Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Must Age Equal Failure?: Sociology Looks at Mary Wilkins Freeman's Old Women

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Must Age Equal Failure?: Sociology Looks at Mary Wilkins Freeman's Old Women

Article excerpt

The revival of interest in the work of Mary Wilkins Freeman is generating some new and interesting criticism, but much exploration of her work remains shadowed by earlier critical dicta. Considering her a major American voice, her contemporary readers and both British and United States critics appreciated her humor--a favorite phrase used to describe her work noted her combination of "humor and pathos"--and saw as well her women protagonists, old and young, as well-drawn, individual characters. Awareness both of Freeman's humor and the importance and variety of her elderly women characters seems to be lost today.

In the early years of this century, critics and scholars like Fred Lewis Pattee and his contemporaries were working to make the study of American literature not only respectable but masculine; in this process, critical judgment declared that Freeman's place and her subject were no longer relevant, since she pictured a dead society, and her works should be read as snapshots of a dismal past, if read at all. While we may suspect that the basis of this opinion was the prevalence of women as protagonists, the effect of the judgment of Pattee, Van Wyck Brooks, Edward Foster, and Percy Westbrook, all major critics of her work, has left a legacy difficult to shake off: that she is a curiosity of the past, that her characters live in a dark, dismal world, and that therefore her work is without universality.(1)

Freeman's old women are major casualties of this attitude. What little scholarly mention there is, even today, of stories with old women as protagonists (always with the exception of "The Revolt of `Mother'") tends to treat them as figures in a plot rather than characters in a story, and that absence of critical and scholarly attention to Freeman's older protagonists is itself a statement. Perhaps the combination of the legacy of darkness with today's attitudes toward the elderly is responsible; women, and certainly those who compound the crime of gender by adding age, are hardly individual human beings, but merely a bland social category, and can be legitimately ignored. As a kind of generic or stereotypic figure, old women are assumed to be pitiful, alone, poor, often outcast, unhappy, and certainly trivial, as if by aging they have somehow failed. And as failures, they are uninteresting.

Yet the frequency with which older women appear as protagonists in Freeman's narratives indicates that she--and her audience--did not find them uninteresting. A review in the London Bookman, after publication of Freeman's second collection of short stories, A New England Nun, praised an "endless gallery of these curious portraits of aged maids and matrons, drawn with all the detail and clearness of Holbein's old women" (102-03). Freeman's old New England women are seldom passive; most of them remain actively engaged with life, often with a strength and even a ferocity that surprises readers as much as it does their village neighbors. In her study of literary portrayals of aging, Barbara Frey Waxman notes that in some recent fiction, older women characters "defy the outmoded social expectation of passive senescence by taking charge of their lives, making changes, and traveling--inward, backward, forward--into fuller, more intense lives and richer, more philosophical deaths. By leading `young' lives in middle and old age, these fictional heroines undermine the conventional binary opposition between youth and age" (183). Though she is talking about contemporary fiction, Waxman's analysis appropriately applies to many of Freeman's elderly women protagonists.

Close examination shows that it is not safe to generalize about Freeman's old women. In the small, lively interactive worlds that Freeman presents, with their echoes of worlds everywhere, old women do not become marginal. Many are poor, as their villages are poor; many are lonely. But poverty is relative, and loneliness is a human condition not limited to the old. …

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