Grant Martin Overton.

The women who make our novels. online

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some childhood fact with a large degree of grown-up


fiction, she wrote a little story entitled Laddie, the
Princess, and the Pie"

She dreaded failure, she who had been bred to be-
lieve that failure was disgraceful. " 'I who waded
morass, fought quicksands, crept, worked from lad-
ders high in the air, and crossed water on impro-
vised rafts without a tremor, slipped with many mis-
givings into the postoffice and rented a box for my-
self, so that if I met with failure my husband and
the men in the bank need not know what I had at-
tempted.' "

That was in May ; in September the storekeeper con-
gratulated her on her story in the Metropolitan. She
had not seen it. She wrote to the editor and got a
quick reply. An office boy had lost or destroyed her
address and he had been waiting to hear from her.
Would she do a Christmas story?

She would, and did, and he asked for illustrations.
She found that his time limit gave her one day to
do them in. She worked from 8 A. M. to 4 A. M.
to make the necessary photographs, which required
special settings and costuming.

Not long after, Mrs. Porter wrote a short
story of 10,000 words and sent it to the Century.
Richard Watson Gilder advised her to make a book of
it. This is the origin of The Song of the Cardinal.
"Following Mr. Gilder's advice, she recast the tale
and, starting with the mangled body of a cardinal
some marksman had left in the road she was travel-
ing, in a fervor of love for the birds and indignation
at the hunter she told the cardinal's life history." The
book was published in 1903.


She illustrated the book herself after dangers and
hardships of which the reader seldom has any con-
ception. Securing a mere tailpiece picture once cost
her three weeks in bed where she lay twisted in con-
vulsions and insensible most of the time. ).

Freckles appeared in the fall of 1904. She had
been spending every other day for three months in
the Limberlost swamp, making a series of studies of
the nest of a black vulture. She combined two men
to make'McLean of the story, but Sarah Duncan was
a real woman; Freckles was a composite of certain
ideals and her own field experiences, merged with
those of a friend. For the Angel she idealized her
own daughter. The book is dedicated to her husband,
because he helped make it possible. She had promised
him not to work in the Limberlost. " There were
most excellent reasons why I should not go there.
Much of it was impenetrable. Only a few trees had
been taken out; oilmen were just invading it. In its
physical aspect it was a treacherous swamp and quag-
mire filled with every plant, animal and human dan-
ger known in the worst of such locations in the Cen-
tral States/ ' Nevertheless lumbermen had brought
word of the vulture's nest. " 'I hastened to tell my
husband the wonderful story of the big black bird,
the downy white baby, the pale blue egg/ ' So he
said he would go with her.

It was awful.

" 'A rod inside the swamp on a road leading to an
oil well we mired to the carriage hubs. I shielded
my camera in my arms and before we reached the well
I thought the conveyance would be torn to pieces and


the horse stalled. At the well we started on foot,
Mr. Porter in kneeboots, I in waist-high waders. The
time was late June; we forced our way between steam-
ing, fetid pools, through swarms of gnats, flies, mos-
quitoes, poisonous insects, keeping a sharp watch for
rattlesnakes. We sank ankle deep at every step and
logs we thought solid broke under us. Our progress
was a steady succession of pulling and prying each
other to the surface. Our clothing was wringing
wet, and the exposed parts of our bodies lumpy with
bites and stings. My husband found the tree, cleared
the opening to the great prostrate log, traversed its
unspeakable odors for nearly forty feet to its farthest
recess, and brought the baby and egg to the light in
his leaf-lined hat.

1 'We could endure the location only by dipping
napkins in deodorant and binding them over our
mouths and nostrils. Every third day for almost three
months we made this trip, until Little Chicken was
able to take wing/ '

The story itself Freckles originated in the fact
that one day, while leaving the swamp, a big feather
with a shaft over twenty inches long came spinning
and swirling earthward and fell in the author's path.
It was an eagle's, but Mrs. Porter had been doing
vultures, so a vulture's it became.

