TSW Chapter 2.1

 

Tears, Busy Tears

(Bio of Susan Warner)

By Andre Norton

 Susan Warner 003

Susan Warner

     Although Henry Whitney Warner was an unsuccessful lawyer rather than an impractical philosopher, the life lived by his daughters paralleled in insecurity and driving responsibility that of the Alcott girls. Existing even closer to the edge of dire want than the Alcotts -- for the Warners were ultra-reserved and had no friends to supply both material and spiritual aid -- Susan Warner taught herself how to write best sellers which lifted the whole family into fairly comfortable circumstance for the remainder of their quiet lives. There was, however, one great and abiding difference between the Warners and the Alcotts, and perhaps it was the difference which made “Little Woman” a living work to be read unto this day, while “The Wide, Wide World” is now a literary curiosity. The Warners had no sense of humor, life was indeed “duty” as far as they were concerned. While the Alcotts felt free to laugh, and they did.

     The Warner family came of rock-ribbed New England stock. Henry Warner’s father was one of nine sons who lined up together (the youngest was fifteen at the time) to join the Continental army in a body. The young recruit survived the war and ended by marrying his Colonel’s daughter. But farm life was all Jason Warner had to offer his bride. Their sons, Henry and William, worked early and late to gain the book-learning not thought necessary to their station in life. They taught the lower grades in school while they themselves studied in the higher ones.

     Young Henry Warner, equipped with the training in law he had struggled so hard to earn for himself, migrated to the fast growing city of New York. During 1812 he served in the army in an administrative post in the city. And there he married Ann Bartlett who had been raised in a home of wealth.

     Susan was their second child and for a time the only surviving one. The only granddaughter of a wealthy grandmother, she was potted and favored. Her father was following the court circuit and was often away from home for weeks, leaving young Susan the center of a household of adoring women.

     The birth of a sister, Henrietta, was bitterly resented by the small girl. And from this period her home life was divided between the more modest establishment of the young lawyer father and the estate of her grandmother where she lived for long periods of time. Henrietta and another baby born later did not live long, and Susan again became the only child and the center of the family.

     How much this see-saw in family relationships contributed to her later insecurity we cannot determine. But she was always painfully reserved with strangers, given to bouts of sick fear which actually prostrated her, and for the rest of her life had little communication with those outside a small circle of friends who managed to breach the wall the Warner’s erected about themselves. It is apparent that to be a friend of the family it was necessary to go all the way and not be frightened by rebuffs.

     Her formal schooling was limited to a six month period away from home to which very limited reference was afterwards made in the family chronicles: But she had a talent for drawing, and she wrote stories in copy books, and kept a journal. Above all she read, constantly and voluminously. Her much younger sister Anne recalls in her biography of her sister a vivid memory of watching Susan ride off in their grandmother’s coach, eating some special sweetmeat and reading so engrossedly that she did not wave goodby to those left behind.

     Even after the birth of Anne and the death of her mother, Susan continued to spend much of her time at her grandmother’s. Her father’s sister, Aunt Fanny, came to take over the management of the Warner household and there were no ties of duty to hold Susan.

     She was fiercely independent, seeking in this desire to be “different” the attention she had not been sure of since early childhood. A sybarite by nature, with a strong love for warmth and bright colors, she objected to Anne’s copying of her dresses or in any way infringing upon what she had taken for her own in manners and ways.

     The life which was most reel to her lay between the pages of the books she devoured. When bedtime candles were extinguished she would huddle on the hearth and read by the light of the dying fire. For her absorption in this other world, the carriage waited and breakfast went uneaten unless she was forcibly aroused.

     Not pretty, tall, with a long neck and sloping shoulders, she was frail and a worry to more practical members of the family. And since she was a perfectionist, the displeasure of those about her whom she loved could and did goad her into trying to fit herself to a more conventional pattern of living.

     Her journal entry at the age of twelve reads:         “I find that I have spent a most unprofitable week, and as unprofitable a Sunday. The more shame for me. I am now old enough to do better.”

         And:         “Father and Aunty would be glad if I would give up playing sedentary plays altogether, and he has prohibited my playing than for two or three days past, it is not improbable that I am the better for it.”

