Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Born and reared in Wisconsin, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, although a resident of New York, is still faithful to the ideals and aspirations of the young and vigorous western state in which she first saw the light. She began writing at an early age, and still has in her possession childish verses, composed when she was only eight years old. She was, however, far from any literary center; she had no one upon whom she might rely for advice as to her methods, and she had no influential friends, for her family was not a wealthy one. The usual difficulties, so familiar to all beginners, met her at every step; discouragements were endured day after day, and year after year. After a while, she began writing for various periodicals. Her first poems appeared in the New York Mercury, the Waverly Magazine, and Leslie's publications. It was from the publishing house of Frank Leslie she received her first check. Her income from literary work was very small and recognition came quite slowly. But courage, and patience, and fortitude, finally won the day.


One of her most fan:ous poems, beginning, "Laugh and the World Laughs with You," was written about February, 1883, at Madison, Wisconsin. She had talked with a friend who had been bereaved by death in her household; later, while dressing for an inaugural ball, given in honor of the governor of Wisconsin, she was startled to think how soon the mind turns from stories of sorrow to scenes of gayety. Thus she formed the idea of this famous poem. It originally appeared in the New York Sun, and the author received five dollars for it. Subsequently, an attempt was made to pirate the verses as the composition of another; but the effort was, happily, a complete failure. The poem embodying the idea, —

"A question is never settled until it is settled right,"

with which W. J. Bryan concludes his book, was written by her after hearing a gentleman make a remark in those words at the conclusion of a heated argument, on the single-tax question. The gentleman was afterward told that Lincoln had made use of this exact expression, years ago. But neither the gentleman in question, nor Mrs. Wilcox herself, had ever heard the expression before.

"The Two Glasses," one of her brightest poems, was written at the age of eighteen. Although this was a "temperance poem," she had never, up to that time, seen a glass of beer or wine. This poem, too, was pirated by one who pretended to be the author.

'The Birth of the Opal" was suggested by Herman Marcus, the Broadway jeweler, who advanced the idea of the opal being the child of the sunlight and moonlight.

"Wherever You Are," originally appeared in Leslie's Popular Monthly. A young man who had served a term in Auburn Prison read this poem, and it became the means of his reformation. Mrs. Wilcox lent him a helping hand, and he is today a hard-working, honest, worthy man.

She regards the poems, "High Noon," "To An Astrologer," and "The Creed," as probably her best efforts. It will thus be noted that she does not prefer the more fervid poems of passion, written in her early youth.


Whoever was begotten by pure love,
And came desired and welcomed into life, Is of immaculate conception.
He Whose heart is full of tenderness and truth,
Who loves mankind more than he loves himself,
And cannot find room in his heart for hate,
May be another Christ. We all may be
The Saviors of the world, if we believe
In the Divinity which dwells in us,
And worship it, and nail our grosser selves,
Our tempers, greeds,, and our unworthy aims
Upon the cross. Who giveth love to all,
Pays kindness for unkindness, smiles for frowns,
And lends new courage to each fainting heart,
And strengthens hope and scatters joy abroad.
He, too, is a Reedemer, Son of God.

Mrs. Wilcox lives in New York City from November to May, and in her cottage at Short Beach, Connecticut, during the rest of the year. Her husband, R. M. Wilcox, is a clear-headed business man, of polished manners, kind and considerate to all whom he meets, —one who, in short, is deservedly popular with all the friends of the happy couple. The summer house at Short Beach is especially charming. It is in full view of the Long Island Sound, with a fine beach in front, and a splendid sweep of country at the rear.


As to "literary methods," Mrs. Wilcox has few suggestions to make, except to recommend hard work, conscientiously performed. She is untiring in her own efforts at rewriting, revising and polishing her productions, and cannot rest until every appearance of crudeness and carelessness is effaced. Her manuscripts are always neat, always carefully considered, and never prepared in undue haste. She believes that no writer can succeed who is a pessimist. She is, therefore, an optimist of the most pronounced type, and believes that all poems should be helpful not hurtful; full of hope, and not of despair; bright with faith, and not clouded by doubt.

''What is your view of the first duties of a young author ?" she was asked, and replied:

"The first thing necessary for you to do is to find out your own motive in choosing a literary career. If you write as the young bird sings, you need no advice from me, for your thoughts will find their way out, as natural springs force their way through rocks, and nothing can hinder you. But if you have merely a well-defined literary ability and taste, you should consider carefully before undertaking the difficult task of authorship.

"An author should be able to instruct, entertain, guide or amuse his readers. Otherwise, he has no right to expect their attention, time or money. If it is merely a question of money, you would be wise to wait until you have a comfortable income, sufficient to maintain life during the first ten years of hterary pursuits. Save in rare cases of remarkable genius, literature requires ten years of apprenticeship, at least, before yielding support to its followers. But be sure that you help, —not harm, humanity. To the author, of all men, belongs the motto, 'Noblesse oblige.' "


"Unless you are so absorbed in your work that you utterly forget the existence of critics or reviewers, you have no right to call yourself a genius. Talent thinks with fear and fawning of critics; genius does not remember that they exist. One bows at the shrine of existing public opinion, which is narrow with prejudice. The other bows at the shrine of art, which is as broad as the universe."

"How do you think a young author should proceed to obtain recognition?"

