Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
( Originally Published 1901 )
STRANGER who came from some far western village and was making a first visit to Boston, is said to have thus addressed the bar-tender of an exclusive hotel : " Excuse me, but I am a stranger in this part of the country, and I want to ask you a question. Everywhere I go I see 'posters up like this: ' The Gates Ajar! The Gates Ajar!' I'm sick to death of the sight of the durn thing ; I have n't darst to ask what it is. Do tell a feller ! Is it a new kind of drink? "
Such, indeed, may be called true, though unsolicited fame, and such was the popularity of Mrs. Ward's first novel of any pretensions, a popularity which returned a sale of nearly one hundred thousand copies in America, and was outrun by that in Great Britain. This, when compared with the enormous issues of popular fiction of the present day, does not, of course, seem extraordinary, but at the moment (1869) it was an almost unprecedented literary triumph. Translations were manifold. In France, Germany, Holland and Italy they appeared, yet from the inadequate copyright laws which then existed in this country, the just and honest rewards which were due the brilliant author were never received.
Perhaps the most interesting edition of the book was a " sickly yellow thing," says Mrs. Ward, " covered with a canvas design of some kind, in which the wings of a particularly sprawly angel predominate. The print is abhorrent, and the paper such as any respectable publisher would deserve to be condemned for in this world and in that to come. In fact, the entire book was thus given out by one of the most enterprising of English literary pirates as an advertisement for a patent medicine. I have never traced the chemical history of the drug, but it has pleased my fancy to suppose it to be the one in which Mrs. Holt, the mother of Felix, dealt so largely, and whose sales Felix put forth his mighty conscience to suppress."
Previous to the appearance of this study of life actual and eternal, the existence of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps had indeed been a busy and intellectual one, yet similar to that of many a New England girl whose parents were of superior moral and intellectual fibre. It was the instinctive and inborn spark of genius which prompted the daughter of a hard-worked and over-burdened New England professor to pen a work at twenty years of age which showed a depth of insight and sympathy with the sorrows of life of one of twice her experience.
She was born in Andover, Massachusetts, on August 81, 1844, and inherited the keenest and most artistic literary talent from both her parents. Although " every-body's mother is a remarkable woman," Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, the mother, was a reconciliation of tact and power between genius and domestic life, a similar representation of which is seldom met with. A devoted, affectionate guardian and worthy adviser, she still found time to pen a number of stories for other people's children, which gave her a wider audience than that of her own hearth, and one that clamored with greater eagerness for further productions of her delicate imagination. The author of "Sunnyside," "The Angel on the Right Shoulder," and " Peeps at Number Five," was a rare woman of great intellectual gifts, who did not allow the keen pleasure of writing to overbalance the stern duties of motherhood.
Austin Phelps, the father, was Professor of Rhetoric in the Theological Seminary — a man of broad sympathies and with literary gifts of marked power. His " Still Hour " is yet read, while his Andover lectures, which in book-faun have become classics, stand without peers today, and are the accepted text-books of his department. His appreciation of the uses and graces of language " very early descended like a mantle " upon the shoulders of his daughter. She learned to love reading, not because she was made to, but because she could not help it. The atmosphere she breathed was that of literature, and only that of the best.
At the age of thirteen her first literary effort was sent to the Youth's Companion, and was accepted. At the time she was a small, rather angular person, usually attired in a high necked gingham dress, not in the least precocious, and very much of a tom-boy into the bargain. Far more likely, in fact, to be found on the top of an apple tree or walking the length of the Seminary fence than writing rhymes or reading " solid reading." " The story was about a sister who neglected her small brother, and hence defeated the first object of existence in a woman-child. It was very proper, very pious, and very much like what wellbrought-up little girls were taught to do, to be, to suffer, or to write in those days." For this effort the paper which had printed her contribution appeared in the Andover post-box for a year, and addressed to the writer of the published semi-column.
The stimulating influences within the great white house with its intellectual inmates, and the very atmosphere of Andover itself, were not long in fostering renewed desires for literary triumphs. The country was soon upon the eve of a great conflict, and the fierce, eddying tide in Virginia caught with it many of the fair young forms intimate with the peaceful village life. The departure of friends and acquaintances in their rough clothes of blue made a great impression upon the receptive mind of the timid girl, and her own feelings of sorrow, together with a knowledge of the mental sufferings of others who remained at home, soon found voice in what might justly be called her first literary venture — a story of the war which appeared in Harper's Magazine, and for which she received a cheque for twenty-five dollars. This was in January, 1864, and its name, "A Sacrifice Consumed." The narrative was of a poor and plain little dressmaker who lost her lover in the army. It was a simple tale, but full of that delicate and sympathetic appreciation of womanly sorrow which Mrs. Ward is able to portray with greater truthfulness, perhaps, than any living American author. Her father read it in printed form she had not shown it to him before—and his genuine emotion gave her a "kind of awed elation which has never been repeated in her experience."
