MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY
    BY ELLA WHEELER WILCOX
"The Cosmopolitan". (v. XXXI, no. 4) August 1901. p. 415-421 

 
Ella age 10
Ella Wheeler at Twelve
SOMEBODY has defined the bore as the man who talks of himself, while you want to talk of yourself. 
   Yet the editor of THE COSMOPOLITAN has requested me to talk of myself, and I obey, even at the risk of having my readers think me a bore. 
   Some one asked me, not long ago, when it was that I first conceived the idea of a literary profession and at what age I first found myself something of a celebrity. 
   I do not remember when I did not expect to be a writer, and I was a neighborhood celebrity at the age of eight. 
   The youngest of my mother's children, I seemed to have had my career arranged for me by conditions before my birth. 

A Recent Photograph of 
Ella Wheeler Wilcox
   It has always been my belief that children inherit the suppressed tendencies of their parents. A clergyman's son frequently shows abnormal tastes for the pleasures that his father denied himself; and talent is quite often the full-blown flower of a little shoot which circumstance has crushed under its heel in a former generation. 
   So at the age of eight I began to compose prose and rhyme, because the literary tendencies of my mother had never been gratified. The poetical gift was no doubt greatly the result of her having accidental access to a library of the poets, for the first time in her life, the year previous to my advent, and the happiest and most hopeful year of her life. 
   Until I reached the age of fourteen, the neighborhood and the school satisfied me as an audience. I hailed composition-day with an eagerness equaled only by my terror of an examination in mathematics. It is human to dislike being humiliated in our fellow-being's eyes. One of the most depressing days in my life was when I stood twenty in a scale of one hundred in mathematics. 
   My early literary outlook was not one which would encourage most aspirants. My family had left a comfortable, even a luxurious, home for those days, in Vermont to seek fortune in the new West--Wisconsin--before the year of my birth. 
   My father had been a music-teacher all his life, and when he attempted to become a business man and speculator, he made a failure of it. By the time I was a year or two old, he had lost the little competence he brought West with him, and the family (two parents and four children, including myself) was obliged to begin life anew, at the foot of the ladder, upon a Western prarie, distant twelve miles from the nearest town. This town was Madison, Wisconsin's capital. 

A Photograph of Ella 
Wheeler Taken in 1880.
    I had no literary advisers or coachers. My parents were intellectual; my mother was a great reader of whatever came in her way, and was possessed of a wonderful memory. The elder children were excellent scholars, and a grammatical error was treated as a cardinal sin in the household. But no one knew anything about the methods of getting into print, and we had no literary associates. We were, in truth, while poor in worldly goods and knowledge and customs, the intellectual aristocrats of the locality. 
   We had few books and only a weekly newspaper. In an old red chest upstairs were religiously preserved copies of "The Arabian Nights," "Gulliver's Travels," "John Gilpin's Ride" and a few of Shakespeare's plays. The "New York Ledger" and the "New York Mercury" were sent to us by relatives for several years, and the first literary feasts I indulged in were the weekly serial stories of Mrs. Southworth and May Agnes Fleming. They were like tobasco sauce to the appetite--exciting but not healthful. They gave me false ideas of life and added to my discontent with my lonely environment. There was nothing in my situation to cultivate poetical talent, and I no doubt owe my early development as a poet to that fact--paradoxical as the statement may seem. 

Ella Wheeler Wilcox's
Latest Photograph
   Born with intense cravings for pleasure, I should have been the veriest amusement-seeker in my youth, had not Necessity stood at my elbow. Whatever genuine talent we possess must reveal itself in time; but my early start in my profession was due to my desire to change and enlarge my horizon and better the conditions of the home, where no one was contented. 
   At the age of nine I completed a novel of eleven chapters headed with original rhymes. (I have it still, bound in paper which I took from a loose panel on the kitchen wall.) 
   It was soon after this period that I saw my first editor. He came from madison with a railroad official to ask for subscriptions for some proposed new line of railroad. He came in a "covered carriage"--my idea of elegance and wealth, as I rarely saw anything better than lumberwagons or runabouts. I came from school, a long mile walk, on a hot summer afternoon, tired and curious to know who was within. As I entered the room, some member of the family presented me, and the editor took me on his knee. 
