Notable American women, 1607-1950; a biographical dictionary. Edward T. James, editor; Janet Wilson James, associate editor; Paul S. Boyer, assistant editor. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971. v. III, page 606-607.
Wilcox, Ella Wheeler (Nov. 5, 1850-Oct. 30, 1919), poet and journalist, was born in Johnstown Center, near Janesville, Wis., the second daughter and youngest of four children of Sarah (Pratt) and Marcus Hartwell Wheeler. Her father, a teacher of deportment, music and dancing, had moved west from Thetford, Vt., shortly before her birth. Settling eventually near Windsor, Wisc., he managed to keep his family precariously balanced on the near side of poverty by combining farming and teaching. Ella's mother, a rather sensitive New England woman, sought a literary refuge from this mundane existence by reading and committing to memory large amounts of romantic poetry. She seemed to sense a possible escape for her youngest child in this field and made much of Ella's early ventures in writing.
From the age of eight until she was fourteen, Ella submitted to the discipline of the local public school, but her heart was more in the romantic melodramas of May Agnes Fleming and Mrs. E.D.E.N. SOUTHWORTH than in her multiplication tables. Inspired by these writers, she produced an eleven-chapter "novel," bound in kitchen wallpaper, when she was nine. Her active career began at fourteen when the family's subscription to the New York Mercury ran out and she successfully submitted some prose sketches to the periodical to earn a renewal. Shortly thereafter Waverly Magazine and Leslie's Weekly accepted poems which she sent them, and she quit school to devote her time to writing. Although her successes at this stage were few, she was obsessed by her dream of escaping the stifling pattern of family poverty through authorship. Her parents managed in 1867 to send her to the University of Wisconsin in nearby Madison, but she stayed only one year.
In 1872 Ella Wheeler responded to sentiment engendered by the Good Templars, a temperance organization to which the family belonged, with Drops of Water, a collection of temperance poems which won a small audience. The following year saw the publication of Shells, a volume of optimistic religious and moral verses which presaged much of her future work. Her poems also began to appear in newspapers and periodicals in increasing numbers. During this period Ella helped support the Wheeler household at Windsor, now swelled by the families of her older brothers and sister who had failed at farming.
Beginning to gain a minor name for herself, she was hired by a Milwaukee firm to edit and partially write the literary column in its trade journal. The job lasted only a few months, but during her stay in Milwaukee she met the local literati and experienced her first (and later characteristic) dissatisfaction with any group in which she was not the center of attention. The publication of Maurine (1876), a long and stickily sentimental verse narrative, widened her reading audience, but real fame did not arrive until 1883, when a Chicago firm refused to publish a collection of her more emotional love poems, claiming that they were immoral. The poems themselves, despite references to the "Impassioned tide that sweeps through throbbing veins" and the "convulsive rapture of a kiss," were hardly sensational, and most of them had previously appeared in newspapers and periodicals, but the title, Poems of Passion, had an illicit ring to mid-Victorian ears. Newspapers all over the country picked up the story of the poet whose verses, even in the eyes of the "Scarlet City by the Lake," seemed to "out-Swinburne Swinburne and out-Whitman Whitman." Another Chicago publisher, quick to grasp the commercial value of this flood of notoriety, published the volume before the year was out. In its first two years it sold sixty thousand copies, and Ella Wheeler's reputation was made.
Meanwhile she had found a real romance in her own life. An earlier semiromantic correspondence with the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley had ended in instant mutual dislike when they finally met, and the "Poetess of Passion" had had no other attachments. But correspondence with Robert Marius Wilcox, an executive of the firm which later became the International Silver Company, who had glimpsed her in Milwaukee, led to several meetings and finally to a mutually satisfying relationship which lasted the rest of their lives. They were married in Milwaukee on May 2, 1884, and settled in Meriden, Conn. Their only child, a son born in 1887, died a few hours after birth.
