Excerpts from Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward's Chapters from a Life

[On her first publications]

The first thing which I wrote, marking in any sense the beginning of what authors are accustomed to call their "literary career," -- I dislike the phrase and wish we had a better, -- was a war story.

As nearly as I can recall the facts, up to this time I had shown no literary tendency whatever, since the receipt of that check for two dollars and a half. Possibly the munificence of that honorarium seemed to me to satiate mortal ambition for years. It is true that, during my schooldays, I did perpetrate three full-grown novels in manuscript. My dearest particular [end p. 74] intimate and I shared in this exploit, and read our chapters to each other on Saturday afternoons.

I remember that the title of one of these "books" was "The Shadow of a Lifetime." It was a double title with a heroine to it, but I forget the lady's name, or even the nature of her particular shadow. The only thing that can be said about these three volumes is, that their youthful author had the saving sense not to try the Christian temper of a publisher with their perusal.

Yet, in truth, I have never regretted the precious portion of human existence spent in their creation; for I must have written off in that way a certain amount of apprenticeship which does, in some cases, find its way into type, and devastate the endurance of a patient public.

The war story of which I speak was distinctly the beginning of anything like genuine work for me. Mr. Alden tells me that it was published in January, 1864; but I think it must have been written a while before that, though not long, for its appearance quickly followed the receipt of the manuscript. The name of the story was "A Sacrifice Consumed," It was a very little story, not covering more than four or five pages in print. I sent it to " Har- [/75] per's Magazine," without introduction or what young writers are accustomed to call " influence ; " it was sent quite privately, without the knowledge of any friend. It was immediately accepted, and a prompt check for twenty-five dollars accompanied the acceptance. Even my father knew nothing of the venture until I carried the letter and enclosure to him. The pleasure on his expressive face was only equaled by its frank and unqualified astonishment. He read the story when it came out, and, I think, was touched by it, -- it was a story of a poor and plain little dressmaker, who lost her lover in the army, -- and his genuine emotion gave me a kind of awed elation, which has never been repeated in my experience. Ten hundred thousand unknown voices could not move me to the pride and pleasure which my father's first gentle word of approval gave to a girl who cared much to be loved and little to be praised; and the plaudits of a "career" were the last things in earth or heaven then occupying her mind.

Afterwards, I wrote with a distinct purpose, and, I think, quite steadily, I know that longer stories went, soon and often, to the old magazine, which never sent them back ; and to which I am glad to pay the tribute of a gratitude that I have never outgrown. There was nothing of [/76] the stuff that heroines and geniuses are made of in a shy and self-distrustful girl, who had no faith in her own capabilities, and, indeed, at that time the smallest possible amount of interest in the subject.

It may be a humiliating fact, but it is the truth, that had my first story been refused, or even the second or the third, I should have written no more.

For the opinion of important editors, and for the sacredness of market value in literary wares, as well as in professorships or cotton cloth, I had a, kind of respect at which I sometimes wonder; for I do not recall that it was ever distinctly taught me. But, assuredly, if nobody had cared for my stories enough to print them, I should have been the last person to differ from the ruling opinion, and should have bought at Warren Draper's old Andover book-store no more cheap printer's paper on which to inscribe the girlish handwriting (with the pointed letters and the big capitals) which my father, with patient pains, had caused to be taught me by a queer old traveling master with an idea. Professor Phelps, by the way, had an exquisite chirography, which none of his children, to his evident disappointment, inherited.

But the editor of "Harpers" took everything I sent him; so the pointed letters and [/77] the large capitals continued to flow towards his desk.

Long after I had achieved whatever success has been given me, this magazine returned me one of my stories -- it was the only one in a lifetime. I think the editor then in power called it too tragic, or too something ; it came out forthwith in the columns of another magazine that did not agree with him, and was afterwards issued, I think, in some sort of " classic " series of little books.

I was a little sorry, I know, at the time, for I had the most superstitious attachment for the magazine that, when " I was a stranger, took me in; " but it was probably necessary to break the record in this, as in all other forms of human happiness. A manuscript by any chance returned from any other quarter seemed a very inferior affliction.

Other magazines took their turn -- the "Atlantic," I remember -- in due course; but I shared the general awe of this magazine at that time prevailing in New England, and, having, possibly, more than my share of personal pride, did not very early venture to intrude my little risk upon that fearful lottery.