   "You look as delicate as a city girl," he said. "You ought to be more robust, living in this fine country air." Pleasant editors have said many things of me since then, but nothing which ever gave me such a sense of being a superior being as that. To look like a city girl!--what joy! Yet I had never seen a city girl then, I am sure. 

Ella Wheeler at Sixteen
   During my thirteenth year the "New York Mercury" ceased to come to us. I missed its weekly visits with an intensity scarcely to be understood by one who has not known the same lonely surroundings and possessed the same temperament. There was not money enough floating about in those times to permit a subscription to the "Mercury," and if I were to possess it I knew I must either obtain a long list of subscribers, which would be a difficult and laborious undertaking, or earn it by my pen. 
   I resolved to try. But fearing failure, I did not want the family to know of my venture. I wrote two essays--just what the subjects were I have forgotten, and the clippings were lost years since, I regret to say. How to post my letter was the next question. I often acted as mail-carrier to the post-office, five miles distant, riding across fields and over fences on my graceful single-footer, Kitty, in company with a schoolmate, Alice Ellis, who possessed a Shetland pony. We rode without saddles, blanketing and bridling our own steeds--and it is fortunate I did not live in Buffalo Bill's vicinity or my career might have terminated in the Wild West Show. 
   While I could post a letter unknown to my family, the stamp had first to be obtained. Finally I decided on a stratagem. I was corresponding with a young girl, several years my senior, who was in the freshman class at Madison University. I confided in her, inclosed the "Mercury" letter, and assured her she would be reimbursed for the stamp when we next met. I would save my pennies for that purpose. 
   Jean posted my letter and watched the news-stand for results. Two months later, long after I had relinquished all hope, she wrote me that my essays had appeared. Whereupon I wrote a stern reproof to the editor for not sending me the paper, "at least as pay for my work," if he could afford no other remuneration. Shortly afterward, a large package of back numbers of the "New York Mercury" came addressed to me through the country post-office. 
   Even at that immature period I had a wooer--a young man past voting age, possessed of a mustache, a tenor voice and no visible means of support. He played the violin and sang "That night or never my bride thou shalt be" in a truly fascinating manner. He had been given to understand by the family that his room was preferable to his company, however, and had ceased to call. When the enormous roll of newspapers direct from the editor's office came to me, a stern senior member of the household at once concluded that the love-lorn swain had subscribed, to win new favor in my eyes. This accusation was made before I was questioned on the subject. Perhaps the most triumphant and dramatic hour of my life was when I stepped forth in short skirts and long ringlets, and announced to the family that not my would-be lover, but my literary work, had procured the coveted "Mercury" for our united enjoyment. 
   The world seemed to grow larger and life more wonderful from that hour. I was then fourteen. 
   I wrote to Jean and asked her to send me a list of all the weeklies and monthlies she could find in the book-stands, and to each and every one I sent essays, stories and poems, with enthusiasm and persistency. Every penny was saved for postage, and the family entered into my ambitions with encouraging faith in my success. 
   I soon filled the house with all the periodicals we had time to read, and in addition the editors sent me books and pictures and bric-a-brac and tableware--articles from their prize-lists, which were more precious than gems would have been to me. They served to relieve the bare and commonplace aspect of the home, and the happiness I felt in earning these things with my pen is beyond words to describe. It is a curious incident that the first bit of silverware which came into the home was manufactured by the house with which the man whose name I am fortunate in bearing to-day was afterward associated. 
   The very first verses I sent for publication were unmercifully "guyed" by my beloved "Mercury." The editor urged me to keep to prose and to avoid any further attempts at rhyme. He said that, while this criticism would wound me temporarily, it would eventually confer a favor on me and the world at large. 
   I recall only two stanzas of that unfortunate poem. It related the woes of a love-lorn maiden, and I described her as 

"She flew to her room, locked and bolted the door,
And in anguish and grief threw, herself on the floor."

   This was precisely what I did when I read the editor's cruel comment. Yet, after the first despair wore off, I set to work with new fervor and determination and sent poems and essays and stories to the "Saturday Evening Post," "Demorest's," "Peterson's" and "Arthur's" magazines, "Harper's," "Leslie's" and a score more of periodicals. My first poem published appeared in the "Waverley Magazine." 
