B. 5 Nov. 1850, Johnstown Center, Wisconsin; d. 30 Oct. 1919, Short
Wrote under: Ella Wheeler, Ella Wheeler Wilcox
D. of Marcus Hartwell and Sarah Pratt Wheeler; m. Robert Marius Wilcox, 1884.
W. was the youngest of four children born to a music teacher
turned farmer and a mother who had strong literary ambitions. She claimed
that her mother's extensive reading of Shakespeare, Scott, and Byron was
a prenatal influence that shaped her entire career. Her mother helped her
to find time to read and write rather than work on the bleak Wisconsin
W. was influenced early by the romantic melodramas of Ouida, Mary J. Holmes, May Agnes Fleming, and Mrs. Southworth. At the age of ten she wrote a "novel" in ten chapters, printing it in her childish hand on scraps of paper and binding it in paper torn from the kitchen wall. The New York Mercury published an essay when she was fifteen. In 1867, she enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, where, however, she remained only a short time. She begged her family to be allowed to remain at home and write.
By the time she was eighteen, she was earning a substantial salary, which aided her impoverished family. People from Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago began to seek out the little country girl with the "inspired pen," and she in turn was delighted to visit their city homes. By 1880, the "Milwaukee School of Poetry" was at its height with W. as its shining light; the poets were all well known throughout the West, and some had even gained recognition in the East.
Maurine (1876), a narrative poem, introduces two types of women W. often wrote about: Helen, a weak and passive person who bears a daughter and soon dies, and Maurine, an agressive and highly intelligent artist who eventually marries an American poet-intellectual. Maurine travels to Europe, where her paintings are favorably received. Helen and Maurine reappear in more complex form as Mabel and Ruth, two of the characters in Three Women (1897).
When W. attempted to publish Poems of Passion (1883), a collection of poems that had appeared previously in various periodicals, the book was rejected because of the "immorality" of several poems, and its author became the subject of unpleasant notoriety. When a Chicago publisher brought out the book, however, it was an immediate success, and W.'s reputation was made. In this work, she brought into her love poetry the element of sin. By 1888, she was a leader in what was called the "Erotic School," a group of writers who rebelled against the stricter rules of conventionality. By 1900, a whole feminine school of rather daring verse on the subject of the emotions followed W.'s lead.
The symbolism of sexual passion is depicted throughout her poems as a tiger who is "a splendid creature," as in "Three and One" (Poems of Pleasure, 1888); sex for W. is "all the tiger in my blood." In "At Eleusis," motherhood is praised and welcomed, a common theme of her poetry.
W. wrote editorials and essays for the New York Journal and the Chicago American as well as contributing to Cosmopolitan and other magazines. In 1901, she was commissioned by the New York American to write a poem on the death of Queen Victoria and was sent to London, where she was presented at the court of St. James. During WWI, she toured the army camps in France, reciting her poems and counseling young soldiers on their problems.
Throughout her life, W. enjoyed great popularity, and she took her work most seriously. In defending her poetry against critics, she maintained that "heart, not art" is most important in poetry and pointed out that her poems comforted millions of weary and unhappy people.
WORKS:Drops of water (1872). Shells (1873). Maurine (1876) Poems of Passion (1883). The Birth of the Opal (1886). Mal moulee: a novel (1886). Perdita, and other stories (1886). Poems of Pleasure (1888). The Adventures of Miss Volney (1888). A Double Life (1891). How Salvator won (1891). The Beautiful Land of Nod (1892). An Erring Woman's Love (1892). A Budget of Christmas Tales (1895). An Ambitious Man (1896). Custer, and Other Poems (1896). Men, Women, and Emotions (1896). Three women (1897). Poems of Power (1901). The Heart of the New Thought (1902). Kingdom of Love (1902). Sweet Danger (1902). Around the Year (1904). Poems of Love (1905). A Woman of the World (1905). Mizpah (1906). New Thought pastels (1906). Poems of Sentiment (1906). New Thought common sense and what life means to me (1908). Song of Liberty (1908). Poems of Progress (1909). Sailing Sunny Seas (1909). The New Hawaiian Girl (1910). Yesterdays (1910). The Englishman and Other Poems (1912). Gems (1912). Picked Poems (1912). The Art of Being Alive (1914). Cameos (1914). Lest We Forget (1914). Poems of Problems (1914). World Voices (1916). The Worlds and I (1918). Poems (1918). Sonnets of Sorrow and Triumph (1918). Collected Poems (1924).
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Ballou, J., Period Piece: Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Her
Time (1940). Brown, N., Critical Confessions (1899). Town,
C.H., Adventures in Editing (1926). Watts,
E.S., The Poetry of American Women, 1632-1945 (1977). Wheeler,
M.P., Evolution of Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Other Wheelers (1921).
Wilcox, E.W., "Literary Confessions of a Western Poetess," in Lippincott's
(May 1886). Wilcox, E.W., "My Autobiography," in
Cosmopolitan (Aug. 1901).
For articles in reference works, see: AA. NAW (article by J.T. Baird, Jr.). [AA=American Authors, 1600-1900: A Biographical Dictionary of American Literature, 1938; NAW=Notable American Women, 1607-1050: A Biographical Dictionary, 1971]
Other references: American Mercury (Aug. 1934). Bookman (Jan. 1920). Cosmopolitan (Nov. 1888). Harper's (March 1952). Literary Digest (22 Nov. 1919). London Times (31 Oct. 1919). NYT (31 Oct. 1919). Poetry and Drama I (March 1913).
ANNE R. GROBEN