Freckles took three years to find its audience. The
marginal illustrations made people think it purely a
nature book. The news that it was a novel of the kind
you simply must read had to get about by word of
mouth. The copy that lies beside us as we write this
sketch was printed in 1914, ten years after the story's


first appearance. The jacket says that by 1914 exactly
670,733 copies had been sold. And the most impor-
tant three of the ten years were largely wasted !

Publishers told Mrs. Porter then and afterward,
repeatedly and emphatically, that if she wanted to sell
her best and make the most money she must cut out
the nature stuff. But, as she says, her real reason in
writing her novels was to bring natural history at-
tractively before the people who wouldn't touch it in
its pure state.

1 'I had had one year's experience with The Song of

e Cardinal, frankly a nature book, and from the start
I realized that I never could reach the audience I
wanted with a book on nature alone. To spend time
writing a book based wholly upon human passion and
its outworking I would not. So I compromised on a
book into which I put all the nature work that came nat-
urally within its scope, and seasoned it with little bits
of imagination and straight copy from the lives of
men and women I had known intimately, folk who
lived in a simple, common way with which I was fa-
miliar. > So I said to my publishers : "I will write the
books exactly as they take shape in my mind. You
publish them. I know they will sell enough that you will
not lose. If I do not make over $600 on a book I
shall never utter a complaint. Make up my work as
I think it should be and leave it to the people as to
what kind of book they will take into their hearts
and homes." I altered Freckles slightly, but from
that time on we worked on this agreement.

" 'My years of nature work have not been without
considerable insight into human nature, as well/ con-


tinues Mrs. Porter. 'I know its failings, its inborn
tendencies, its weaknesses, its failures, its depth of
crime; and the people who feel called upon to spend
their time analyzing, digging into, and uncovering
these sources of depravity have that privilege, more's
the pity! If I had my way about it, this is a privi-
lege no one could have in books intended for indis-
criminate circulation. I stand squarely for book cen-
sorship, and I firmly believe that with a few more
years of such books as half a dozen I could mention,
public opinion will demand this very thing. My life
has been fortunate in one glad way: I have lived
mostly in the country and worked in the woods. For
every bad man and woman I have ever known, I have
met, lived with, and am intimately acquainted with
an overwhelming number of thoroughly clean and
decent people who still believe in God and cherish high
ideals, and it is upon the lives of these that I base what
I write. To contend that this does not produce a pic-
ture true to life is idiocy. It does. It produces a pic-
ture true to ideal life; to the best that good men and
good women can do at level best.

" 'I care very little for the magazine or newspaper
critics who proclaim that there is no such thing as
a moral man, and that my pictures of life are senti-
mental and idealized. They are! And I glory in
them ! They are straight, living pictures from the lives
of men and women of morals, honor, and loving kind-
ness. They form "idealized pictures of life" because
they are copies from life where it touches religion,
chastity, love, home, and hope of Heaven ultimately.
None of these roads leads to publicity and the divorce


court. They all end in the shelter and seclusion of
a home.

' 'Such a big majority of book critics and authors
have begun to teach, whether they really believe it or
not, that no book is true to life unless it is true to the
worst in life, that the idea has infected even the
women/ n j

A Girl of the Limberlost " 'comes fairly close to my
idea of 'a good book. No possible harm can be done
any one in reading it. The book can, and does, present
a hundred pictures that will draw any reader in closer
touch with nature and the Almighty, my primal object
in each line I write. The human side of the book is
as close a character study as I am capable of making.
I regard the character of Mrs. Comstock as the best
thought-out and the cleanest-cut study of human nature
I have so far been able to do.' '

Prior to the appearance of A Daughter of the Land
this was Mrs. Porter's best book, unquestionably. All
she says about it is perfectly true, but she does not
give herself proper credit in respect of one or two of
the book's qualities. There is much humor in it and
the delineation of Kate Comstock, particularly in the
first half of the book, has the sharpness of line and
the sureness of handling visible in a fine etching. Con-
sciously or subconsciously Mrs. Porter created at the
very outset of her story, in the second chapter, a sit-
uation which appeals to the most thrilling and satis-
fying instinct in the human breast. Elnora, pitifully
dressed, has spent a humiliating first day at high school
in town. Since her mother will not provide them,
Margaret and Wesley Sinton go forth at nightfall to


