An Unheralded Gem: Mary Wilkins Freeman - Michael Sacks

There are plenty of good writers who are not famous.  One such writer is Mary Wilkins Freeman. Freeman (1852 – 1930) was an American writer who wrote several remarkable novels and short stories. Her novels include Pembroke (1894), The Jamesons (1899), and The Shoulders of Atlas (1908).

Freeman’s novels are well-regarded by literary scholars, and some of her short stories are even more critically acclaimed. Freeman’s most celebrated short stories include “A Humble Romance” (1884) and “A New England Nun” (1887).  Many of Freeman’s short stories were published initially in periodicals and were subsequently collected in book form.

Freeman’s works frequently depict the integrity, the humility, and the independence of people in the small towns of New England.  The characters often face moral dilemmas, and the events usually reveal the inherent goodness of the protagonists.  Her characters are often poor financially, yet rich spiritually.  Freeman affirms the unassailable dignity of her humble characters.

“A Humble Romance” recounts the story of Sally and Jake Russell.  Sally, a shy yet courageous and determined woman, marries Jake, a traveling salesman, after Jake rescues Sally from a life of servitude.  The marriage goes smoothly – until Jake’s former wife (whom he believed had died) resurfaces.  The ex-wife (who had cheated on Jake) tries to blackmail Jake into getting back together with her.  The ex-wife threatens to expose Jake as a bigamist if he does not give her what she wants.  Jake handles the situation so deftly that he remains loyal to Sally while also preventing a scandal from arising.

“A New England Nun” tells the story of Louisa Ellis.  Louisa is described as a “nun” in a figurative sense of the word because of her devotion to an ascetic lifestyle.  Louisa is engaged to Joe Dagget.  Joe has just returned to New England after 14 years in Australia, where he went to make a fortune.  Having achieved his goal, Joe believes that he can support Louisa financially, so they plan to embark on their marriage.  However, the relationship between Joe and Louisa faces two obstacles.  Joe has developed feelings for Lily Dyer, who takes care of Joe’s mother.  Meanwhile, Louisa has grown accustomed to being single and has become set in her ways.  Though she still likes Joe, Louisa perceives marriage as a threat to “her happy solitary life.”  Louisa and Joe call off the engagement, and the story ends happily for both of them.

Mary Wilkins was born in 1852 in Massachusetts.  Her maiden name is Wilkins; her married name is Freeman.  Wilkins grew up in Randolph, Massachusetts, a suburban city located about 15 miles south of Boston.  She and her family moved to Vermont and lived there for a few years before returning to Randolph.

Wilkins eschewed marriage for a long time – until she was 49.  Mary Wilkins married Dr. Charles Freeman in 1902.  The couple moved to Metuchen, New Jersey, where they embarked on a marriage that proved to be strenuous.  Charles Freeman’s alcoholism and mental instability took a heavy toll on their relationship.  The couple divorced in 1922.

Mary Wilkins Freeman died of a heart attack in 1930 at age 77.  Her work endures and remains available to readers today.

The collected works of Freeman are available at wilkinsfreeman.info.  This collection provides an invaluable resource for anyone who enjoys good literature.

Two of the best critical studies of Freeman and her work are the following: Mary Wilkins Freeman by Perry Westbrook (1967) and In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman by Leah Blatt Glasser (1996).

Although she is not particularly famous nowadays, Freeman was a household name during her lifetime.  Her fame peaked in the 1890s.  In the introduction to The Best Stories of Mary E. Wilkins (1927), Henry Wysham Lanier describes Freeman’s popularity in the following way: “To one who was a reader in the [1890s], it seems almost ludicrous to ‘introduce’ Mary E. Wilkins. (Just a little like introducing Babe Ruth anywhere in the United States, in these latter days!)”  One should keep in mind that Lanier made this comparison in 1927 – the year in which Ruth hit 60 home runs and helped the New York Yankees win the World Series.

Freeman received several prestigious honors for her work, including the William Dean Howells Medal for Distinction in Fiction.  In 1926, Freeman was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

These honors are fitting forms of recognition for Mary Wilkins Freeman, a writer of extraordinary quality.

WHAT THE BODY KNOWS - DEAN DEFINO

There are things we know with nothing more than the proof of our own bodies.  We know the meaning of chaos because we once stuck a fork into an electric socket. We know that human extinction is inevitable because we did it again.  We know that people who say, “I love you” really mean, “I need you to love me.”  Just as we know that people who say, “There’s more to life than food” are…wrong.