The first story of mine which appeared in the "Atlantic " was a fictitious narrative of certain psychical phenomena occurring in Connecticut, [/78] and known to me, at first hand, to be authentic. I have yet to learn that the story attracted any attention from anybody more disinterested than those few friends of the sort who, in such cases, are wont to inquire, in tones more freighted with wonder than admiration : " What ! Has she got into the ' Atlantic ' ? "

The "Century" came in turn, when it came into being. To this delightful magazine I have always been, and always hope to be, a contributor.

I read, with a kind of hopeless envy, histories and legends of people of our craft who " do not write for money." It must be a pleasant experience to be able to cultivate so delicate a class of motives for the privilege of doing one's best to express one's thoughts to people who care for them. Personally, I have yet to breathe the ether of such a transcendent sphere. I am proud to say that I have always been a working woman, and always had to be ; though I ought to add that I am sure the proposal that my father's allowance to his daughter should cease, did not come from the father.

When the first little story appeared in " Harper's Magazine," it occurred to me, with a throb of pleasure greater than I supposed then that life could hold, that I could take care of myself, and from that day to this I have done so. [/79]

One hesitates a little, even in autobiography, about saying precisely this. But when one remembers the thousands of women who find it too easy to be dependent on too heavily-weighted and too generous men, one hesitates no longer to say anything that may help those other thousands of women who stand on their own feet, and their own pluck, to understand how good a thing it is to be there.

Of all the methods of making a living open to educated people to-day, the profession of literature is, probably, the poorest in point of monetary returns. A couple of authors, counted successful as the world and the word go, said once, --

" We have earned less this year than the fisherman in the dory before the door of our summer home." Perhaps it had been a good year for Jack; possibly a poor one for those other fishers, who spread their brains and hearts -- a piteous net -- into the seas of life in quest of thought and feeling that the idlers on the banks may take a summer's fancy to. But the truth remains. A successful teacher, a clever manufacturer, a steady mechanic, may depend upon a better income in this country than the writer whose supposed wealth he envies, and whose books he reads on Sunday afternoons, if he is not too sleepy, or does not prefer his bicycle. [/80]

When we see (as we have actually done) our market-man driving by our old buggy and cheap horse on holidays, with a barouche and span, we enjoy the sight very much ; and when I say (for the other occupant of the buggy has a little taste for two horses, which I am so plebeian as not to share, having never been able to understand why one is not enough for anybody), "But would you be the span-owner -- for the span ? " we see the end of the subject, and grow ravenously contented.

[On writing children's books]

One cannot live by bread or magazine stories alone, as the young daughter of toil too soon found out. Like other writers, I did hack work. Of making Sunday-school books I scarcely found an end. I must have written over a dozen of them; I wince, sometimes, when I see their forgotten dates and titles in encyclopaedias ; but a better judgment tells me that one should not be ashamed of doing hard work honestly, I was not an artist at Sunday-school literature (there are such), and have often wondered why the religious publishing societies kept me at it so steadily and so long.

There were tales of piety and of mischief, of war and of home, of babies and of army nurses, of tomboys, and of girls who did their mending and obeyed their mothers.

The variety was the only thing I can recall [/81] that was commendable about these little books, unless one except a considerable dash of fun.

One of them came back to me; it happened to be the only book I ever wrote that did -- and when the Andover expressman brought in the square package, just before tea, I felt my heart stand still with mortification. Fortunately nobody saw the expressman. I always kept my ventures to myself, and did not, that I can remember, read any manuscript of mine to suffering relatives or friends before publication. Indeed, I carried on the writer's profession for many years as if it had been a burglar's.

At the earliest moment possible I got myself into my little room, and turned both keys upon myself and my rejected manuscript. But when I came to read the publisher's letter, I learned that hope still remained, a flickering torch) upon a darkened universe. That excellent man did not refuse the story, but raised objections to certain points or forms therein, to which he summoned my attention. The criticism called substantially for the rewriting of the book. I lighted my lamp, and, with the June beetles butting at my head, I wrote all night. At three o'clock in the morning I put the last sentence to the remodeled story -- the whole was a matter of some three hundred and fifty pages of manuscript -- and crawled to bed. At six I [/82] stole out and found the expressman, that innocent and ignorant messenger of joy or woe. The revised manuscript reached the publisher by ten o'clock, and his letter of unconditional acceptance was in my hands before another tea-time.

