Perry D. Westbrook
Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman was born in Randolph, Massachusetts, on October 31, 1852, to Warren Wilkins, house builder, and Eleanor Lothrop. Randolph, though only fourteen miles from Boston, was in many ways a typical New England country town, churchgoing and culturally traditional. Like many of the townspeople, Freeman's parents were both descended from early colonial settlers from England. Agriculture was still important, though industry was also present in the form of shoe manufacturing in small factories and as a cottage industry in individual homes. In this environment Freeman lived during her first fifteen years, assimilating its way of life and its values. Here she received her elementary education; was indoctrinated, though perhaps not very deeply, in the moderate Calvinism of the local Congregational church; and made the most important friendship of her life with a schoolmate, Mary Wales, a farmer's daughter in whose home Freeman was a constant visitor and later lived as a permanent resident for almost twenty years.
In the 1860s Randolph's comparative prosperity drastically declined, as was happening in similar towns throughout New England. In 1867 Warren Wilkins, no longer prospering in his trade, moved with his family to Brattleboro, Vermont, where he and a partner opened a drygoods store. Brattleboro was very different from Randolph. Scenically situated on the Connecticut River, it was somewhat of a cultural center, attracting artists, writers, and musicians. After graduating from high school there in 1870, Freeman entered Mt. Holyoke Seminary, a school noted for its strict religious regimen. Like Emily Dickinson, who had attended Mt. Holyoke years before, Mary remained for only one year, dropping out because of ill health. A few courses that she took at Glenwood Sem