buy the clothes the girl needs to wear and sit up half
the night to get them ready quickly. It is both hu-
morous and genuinely moving. The reader shares
their burst of generosity. He shops with them and
sits up with them and worries with them and rejoices
and partakes of their happiness in "doing for" the girl ;
he is all the while quite conscious of the humor of the
situation without any abatement of the tenderness and
delight that is his as well as theirs. This is great work ;
it may not be great literature; whether it is or not
depends on what you require "literature" to give you.
The innumerable readers who require literature to give
them what life gives them (or even more, what life
unjustly withholds from them) emotion, pure, deep,
contenting and cleansing these will ask no more than
Mrs. Porter gives them here.

The idea of The Harvester was suggested to Mrs.
Porter by an editor who wanted a magazine article,
with human interest in it, about ginseng diggers. As
she looked into the raising of the drug, the idea came
to her of a man growing drug plants professionally
and of a sick girl healed by them. " 'I wrote pri-
marily to state that to my personal knowledge, clean,
loving men still exist in this world, and that no man
is forced to endure the grind of city life if he wills
otherwise. ... I wrote the book as I thought it should
be written, to prove my points and establish my con-
tentions. I think it did. Men the globe around
promptly wrote me that they had always observed the
moral code; others that the subject never in all their
lives had been presented to them from my point of
view, but now that it had been, they would change and


do what they could to influence all men to do the
same/ "

Laddie ".'Of a truth, the home I described in this
book I know to the last grain of wood in the doors,
and I painted it with absolute accuracy; and many of
the people I described I knew more intimately than I
ever have known any others. .) . . There was such
a man as Laddie, and he was' as much bigger and
better ^than my description of him as a real thing
is always better than its presentment.' '

Mrs. Porter does not put money first, nor any-
where near first. "When the public had discovered
her and given generous approval to A Girl of the
Limberlost, when The Harvester had established a
new record, that would have been the time for the
author to prove her commercialism by dropping na-
ture work, and plunging headlong into books it would
pay to write, and for which many publishers were
offering her alluring sums. Mrs. Porter's answer
was the issuing of such books as Music of the Wild -
and Moths of the Limberlost. No argument is nee- (
essary." No argument is possible. Mrs. Porter has
spent a great deal of the small fortunes her novels
have brought her on nature books which represent
years of field work and a staggering expenditure for
scientific materials.

This is Mrs. Porter's own description of the Lim-
berlost swamp where she has done so much work
and which she has made yield such good stories.

' 'In the beginning of the end a great swamp re-
gion lay in northeastern Indiana. Its head was in
what is now Noble and DeKalb counties; its body in


Allen and Wells, and its feet in southern Adams
and northern Jay. The Limberlost lies at the foot
and was, when I settled near it, exactly as described
in my books. The process of dismantling it was told
in Freckles to start with, carried on in A Girl of the
Limberlost, and finished in Moths of the Limberlost.
Now it has so completely fallen prey to commercial-
ism through the devastation of lumbermen, oilmen,
and farmers, that I have been forced to move my
working territory and build a new cabin about sev-
enty miles north at the head of the swamp in Noble
county, where there are many lakes, miles of un-
broken marsh, and a far greater wealth of plant and
animal life than existed during my time in the south-
ern part. At the north end every bird that frequents
the Central States is to be found. Here grow in
profusion many orchids, fringed gentians, cardinal
flowers, turtle heads, starry campions, purple gerar-
dias, and grass of Parnassus. In one season I have
located here almost every flower named in the bota-
nies as native to those regions and several that I can
find in no book in my library.