We call this kind of knowledge “empirical,” from the Ancient Greek, ἐμπειρία, or empeiria, which translates as both “experience” and “experiment.”  I love that synergy: we experiment with reality through the sensory act of perception.  Knowledge is not so much drawn from experience as it is negotiated through the media of our senses.  Which isn’t to say that our perceptions, or the knowledge that results from them, are accurate.  Our senses, like those of other species, evolved to meet our own specific set of needs.  Which is to say, they are part and parcel of what makes us human.

We hear a great deal these days about the need for greater empathy.  We see our institutions—indeed, our very existence—threatened by our individual and collective inability to see the world through others’ eyes.  Some wonder if such a thing is even possible.  Some argue that it is enough simply to acknowledge and honor others’ perceptions, regardless of whether we can understand or identify with them, because all humans are entitled to that much.  Given how self-centered human beings are, that seems a lot to wish for.  Still, I have hope.  I believe we will endure, despite our tendency to make the same mistakes over and over, and despite our persistent inability to recognize the things that most matter until we lose them.  Those are emotional and intellectual failures that we may learn to overcome, or not.

But the body knows.  It signals dread to the heart and hamstrings long before the object of fear appears, and its skin prickles with desire long before the mind fixes on an object.  It says “run” and “seek,” even when mounded up on the couch, watching a seventh straight episode of Project Runway, season 12.  Despite the twin pillars of fear and laziness that shape so many of our decisions, it drags us along, demanding interface.  Regardless of our impulse to curse those who do not conform with our ideal of behavior, it forces our eyes to meet the glance of strangers, if only for a moment, seeking some sort of meaningful connection.  Irrespective of our persistent vision of a future cocooned in comfort and surrounded by lovers, family, friends, and well-wishers, our bodies demand adventures of the senses, whether at the top of a mountain or at the bottom of a bag of Doritos (and if you call that comfort eating, ask yourself why you don’t stop until you feel sick).

The body’s way of knowing—which is to say, through the friction and vibrations of the senses—pushes us to speak when it would be better to keep our mouths shut, to engage when it would be easier to retreat, and to direct our attention, and by turns our feelings, toward those who suffer and want, even as our brains try to convince us that whatever action we might take would be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.   Our bodies know, perhaps because they are more immediately part of the grand scheme of things than our measly brains.  If experience is experiment, they are the lab and its apparatus.  The results they present are the facts.  All our brains can do is posit theories about them.

Which is not to say our bodies know better.  They have a limited view, and lack imagination.  They feel, and translate that feeling into knowledge, relying on our brains to draw out kernels of wisdom and insight.  But where brains drift and doubt, unsure whether to apply the curious fork to wall socket or feast, bodies are persistent, and insistent.  They insist on identifying and prioritizing our needs.  Indeed, they help us to survive, when our brains are occupied elsewhere, by warning us against the chaos of the electric current, and driving us toward the communal table.

So doing, our bodies help us to learn to live with each other, to recognize how our needs and the needs of the collective are one.  As our minds prompt us to run from the danger we perceive in others, our bodies remind us that safety and comfort can only be found in others.

All to say, I suspect empathy isn’t about transcending the self, but embodying it. And that what saves us in the end may not be our ability to love others, but our need to be loved.

A Reaction to The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer” - Christina Carlson

The Metropolitan Museum of Art just recently closed its exhibition Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer. For four months, huge crowds flocked to the museum to see the exhibit, which was hailed as one of the most comprehensive collections of the artist’s drawings ever assembled. On a rainy Wednesday at the end of its run at the Met, I went to check out the exhibit for myself—despite the weather and the fact that it was a weekday in the off-season, the place was still packed with people hoping to catch a glimpse of the master’s work while they still had the chance.

I always want to love exhibits of this size and significance, want to be able to say I love them. But in this case I just can’t. Yes, I was impressed with the sheer volume of material collected in one place. There were some individual works I found myself drawn to: a sketch of a staircase that never got built, a doodle of a dragon with its head turned in on itself, a drawing of the death of Cleopatra. I felt educated by the detailed descriptions of the plans for the Sistine Chapel, and I was amused at the peek the exhibit afforded of Michelangelo as teacher—seems even the greatest among us sometimes feel frustration at trying to teach their craft to others.

But, at the risk of sounding like a complete philistine, I admit, I was underwhelmed.  Maybe it was the inclusion of so many works by Michelangelo’s teachers, students and contemporaries. Maybe it was the visual overload from just too much red chalk. Maybe it was a function of quantity over quality, the sheer volume demanding the viewer look at everything, when the percentage of true standout pieces was relatively small. Maybe it was because I was damp and being jostled by a lot of tourists. Whatever it was, I didn’t love it.