   About the time I appreared in print, I left the country school. My record there had been wretched in mathematics, while excellent in grammar, spelling and reading. I lost interest in study, and my mind would not focus itself upon school-books. I lived in a world of imagination and pictured for myself a wonderful future. In this I was encouraged at home by the ambitions of my mother, who despised her life and felt herself and her family superior to all her associates, and was forever assuring me (and them as well!) that my future would be wholly apart from my early companions. 
   Fortunately for me and for all concerned, I was a healthy and normal young animal, and fond of my comrades and enjoying all their sports, into which I entered with zest, despite my mental aspirations and literary tendancies. I was passionately fond of dancing, and at fifteen attended the merrymakings of the grown-up girls and young men of the neighborhood, looking with disdain upon a boy of my own age. An elder brother and sister felt concerned at my lack of education and my propensity for pleasure, and the family made great sacrifices and managed to send me off to Madison University at about this time. 
   I was not at all happy there: first, because I knew the strain it put upon the home purse; second, because I felt the gulf between myself and the town girls, whose gowns and privileges revealed to me, for the first time, the different classes in American social life; and third, because I wanted to write and did not want to study. I had lost all taste for school-books. 
   On composition-day I undertook to distinguish myself by writing a "narrative," as the class was requested, but my ardent love-story only called forth a kind of rebuke from gentle Miss Ware, and I was told to avoid reading the "New York Ledger." 
   After one term, I begged my mother to allow me to remain at home and write and she wisely consented. 
   I turned to my profession with a new ardor and enthusiasm after that. 
   My first check came from Frank Leslie's publishing house. I wrote asking for one of his periodicals to be sent to me in return for three little poems I had composed in one day. In reply came a check for ten dollars, saying I must select which one of some thirteen publications they issued at that time. 
   This bit of crisp paper opened a perfect floodgate of aspiration, inspiration and ambition for me. I had not thought of earning money so soon. I had expected to obtain only books, magazines and articles of use and beauty from the editor's prize-lists; and I had not supposed verses to be salable. I wrote them because they came to me, but I expected to be a novelist like Mrs. Southworth and May Agens Fleming in time--that was the goal of my dreams. The check from Leslie was a revelation. I walked, talked, thought and dreamed in verse after that. A day which passed without a poem from my pen I considered lost and misused. Two each day was my idea of industry, and I once achieved eight. They sold--the majority--for three dollars or five dollars each. Sometimes I got ten dollars for a poem--that was always an event. Short love-stories, over which I labored painfully, as storywritting was an acquired habit, also added to my income, bringing me ten or fifteen dollars, and once in a while larger sums, from "Peterson's," "Demorest's," "Harper's Bazar" and the "Chimney Corner." 
   Everything in life was material for me--my own emotions, the remarks or experiences of my comrades and associates, sentences from books I read, and some phases of nature. 
   At a Thanksgiving Eve ball I recollect waltzing with a very good-looking young man whom I met there for the first time. The band played one of Strauss' waltzes. As we floated about the hall I thought to myself, "If I were desperately in love with this man and he cared for some one else, this waltz would sound like a dirge to me." So the next day I wrote a little poem called "The Dirge" (which paid for my slippers) which was widely copied. 
   "The Waltz-Quadrille," one of my most popular early verses, was similarly conceived. I had promised the quadrille at a commencement-ball at Madison University to a man on the eve of a journey, who was unable to find me when the number was called. Although I did not have the pleasure of a dance with him, I wrote the poem and sent him a copy of it, saying, "This is the way I should have felt had I been in love with you and had I danced the waltz-quadrille with you just before your departure from Madison." 
   The editors seemed to want these heart-wails, and one returned a historical poem I ventured to write, saying, "Send us little heartache verses--those are what our readers like." 
   A new line of railroad came through the county, and we had three mails a week and a post-office only three miles away. My good single-pacer was sold, but my father had taken an old horse, Burney, in trade, and my brothers had purchased a light top-buggy. I used to write my daily stint of several poems, and perhaps a story, and with a half-dozen manuscripts addressed to as many editors, I would harness old Burney and drive to the post-office with my brain wares, and great was the day when I brought home a check. Harper paid me fifteen dollars for one poem, Leslie sent me a check of forty dollars for ten poems and a short story, the "Saturday Evening Post" sent me a set of Dickens, all within a period of six months after my first money success. 