" 'But this change of territory involves the pur-
' -chase of fifteen acres of forest and orchard land, on
a lake shore in a marsh country. It means the build-
ing of a permanent, all-year-round home, which will
provide the comforts of life for my family and fur-
nish a workshop consisting of a library, a photo-
graphic darkroom and negative closet, and a printing
room for me. I could live in such a home as I could
provide on the income from my nature work alone;
but when my working grounds were cleared, drained


and plowed up, literally wiped from the face of the
earth, I never could have moved to new country had
it not been for the earnings of my novels, which I
now spend, and always have spent, in great part,
upon my nature work. Based on this plan of work
and life/IJhaye written ten books, and "please God
I live so long," I shall write ten more v Possibly
every one of them will be located in northern In-
diana. 4 Each one will be filled with all the field and
woods legitimately falling to its location and peopled
with the best men and women I have known/ '

This promise Mrs. Porter has kept in her latest
novel, A Daughter of the Land, (the story of Kate
Bates, an American through and through, who fought
for her freedom against long odds, renouncing the
easy path of luxury that leads to loss of self-re-
spect. ) It is Mrs. Porter's finest novel, this story of a
woman's life from her teens to well past fortyXfrom
school days to her second marriage./ It is a much more
ambitious attempt than any of her other stories and
as successful as it is big.

- Shamelessly we have built this chapter almost en-
tifely upon Mrs. Porter's own account of herself
but could any one do better than to present that? We
are confident he could not. And aside from what she
has to say of her v stories they call for no special
survey one by one. ) The one supremely significant
thing to grasp is her sincerity and her giving of the
best that is in her. Now, the mass of people possess,
in respect of these "qualities in a writer, a sort of
sixth sense, a perfectly infallible instinct that tells
them when a writer is sincere, when he is giving


of his best. It is the faculty aptly described in the
phrase: "I don't know much about literature, but I
know what I like!' To be sure you do ! And that's
as near as ready characterization can come to the
secret! The person who has achieved a certain^ meas-
ure of sophistication or who has cultivated his taste
(which may mean improving it but always means
narrowing it) does not know what he likens! ^He
knows only what he doesn't like or at least he is
always finding it. He pays the price of every re-
finer in the loss of broad and basic satisfaction. Cul-
tivate a tongue for caviar and you lose the honest
and healthful enjoyment of corned beef and cabbage.
When you appreciate Bach you can no longer get
thrilling pleasure hearing a military band. It's the
same way everywhere and with everybody .j

If some people find no pleasure or benefit in Gene
Stratton-Porter's stories, that is exclusively their own
fault. \ They are looking for certain aesthetic satis-
factions" in what they read and they require them so
absolutely that the writer's best and the writer's sin-
cerity cannot compensate for their absence. Is it
good to have come to such a state? Every one must
make up his own mind about that, even as he must make
his own decision whether he will strive to attain it.
Everything of this sort is to be had for a price,
if you want to pay so much. ^

' 'To my way of thinking and working the greatest
service a piece of fiction can do any reader is to leave
him with a higher ideal of life than he had when he
began. If in one small degree it shows him where he


can be a gentler, saner, cleaner, kindlier man, it is a
wonder-working book.' '

Thus Gene Stratton-Porter. There is incontest-
able evidence that her books have done these very
things. I Literature, we have been tolc^ is "a criticism
of life." How about molding lives? }



The Song of the Cardinal, 1903.
Freckles, 1904.

What I Have Done With Birds [Friends in Feath-
ers], 1907.

At the Foot of the Rainbow, 1908.

A Girl of the Limberlost, 1909.

Birds of the Bible, 1909.

Music of the Wild, 1910.

The Harvester, 1911.

Moths of the Limberlost, 1912.

Laddie, 1913.

Michael O'Halloran, 1915.

Morning Face.

A Daughter of the Land, 1918.

Mrs. Porter's books are published by Doubleday,
Page & Company, New York.



IN the pleasant old town of Cambridge, Mass-
achusetts, there is a fourth (top floor) apart-
ment and above it a roof garden. Come up on
the roof. "Fresh, clean light canvas, framed in by
borders of flowers, with a hammock to dream in and
a good stout table and a typewriter," confront us.
At the table a little woman, blonde, youthful look-
ing, her light and fluffy hair neatly combed, her blue
eyes "laughing eyes" changing expression rapidly
with her thoughts. She is writing with a lead pencil
and when she stops to talk to us she shows a ready
wittedness, a conversational gift, an aliveness that
are charming charming!

