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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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8. Regional Realism   

8. Regional

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Charles W.
- Kate Chopin
- Charles
- Mary E. Wilkins
- Joel Chandler
- Bret Harte
- Sarah Orne
- Alexander Posey
- Mark Twain
- Zitkala-Sa
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Authors: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930)

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

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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.

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