   It seemed wonderful to me, and to the family and to the neighbors. 
   Until I began to earn money, the neighbors had criticized my mother for keeping me out of the kitchen and allowing me to "scribble" so much. But when they found me able with one day's work at my desk to hire an assistant in the house for a
month, they began to respect my talent. 
   I often wish the scores of grown men and women who write me for "aid and influence" in getting into print, could know just how I found my way into the favor of editors. It was by sheer persistence. It never occurred to me to ask advice or assistance of strangers. I am glad it did not, for the moment we lean upon any one but the Divine Power and the divinity within us, we lessen our chances of success. I often receive letters now from writers in the West asking me to use my influence with editors in their behalf, and saying, "You must realize from your own early struggles how impossible it is to get a start in an Eastern periodical without a friend at court." No more absurd idea ever existed. Eastern editors are on the lookout for new talent constantly, and if a writer possesses it, together with perseverance, he will succeed, whether he lives in the Western desert or in the metropolis, and without any friend at court. 
   I frequently sent out ten manuscripts in one post, to have nine come back with drooping heads. But I set them forth on another voyage by the next mail. I kept a series of crude books with a list of the periodicals and the travels of each poem or story inscribed therein. Many a manuscript took nine or ten journeys to New York and Boston before it found acceptance. One story declined by nine editors (and ridiculed by the ninth on the margin) brought seventy-five dollars from the tenth-- the largest price I had ever received. 
   My world grew larger with each sunrise, it seemed to me. People from Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago began to write me and seek me out. I was invited to visit city homes, and while this was a delight bordering on ecstasy and a relief from the depressing atmosphere of home anxieties, it yet brought with it the consciousness of the world's demands, which, added to those of duty and necessity, made a larger income imperative. 
   A Milwaukee editor offered me forty-five dollars a month to edit the literary department of a trade magazine. I accepted, but the office hours and order of work were wholly distasteful to me. I was not sorry when the venture failed at the expiration of three months. It was the only experience of my life in attempting an office position. 
   Much of the very earliest work of my pen was devoted to poems on total abstinence--a subject on which the family was very enthusiastic. These verses, some fifty in number, were issued in book form, during my teens, under the title of "Drops of Water." I received fifty dollars for the copyright, and am sure Mr. Rockefeller feels no richer to-day with his millions than I did with my book and check. 
   A year or two later I published, by subscription, my first miscellaneous collection, "Shells," now out of print. Then I grew ambitious to write a story in verse, and devoted the best part of a summer to composing "Maurine." Even the name was my own creation--suggested to me by a short poem of Nora Perry's entitled "Norine." 
   When my book was completed, I made a visit to Chicago and called upon Jansen & McClurg, expecting that staid firm
eagerly to seize upon my proffered manuscript, which I thought was to bring me world-wide fame and fortune. Instead, it was declined with thanks, and I was informed that they had never heard of me. After repeated efforts and failures, I induced a Wisconsin firm to get the book out. It barely paid expenses. But two years later I was made happy by having Jansen & McClurg write and request the privilege of republishing the volume, with additional short poems. 
   Much of my earlier work was tinctured with melancholy, both real and imaginary. Young poets almost invariably write of sorrow. Naturally of a happy disposition, I had my moods of depression, veritable luxuries of misery. 
   There was continual worry at home. No one was resigned or philosophical. My mother hated her hard-working lot, for
which she was totally unfitted, and constantly rebelled against it, like a caged animal beating against iron bars; while she did her distasteful tasks with a Spartan-like adherence to duty, doubting the dominance of an all-wise Ruler who could condemn her to such a lot. Like thousands of others in the world, she had not learned that through love and faith only do conditions change for the better. 
   The home was prevaded by an atmosphere of discontent and fatigue. 
   From reincarnated sources and through prenatal causes, I was born with unquenchable hope and unfaltering faith in God and guardian spirits. I often wept myself to sleep after a day of disappointments and worries but woke in the morning singing aloud with the joy of life. 
   I always expected wonderful things to happen to me. 