That fall the Wilcoxes moved to New York City. Here Ella formed a friendship with Mrs. Frank Leslie (see MIRIAM FLORENCE FOLLINE LESLIE), which continued until it became obvious to both women that only one of them at a time could be the star of Mrs. Leslie's salon of second-rank intellectuals. Thereafter Ella Wilcox and her husband spent increasing time at the summer home they had built in 1891 at Short Beach, Conn.; it became their year-round home in 1906 after Robert Wilcox retired. Here Ella ruled as absolute queen of a world keyed to writing, hospitality, and the literary circles of New York--a world suited to her theatrical appearance and personality. Mrs. Wilcox was by this time writing a syndicated column of prose and poetry for various yellow-sheet newspapers, as well as regularly issuing volumes of her poetry. As one of her assignments she was sent to England to cover the death of Queen Victoria and produced a poem, "The Queen's Last Ride," which ultimately brought her almost as large a following in that country as she had at home.
Robert Wilcox's death of pneumonia at Short Beach in May 1916 marked a new phase in Mrs. Wilcox's life. She and her husband had long been interested in Spiritualism and Theosophy, and had studied under teh Hindu mystic Swami Vivekananda in the 1890's as part of an attempt to reach their dead infant son. Now she began an all-out effort to communicate with the spirit of her husband, keeping the readers of her newspaper column informed of her progress. She soon announced the success of these endeavors, and in late 1916, believing that Robert had told her to do so, she began a series of tours of Allied army camps in France. Reading her poetry and giving lectures of the sexual problems confronting young men away from home, she exhorted the boys to "come back clean." After a nervous breakdown early in 1919, she entered a nursing home in Bath, England, and subsequently returned to her home at Short Beach. She died there three months later, of cancer. After a Spiritualistic funeral service, read by her poet friend Edwin Markham, her ashes were sealed with those of her husband in a niche in the granite ledge near their home.
Impulsive and energetic, caught up in a quest for personal recognition, Ella Wheeler Wilcox remained to the end (in the words of her biographer) "a pure phenomenon of democracy." Rejecting all literary advice, she continued to turn out the lilting verse that came to her all too readily. She reached a broad audience: the nameless multitude who felt something profound in lines like "Laugh and the world laughs with you; / Weep, and you weep alone." She comforted and was loved by thousands of persons who would never have understood her own deeply masked sense of chagrin at being belittled or ignored by critics of serious literature, critics who did not agree with her maxim that art is created by "heart." If her art is measured by the size and appreciation of her audience, she is, as her biographer suggests, not a minor poet, but a bad major one.
[Besides her autobiography, The Worlds and I (1918), and Jenny Ballou's full-scale biographical treatment in Period Piece: Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Her Times (1940), the following sources contain useful information: Ella W. Wilcox, The Story of a Literary Career (1905); Neal Brown, Critical Confessions (1899), pp. 171-200; Charles H. Towne, Adventures in Editing (1926), pp. 93-98; M.P.Wheeler, Evolution of Ella Wheeler Wilcox and other Wheelers (1921); Nat. Cyc. Am. Biog., XI, 278; interview in Lippincott's Monthly Mag., May 1886; articles about Mrs. Wilcox in Cosmopolitan, Nov. 1888, Bookman, Jan. 1920 (by Theodosia Garrison), Am. Mercury, Aug. 1934 (by Miriam Allen de Ford), and Harper's Mag., Mar. 1952 (by Naomi Lewis); obituaries in Literary Digest, Nov. 22, 1919, and in N.Y.Times, London Times, and N.Y. Sun, Oct. 31, 1919; death record from Conn. State Dept. of Health. Though 1853 and 1855 have been given for her birth year, the federal census listing of the Wheeler family in June 1860 (courtesy of State Hist. Soc. of Wis.) lists her age as nine. There are Ella Wheeler Wilcox papers at the STate Hist. Soc. of Wis., Columbia Univ., and the N.Y. Public Library.]
by Julian T. Baird, Jr.