"In regard to the practical method of getting one's work before the public, I would beg that you would not send it to any well-known author, asking him or her to 'read, criticize, correct, and find a publisher for you.' If such a thought has entered your head, remember that it has entered the heads of five hundred other amateurs, and the poor author is crushed under an avalanche of badly-written manuscripts, not one of which he has time to read. No editor will accept what he does not want, through the advice of any author, however famous.

"Do not attempt to adopt the style of anyone else. Unless you feel that you can be yourself, do not try to be anybody. A poor original is better than a good imitation, in literature, if not in other things.

"Expect no aid from influential friends in any way. The more wholly you depend upon yourself, the sooner will you succeed.

"It is absolute nonsense to talk about 'influence' with editors or publishers. No one ever achieved even passing fame or success in literature through influence or 'friends at court.' An editor might be influenced to accept one article, but he would never give permanent patronage through any influence, however strong.

"As I receive so many hundreds of letters asking how I found my way into print, and through what influences, it may be pardonable for me to say a few words regarding my own experiences. In the first place, I never sent a manuscript to any human being in my life, to ask for an opinion or influence. I always send directly to the editors, and I am not aware that any influence was ever used in my behalf. I have often had an article refused by six editors and accepted by the seventh. An especially unfortunate manuscript of mine was once rejected by eight periodicals, and I was about to consign it to oblivion, when, at a last venture, I sent it to the ninth. A check of seventy-five dollars came to me by return mail, with an extremely complimentary letter from the editor, requesting more articles of a similar kind."


"Very few authors have lived to attain any degree of fame without receiving back their cherished yet unwelcome manuscripts from the hands of one or more unappreciative editors before they met the public eye.

"It is reported of 'David Harum' that six publishers rejected it previous to its final publication.

"Archibald Gunter's book, 'Mr. Barnes of New York,' went the rounds of the various publishing houses, only to be rejected by all. Then Mr. Gunter rose to the occasion, published it himself, and reaped a small fortune from its sales.

"Many a successful short story and poem passes through the 'reading' department of a half-dozen magazines and weeklies without having its merit discovered until a seventh editor accepts it.

"Poems of my own, which have later met much favor from the public, I have seen return with a dejected and dog-eared air, from eight or nine offices, whither they had gone forth, like Noah's dove, seeking for a resting place. A charming bit of verse, written by a friend of mine, took twenty-one journeys from the maternal hand to the editor's table before it found an appreciative purchaser.

"If the young writer will stop and consider that each editor has his own individual ideas of what he wants, both in verse and prose, and that, just as no two faces are alike, no two minds run in the same groove, —he may be hopeful for the ultimate acceptance of the darling of his brain, if he will persevere. Of course, this refers to a writer who possesses actual talent."


"No more absurd idea ever existed than that of the efficacy of 'influence' in literature. An editor will buy what he thinks his readers will appreciate. He will not buy anything which he feels will fall dead on his audience. He may purchase one—possibly two, manuscripts, —to oblige a friend, but it will end there; and one or two manuscripts, so purchased, can never make name or fame for their author.

"It would be just as reasonable to talk about 'influence with a dry-goods merchant, and to expect to make him purchase undesired goods from a manufacturer for friendship's sake, as to think an editor can be influenced by a friend at court.

"Editors are employed by the owners of periodicals to select and publish material which will render the periodical a paying concern. The editor who does not do this may lose his position and his salary. "He is on the watch for attractive matter—and desires to find new material. He is delighted when he discovers a new poet or author. Being mortal, and having but one mind, he can judge of the poems and stories sent to him only from an individual standpoint.

"He not infrequently lets genius slip through his hands, and accepts paste imitations. But he does it ignorantly, or carelessly, not wilfully; or he may have in his collection of accepted manuscripts something similar, which would prevent his use of a poem or sketch at that particular juncture.

"The reasons why an editor declines a good manuscript are innumerable. It is impossible for him to explain them to each applicant for his favor. Nothing indicates the crudity of an author more than a request to criticize a manuscript and point out its defects; for frequently the very first verse or the very first page of a poem or romance decides its fate, and the editor returns it without reading further. Sometimes its length prevents any possibihty of its being used in that particular periodical, while it might be just what another magazine would desire."


"The young writer who decides absolutely upon a literary career, and is confident of his mental equipment for his profession, should read all the current periodicals, magazines, and weeklies, American and English, and observe what style of literature they publish. Then he should make a list of them, and send his poem or his narrative first to the magazine which he feels it is best suited for; if it returns, let him proceed to speed it forth again, after giving it another reading; and so on, until it has finished the circuit of, perhaps, fifty periodicals. This habit of perseverance will be worth something, even if he never sells that manuscript.

"If he is still confident of his powers, let him write in another vein, and proceed in the same manner. This persistency, backed by talent, must win in the long run.

"If he feels he wants criticism, let him apply to some of the literary bureaus which make a business of criticism and revision.

"Very few authors have time to give to this work, nor are they, as a rule, the best judges of the merit of another writer's productions. After all, the secret of a writer's success lies within him. If he is well equipped, he will win, but not otherwise."


There is no chance, no destiny, no fate.
Can circumvent, or hinder, or control
The firm resolve of a determined soul.
Gift counts for little; will alone is great;
All things give way before it, soon or late.
What obstacle can stay the mighty force
Of the sea-seeking river in its course.
Or cause the ascending orb of day to wait?
Each well-born soul must win what it deserves,
Let the fool prate of Luck ! The fortunate
Is he whose earnest purpose never swerves.
Whose slightest action or inaction serves
The one great aim.
Why, even death stands still
And waits, an hour, sometimes, for such a will!

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