She now was launched upon the sea of literary venture, and wrote with a distinct purpose and quite steadily, contributing stories of various lengths to the different magazines with marked success, although she herself confesses that, had her first contribution been refused, or even the second, or the third, she would not have written again. Discovering soon enough that one cannot live by bread or by magazine stories alone, like many another who toils in the ways of this most unremunerative of all professions, she did hack work and Sunday-school books by the score. The appearance of a little story called " The Tenth of January," which was founded upon the wreck of the Pemberton Mills at Lawrence, and upon which she spent nearly a month of preparation, distinctly marked the first recognition she received from literary people. The catastrophe upon which this sketch was founded had indeed been a terrible one. At five o'clock one January after-noon, when all hands were upon duty, the roof, the walls, and machinery of a great building, crowded with working-men and women, had given way and fallen with crushing weight upon the bodies of seven hundred living human beings. Fire, fierce and uncontrollable, had added to the horror, and the plight of the poor working girls who, caught within the ruins beyond all hope of escape, went to their death with the songs of those hymns they had learned at church upon their lips, made an impression, not only upon the author but upon all who had seen and heard, which was as indelible as a mark upon marble that years alone can erase. For the best part of a month she investigated every avenue of information which might throw some light upon the tragedy, even to consulting engineers, physicians, officers, and newspaper men, and making a complete study of all files of local newspapers with articles bearing upon the tragedy, so that whatever she had to say would be from the fullest and most complete knowledge. Then the story was written. After its perusal, the poet Whittier wrote her his first letter and said enough to keep up the courage of the youthful aspirant to literary fame, a letter which to a self-distrustful nature like her own, was as stimulating as a life-preserving tonic.
The inspiration for her next book, " The Gates Ajar," came spontaneously. The angel in her said, " Write 1 " and she wrote. She says : " The book grew so naturally, it was so unpremeditated, it came so plainly from the something not one's self which makes for uses in which one's self is extinguished, that there are times when it seems to me as if I had no more to do with the writing of it than the bough through which the wind cries, or the wave by means of which the tide rises." Its composition consumed the greater part of two years, years when the country was permeated with the spirit of a general grief. The regiments were returning with depleted ranks, the streets were dark with sorrowing women, the gayest scenes were black with crape, — in truth, a world of woe into which her book stole forth, trembling. " It was written to comfort some few of the women whose misery crowded the land—the helpless, outnumbering, unconsulted women, they whom war trampled down without a choice or protest ; the patient, limited, domestic women, who thought little but loved much, and, loving, had lost all " — to them she wished to speak. The success of her efforts was marvellous, although a storm of criticism was called forth, both favorable and unfavorable to the spirit that dared to produce a conception of the future life which was foreign to all preconceived ideas.
From the time of its publication to the present day, Mrs. Ward has conversed through the medium of her many works to an ever-appreciative and enlarging audience. Beneath her writing there is a distinct moral purpose, so that it does not appeal perhaps to some critics who hold fast to the belief that nothing is worthy of high praise unless it is written " for art's sake alone." This idea she has always sacrificed to the moral influence with which it was her ear-nest desire to impregnate the pages of what-ever story she has endeavored to tell, for her every production has been with the idea of helping those who read. She believes the old rhetorical law that a high and noble subject should be more worthy of a high and noble medium of art than a low one, and that it is not necessarily inartistic to do a good and helpful thing, provided the medium through which it reaches others is not wholly and distinctly bad.
In 1888 she was married to the Rev. Herbert D. Ward, with whom two of her more recent novels have been written. They are " The Master of the Magicians " and " Come Forth." Perhaps her most popular production, at the present time of writing, is " A Singular Life," published in 1896, but that which she regards as her most important work, " The Story of Jesus Christ," was published in the fall of 1897. These have, for the most part, been written in an unpretentious but attractive house at Newton Centre, where is her win-ter home. In summer, she has for many years been an ever-welcome and appreciative visitant of Eastern Point, Gloucester, where her work in favor of the great cause of temperance among the fisher folk of the sea-faring town nearby, has greatly endeared her to the native born and stimulated them with a love and respect that is universal and sincere. Her Story of Jack," a young fisherman who ruined his life and met his death through drink, is perhaps one of the best appeals for temperance that has yet appeared. At present she is much interested in the anti-vivisection movement, and is spending much time and energy in its behalf.
As a literary artist of the most successful type who can well speak with a tone of authority, it is of importance and great interest to learn her views and comments upon those who contemplate a literary career : " Write if you must, not otherwise," she says. " Do not write if you can earn a fair living at teaching or dressmaking, at electricity or hod-carrying. Make shoes, weed cabbages, survey land, keep house, make ice-cream, sell cake, climb a telephone pole. Nay, be a lightning-rod peddler or a book agent before you set your heart upon it that you shall write for a living. Do any-thing honest, but do not write, unless God call you and publishers want you and people read you and editors claim you. Respect the market laws. Lean on nobody. Trust the common sense of an experienced publisher to know whether your manuscript is worth something or nothing. Do not depend on influence. Editors do not care a drop of ink for influence. What they want is good material, and the fresher it is, the better. An editor will pass by an old writer any day for an unknown and gifted new one with power to say a good thing in a fresh way. Make your calling and election sure. Do not flirt with your pen. Emerson's phrase was, ' toiling terribly.' Nothing less will hint at the grinding drudgery of a life spent in living ' by your brains.' "