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Stephanie Palmer, Myrto Drizou and Cécile Roudeau, ed. New Perspectives on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman: Reading with and against the Grain

Bridget Bennett
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Stephanie Palmer, Myrto Drizou and Cécile Roudeau, ed. New Perspectives on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman: Reading with and against the Grain. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2023, 312 p., ISBN 978 1 33995 0447 8 (hardback), 978 1 33995 0449 2 (webready PDF), 978 1 33995 0450 8 (epub), £99.

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1New Perspectives on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman: Reading with and against the Grain is a welcome contribution to our understanding of a highly prolific writer whose work deserves the new attention of the kind the book itself represents. Freeman has most frequently been considered as a nineteenth-century New England writer, a local colorist whose focus was on village and community life. Many readers particularly associate her with the earliest short story collections, A Humble Romance and Other Stories (1887) and A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891), which were more financially lucrative than some of her other works. But, as the editors Myrto Drizou, Cécile Roudeau and Stephanie Palmer point out in their introduction “Reading Freeman Again, Anew,” these collections were a small part of a wide oeuvre encompassing “poetry, thirteen novels, a play, work in collaboration with other writers, eight children’s books, and a handful of articles” (3). It is this expanded and updated understanding of the full range of Freeman’s writing that is the subject of this volume. As the editors argue later in the introduction, countering “the Freeman that we know, this volume wants to go one dig into the Freeman that we don’t quite know yet” (13). Starting with what we do know, they provide a detailed and comprehensive account of it before opening out into the claims the volume sets out.

2The history of the book’s inception is itself instructive. It reveals a series of productive and generative moments of collaboration reminding us of the fruitfulness of cooperative (and transnational) modes of working, too frequently pushed out by the demands of contemporary academic life. The Mary E. Wilkins Freeman Society was inaugurated at the Society for the Study of American Women Writers in 2015, and the book’s editors (and Society’s founders) were all part of the 2017 ground-breaking American Literature Association meeting in Boston that galvanised its energy. The society’s initial business meeting was held there, and recognising the need for new scholarship on Freeman’s work, the editors sent out a Call for Papers, garnering contributions from the fifteen scholars making up this collection. As the papers progressed, drafts were discussed at a Symposium held in Paris, and the result was New Perspectives.

3The editors trace the history of the way Freeman gradually fell out of the canon in the early twentieth century. Fred Lewis Pattee described her as one of the “recorders of the New England decline” (4) and Edith Wharton thought she saw her subject through “rose-coloured spectacles” (5). Strikingly, though they critiqued her work, they could not overlook her entirely and in 1926 she was the inaugural prize-winner of the William Dean Howells Medal, reminding us of Oscar Wilde’s adage that there is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about. Detailing the progressive changes in her twentieth-century reputation, Drizou, Roudeau and Palmer show the ways in which, as American literary studies began to justify claims about what and who made key contributions to a national culture, local colorists were excluded. Local color writing was thought of as almost always limited in scope, though it could have charming qualities, something clearly carrying pejorative connotations. This exclusion was staged at the point at which a broader cultural and political mythology emphasised a masculinist regime characterised by expansion and imperialism. They quote Theodore Roosevelt’s definition of patriotism in which he criticises “that unwholesome parochial spirit, that over-exaltation of the little community at the expense of the great nation” (4). In so doing they remind us the extent to which standards of literary criticism and ideas of appropriateness can be shaped way outside of the conventional realm of the literary, something all too ominously familiar in our current period of book banning and censorship. They give a comprehensive account of the literary and historical recovery of Freeman from the 1970s to 1990s, in which she was usually read either as describing an ethics of care and maternal or womanly nurture or as staging resistance to patriarchal power and exclusionary structures. Later scholars, with access to new archival discoveries in digitised databases and other sources, describe a different kind of Freeman with interests in social reform, labour practices and the lives of working people, but also an ecofeminist engagement with the landscape and the powerful presence of trees, animals and so on. This is the Freeman that New Perspectives presents us with, and she is an exciting and timely figure.

