Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

The Dying of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

The Dying of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Article excerpt

Two weeks before her death by suicide, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), terminally ill from cancer, received a letter from her cousin, Lyman Beecher Stowe (Harriet's grandson), in which he responded to her announcement that she would soon end her suffering:

   Dearest Cousin Charlotte.... Its [sic] heart breaking to have you speak of
   your final ceremony as due this coming month[,] but as you know I agree
   that you should not stay beyond your possibility of giving or receiving
   pleasure.... It is very hard--the thought I shall never see you
   again[--]but thank heaven I cannot lose the inspiration of your stimulating
   ideas and your beautiful gallant character. (Gilman Papers July 30,1935)

Another letter from Stowe, composed several weeks earlier, had a similar ring: "I think of you constantly, dear Cousin Charlotte, and with pleasure in spite of your physical condition because your mind and soul and contribution to our common wellfare [sic] seem to dwarf even your physical limitations--I think of you not as old and ill, but as a vibrant, radiant, unconquerable and deathless spirit" (Gilman Papers May 19, 1935). Stowe's final letter to Gilman, written five days before her suicide, included the following anecdote: "Our friend Mrs. David Crompton said to Hilda and me not many weeks ago apropos of nothing in particular and having not the faintest idea that you and I were friends and cousins, `My two earliest recollections in life were seeing the stars in the heavens and seeing Charlotte Perkins Gilman'" (Gilman Papers Aug. 12, 1935).

These letters are remarkable on a number of levels. They both eulogize Gilman before her death and provide a loving and heartfelt goodbye. Moreover, Stowe's implicit approval of Gilman's suicide plan--("I agree that you should not stay beyond your possibility of giving or receiving pleasure")--certainly afforded reassurance if there was any doubt that her actions might be condemned or misconstrued. Perhaps most significant, the letters offer anecdotal evidence that Gilman's legacy would likely continue after her death--a matter that weighed heavily on her mind in her final months. Yet, for all of their poignancy, Stowe's letters are not unique; rather, they are representative of dozens of epistolary tributes from friends, fans, and family members that Gilman received in the final weeks of her life.

Collectively, the letters written to Gilman during the spring and summer of 1935 constitute a veritable eulogy to the dying. And while each one has a common purpose--to provide comfort and closure--perhaps the most compelling similarity is the unequivocal understanding of Gilman's decision to "exit" this world, as she characterized it, on her own terms. Despite the fact that Gilman's death took place nearly sixty-five years ago, long before society became more receptive to such issues as assisted suicide and dying with dignity, not a single correspondent attempted to dissuade her from carrying out her plans. On the contrary, the letters demonstrate not only unconditional support for Gilman's philosophical position but also an extraordinary amount of compassion, respect, and acceptance during a time when it was widely believed that suicide would virtually guarantee eternal damnation.

Biographers and scholars of Gilman have done much in the last two decades to document her extraordinary life. Although it seemed for a time that her reputation would rest solely on her haunting short story "The Yellow Wall-Paper," recent years have seen an explosion of research on Gilman's life, literature, and social theories. Yet scholars have paid scant attention to Gilman's views toward death or to her suicide, aside from the perfunctory account of the requisite, though sketchy, details: the seventy-five-year-old Gilman had suffered from breast cancer for three years, was growing increasingly weak, and had recently lost her husband of thirty-four years. …

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