     These sedentary plays -- reading the descriptions of them left by Anne, as fragmentary and illusive as they are, can only remind one strongly of the Angeria in which the Brontes found an outlet for their undisciplined genius. The Brontes began with a company of wooden soldiers on which to pin the action of their imagined kingdoms. But the Warners made their own actors and actresses -- cardboard dolls, the-earliest-ones an inch or so long. With these were tables, Chairs, bedsteads, all cut and put together. An old footstool turned on its side formed the stage and the plays went on for days. Later, even as the Brontes had discovered, they found that it was not necessary to have the actual physical properties -- the play could go on in the mind--in “talking stories”.

     During the summers the family moved to the old colonial homestead in Canan where the Warner girls had the companionship of cousins close to them in age. In one corner of the big living room their voices made a hum which rivaled that of the spinning wheel still in use there as they worked out these long series of adventures together. Complicated plots, stretching, sometimes not over days or weeks, but years, occupied them all. Susan got the current heroes out of difficulties with flights of imagination which left the others gasping and claiming unfair competition. She drew up lists of proper names and of nations for the others to choose from for their portions of the tale. But they suspected, and often accused her of studying up the story during the day and plotting ahead. To her the dangers were all real and critical and the people present and alive.

     On Sunday afternoons, gathering up shawls and scarves for costumes, the younger generation went into the meadows where, by the hay stacks, they read the Bible aloud, debated Bible questions, and acted out Bible stories.

     While Susan Warner’s pious stories were to begin the school of “Sunday School Literature” in the days to come, she was well read in the secular literature of the day. Her education was mostly self-gained, for though she had regular tutors, she was but an irregular pupil. Her father taught daughters grammar, history, and literature -- the use of the globes (a quaint addition to the feminine education of that day), and tried to teach Susan Latin and Greek but her awkwardness so offended his critical sense that he at last gave up this task in disgust. She had tutors for singing, Italian, and the piano.

     But she continued to depend upon reading for her education. In an attempt to ration her inordinate consumption of fiction her father began reading aloud. And between these sessions she was not permitted to touch the books. Though during the reading of “Waverly” she begged to be allowed to see the name “Flora Mclver” in print. In this way as a family group they enjoyed the Waverly novels, Shakespeare, Dickens, Paradise Lost, Maria Edgeworth’s works, Boswell’s Johnson, Goldsmith, Hume, and The Swiss Family Robinson.

     But the censorship imposed by "Victorianism" was already in force. There were works not “suitable for a young lady”. Mr. Warner marked those passages of “The Wandering Jew” which his daughters might read and the rest of the book remained a closed secret.

     Brought up in a retired fashion, not even mingling with her contemporaries in school, fastidious to a high degree, and extremely reserved, Susan also showed signs of that snobbishness which was later apparent in her books. Such an entry in her journal as the following foreshadowed “Fleda’s” reaction to the country women of “Queechy”:         “One thing annoys me much. The girls who come to help her in harvest time will call Aunt Fanny by her Christian name, and will come into the front room and sit down as if they were equals. This worries me and makes me angry, though Aunty says it is foolish.”

     We can well imagine that any farmer’s daughter “helping out” in the Warner household honestly believed herself to be the equal of Miss Susan Warner and would have been not only hurt but angry at the suggestion that she was not.

     Susan was fifteen in l837, a tall, too-slender, introverted girl, her health poor, largely because of constant study and lack of exercise. But to this time she had led the sheltered, cloistered existence of a convent bred novice. And she visibly shrank from romance and men except as they appeared in print. When a friend laughingly commented on the frequent visits of a gentleman to the house, she returned bitingly:         “I hope I shall never be reduced so low as to make my conversation about such things.”

     But it was in this year that their peaceful, happy life came to a sudden and dark end. Henry Warner to this date had prospered in the financial schemes being spun out of New York. No merchant, he had drifted along on the stream of rising income making a series of investments, eager to gather enough to retire and live as a scholarly country gentleman. His brother was now chaplain at West Point and, having visited there often, Henry took a fancy to the small island in the river, privately owned and within rowing distance of the Academy.

