WILCOX, Ella Wheeler (5 Nov. 1850-30 Oct. 1919), poet, was born in Johnstown Center, Wisconsin, the daughter of Marcus Hartwell Wheeler, a farmer and music teacher, and Sarah Pratt. Encouraged by her mother and frustrated by the drabness and near poverty of her life in rural Wisconsin, she began submitting poetry to popular magazines in her early teens, at first unsuccessfully. She was interested in her own writing rather than in formal education, and her higher education consisted of an unhappy year at the University of Wisconsin, beginning in 1867.
By her early thirties Wilcox's work had appeared in various magazines, including Peterson's Magazine, Waverly Magazine, Arthur's Home Magazine, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Frank Leslie's Popular Magazine, and United Monthly Magazine. She had become a favorite in literary circles in Milwaukee, althought she continued to share her parent's rural home until her marriage and had lived in Milwaukee only three months, editing and writing for a literary column in a trade journal. Her local popularity proved crucial when a Chicago publisher inadvertently made her famous by rejecting her Poems of Passion (1882) as immoral. A friendly Milwaukee newspaper broke the story, which then appeared in papers throughout the country. A group of supportive Milwaukee citizens gave her a testimonial and a gift of $500. Another Chicago publisher saw the obvious financial possibilities and published the book, which, understandably, was highly successful, selling 60,000 copies in two years.
Poems of Passion was in most ways similar to the poetry Wilcox was to produce throughout her career. Much of her work plays variations on the theme of love, and it is emotionaly charged and vaguely erotic rather than specifically sexual. Although her work was titillating instead of outrageous, it must be remembered that late nineteenth-century American audiences were very easily shocked. The following from "A Woman's Love" in Poems of Sentiment (1892) is typical:
So vast the tide of Love within me surging,
It overflows like some stupendous sea,
The confines of the Present and To-be;
And 'gainst the Past's high wall I feel it urging,
As it would cry "Thou too shalt yield to me!"
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Yet though I love thee in such selfish fashion,
I would wait on thee, sitting at thy feet,
And serving thee, if thou didst deem it meet.
And couldst thou give me one fond hour of passion,
I'd take that hour and call my life complete.
The underlying morality is conventoinal. A guest may shock and anger a married hostess by telling her he is leaving because he is in love with her, but, nonetheless, he leaves. Women expect men to be philosophic about women's earlier involvements, but marriage remains the ideal. After Wilcox's marriage in the 1880s, there was a noticeable shift in her work from themes of unfortunate entanglements to those of happy marriages.
Although Wilcox was first of all a love poet, she was not exclusively so. Her works deal with social problems such as intemperance, with history, and with the various crises of life. She wrote fiction, including Mal Moulee (1886), Pedita and Other Stories (1886), Sweet Danger (1892), and An Ambitious Man (1896), and she wrote editorials for the New York Journal and Chicago American. Both her prose and poetry appeared in syndicated newspapers and in many magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal, Women's Home Companion, Munsey's Magazine, and Cosmopolitan. She expounded her theosophical doctrines in The Heart of the New Thought (1902) and New Thought Common Sense and What Life Means to Me (1908). The bulk of her more than twenty volumes, however, was poetry. A very large audience looked to her for comfort and wisdom.
Wilcox's primarily sympathetic biographer Jenny Ballou said, "She was not a minor poet, but a bad major one" (p. 98). It is perhaps more acurate to say that Wilcox had a mass following among the kinds of readers whose modern counterparts seldom read poetry. She flourished in an age when newspapers and popular magazines regularly published verse for the unsophisticated. Her readers learned that she understood their griefs, their bereavements, and the frustrations of their love lives. They were told to persevere in dull, unrewarding lives because all lives have divine purposes. They understood her concerns with the evils of prostitution and her coolness toward the woman's movement.
Wilcox's personal life was conventional. Her only serious premarital love interest was James Whitcomb Riley, which dissipated when they met and did not like each other. In 1884 she married Robert Marius Wilcox, a businessman who became an executive in a silver company. Their child, a son born in 1887, lived only a few hours. The Wilcoxes settled for three years in Meriden, Connecticut and then in New York City, spending their summers at a home in Short Beach, Connecticut. After some unsatisfactory experiences with the literary salon of Mrs. Frank Leslie, Wilcox established her own literary center in Short Beach where she could give scope to her flamboyant personality. The Wilcoxes were inveterate world travelers.
A year after her marriage, at the instigation of her husband, Wilcox began a study of theosophy. After her husband's death in 1916 she explored varieties of Spiritualism and became convinced that he communicated through a Ouija board. Following what she believed to be his instructions, she went to France in 1918 to aid the Allied cause. She left France in early 1919 for England, where she collapsed. Broken in health, she returned to Short Beach, where she died.
It is unlikely that Wilcox will ever be read again except as a literary curiosity. Never in her lifetime a success with critics, she became even more at odds with the critical standards of the modernism that triumphed after the war to which she was drawn. Her blithe demotic optimism and the simple, direct statement of her poetry and its awkwardness are the very antithesis of what the world was coming to prefer. But in her time she brought consolation to millions of people with her verse.
* Wilcox's papers are located at Columbia University, Harvard University,
Princeton University, the New York Public Library, and the State Historical
Society, Madison, Wis. In 1905 she published The Story of a Literary
Career, which contains a description of her lifestyle by Ella Giles
Ruddy. Editions of Wilcox's collected poems appeared in 1917, 1924,
and 1927. She also published The Worlds and I (1918), which
was autobiographical and addressed Spiritualism. Jenny Ballou, Period
Piece: Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Her Times (1940), is an informal, subjective
biography. An obituary is in the New York Times, 31 Oct. 1919.