   In some of the hardest days, when everything went wrong with everybody at home, and all my manuscripts came back for six weeks at a time without one acceptance, I recall looking out of my little north window upon the lonely road bordered with lonelier Lombardy poplars, and thinking, "Before night something beautiful will happen to change everything." There was so much I wanted! I wanted to bestow comfort, ease and pleasure on everybody at home. I wanted lovely gowns--ah, how I wanted them!--and travel and accomplishments. I wanted summers by the sea--the sea which I had read of, but had never seen--and on moonlight nights these longings grew so aggressive I often pinned the curtain down and shut out the rays that seemed to intensify my loneliness, and I would creep into my little couch under the sloping caves, musing, "Another beautiful night of youth wasted and lost." And I would waken happy in spite of myself and put all my previous melancholy into verses--and dollars. 
   Once I read a sentence which became a life-motto for me. "If you haven't what you like, try to like what you have." I wish I knew who wrote it--it was such a help to me just as I was nearing the borders of the family pessimism and chronic
discontent. I tried from that hour to find something I liked and enjoyed in each day--something I could be thankful for; and I found much, though troubles increased and conditions did not improve about me. 
   The elder children married and had cares of their own. I was so sorry for them--missing the beautiful things I knew life held.
   Slowly, so slowly, it seemed to me, my work and my income increased. I longed for suddent success, for sudden wealth. It was so hard to wait--there was so much to be done. There was a gentle hill south of the house; often one summer evenings, after writing all day, I climbed this ascent at sunset and looked eastward, wondering what lay for me beyond the horizon. I always had the idea that my future would be associated with the far West, yet it was to the East I invariably looked. My knowledge of the East was bounded by Milwaukee and Chicago--the goal of happy visits two or three times a year. 
   Sometimes I walked through the pasture and young woods, a half-mile, to call on Emma, the one friend who knew and
sympathized with all the family troubles. And Emma would walk back with me, and we would wonder how many years
longer these walks and talks would continue for us. I would tell her of my successes in my work, and she and her gentle
mother rejoiced in them as if they were their own personal triumphs. Such restful walks and talks they always were. Dear Emma! 
   When publishing "Maurine," I had purposely omitted more than twoscore poems of a very romantic nature, in order to save the volume from too much sentiment. Letters began to come to me requesting copies of these verses--ardent love-songs which had appeared in various periodicals. This suggested to me the idea of issuing a book of love-poems to be called "Poems of Passion." To think was to do--for I possessed more activity than caution in those days. 
   As just related, every poem in the book had been published in various periodicals and had brought forth no criticism. My amazement can hardly be imagined, therefore, when Jansen & McClurg returned the manuscript of my volume, intimating that it was immoral. I told the contents of their letter to friends in Milwaukee, and it reached the ears of a sensational morning newspaper. The next day a column article appeared with large headlines:-- 

"TOO LOUD FOR CHICAGO.
"THE SCARLET CITY BY THE LAKE SHOCKED
BY A BADGER GIRL, WHOSE VERSES
OUT-SWINBURNE SWINBURNE AND
OUT-WHITMAN WHITMAN."
   Every newspaper in the land caught up the story, and I found myself an object of unpleasant notoriety in a brief space of time. I had always been a local celebrity, but this was quite another experience. Some friends who had admired and praised, now criticized--though they did not know why. I was advised to burn my offensive manuscript and assured that in  time I might live down the shame I had brought on myself. Yet these same friends had seen these verses in periodicals and praised them. 
   All this but stimulated me to the only vindication I desired--the publication of my book. A Chicago publisher saw his opportunity and offered to bring out the book, and it was an immediate success. It has been issued in London also, where it met with immediate favor. 
   The first proceeds of its sale enabled me to rebuild and improve the old home, which was fast going to ruin. 
   Life, which had been a slowly widening stream for me, at this period seemed to unite with the ocean of success and
happiness. 
   My engagement, though not announced, occurred the week my book was issued. One year later, in 1884, I was married, and came East to live. Burdens long borne alone were lifted by strong, willing hands, and dreams long dreamed became
realities. But work, which had been a necessity, had grown to be a habit and still forms a large element of life's pleasures for me. 
   The questions and longings of those summer evenings when I stood in the dying glory of a Wisconsin sunset on the south hill back of the lonely little home, have all been answered. 
           For I am one who lives to say 
           My skies have held more gold than gray, 
           And that the glory of the real 
           By far outshines my youth's ideal.