     He finally purchased Martlaer’s Rock (now Constitution Island) and drew up plans for making it into a fine estate. The old Pre-Revolutionary farm house was deemed too old-fashioned and crude to be the Warner home. But it was this same house which sheltered them after the crash.

     For 1837 was a panic year, and Henry Warner was not only wiped out but left with a vicious law suit and a mountain of debts, Beaten and unable to face the future in the city or attempt another start, he withdrew with his family to the island.

     Anne was young and stable enough to accept the change eagerly. But to Susan it was the end of the secure world. She was ridden by fears, the list of which, made out in her sister’s account, is lengthy. She was, we are told precisely, afraid of storms, burglars, steamboats, horses, cattle, worms, snakes, mice, bats, and caterpillars. Before she seated herself on any chair out of doors she would inspect it carefully up and down for the presence of any creeping thing. During the night she arose at intervals to try the bedroom door to be sure it was locked. Papers had to be kept from her in times of public disaster and a few years later she passed through a nervous crisis during which the tester rings of her high poster bed rattled with the force of her trembling body.

     Yet she was transported into the wilds of an overgrown island, there, by main force of an iron will, to make herself the staunch core of a family, to defer to and bolster a defeated man, and be the support of a sister and an aunt. What a torture this was is revealed in her slow physical breakdown and the Sufferings (undoubtedly psychomatic) which made the rest of her life a misery.

     In place of the gentleman’s estate they had pictured only months before planning extensive gardens, private bridle paths, pacing off the foundations of the mansion-to-be, the Warner’s found themselves engulfed by ragged fields waist-high in uncut hay, tangled brush, and thickets of scrubby trees. There was no money to hire other hands to hack at this maze. So the Warner girls themselves tackled the problem of clearing living space about the century old house they were trying to make habitable. They chopped branches to free ground and to provide their own firewood. Thereby breaking the local bounds of conventionality. Once when so at work some trick of acoustics across the water brought them the words of an oarsman in a passing boat which gave them a fairly clear idea of how they stood in the eyes of the male members of the community:         “They go out to chop and saw instead of mending stockings. They’d a better a darn sight stay at home and wash the dishes, and let the servants do it.”

     Only there were no servants -- except an odd job man in periods of affluence later on -- and they did darn socks, and wash the dishes as well.

     Susan found work to occupy her mind as well during these hard months by teaching both her young sister and a cousin who chose to share part of their exile. She taught Italian, French and music. And struggled herself to keep up her own studies, reading Tasso, French history, and keeping her journal in French for practice.

     But lessons with-Susan had many of the attributes of the old “talking stories” of happier days. Instead of the lists of names and countries for imagined heroic action, the children drew slips of paper daily from a box provided by Susan. Lettered on each in decorative old English script was the name of a city, a country, a state, or a personage. This was to be studied thoroughly with all references tracked down. It might be “Richard the First”, to include “warriors of his reign”, “learned men”, “events” etc.

     In spite of their poverty and the crudeness of their new surroundings the entire Warner family continued to live in an atmosphere of learning and books. Friends reported years later that they would sit at the breakfast table for hours -- talking of some subject, fetching reference books one after another to prove some point, until the dishes were banished and the table covered with volumes.

     Susan became so obsessed with the necessity for research, so governed by her meticulous desire for absolute truth, that in later years one could hardly force a direct assertion out of her. She was determined on unwavering correctness. It is this humorless, dutiful, searching approach to life which plunged her at last into the center of emotional religious experience.

     A snub from an associate of earlier days hurt her so deeply that she turned to search for the promise of another life in which lost wealth and forfeited social position would not matter. And, with that intensity and drive with which she attacked all intellectual questions, she began the study of the principles of religious belief, coming at last to the moving “conversion” of the Victorian era.

     The Warner financial position declined steadily and uncertainty about the future must have been an abiding ogre ever at Susan’s shoulder.

     Henry Warner, with dim hopes of recovering his law practice, went to New York for a winter, leaving the women alone on the island. It was in these dark, lonely days that Anne Warner suggested they develop one of their childhood games into a commercial product which might be sold to bring them in the needed ready cash for supplies of food, candles, and clothing.

