Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and her First Story

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Some years ago the author of Gates Ajar told in an American magazine how she began her literary career. From this account we quote:

"The town of Lawrence was three miles and a half from Andover. Up to the year 1860 we had considered Lawrence chiefly in the light of a place to drive to.... Upon the map of our young fancy the great mills were sketched in lightly; we looked up from the restaurant ice-cream to see the hands pour out for dinner, a dark and restless, but a patient, throng, used in those days, to standing eleven hours and quarter—women and girls—at their looms, six days of the week, and making no audible complaints; for socialism had not reached Lawrence, and anarchy was content to bray in distant parts of the geography at which the factory people had not arrived when they left school....

"...One January evening, we were forced to think about the mills with curdling horror that no one living in that locality when the tragedy happened will forget.

"At five o'clock the Pemberton Mills, all hands being at the time on duty, without a tremor of warning, sank to the ground.

"At the erection of the factory a pillar with a defective core had passed careless inspectors. In technical language the core had 'floated' an eighth of an inch from its position. The weak spot in the too thin wall of the pillar had bided its time, and yielded. The roof, the walls, the machinery fell upon seven hundred and fifty living men and women, and buried them. Most of these were rescued, but eighty-eight were killed. As the night came on, those watchers on Andover Hill who could not join the rescuing parties, saw a strange and fearful light at the north.

"Where we were used to watching the beautiful belt of the lighted mills blaze—a zone of laughing fire from east to west, upon the horizon bar—a red and awful glare went up. The mill had taken fire. A lantern, overturned in the hands of a man who was groping to save an imprisoned life, had flashed to the cotton, or the wool, or the oil with which the ruins were saturated. One of the historic conflagrations of New England resulted.

"With blanching cheeks we listened to the whispers that told us how the mill-girls, caught in the ruins beyond hope of escape, began to sing. They were used to singing, poor things, at their looms—mill-girls always are—and their young souls took courage from the familiar sound of one another's voices. They sang the hymns and songs which they had learned in the schools and churches. No classical strains, no 'music for music's sake,' ascended from that furnace; no ditty of love or frolic, but the plain, religious outcries of the people: Heaven is my Home, Jesus, Lover of my Soul, and Shall we Gather at the River? Voice after voice dropped. The fire raced on. A few brave girls still sang:

Shall we gather at the river,
There to walk and worship ever?

"But the startled Merrimac rolled by, red as blood beneath the glare of the burning mills, and it was left to the fire and the river to finish the chorus.

"At the time this tragedy occurred, I felt my share of its horror, like other people; but no more than that. My brother, being of the privileged sex, was sent over to see the scene, but I was not allowed to go.

"Years after, I cannot say just how many, the half-effaced negative came back to form under the chemical of some new perception of the significance of human tragedy.

"It occurred to me to use the event as the basis of a story. To this end I set forth to study the subject. I had heard nothing in those days about 'material,' and conscience in the use of it, and little enough about art. We did not talk about realism then. Of critical phraseology I knew nothing, and of critical standards only what I had observed by reading the best fiction. Poor novels and stories I did not read. I do not remember being forbidden them; but, by that parental art finer than denial, they were absent from my convenience.

"It needed no instruction in the canons of art, however, to teach me that to do a good thing, one must work hard for it. So I gave the best part of a month to the study of the Pemberton Mill tragedy, driving to Lawrence, and investigating every possible avenue of information left at that too long remove of time which might give the data. I visited the rebuilt mills, and studied the machinery. I consulted engineers and officials and physicians, newspaper men, and persons who had been in the mill at the time of its fall. I scoured the files of old local papers, and from these I took certain portions of names, actually involved in the catastrophe, though, of course, fictitiously used. When there was nothing left for me to learn on the subject, I came home and wrote a little story called "The Tenth of January,' and sent it to the Atlantic Monthly, where it appeared in due time.

"This story is of more interest to its author than it can possibly be now to any reader, because it distinctly marked for me the first recognition which I received from literary people."