4Drizou, Roudeau and Palmer describe their volume as aiming not so much “to recover Freeman as to uncover alternative modes of reading her work” (2). The opening essay sets out their aims with brio, providing a comprehensive survey of her personal history and prior reputation before turning to the task in hand. The book is divided into four main parts, each comprised of either three or four chapters. In Part I, “Kinship Outside of Normative Structures,” Jana Tigchelaar, Susan M. Stone, and H.J.E. Champion variously examine the “project of neighbourliness” (26), “transcendental ecofeminism” (43) and “queer world-making” (60) to give us new ways of thinking about Freeman’s commitments to the society about which she wrote. Tigchelaar suggests that neighbourly encounters both characterise the structure of the intimate relationships within the communities she describes, but that the neighbourly can be thought of as indicating a particular form of readerly practice: “the neighbourly encounter serves as an alternative mode of reading regionalist texts, in contrast to the hierarchical mode suggested by the figure of the urban observer/narrator apparent in much regional literature” (27). Stone reads Freeman as one of the earliest literary US ecofeminists while Champion focuses on the figure of the child to reflect on the way she imagines “queer futurity” (62). In Part II, “Violent, Criminal, and Infanticidal: Freeman’s Odd Women,” Donna M. Campbell describes a version of Freeman in darker terms than some critics have previously imagined her, arguing that she uses “dolls, animals, and ghosts” as “a means of mediating discussions of the unspeakable” (80). Keeping with the theme of the displaced and violent, Myrto Drizou reads Freeman in relation to the figure of the mythical La Llorona, productively shifting the Anglo-American critical framework through which she has often been interpreted. Finally, Aušra Paulauskiené interprets A New England Nun (1891) through the framework of Irish American writing, deftly considering how this “foreign element in Freeman’s New England” (113) enables us to read her anew. In Part III, “Women’s Work: Capital, Business, Labor,” Justin Rogers-Cooper, Laura Dawkins, Brent L. Kendrick and Audrey Fogels turn to discussions of class, labour, business practices and factory work not just as the subjects of Freeman’s writing, but also as ways of understanding her positioning within the literary marketplace. Rogers-Cooper presents a writer whose analyses of gendered and class relationships and workplaces practices continue to resonate today. Dawkins, like Rogers-Cooper, focuses on Freeman’s novel The Portion of Labor (1901) to discuss her sympathetic representations of the plight of working-class parents torn between trying to improve their children’s futures and being dependent on their wage labour. The final two essays in this section turn to Freeman’s situation in the literary marketplace. Kendrick positions Freeman as what he calls a “literary businesswoman extraordinaire” (165) and Fogels turns to the stories she published in Harper’s Bazar to challenge the journal’s privileged female readers. Finally, in Part IV, “Periodization Revisited,” Daniel Mrozowski reflects on Freeman as a writer whose contribution to fiction of the First World War has been overlooked. Monika Elbert, meanwhile, takes a broad look at Freeman’s work to read her as a modernist: “In arguing for Freeman as a modernist writer, I’d like to show the breadth of her writing, as she moves from simple pastoral landscapes to industrial wastelands to alienated wanderers” (222). In the section’s two closing essays we are once again presented with fine examples of uncovering, in the spirit of the overall volume. Stephanie Palmer outlines Freeman’s influence on the British writer Sylvia Townsend Warner while Cécile Roudeau provocatively asks, “What would it mean […] to read Freeman out of time? To free her, and us, from the bonds of nineteenth-century epistemologies, and let her texts ‘speak back’ to us and resonate with our own concerns, however anachronistically?” (253). As this brief account of the volume’s contents suggests, all these essays separately and together give us valuable new ways of seeing and reading Freeman both in and out of our own time.

5The closing essay is by a pioneering scholar of Freeman, Sandra A. Zagarell, titled “Afterword: Why Mary E. Wilkins Freeman? Why Now? Where Next?” Zagarell reminds us that Freeman was a professional writer who shaped her work for many decades according to the demands of a changing marketplace. Framing her as a popular writer, she asks what Freeman’s work reveals about the culture from which it emerged, as well as how it shaped that culture in turn. She closes her essay with a set of suggestions about future lines of inquiry, much in the manner of a manifesto. While New Perspectives has set the bar high, we must hope that others will continue this work, showing us “Where Next?” may take us.

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Bridget Bennett, « Stephanie Palmer, Myrto Drizou and Cécile Roudeau, ed. New Perspectives on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman: Reading with and against the Grain »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 13 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/22768 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11x3d

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Bridget Bennett

School of English, University of Leeds

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