I have never been in the habit of writing at night, having been early warned against this practice by the wisest of fathers (who notably failed to follow his own advice) ; and this almost Solitary experience of the midnight oil remains as vivid as yesterday's sunset to me. My present opinion of that night's exploit is, that it signified an abnormal pride which might as well have received its due humiliation. But, at the time, it seemed to be the inevitable or even the creditable thing.

Sunday-school writers did books by sets in those days; perhaps they do still. And at least two such sets I provided to order, each of four volumes. Both of these, it so happens, have survived their day and generation -- the Tiny books, we called them, and the Gypsy books. Only last year I was called upon to renew the copyright for Gypsy, a young person now thirty years old in type.

There is a certain poetic justice in this little circumstance, owing to the fact that I never worked harder in my life at anything than I [/83] did upon those little books; for I had, madly enough, contracted to supply four within a year.

We had no vacations in those days; I knew nothing of hills or shore; but " spoke straight on " through the burning Andover summers. Our July and August thermometers used to stand up hard at over ninety degrees, day and night) for nearly a week at a time. The large white mansion was as comfortable as ceiled walls and back plaster could be in that furnace but my own small room, on the sunny side of the house, was heated seven times hotter than endurance. Sometimes I got over an open register in a lower room, and wrote in the faint puffs of damp air that played with my misery. Sometimes I sat in the cellar itself; but it was rather dark, and one cherished a consciousness of mice. In the orchard or the grove, one's brains fricasseed quickly; in fact, all out-of-doors was a scene of bottomless torment worthy of a theology older and severer than Andover's. I am told that the Andover climate has improved of late years.

When the last chapter of the last book was done, it occurred to me to wonder whether I might ever be able to afford to get for a week or two where the thermometer went below ninety degrees in summer. But this was a wild [/84] and baseless dream, whose irrationality I quickly recognized. For such books as those into which I had been coining a year of my young strength and heart, I received the sum of one hundred dollars apiece. The " Gypsy " publisher was more munificent. He offered one hundred and fifty; a price which I accepted with incredible gratitude.

I mention these figures distinctly, with the cold-blooded view of dimming the rosy dreams of those young ladies and gentlemen with whom, if I may judge by their letters, our country seems to be brimming over.

[On writing; advice to aspiring writers ]

" Will you read my poem ? " " Won't you criticise my manuscript?" "I would like to forward my novel for your perusal." " I have sent you the copy of a rejected article of mine, on which I venture to ask" -- etc., etc. "I have been told that all I need is influence." " My friends think my book shows genius ; but I have no influence." "Will it trouble you too much to get this published for me ? "

"Your influence" --and so on, and so on, run the piteous appeals which every successful author receives from the great unknown world of discouraged and perplexed young people who are mistaking the stir of youth or vanity, or the ennui of idleness, or the sting of poverty, for the solemn throes of power. [/85]

What can one do for them, whom no one but themselves can help ? What can one say to them, when anything one says is sure to give pain or dishearten courage ?

Write, if you must; not otherwise. Do not write, if you can earn a fair living at teaching or dressmaking, at electricity or hod-carrying. Make shoes, weed cabbages, survey land, keep house, make ice-cream, sell cake, climb a telephone pole. Nay, be a lightning-rod peddler or a book agent, before you set your heart upon it that you shall write for a living. Do anything honest, but do not write, unless God calls you) and publishers want you, and people read you, and editors claim you. Respect the market laws. Lean on nobody. Trust the common sense of an experienced publisher to know whether your manuscript is worth something or nothing. Do not depend on influence. Editors do not care a drop of ink for influence. What they want is good material, and the fresher it is, the better. An editor will pass by an old writer any day for an unknown and gifted new one, with power to say a good thing in a fresh way. Make your calling and election sure. Do not flirt with your pen. Emerson's phrase was, "toiling terribly." Nothing less will hint at the grinding drudgery of a life spent in living "by your brains." [/86]

Inspiration is all very well; but " genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains."

Living ? It is more likely to be dying by your pen; despairing by your pen; burying hope and heart and youth and courage in your ink-stand.

Unless you are prepared to work like a slave at his galley, for the toss-up chance of a freedom which may be denied him when his work is done, do not write. There are some pleasant things about this way of spending a lifetime, but there are no easy ones.

There are privileges in it, but there are heart-ache, mortification, discouragement, and an eternal doubt.

Had one not better have made bread or picture-frames, run a motor, or invented a bicycle tire ?

Time alone -- perhaps one might say, eternity -- can answer.


Elizabeth Stuart Phelps [Ward]. Chapters From a Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1896: 74-87.
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