Kate Douglas Wiggin
( Originally Published 1901 )
AS a postscript to a very amusing letter which Kate Douglas Wiggin had written to an inquisitive biographer, and which she had addressed to " My dear Boswell," and playfully ended with "Believe me, my dear Bozzy, Sincerely your Johnson (K. D. W.)," her sister added the following :
My sister was certainly a capable little person at a tender age, concocting delectable milk-toast, browning toothsome buckwheats, and generally making a very good Parent's Assistant. I have also visions of her toiling at patchwork and oversewing sheets like a nice old-fashioned little girl in a story-book; and in connection with the linsey-woolsey frock and the sled before mentioned, I see a blue and white hood with a mass of shining fair hair escaping below it, and a pair of very pink cheeks.
Further to illustrate her personality, I think no one much in her company at any age could have failed to note an exceedingly lively tongue and a general air of executive ability.
If I am to be truthful, I must say that I recall few indications of budding authorship, save an engrossing diary (kept for six months only), and a devotion to reading.
Her " literary passions "were the " Arabian Nights," " Scottish Chiefs," "Don Quixote," "Thaddeus of Warsaw," Irving's " Mahomet," Thackeray's " Snobs," " Undine," and the "Martyrs of Spain." These volumes, joined to an old green Shakespeare and a Plum Pudding edition of Dickens, were the chief of her diet.
But stay ! while I am talking of literary tendencies, I do remember a certain prize essay entitled "Pictures in the Clouds,"— not so called because it took the prize, alas ! but because it competed for it.
There is also a myth in the household (doubtless invented by my mother) that my sister learned her letters from the signs in the street, and taught herself to read when scarcely out of long clothes. This may be cited as a bit of" corroborative detail," though personally I never believed in it.
N. A. S.
The " lively tongue and general air of executive ability " which were hers as a child are what have won her success in later years. Wisdom and wit, practical knowledge and capacity, have here been blended with curious balance. Perhaps the varied experiences of her career have been of exceptional influence, and have stimulated a keener insight into things human, and a more delicate and humorous appreciation of certain phases of life than others possess. Her ancestors, indeed, bestowed good gifts, for they were men of prominence in the church, in politics, and at the New England bar, combining a certain shrewd humor with stern Puritan wholesomeness, many traditions of which have been handed down in the family. Her environment has also been diversified : born in Philadelphia, she was educated in New England, next trans-planted to California, and then brought back to the Atlantic coast, where she has only spasmodically remained.
The excellent and wholesome St. Nicholas had the honor of receiving Kate Douglas Smith's first article, written at the age of eighteen, and for it donated the sum of one hundred and fifty dollars. At the time it was composed, she was studying methods of the kindergarten under the celebrated Emma Marshall in California, and the story, "Half a Dozen House-keepers," was relative to this interesting work. To California she had moved after the death of her stepfather, and here she was teaching in the Santa Barbara College when called upon to organize the first free kindergarten west of the Rocky Mountains. The " Silver Street Kindergarten " in San Francisco was the outcome of her individual efforts and those of her sister. It was not only a great object lesson, but was the progenitor of fifty-six other similar schools, and the inspiration for similar efforts in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, and the Hawaiian Islands. The first year of its existence fifteen hundred people visited this novelty in primary education, and it did effective and telling work, for with the poorest of the city Mrs. Wiggin's energy was principally devoted, and the school was, — and is at the present time, — located in the slums of San Francisco.
Upon the wall of one of the rooms which is a favorite with the children, is a lifelike portrait of the founder, underneath which are the following words :
KATE DOUGLAS WIGGIN.
In this room was born the first free kindergarten west of the Rocky Mountains. Let me have the happiness of looking down upon many successive groups of children sitting in these same seats.
Shortly after the school had been placed upon a stable basis, its originator was united in marriage to Mr. Samuel Bradley Wiggin, a talented young lawyer. She now gave up teaching, but continued to give weekly lectures to the training class, and to visit the many kindergartens which had resulted from the spirit and individuality which she had infused into this movement. She thus unconsciously obtained a thorough knowledge of human nature, and as a result of her observations " The Story of Patsy" was written and printed in San Francisco. It was to raise money for her work, and three thousand copies were quickly disposed of without the publisher's aid. This was soon followed by " The Birds' Christmas Carol," a book equally popular and written with the same end in view.