     The game, based on natural history, was christened “Robinson Crusoe’s Farmyard”. Anne, tied to the couch in the big living room by illness for most of the winter, worked with the books her sister brought her, the girls choosing the proper animals together. There were twenty-four cards in the pack, tame and wild animals mixed, and these were painted by hand -- their own cat serving as one of their models. Their father brought them the necessary white cardboard from New York. Each card contained questions which were answered in a small accompanying book.

     Henry Warner offered the finished product in New York and it was purchased by George Putnam. The girls were to color the cards at so much a sheet to add to their meager earnings.

     This offer arrived at a dark moment. The law suit so long a burden had been settled against the Warners and they were gathering family treasures which must be sold to satisfy the claim when the cases of cards arrived. That evening the sisters sat down in a stripped room, barren of many loved heirlooms, to paint cards. For a year and a half they continued this work, adding their bit to the family funds.

     But it was during this same busy winter that Susan began writing what was to be her masterpiece -- “The Wide, Wide World”. Again it is Anne who provides us with a picture of Susan’s debut as an author. She tells the story of how they were engaged in washing the tea dishes one evening when Aunt Fanny said suddenly:         “Sue, I believe if you would try, you could write a story.”

     And as Susan Warner put away teacups the first glimmer of plot crossed her mind -- the picture of a child tossed out on the world.

     Religion was the keynote of the book -- its whole atmosphere was emotionally pious. As Anne tells us:         “It was written in closest reliance upon God, for thoughts, for power, and for words. Not the mere vague wish to write a book that should do service to her Master, but a vivid, constant looking to him for guidance and help: The worker and the work both laid humbly at the Lord’s feet. In that sense the book was written upon her knees, and the Lord’s blessing has followed it, down to this day.”

     In New England at this date the morbid beliefs of the Puritan had either been distilled into a seeking liberalism as typified by the circles in which the Alcotts, Emerson and the Concord philosophers moved, or turned into the highly emotional channels feeding upon the “revivals”. Susan Warner was too reticent to be given an outlet by the “revival”, but she was not attracted either by the liberalism of the transcendentalists. Her beliefs, as expressed in her books, were tinged with the gloominess of the older day.

     On the other hand, apart from the highly emotional attitude toward religious subjects, she gave in her writing pictures of contemporary life which are still arresting, drawing upon the backgrounds furnished by the old Warner New England properties and the New York she had known as a girl.

     As she worked Anne and Aunt Fanny read the manuscript, though never quite to the point of her daily stint. And it was Anne who named the book which took little over a year to write.

     The manuscript was speedily returned from Carters with no explanation. And the comment scrawled upon its first page by a Harper’s reader -- “Fudge” -- was humiliating. But Henry Warner continued to offer it to publisher after publisher. George Putnam, receiving it in turn, took it home over the weekend and gave it to his mother to read. She returned it with the solemn injunction that if he never published anything else, he should this. Mrs. Putnam knew her reading public -- she was entirely correct.

     But, still uncertain as to the fate of her first effort Susan was already writing again. That summer Mrs. Siggourney announced a four hundred and fifty dollar prize for the best essay on female patriotism, to be eventually published in a magazine called “The Ladies’ Wreath”. And Miss Warner took up her pen to compete.

     When the news of acceptance of “The Wide, Wide World” came from Putnam’s, Susan was totally ignorant as to the mechanics of proof reading. The Putnam family knowing of the isolated life of the Warner island, suggested that she come to New York and spend some weeks with them, correcting proof -- since the mails were uncertain and time was essential. Together Susan and Anne painstakingly copied the list of corrections for proof out of an old encyclopedia, and Susan ventured out into the world as an authoress.

     For three weeks in September and October of 1850 she lived with the Putnams, correcting the proof. It became her custom -- and later a set pattern of life -- to rise early in the morning and correct ten pages or more before breakfast. Since it was still considered not quite in the best of taste for a wellborn young lady to write for publication, she used as a pen name that of her grandmother, Elizabeth Wetherall. (While Anne, in her own literary efforts later used that of their other grandmother, Amy Lathrop.)

     The book was issued on December l2, 1850, and within three months had sold fifteen hundred copies. Within two years it had gone into fourteen editions. It was just what the reading public wanted, religion, sentiment, and an American scene contrasted with elegant Scottish social life.

