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
"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."