While she has never received recognition as a particularly good or original
writer, Ella Wilcox was one of the most prolific and popular authors of
the late nineteenth century. Interested in literature since childhood,
her short stories,
essays, and poems began earning her a respectable income by the time she was eighteen. Her primary interest was poetry, and her verses attained a modest popularity in the 1870s. Wilcox's first major success, however, was fortuitous: A Chicago publisher refused a volume of her poems entitled Poems of Passion on the grounds of alleged immorality. This had the effecct of guaranteeing an extensive sale of the book once another publisher released it in 1883. Popular recognition of her work soared thereafter; and although literary critics seldom took her seriously (a fact which nagged at her throughout her career), she was established as one of the best-known writers of her era. After 1884 she lectured widely in the United States and Europe, took on free-lance writing assignments, and at one point was producing a poem a day for a newspaper syndicate.
Wilcox's writing, however, did not prevent her from pursuing a variety of reform and religious interests, and temperance was one of the chief of these. Her family had been Good Templars, and Ella participated in that group's activities. Her dry sentiments were evident in a number of her poems, and in fact her first book was a collection of temperance verses entitled Drops of Water (1872). Typical of the era's temperance literature, Drops of Water carried the total abstinence message to a children's audience and enjoyed a wide reading. Subsequent works, such as Shells (1873), dealt in similar fashion with moral subjects; and there is no doubt that she was genuinely concerned with the morality and well-being of the younger generation. Wilcox was also an ardent spiritualist and regularly attended seances; in her declining years she announced that she had established communication with her dead husband through the medium of a ouija board. She kept writing to the end, and temperance workers considered her one of the most important literary contributors to the dry cause.
A. Drops of Water (Chicago,
1872); Poems of Passion (Chicago,
1883); "Literary Confessions of a Western Poetess," Lippincott's Monthly
Magazine (May 1886); The Heart of the New Thought (Chicago,
1911); The Worlds and I (Chicago, 1918).
B. DAB 20, 203-4; NAW 3, 607-8; NYT, Oct. 31, 1919; SEAP 6, 2846-47; Jenny Ballou, Period Piece: Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Her Times (Boston, 1940).