Ella Wheeler Wilcox

by Unknown

"If you haven't what you like, try to like what you have."

In this quotation is found the philosophy of life during many severe trials of one whose girlhood and early career as a writer were spent entirely within the confines of Wisconsin. Ella Wheeler was born at Johnstown Center, Wisconsin, sometime in the '50's, and the family moved to a farm near Madison when she was a year old. The discussion of her life given here is derived quite largely from her own statements in an article, "My Autobiography," published in the Cosmopolitan magazine for August, 1901.

Mrs. Wheeler, Ella's mother, was a woman of some literary inclinations and was very fond of reading. She loved not only the good society of books, but she longed also for the pleasures of the social life of a cultured community such as she had known in her Vermont home. Pioneer life was especially irksome to her, and she found herself unable to meet patiently the many hardships that the change of fortune had brought her, and her attitude in the home was not always buoyant.

Some time after the home was established in Wisconsin, there was born to these parents their fourth child, Ella, the future  poetess. It may not be too much to say, since Mrs. Wilcox seems to think it herself, that from the struggles of the father to meet the hardships that his new life brought him, may have sprung that bit of wholesome philosophy which stands at the head of this discussion. It is evident that she found many opportunities to test it to the utmost. From the suppressed literary desires of the mother may have come the intense longing of the daughter to achieve helpfulness through writing.

From the standpoint of language training this home was far from limited, and Ella had opportunities here accorded to the minority of children even at the present time. She says: "My mother was a great reader of whatever came in her way, and was possessed of a wonderful memory. The elder children were excellent scholars, and a grammatical error was treated as a cardinal sin in the household." That Ella profited from this inheritance and training may be seen from the following statements. At school she found the composition exercises the most delightful of all her school duties. As early as eight she was excelling in the expression of her thoughts in essay form. By the age of fourteen she had become the neighborhood celebrity because of her stories and her poetry. Naturally these pioneer people would criticise the mother for allowing Ella to scribble so much when she might have been doing household or  farm tasks; but their criticism was silenced, and they learned to praise her efforts when they found that there was a market with the magazines and papers for Ella's "scribblings."

At the age of fourteen Ella Wheeler's education, "excellent in grammar, spelling and reading, but wretched in mathematics," was completed so far as the rural school was concerned. Sometime later, through great sacrifice on the part of her people, she was placed for one term in the University of Wisconsin. Of this experience she says: "I was not at all happy there; first, because I knew the strain it put upon the home purse; second, because I felt the gulf between myself and the town girls, whose gowns and privileges revealed to me for the first time, the different classes in American social life; and third, because I wanted to write and did not want to study." Thus her school work ended and her acquisition of knowledge necessary to furnish details for her emotional poems has been made through her individual study since the University experience.

Ella Wheeler's struggle to become a writer is one of the most inspiring stories among Wisconsin writers. A weekly paper came to the home and besides this there was an old red chest in their upstairs wherein there was kept the often-read copies of Arabian Nights, Gulliver's Travels, John Gilpin's Ride, and a few of Shakespeare's plays. In addition to these, friends had sent the family the New York Ledger and the New York Mercury. The serial stories of these papers furnished not only pleasing reading, but models of plots and of forms of expression which became the guide to her in the art of story writing.

When Ella was thirteen years old the Mercury ceased to come to her home, and she regretted the loss of the stories so much that she determined to write something for the paper with the hope that the publisher would pay for her article through subscription. After some delay this brought the much coveted subscription and she says: "Perhaps the most triumphant and dramatic hour of my life was when I set forth and announced to the family that my literary work had procured the coveted Mercury for our united enjoyment."

This experience led her to write extensively for the magazines and papers, a list of which a University friend had sent her. The articles which they accepted soon enabled her to supply the home with many periodicals and books and other articles of home use. She was not content with writing essays very long, but soon undertook the production of verse. Her first poem was rejected by the Mercury with some degree of scorn, but she soon offered it to other papers and so continued until she found a publisher. Very frequently some of her articles would be returned as many as nine times before she found a publisher.

The Wheeler family were enthusiastic advocates of total abstinence, and Ella used her pen to advance this cause. Her first collection of poems into book form was entitled "Drops of Water." A poem with temperance as its theme is given as the first illustration of her efforts in the collection published here.