A few years later, in 1888, Mr. and Mrs. Wiggin moved to New York, where the friends of the brilliant authoress, who at that time was totally unknown to the East, urged upon her to offer the two books to an Eastern publisher. Acting upon their advice, she submitted " Pasty " and the " Carol " to Houghton, Mifflin & Company, although it is not customary to re-print work that has already appeared elsewhere, and in book form. Their success under the stamp of this great New England house, was exceptional.
The children of " The Birds' Christmas Carol" have endeared Kate Douglas Wiggin to thousands in America and this is her most popular work in Great Britain. It has been translated into Japanese, French, German, and Swedish, and has also been put into raised type for the blind.
Her next publication, the story of "Timothy's Quest," had an interesting beginning, for it originated from the unsuspecting remark of a little child, who, in speaking of a certain house, quite wittily remarked, " I think they need some babies there." This Mrs. Wiggin remembered, and jotted down in her notebook : " needing babies." Soon afterwards the story of little Timothy appeared. It is a favorite in Denmark, has found its way into a Swedish edition, and has also been published in the Tauchnitz series. "Polly Oliver's Problem " was next writ-ten, and has been highly praised by Rudyard Kipling, who considers Polly Oliver the most delightful heroine in English fiction. It has likewise been translated into several foreign languages, and is one of a collection of her books, with unique illustrations, corresponding to the life of the country in which they have been published.
Mr. Wiggin died soon after leaving San Francisco, and his wife, who was separated from her interesting employment in California, threw herself with great energy into the kindergarten movement in the city, which, at the time, was absorbing much popular attention, and was the subject of considerable agitation in the newspapers. In order to further the interests of her work, she was eventually enticed to read from her own books, and at this was most successful. Her interpretation of her own characters is full of taste and feeling, and her reading has always been for purposes of a purely philanthropic nature, and especially for her own pet cause, the introduction of kindergartens ; an object for which she still works with untiring zeal and continued interest. Apropos of her affection for literature, she has characteristically re-marked that she would rather write a story for the mere love of the creative work than for the most exorbitant pay.
When a very young child she was brought up at the quiet and secluded little hamlet of Hollis, Maine, and since her return to the East has completed most of her literary work at a rambling old-fashioned house called "" Quillcote," — for those summers which have not been passed in foreign travel, have been spent in the seclusion of this quaint family mansion. The house itself is similar to many New England homesteads, for it is of colonial architecture, with broad eaves, and surrounded by graceful elms. Its situation is upon a slight eminence, from which one can well view the fertile valleys that stretch in front, and, in the distance, the undulating foot-hills of Mt. Washington.
A glance into her sanctum upon the second floor shows that here is a literary workman who dearly loves order, for every detail shows neatness and exactitude. Interesting gifts and souvenirs are scattered about, together with many tributes from admirers in various and far-distant lands. The windows overlook a broad plot of grass, studded with graceful trees, where, from May till after nesting time, robins, orioles, blue-birds, and many other songsters, hold high and joyous carnival. But a short distance away, at the foot of a precipitous bank, the Saco river flows quietly towards the sea—an ideal spot, in fact, for delicate creations of the imagination. The " Pleasant River" in " Timothy's Quest " is this winding stream, and many of the scenes and descriptions in The Village Watch Tower " were taken from this quiet neighborhood.
Since her marriage to Mr. Qeorge Christopher Riggs, in 1895, Mrs. Riggs has spent much time abroad, and has become closely associated with the British Isles, for, al-though no Anglomaniac, she is very fond of the English people, and has many warm friends across the Atlantic. "Penelope's English Experiences " was an excellent portrayal of her own impressions among them; and from life in Edinburgh, spring-times in the Highlands, and summer in the fertile Lowlands, grew " Penelope's Progress," a book widely read and as much appreciated and laughed over as heartily in the land o' the heather as it has been in America. During this time, Ireland had only now and again received a flying visit, and at rare intervals, but as the public began to clamor for an Irish "Penelope," to complete the series, in the summer of 1900 Mrs. Wiggin made a long journey to the Isle of Erin, and as a result we had the extraordinary and humorous " Penel ope's Irish Experiences." It is said that when an English author heard of the pro-posed visit he expressed his hearty approval upon patriotic grounds, with the witty re-mark that, if the projected book remained unwritten, Ireland would for once have a real grievance, and questions would be asked in the House which Mr. Balfour would find it difficult to answer.