ELLA WHEELER was born on an isolated Wisconsin farm where cultural opportunities
were few. Her mother was fond of literature, however, and encouraged
Ella to develop a love for both reading and writing. Though she enrolled
at the University of Wisconsin, Ella soon returned home and by 1880 was
actively involved with a group of writers in Milwaukee.
Her work got sudden attention when she published Poems of Passion in 1883. Though many of these poems had been printed in periodicals already, the book as a whole became notorious, especially because one publisher had rejected it as obscene. The Chicago publisher who was willing to bring it out soon sold 60,000 copies of these poems which he said "out-Swinburned Swinburne and out-Whitmaned Whitman."
Nevertheless, Ella Wheeler was no Adah Isaacs Menken. Though she became part of what was called "the erotic school"--a group of artists who refused to sublimate their sensuality in conformity with Victorian standards--Ella married Robert Wilcox in 1884 and lived a highly respectable life. She was active in the temperance movement and believed that women should glorify rather than denigrate the role of wife. Shortly before her death in 1919, she attacked Amy Lowell for writing what she thought were obscene poems, demonstrating that, for all her rebelliousness, she was more a Victorian than a modernist.
Wilcox was enormously productive, publishing forty-six books and many articles. She was championed (appropriately) by William Randolph Hearst, but her reputation went into decline quickly as more modern women such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker over-shadowed her. In the heydey of New Criticism, she was the subject of attacks by I.A. Richards and W.K. Wimsatt, who claimed that works such as "Friendship after Love" were full of cliches and facile resolutions. Her name took on the negative connotations associated with popular "fireside" poets.
Nevertheless, Ella Wheeler Wilcox remains an important figure among late nineteenth-century women poets. She was enormously influential in liberalizing attitudes about women's passions. Her work was still widely known and read in the 1920s. At a time when prevailing resistance to sexual desire, Wilcox wrote in Men, Women, and Emotions: "It is impossible for an absolutely passionless woman to be either just or generous in her judgments of humanity at large. It is a strange fact that she needs an admixture of the baser physical element, to broaden her spiritual vision, and quicken her sympathies"(298).
Selected Works: Drops of Water. 1872; Maurine. 1876; Perdita and Other Stories. 1886; Poems of Pleasure. 1888; Custer and Other Poems. 1896; Men, Women, and Emotions. 1896; New Thought Common Sense and What Life Means to Me. 1908; Collected Poems. 1924.
Selected Criticism: Ballou, Jenny. Period Piece: Ella Wheeler and Her Times. Boston: Houghton, 1940; Haeffner, Paul. "Auden and Ella Wheeler Wilcox." Notes and Queries 9 (Mar. 1962):110-11; Lewis, Naomi. "Wilcox Revisited." New Statesman. 24 Dec. 1971. 901; Pittock, Malcolm. "In Defense of Ella Wheeler Wilcox." Durham University Journal 65 (Dec. 1972):86-89; Walker.