     The New York Times trumpeted: “One book like this is not produced in an age.” And it became the first best seller in the history of American fiction.

     Here was the Christian maiden, the perfection of young womanhood (though far removed from the ordinary mortals one met in daily life). ”The Wide, Wide World” was the history of the education of such a maiden, how she could be forced into the pattern of perfection, the mold desired by her elders -- taught the virtues of resignation, suffering, loving kindness, faith and charity.

     Of course there were those who remained stubbornly set against the perfection of Ellen Montgomery. After the issue of the book in England, Lord Frederick Hamilton described it somewhat snappishly as being about “a tiresome little girl named Ellen Montgomery, who apparently divided her time between reading her pocket Bible and indulging in paroxysms of tears.”

     And the London review of 1855 stated that it was “too emotional for children”.

     But such dissenters were few. On the other hand we have “Incomparable work, read with the most heartfelt sympathy and delight” or “Almost faultless excellence of The Wide, Wide World.” Those critics liked it.

     For Susan’s Warner’s productions were teary, the salt streams flowed across the pages in endless waves. Her readers loved it. And according to the Christian Review she succeeded “Better than any other writer in our language in making religious sentiment appear natural and attractive, in a story that possesses the interest of a romance.” Romances were bad—“The Wide, Wide World” was entirely pure and good.

     The fortunes of the Warner family had reached a very low ebb in the month preceding the publication of Susan’s work of art, Against all her instincts and desires she was about to try for a position as governess. But writing had already become so much a part of her that she had started “Queechy”, finishing the first chapter before the first of December. Good news came on December seventh -- she had won Mrs. Siggourney’s prize and could now buy the winter cloaks and hats for all three Warner ladies.

     And on December Seventeenth Henry Warner returned from a New York trip with the author’s copies of “The Wide, Wide World” in his luggage. Susan’s Christmas gift to Anne this year was one of those prized volumes appearing appropriately enough for the season patterned with red page edging.

     And in January came the first public notice of her work when her father read aloud the reviews printed in The Evening Post, The Boston Chronicle, and The Literary World.

     But one could not eat reviews, however laudatory -- nor burn them for work candles. And there was no cash in the winter darkened island home. The-sisters, when they wanted to read their work to each other in the evenings, were forced to depend upon the unsteady light furnished by a strip of rag embedded in a saucer of lard. It was not until later that Henry Warner made one of his periodic visits home, bringing food and other supplies -- and the new one volume edition of “The Wide, Wide World” brave with gilt.

     February Twenty-Second found the last of the first edition sold, and by now the book had become so popular that, it being temporarily out of print, those shops still fortunate enough to have one or two copies left raised the price to two dollars and a quarter or two dollars and a half.

     That was all very well but Susan herself had not yet received any of the money her work had earned. And she had no idea of whether the book was a success or not. Undecided about the future she wrote George Putnam a frank latter, asking whether or not he deemed it well for her to continue her literary efforts or to turn to the needle for support. His reply was that the book was now selling well in the second edition and that “many have chosen the pen with less warrant and encouragement.”

     Now the money came. While most of it was banked against a future the Warner’s for the rest of their lives never quite trusted to be bright some went for a piano, the black silk dresses which were then the badges of the respectable lady, and for riding habits and a mount. Once long before they had planned a course of rides about the island, now they were going to see that early dream come into partial realization.

     And now “Queechy” was also finished. Putnam was only lukewarm about the book, but he brought out an edition of five thousand copies, a bigger start than he had ever granted any novel bearing his imprint before. And in June Susan was able to note confidently in her journal that “Queechy has met with great favor and keeps selling.”

     Sell it did. And because of its pictures of small town American life in the mid-nineteenth century it can safely be read-today with profit by the researcher in social history.

     But Susan had gone back to work. She set herself a regular program of production -- three or four pages a day, using very large sheets of notepaper and writing with a fine hand, the lines close together, so that four pages meant a large number of words. The entries in her journal during this period read:

     “Accomplished but three pages, and those by the hardest effort. Can that be worth much which is so excessively difficult to produce? What do I want? Rest, I think, sometimes, and perhaps spirit -- spirit for my work at least. I am glad now when I got through my task and can come down stairs to my German, music and reading.”

