Dictionary of American Biography.
New York: Scribner's Sons, c1936
v. 10, p 203-204
WILCOX, ELLA WHEELER (Nov. 5, 1850-Oct. 30, 1919), poet, was the youngest daughter of Marius Hartwell and Sarah (Pratt) Wheeler. She was born in Johnstown Center, Wis., not far from Madison. A few years before her birth, her father, a teacher of the violin, dancing, and deportment in Thetford, Vt., had emigrated to Wisconsin, where after the failure of financial ventures he resumed his teaching of dancing. It was, however, to her mother, also of Vermont stock, that Ella Wheeler Wilcox attributed her literary talents. Interest in writing manifested itself very early. She wrote a novel for the amusement of her sisters before she was ten, and read eagerly such publications as the New York Mercury and the New York Ledger, and the books of such authors as Mary Jane Holmes, Mrs. E.D.E.N.Southworth [qq.v.] and "Ouida." Having had an essay published in the New York Mercury in her early teens, she offered other essays in various competitions, won a number of prizes, and began to send out her poems, the first of which were ridiculed by the editor of the Mercury. The first poem published under her name appeared in Waverly Magazine, and her first cash payment came from Leslie's. Her family, hoping to encourage her in her literary work, sent her for a year (1867-68) to the University of Wisconsin, but she found her work there of little value to her. She continued to write at least two poems a day, many of them being accepted for publication, and by the time she was eighteen she was making a substantial contribution to the family income. For a few months she worked on a trade paper in Milwaukee. Her first book of poems, Drops of Water (1872), a collection of temperance verses, was followed by Shells (1873), and Maurine (1876), a narrative poem. Her first success, however, came with the rejection of Poems of Passion by Jansen and McClurg of Chicago on the ground that the volume was immoral. The story appeared in the Milwaukee newspapers, was widely reprinted, and served to insure the book a wide sale when it was published in 1883 by another company. On May 1, 1884, she was married to Robert Marius Wilcox (d. 1916), a manufacturer of works of art in silver, and went to live in Meriden, Conn. A son, born on May 27, 1887, lived only a few hours. Thereafter the Wilcoxes spent their winters in New York, entertaining many writers and artists. In 1891 they built a bungalow at Short Beach, Conn., where they spent their summers. They traveled widely, in the Orient as well as Europe. They both constantly engaged in private charitable enterprises.
Mrs. Wilcox's literary activities did not cease with her marriage. She published some twenty volumes (for the most part, poetry) after 1884, wrote a daily poem for a newspaper syndicate for several years, and contributed frequent essays to the Cosmopolitan and other magazines. In 1901 she was commissioned by the New York American to go to London and write a poem on the death of Queen Victoria. In 1913 she was presented to the Court of St. James's. During 1918 she toured the army camps in France, reciting her poems and delivering talks on sexual problems. As a result of over-exertion, she fell ill in the spring of 1919. After spending some time in a nursing home in Bath, England, she was brought back to the United States. She died three months later at Short Beach, Conn.
Both she and her husband believed in the possibility of communication with the dead and were frequent atendants at spiritualist seances. After her husband's death she made repeated efforts to communicate with him, and believed that she finally succeeded in doing so by means of the ouija board. She was also interested in theosophy, maintaining that she had learned self-control from an East Indian monk. All her later work, poetry and prose, shows the influence of the teachings of "New Thought." Her autobiographical writings were "Literary Confessions of a Western Poetess" (Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, May 1886), "My autobiography" (Cosmopolitan, August 1901), The Story of a Literary Career (1905), and The Worlds and I (1918). Throughout her life she enjoyed great popularity. She took her work most seriously. Defending herself against critics who spoke of platitudes and sentimentality, she maintained that her poems comforted millions of weary and unhappy persons, and she appears to have been right.
[In addition to Ella Wheeler Wilcox's autobiog. writings, sources include Who's Who in America, 1916-17; E.D. Walker, in Cosmopolitan, Nov. 1888; Lit. Digest, Nov. 22, 1919; Theodosia Garrison, in Bookman, Jan. 1920; obituary in N.Y.Times, Oct. 31, 1919; information from Ruth Chapin Ritter.] G.H. [Granville Hicks]