She tells us that she works here every morning
when too boisterous winds or a driving storm do
not make it impossible; or too low a temperature.
She writes novels. It takes her a year to do one and
when she has finished she is good for nothing for
several days. She writes each book three times;
first in lead pencil, the second draft on the typewriter
here, "and it is this copy that is polished over and re-
written and tinkered with and all fixed up." The
third draft has usually few changes. It, or a stenog-
rapher's copy of it, goes to the publisher, and later



there comes a message from Houghton Mifflin Com-
pany in Boston:

"Advance orders for your new novel Just David
are 100,000 copies."

Isn't that rewarding? Just David will be out in
a few days now. . . .

The author of Just David and The Road to Un-
derstanding and Oh, Money! Money! and, why of
course pf Pollyannal is not thinking of the royal-
ties that will be hers on 100,000 copies of her novel.
No. Eleanor H. Porter makes a moderate fortune
with each of her books. But what rewards her for
the task of writing them did you ever sit down
and write, just write, 80,000 words, let alone telling
a story? what gives her the satisfaction that's of
the heart is the invincible proof that a hundred
thousand are buying her book on faith. They believe
in her, in her work ; she has pleased them, made them
happier or better somehow, somewhere, somewhen;
they look to her for help, for cheer, for entertain-
ment, for a kind of enlightenment that they haven't
found elsewhere and that will be supremely worth
their while.

Stand aside, you who are sophisticated, cynical,
world worn and merely flippant! If you could see
assembled before you in one vast throng this hun-
dred thousand and tens of thousands more, if you
could see them gathered about you with upturned
interested, expectant and eager faces, what would
you say? What could you say? Do you think your
sophistication would be proof against the expression
on these faces? Do you think that you could give


them what they need? Would your subtleties help
them? Would they listen to you and go away a
little braver, a little more comforted, a little readier
to face life?

Up in the White Mountains there's a cabin called
after the girl Pollyanna. Out in Colorado there's a
Pollyanna teahouse. A little maid in Texas bears
the name. The builder of an apartment house in an
Indiana city has his fancy struck. There's a Polly-
anna brand of milk, and Pollyanna clubs are formed
whose members sport an enameled button showing
a young girl's sweet face. Surely the woman who
can so touch the hearts, the imagination, or even
merely the fancy of men and women and children
everywhere surely she and her work call for re-
spectful consideration. There must be something
here, something admirable, if we can only put our
fingers on it! There is.

And first let us hear about Mrs. Porter herself.
We have met her at work. Was there anything to
suggest direct descent from Governor William Brad-
ford of the Mayflower and the ' 'stern and rockbound
coast"? There was not. There was, however, a
suggestion of a childhood spent in an oldtime white
frame New England house, with green blinds and
big pillars in front. There was certainly more than
a suggestion of a child brought up to play indoors
and out. With a little imagination we could have
seen her studying music, always music, loving to
improvise. "I liked to play out all my moods and
everything I saw and heard. I could get rid of my
tempers, too, by sometimes just playing them out.


And I liked to play the beautiful things I saw sun-
sets, woods and lakes. ... In that way, per-
haps, David is autobiographical. . . . The many
years' training in voice as well as instrumental music
has never failed to help me in expressing just the
mood I want to express."

She was born in Littleton, New Hampshire, a
place of some few thousands in the White Mountains,
the daughter of Francis H. Hodgman and Llewella
Woolson Hodgman. She had a brother to play with.
She "knew the woods from early childhood." Little
verses and stories by her commemorated birthdays
and other occasions of moment. In high school ill
health arrested her studies. For a while books had
to be put entirely aside and she lived a good deal out-
doors. Spruce, fir, cedar and tamarack, mountain
flowers and plants, became personalities to be distin-
guished one from another and to be delighted in for
their peculiarities. When she wrote Just David she
had only to recall her youth, after all.

Health regained, she went to Boston for more
musical study under private teachers and at the New
England Conservatory. She sang in concerts and
in church choirs. In 1892 she was married to John
Lyman Porter. She lived a year in Chattanooga
and a few years in New York and Springfield, Ver-
mont; Boston (Cambridge) has been her home with
these exceptions. Mr. and Mrs. Porter have lived

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Online LibraryGrant Martin OvertonThe women who make our novels. → online text (page 7 of 23)