And then in the final gallery, I got some possible insight into my nagging disappointment. At the very end of the exhibit, there was a panel that explained that, after his death, Michelangelo wanted all his drawings destroyed so that they would never be exhibited publically—he only wanted audiences to see the final perfection of his work.  Pardon me? So then why exactly had the Met just led me through a half-dozen galleries looking at exactly the kinds of works Michelangelo never wanted seen?! I felt implicated somehow, unwittingly complicit in the exposure of the master’s imperfection. And I wasn’t happy about it. Has the man not earned the right to decide how he wants to be represented?

But of course, it got me thinking about my own field, and how we deal with process, with imperfection, with incompletion. How Chaucer left works unfinished to avoid giving his readers the benefit of closure. How I give students copies of my own works in progress to compare with the final published version to provide insight into the process of academic writing. How we sometimes look to authors’ letters or diaries that were never meant to be read to help understand their literary works. And how in today’s multi-media world, so much of what once was private can be exposed to millions with a click or a swipe.

I’m not sure what this means for our craft. In the case of Michelangelo, nothing in that exhibit diminished his greatness for me, but it made me uncomfortable on his behalf. Do we not have a responsibility to honor the wishes of the greats among us? Or is it okay to exploit them, for our own edification, entertainment, economic gain? Should what is private be fair game if its creator isn’t around to protest? What is our responsibility to the wishes of the dead when we know them? And when we don’t? I have no answers to these questions, except to say that they are questions that we, as students and producers of writing in an increasingly exposed world, need to consider.

A Well-Lit Life - Aaron Rosenfeld

As a literature professor, it is only fitting that I believe I have learned much about life from literature. Of course, the corollary to this is that I have been accused of not having learned as much about life from life as perhaps I should have.

The main difference between literature and life is that literature possesses an interested, hands-on god—the author—in a way that I strongly suspect the world does not. The presence of a god in turn means that things in literature have meaning, whereas things in life are largely stupid and meaningless. Sometimes, we experience moments of life that seem like they have meaning—birth, death, marriage, great love affairs, etc.—but that is mainly because they resemble a novel.

Art clarifies life, makes it comprehensible in a way that life cannot do for itself. This is why Walter Pater advises that we should spend our days with art:

“We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passion, the wisest, at least among “the children of the world”, in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.”

What a strange claim. Art has more life in it than life. Art is life that has been curated and distilled for maximum impact, making it ideal for “getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.”

Pater’s commitment to “art for art’s sake” is thought by most people to be confusing and perverse. Art needs life; it is only an imitation, an adjunct, a helpful commentary on experience–who would prefer it to actual life? Well, life is scary. We see less of life than we ought to because we walk around blinded by sheer terror. The terror of death, naturally, but also the astounding array of terrors that hide behind the innocuous stuff of everyday-–the terror of losing our jobs, our health, our children, our sanity. So we keep our heads down and our perspectives narrow. When we turn to literature, however, as Aristotle and Stanley Kubrick knew, we feel safe to keep our eyes wide open. Then, if we are lucky, we experience catharsis, the purging of pity and fear-or at least the purging of their debilitating parts-so that we can return to the world and once again dip our toe into the stream of life.

Or perhaps we simply read to become numb to all the terrible things that might happen. In life, it is exceedingly rare to have a cage with ravenous rats attached to one’s face. Most of us would never even conceive of such a thing. But, thanks to George Orwell, now I think of it all the time and I have become somewhat used to it.

In that sense, literature provides a form of escapism in its promise of relief from anxiety. There is a more traditional, positive notion of literature as escapism; it provides vicarious thrills, even if these are not always pleasant. On the one hand there are unicorns and rainbows, magical worlds, exciting adventures. But on the other, there are grim dystopias, existential wastelands, and unspeakable tragedy, which are no less thrilling. I remember watching the 1971 post-apocalyptic movie The Omega Man as a child-one of a run of feel-bad Charlton Heston features in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s about the end of the world that includes Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes—and thinking it was pretty awesome that he could just go into a supermarket and grab whatever he wanted, then nab a car from the parking lot to drive off with his loot. The thrill of chaos, of destruction and violence incarnates a most terrible childhood fear: that our parents have been in an awful accident and won’t be returning from date night. But it does so in close proximity with a secret wish: that without their rules and prohibitions, we will be free to indulge forbidden desires. Freud calculates these as sexual; or, they may just be, as Ronald Dahl’s character Matilda puts it in the eponymous musical by Tim Minchin, to “watch cartoons until my eyes go square.”

So, this is something I learned from literature—that some thoughts are better off felt than thought about. The understanding literature provides doesn’t always make sense, isn’t always pleasant, and often isn’t particularly useful, but it is shiny and distracts us from something possibly much worse that we can’t just decide to put down. I’ll take it.