In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mary Wilkins Freeman

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Correspondence
  • Biographies
  • Realism and Naturalism
  • Technique and Genre

American Literature Mary Wilkins Freeman
Joseph Csicsila
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0036


Mary Wilkins Freeman was born in the small New England village of Randolph, Massachusetts, located about fifteen miles south of Boston, where she lived until the age of fifteen. Her father, an unsuccessful carpenter, moved the family to Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1867 and took part-ownership in a dry-goods business. Upon graduating from high school Freeman entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1870. She left after only a year, however, and completed her formal education at West Brattleboro Seminary. In 1876, following the failure of her father’s business, Freeman’s family, virtually impoverished, moved into the home of a local minister where her mother worked as a housekeeper. With the death of her mother in 1880 and her father three years later, Freeman found herself alone and left with an inheritance of less than one thousand dollars. She moved back to Randolph the following year and lived for the next decade and a half in the home of a childhood friend. Freeman had started to write children’s poetry and short fiction for adults in Vermont, but her career as a serious writer really began in 1882 when her tale “Her Shadow Family” appeared in the Boston Sunday Budget. With the publication of her story “Two Old Lovers” in Harper’s Bazaar in 1884, her writing caught the attention of major literary figures, including W. D. Howells and Henry James, and it was suddenly in high demand by both editors and readers of the country’s finest magazines. In 1887 she published her first volume of short fiction, A Humble Romance and Other Stories. Freeman then followed in 1891 with A New England Nun and Other Stories, arguably her best collection. She wrote more than a dozen novels, among them Pembroke (1894) and The Portion of Labor (1901). At the age of forty-nine, Freeman married Dr. Charles Freeman and moved to Metuchen, New Jersey. The marriage was happy for a short while until her husband’s heavy drinking turned destructive. Eventually she would be forced to commit him to the New Jersey Hospital for the Insane. Freeman continued to write prolifically into the 1920s, producing a total of twenty-two volumes of short stories and essays, more than a hundred uncollected stories, fourteen novels, eight children’s books, three collections of poetry, three plays, and even a film script. In 1926 she was honored with W. D. Howells Medal for fiction and elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Freeman died of a heart attack in 1930 at the age of seventy-eight.

General Overviews

Hamblen 1966 was an early but amateurish attempt to survey Freeman’s career as a writer. Westbrook 1967 provided the foundation for all subsequent studies as interest in Freeman and other American women authors began to flourish in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Glasser 1987 benefits from the wealth of critical attention Freeman received in the 1980s. Reichardt 1992 remains the standard full-length analysis of Freeman’s short fiction. Reichardt 1997 offers a slightly more accessible version of the earlier study. There currently exists no extended scholarly treatment of Freeman’s novels.

  • Glasser, Leah Blatt. “Legacy Profile: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852–1930).” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 4.1 (1987): 37–45.

    An excellent biographical article with a surprising amount of detail for a compact essay. Also includes short readings of some of Freeman’s best work. An eminently reliable place to begin for readers unfamiliar with the major contours of Freeman’s life.

  • Hamblen, Abigail Ann. The New England Art of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Amherst, MA: Green Knight, 1966.

    An early survey of Freeman’s work that has long since been superseded by more scholarly efforts. Superficial at best.

  • Reichardt, Mary R. A Web of Relationship: Women in the Short Fiction of Mary Wilkins Freeman. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1992.

    A full-scale study of Freeman’s short stories. Two introductory chapters provide the biographical and historical context for Reichardt’s analysis of Freeman’s entire body of work in adult short fiction. Chapters are arranged by thematic relationships between works. Includes a valuable bibliography, the first complete listing of Freeman’s short fiction, novels, plays, screenplays, and nonfiction.

  • Reichardt, Mary R. Mary Wilkins Freeman: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1997.

    A concise survey of Freeman’s short fiction. Includes selections of Freeman’s own reflections as an artist and several scholarly analyses of “A New England Nun.”

  • Westbrook, Perry D. Mary Wilkins Freeman. Boston: Twayne, 1967.

    A highly accessible general overview. Westbrook combines biography with brief analysis of Freeman’s work. Ultimately this study provides mostly a superficial description of her life and career.

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