     But the winter of 1852 and their improved financial standing brought them to New York. Anne was writing also and both sisters had proof to correct. Printer’s messengers would leave the big rolls of proof sheets at ten or eleven at night--the sisters would find these waiting when they arrived home from a reception or a pleasant evening in company. But before daylight, when the messengers arrived to collect the sheets again, they were always done.

     A new world opened to the Warner girls, the door pushed ajar by the Putnams. A staid society it was, but a literary one, and the sisters blossomed in its somewhat pallid glow. They ventured on entertainment in return, improvising and proud of doing much with very little.

     Having had to crowd into a few lodging rooms, they turned a big square-closet into a reception room, ingenuously hanging its walls with red canton flannel (then very new) which the sisters assured each other did resemble velvet by candle light. There were three camp chairs to be strategically placed, and a fresh supply of coffee and sugar beside the fine German coffee machine. Anne made their cake and buns: And the old fashioned silver candelabra, one of the few remaining relics of their affluent past shared the table with the-cake stand. Some evenings they regaled as many as thirty guests, among them the Carey sisters and the Putnam family.

     In return the Warners enjoyed the assemblies at the Putnams, where visiting lions such as Thackery and Lowell were on display. And Susan’s comment on William Makepeace Thackery went down in the small talk of literary history:           “He is an excellent man, but there is a whole world he knows nothing of -- a world which I know.”

     Susan was not engaged on a new work of history this season. Instead she labored over what she considered to be a monumental piece of serious research. “The Law and the Testimony” was advertised for publication in August, 1855. Eight hundred and forty pages made up the text on the great doctrines of Christianity, brought together under their separate heads. Henry Warner aided in hunting up the quoted passages and outlining the subject matter.

     Part of this was done in the city and part on the island to which they returned in the spring. Now they established a regular pattern for their days. Arising at half past six in the morning, they rode on the ring established in nearby fields. Since there was only one horse, they went to this solemn exercise supplied with books and sewing, and were employed between turns on the mount. Returning home at eleven they took a dip in the river bath house before settling down at their desks.

     Children’s books became their “bread and butter” writing. Susan’s “Mr. Rutherford’s Children” contains some excellent pictures of New York hotel life as well as of country scenes. And it provides a very good description of how well-to-do children of the period were educated.

     But “The Wide, Wide World” continued to bring in the checks which were slowly pulling the Warners out of debt and into the security Susan craved. The good days, however, did not last. There was another panic in l857 and the Warner sisters had to surrender their small savings to retain title to the island. Again shadows gathered and the girls worked with energetic grimness.

     They did everything to raise money, wrote -- children’s books, novels, articles -- corrected compositions for a boarding school, made up dictation papers for a teacher, went without all but bare necessities and made their own clothes. No more trips to New York and pleasant evenings in the box room with the red flannel drapes. Instead they remained on the island during the winter of 1858-1859 and wrote jointly on “Say and Seal”.

     And the winter days followed the almost military mold of those live by the cadets of West Point, if not more severe. For the sisters arose before five A.M. and were already hard at work when gun and reveille turned out the corps across the river.

   The night before they prepared bread and butter, saw that the kindling basket was full and the tea-kettle ready on the hearth in the Revolutionary period room which was their study. Anne got up at four-thirty and had the fire burning, the kettle near boiling, a tray of cups and saucers set out, and the green shaded student lamp burning. They ate together and then settled to work amid the sleeping household, sure of no interruptions for several hours.

     Steady application brought results. But they were never free of the fear of poverty. Their pleasures were limited and almost pitiful in their narrowness. In January 1860 Susan received a New Year’s gift from Anne, a stereoscope and six views. And being on a visit to New York she made the stupendous discovery that one of the shops offered a dozen views for a dollar, to be chosen from any on a large table. The sisters went to work with their customary careful thoroughness and were a whole morning considering and selecting, coming away with the scenes they could never hope to see in life, Melrose, the Castle of Edinburg, Egypt, Wales -- Susan studied these eagerly, using them to piece out her research reading for her books to come.

     This was the second winter they had in town and they spent most of their working hours at the Astor Library where Dr. Cogswell set aside a special corner and a table for their convenience.

