Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Excerpt

In the '80's, Mrs. Freeman--then Mary E. Wilkins--wrote a short story entitled Old Lady Pingree and set presumably in one of the villages of the West River Valley of Vermont. An aged spinster living in a decrepit family mansion, Miss Pingree did what she could to befriend her roomers--Jenny Stevens and her dying mother. Despite her own poverty, she twice attempted to make gifts to Jenny. They were refused. Then the mother died, and Miss Pingree knew that there was no money for the burial. Telling a "white lie" about her own resources, Miss Pingree gave the girl the savings which she had slowly collected lest she herself be buried by the town.

On the surface, this seems to be just another local color story centered in a strained, Victorian glorification of self- sacrifice. Yet for those who know and admire New England people of the small towns, it is a different thing--a rich and ambiguous representation of pride-within-poverty. For in many light touches of characterization, the writer suggests that Miss Pingree's "sacrifice" was at once noble and neurotic. In one aspect, it was compulsive giving, prompted by the need to maintain self-esteem. Lacking the Gothic touch of Faulkner's A Rose for Emily, it is still a piece which he might have imagined; and, like all deeply conceived regional stories, it echoes in the mind.

In some of Mrs. Freeman's stories, poverty is lack of money for food and clothing; more often, it is poverty of environment. Economically and spiritually, her towns were too limited to provide growing space for the descendants of Puritan pioneers. The code said that they must be sturdily independent--and that they must conform. Somehow they did conform and retain independence, but their pride curdled in the process. Such, oversimplified, is the inner stuff of her most telling stories and novels. And it is never morbid, for . . .

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