particularly humiliating that she had to move into the servants’ quarters at the home where her mother worked as a domestic.

In 1883, after both of her parents had died, Freeman moved back to Randolph to live with her childhood friend, Mary Wales. There she developed the writing career she had begun a few years earlier with the publication of some stories and poetry for children. She soon found a ready market for her realist representations of New England life, placing stories in the prestigious Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and eventually publishing her own book-length collections of stories. Her work was well received by both critics and readers, who were charmed by her focus on a regional lifestyle that was rapidly becoming extinct. Freeman was a prolific writer: over the course of her career she published fifteen volumes of short stories (the work for which she is best known today), over fifty uncollected stories and essays, fourteen novels, three plays, three volumes of poetry, and eight children’s books. With Wales’s help, Freeman became a shrewd and successful businessperson. Her surviving letters reveal her deep concern with making a living as an author and with maximizing her fees and royalties.

While Freeman’s successful career afforded her financial security and a great deal of autonomy, her best fiction focuses on the plight of women whose lives are bounded by poverty and the social constraints imposed on them by their strict religious beliefs and their position as women. Fascinated by the impact of traditional Puritan values of submissiveness, frugality, and self-denial on New England culture, Freeman often portrayed characters who create obstacles to their own happiness by their strict adherence to Calvinist morality. In other stories, however, she explored the rebellions and triumphs of seemingly meek women, depicting their strategies for gaining and maintaining control over their domestic situations with humor and sensitivity. She provided unflinching portraits of both the difficulties of “spinsterhood” and the often oppressive power dynamics that structured nineteenth-century marriage.

Freeman herself married late in life, wedding Dr. Charles Freeman when she was forty-nine. After an initial period of harmony, the marriage ended in separation when she had her husband institutionalized for alcoholism. In 1926 she was awarded the William Dean Howells Gold Medal for Fiction by the American Academy of Letters, and later that year she was inducted into the prestigious National Institute for Arts and Letters.

Teaching Tips

  • While “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” is one of Freeman’s most frequently anthologized stories, she herself was dissatisfied with what she viewed as its lack of realism. In an autobiographical essay she explained, “in the first place all fiction ought to be true, and ‘The Revolt of “Mother” ‘ is not in the least true…. There never was in New England a woman like Mother. If there had been she most certainly would not have moved into that palatial barn…. New England women of that period coincided with their husbands in thinking that sources of wealth should be better housed than consumers.” After you give students this background information, ask them to think about Freeman’s literary values: why does she insist that “all fiction ought to be true”? Given her conviction that the events in “The Revolt of ‘Mother’ ” do not meet her realist standards, why did she plot the story around Mother’s rebellion? You might ask students to outline what the plot would have looked like had Freeman characterized Mother as a more typical “New England woman of that period,” and then have them share their outlines with the class.
  • Recently, scholars of lesbian studies have become interested in Freeman’s work and career, examining her long and close relationship with her roommate, Mary Wales; her late and unsuccessful marriage; and her depictions of women who choose solitude or companionship with other women over relationships with men. While close female friendships had been socially acceptable in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, by the time Freeman wrote exclusive female relationships were undergoing redefinition. With the emergence of lesbian identity–and a new understanding of the sexual possibilities of same-sex relationships–close attachments between women were beginning to be portrayed as “unhealthy” or as a symptom of moral or biological degeneracy. Ask students to consider Freeman’s portrayal of marriage and heterosexual romance in light of these issues. How does Freeman critique the power structure of heterosexual relationships? How radical is her position? What kinds of alternatives, if any, does she envision for characters involved in unsatisfying heterosexual unions?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension:In “A New England Nun,” what kinds of pets does Louisa have? How do their lives symbolically suggest the limits of Louisa’s own existence?
  2. Context: Why are Mother and Nancy dissatisfied with their home in “The Revolt of ‘Mother’ “? What kinds of improvements do they wish for? How do their visions for their new home coincide with contemporary ideas about home decoration and parlor culture?
  3. Context: In both “A New England Nun” and “The Revolt of ‘Mother,’ ” Freeman narrates women’s assertion of control over their own domestic situations. What kinds of strategies do Louisa and Mother employ to gain their ends? How empowering are their “revolts”? Should they be characterized as revolts? How do Freeman’s depictions of women exercising domestic authority compare with Chopin’s portrait of Edna Pontellier’s drive for autonomy in The Awakening? Do Louisa or Mother experience anything like an “awakening”?
  4. Exploration: Freeman was fascinated by the legacy of Puritanism in New England, explaining that her characters were “the descendants of the Massachusetts Bay Colonists, in whom can still be seen traces of will and conscience, so strong as to be almost exaggerations and deformities, which characterized their ancestors.” How do Freeman’s characters compare to the Puritans featured in Unit 3 (John Winthrop, Anne Bradsteet, or Mary Rowlandson, for example)? How do the scruples and morals that motivate Freeman’s characters’ actions resonate with Puritan values?

Selected Archive Items

[1546] Harper’s Weekly, Eight illustrations depicting a New England farmhouse,
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-102852].
These illustrations show a variety of furnishings from a replica New England farmhouse exhibited at the Centennial Exposition of 1876. Spinning wheels, a desk, a clock, and kitchen implements are among the items shown.

[1895] Jerome Thompson, Recreation (1857),
courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum Purchase, the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, 47.13.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, the outdoors was increasingly associated with relaxation, particularly for those who could afford leisure time and travel. Better roads and growing railroad systems made travel to suburban areas easier for residents of nearby cities.

[4423] Anonymous, The First Step [Godey’s Lady’s Book] (June 1858),
courtesy of Hope Greenberg, University of Vermont.
The parlor was perceived as a necessary room in even the most humble of homes. When there was no room for a formal parlor, Americans made an effort to adorn their living spaces with decorative objects, such as the paintings and bureau-top items in this drawing.

[8194] Bruce Michelson, Interview: “Women’s Regionalist Writing” (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media and American Passages.
Bruce Michelson, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, speaks about women’s regionalist writing.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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