Ella Wheeler's training tended to make her the lyric rather than the narrative poetess. She wrote largely of the emotion that played through her passing experiences. "Everything in life," she says, "was material for my own emotions, the remarks or experiences of my comrades and associates, sentences from books I read, and some phases of Nature." In general three things may be said to characterize these short poems and her own life as revealed by them, for her life itself is a poem. First, she is convinced that the supreme thing in life is love. In one poem she asserts that love is the need of the world. In another, "The Kingdom of Love," which is given later, she truthfully proclaims that love is the very essence of the home.

The second characteristic is her spirit of buoyancy which has enabled her to surmount the many crushing deprivations and disappointments in her life. She was born with an unquenchable hope and an unfaltering trust in God and guardian spirits. "I often wept myself to sleep after a day of disappointment and worries," she says, "but woke in the morning singing aloud with the joy of life." It was such experiences as these that enabled her to say:

"Laugh and the world laughs with you;
Weep and you weep alone."

Her faith in the better things to be is well expressed in the little poem, "The Tendril's Fate." Trials to her are frequently the means by which the soul's true worth is tested. This thought is expressed in the poem, "Three Friends." She bears trials not merely for her own sake, but for the sake of those about her. We are illustrating this quality with the poem "Ambition's Trail." Her faith that life has still much that is better than the present may be illustrated by her Morning Prayer.

The third characteristic manifest in her poetry is that of the spirit of helpfulness that manifests itself in every new phase of life that she assumes. This attitude is illustrated with respect to mankind in general and also with respect to her own sex. The poems used are "I Am" and "Which Are You?"

With love and helpfulness as the bond which unite mankind, Mrs. Wilcox feels there is no place for strife and warfare. She assails war and expresses her conviction that womankind shall have much to do with the final disarmament of nations. She believes implicitly in the mutual helpfulness of man and woman in solving the great problems of the world. Her own home life is one of constant happiness and of constant useful activity. When asked to express what life means to her she wrote an article for the Cosmopolitan which began thus: "Exhilaration, anticipation, realization, usefulness, growth—these things life has always meant and is meaning to me. I expected much of life; it has given, in all ways, more than I expected. Love has been more loyal and lasting, friendship sweeter and more comprehensive, work more enjoyable, and fame, because of its aid to usefulness, more satisfying than early imagination pictured." Of one whose ideals of life are so high the state should be justly proud and its people should delight to hear her sing:

"I know we are building our heaven
As we journey along by the way;
Each thought is a nail that is driven
In structures that cannot decay,
And the mansion at last shall be given
To us as we build it today."

It was not until after her return from the University that Ella Wheeler discovered that her poems had a money value. She sent Frank Leslie's Publishing House three little poems written in one day. These were accepted and a check sent her for ten dollars. She now bent every effort towards making her literary efforts return substantial aid to herself and her family. It was all her own effort and the worth of her productions that brought her success, for she had no one to aid her in securing publication. She sent her poems to various magazines,—a practise she still continues. During the years 1912 and 1913, she had poems and prose productions listed in the following periodicals: Current Literature, Everybody's, Good Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal, Collier's Magazine, New England Magazine, The Bookman, Lippincott's, Forum, Cosmopolitan, Musician, Current Opinion, and Hearst's magazine.

Mrs. Wilcox has attempted only one long narrative poem, "Maurine." In this she endeavors to set forth the doctrine of what she regards as the highest type of friendship. Her collections of poems bear the following titles: Drops of Water, Shells, Poems of Passion, Three Women, An Ambitious Man, Everyday, Thought in Prose and Verse, Poems of Pleasure, Kingdom of Love and Other Poems, An Erring Woman's Love, Men, Women and Emotions, The Beautiful Land of Nod, Poems of Power, The Heart of the New Thought, Sonnets of Abelard and Heloise, Poems of Experience, Yesterday, Poems of Progress, Maurine, and Poems of Problems.

Some time after a brief venture in editorial work, she was married, 1884, to Robert M. Wilcox, a business man of New York City. Their home life in the city and by the seashore at Granite Bay, Short Beach, Connecticut, has been most delightful to them. They have been able to travel extensively and in this manner to realize many of Mrs. Wilcox's early dreams. The following poems are from "The Kingdom of Love" and "Poems of Power."