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.
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.
| 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
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.
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.
| 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.
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.
| 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
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.
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.
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.
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."
"TOO LOUD FOR CHICAGO.
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
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
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
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
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
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:--
"THE SCARLET CITY BY THE LAKE SHOCKED
BY A BADGER GIRL, WHOSE VERSES
OUT-SWINBURNE SWINBURNE AND
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
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.
am one who lives to say
have held more gold than gray,
the glory of the real
outshines my youth's ideal.