     But again the good times did not last. The outbreak of war put an end to wide book buying. And on August Fourteenth, 1861, Susan notes in her journal that they could not afford the three dollars and fifty cents apiece which would mean new summer dresses.

     Books did not sell well, they would have to find other means of support. In January, 1861, they worked out a prospectus for a child’s magazine. And they were able to start with three hundred subscribers. This venture lasted two years until the rising prices brought on by war wiped it out. They lost nothing on it, however. And the books they had written for it as serials were published in hard covers: “Melbourne House”, “Daisy”, “The Old Helmet”.

     Susan also wrote a series of Bible books for children. Compiling all the known material on manners and customs, geography and exploration of Biblical lands. Intent upon exact research she used her slender funds to import source material. In contrast to this Biblical research she also began a series of short stories intended for older readers and based upon strange family histories and legends of the surrounding Hudson Valley. Many of these she retailed to close friends before writing them out, and all were dramatic and largely tragic, a large number dealing with trouble arising from misdirected or lost letters.

     “Ellen Montgomery’s Bookshelf” comprised a series of short juvenile narratives separately bound and intended for sale to Sunday School Libraries. The grind of turning out this material must have worn down Susan’s none too steady nerves but the fear of their income not matching their yearly needs was the whip under which both sisters worked.

     This same pressure kept Susan from retaining the copyright of her later works as she dared not wait for the slower return of royalties but sold each manuscript as it was finished.

     After her father’s death in 1875 her health steadily declined and she died, worn out by work and the fear of insecurity, in l885, having given most of her life to the support of a family of four and the maintenance of the island home which was a constant drain upon their funds.

     She was buried at West Point as her contacts with the academy and the cadets were close. For many years she had conducted a Bible class on Sunday afternoons for the cadets, who considered it a high privilege to be invited to attend these informal gatherings in the orchard on the island. After graduation many of these boys continued to correspond from far away Army posts.

     Anne Warner was the last survivor of the family and upon her death it was discovered that the island had been willed, by the wish of both sisters, to West Point. It remains a possession of the Academy to this day.

     What did this nervous, driven, never truly happy woman have to offer which made her novels household treasures for two generations and gave her a secure place in the minor reaches of American literature?

     She was an innovator in several fields. Had it not been for “The Wide, Wide World” we might not have had “Little Women” For she was the first writer to combine -- for girls and their mothers -- American characters and a natural background. She introduced the “Sunday School” book, a narrative in which fervid evangelism was coupled with a home atmosphere and an interesting plot. Her books can still be read with profit by social historians who wish a picture of manners, customs, and country society as it existed a hundred years ago.

     Critics on such magazines as the North American Review said of her books:         “As a matter of pure judgment, we must place their pictures of American country life and character above all their other merits since we know not where, in any language, we shall find their graphic truth excelled.”

     While another criticism is just as apt but would not be considered in the least complimentary today:         “No living writer, not even Mrs. Stowe, knows better how to open the fountain of tears, or goes more directly to the heart of the readers.”

     Nowadays an author has no desire to open fountains of tears, and would rather appeal to the head than the heart. But in her day Susan Warner gave the public exactly what they wanted and produced the first American best-seller.


 

Known works of Susan Warner:

 

Alphabetical Order:

 

 

 

Bread and Oranges

My Desire

The Broken Walls of Jerusalem and the Rebuilding of Them

Nobody

The Christmas Stocking

The Old Helmet

Daisy

Opportunities

Diana

Pine Needles

The End of a Coil

Queechy

The Flag of France

The Rapids of Niagara

The Gold Chickasee (with her sister Anne)

A Red Wallflower

Heimwarts

Say and Seal

The Hills of the Shatemuc

Scepters and Crowns

The House in Town

Stephen

The House of Isreal

Trading

The Kingdom of Judah

Den Vide, Vide Verden

The Law and the Testimony

Walks from Eden

The Letter of Credit

“What She Could”

The Little Camp on Eagle Hill

The Wide, Wide World

The Little House of Cape Cod

Willow Brook

Melbourne House

Wych Hazel

Mr. Rutherford’s Children

 

 

 

 

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"The Scribbling Women"
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