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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

March 29, 2023: 19th Century Humor: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

[For this year’s installment of my annual April Fool’s Day series, I wanted to AmericanStudy some 19th century humorists. I’d love to hear your humorous responses and nominations in comments. No really, I’m serious!]

On the writer and story that are funny, wise, and anything but narrow.

For a long time, late 19th century local color writing—and specifically women’s local color writing—and even more specifically New England women’s local color writing—was dismissed by many scholars as narrow and parochial, historically and socially representative but not particularly significant in broader, lasting, literary terms. Over the last few decades, many scholars have pushed back on those ideas, seeking to redefine the writing as “regionalist” rather than local color and to recover and re-read many of the individual authors and works within that tradition. Yet outside of academia, I don’t know that such efforts have led to nearly enough public consciousness of these writers—and if I were to make the case for why they should, I might well start with the very talented New England regionalist Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930).

Freeman’s prolific career and prodigious talents were certainly recognized in her own era, as she was awarded the 1925 William Dean Howells Medal for distinction in fiction and in the following year became part of the first group of women elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. While she began her career writing children’s stories, and published works in multiple genres, it was her local color short stories for adults, collected in volumes including A Humble Romance and Other Stories (1887), A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891), Silence and Other Stories (1898), and The Givers (1904), that most established her reputation and these culminating accomplishments. And yet in the half-century after her death those same stories came to many scholars to represent Freeman’s limited scope, interests, and talents, and thus to categorize her as precisely an example of a once hugely successful local color writer whose works now retain only historical or social interest.

I could push back on those ideas and make the case for Freeman in any number of ways (as have many of the scholars I mentioned in my first paragraph), but I don’t know that there’s a better way to do so than to ask you to read my favorite Freeman story, “The Revolt of Mother” (1890). “Revolt” has all the hallmarks of New England local color, from its setting on a New England farm to its characters’ dialect voices; like most local fiction more broadly, the story’s tone is mostly light and witty, with surprising character and plot twists leading to an unexpected conclusion. None of those are bad things nor disqualify the work from literary significance, of course—in fact, they make it engaging for readers, a goal of just about any author in any genre. But Freeman’s story is at the same time deeply wise in its portrayals of every member of its focal family, individually, as a community, and in their histories and evolving present and future identities. It reveals a great deal about its particular historical and social setting, about gender and marriage, about parenting and generational change, and about human nature at its most flawed and its most hopeful. In short, it does just about everything great literature and art can do, and does it all well.

Next humorist tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other humorists you’d highlight?

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