A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Women Writers of California." by Mrs. Ella Sterling Cummins.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 184-189.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 184] 

THE WOMEN WRITERS OF CALIFORNIA.

By MRS. ELLA STERLING CUMMINS.

MRS. ELLA STERLING CUMMINS.
The people of California have a peculiar standard of their own from which they judge of the value of a story or an article. They have to be fed on strong meats. They require the boiled down process. They insist on the essence of things. Pretty little love stories or homespun tales won't do for the Californian public. So great is the demand for that which is strong that there is no objection to the improbable element being introduced into a story so long as the possible verities are maintained. But a possible story which is not true in its ring merits, in their eyes, immediate condemnation. The possible improbable is all right, but the improbable possible is all wrong. For instance, they will read with pleasure and delight of the gentleman who was found and thawed out after being "eighteen centuries in ice," if he is dressed in ancient garments and speaks the tongue of that time, and otherwise comports himself as he should to carry out the illusion. But woe be unto the story of a man told of as living in San Francisco who does not comport himself historically correct with the times, nor act as an average citizen might in every particular. The writers there cannot create people out of their imaginations; they must be types of living people. Perhaps sometimes this requirement brings to light queer creatures, just as if you overturned a stone and studied the unpleasant living things below–the bluish bugs, the beetle, the angle worm, the thousand-legged worm, the little red spider, the uncanny things usually to be found in such a place–but we know the artist's studio is always lined with unpleasant studies, and the writer, like the artist, cannot paint beautiful things only. It would not be true; and besides, it would pall upon the taste like too many sweets. The Californian reading public cares nothing for sweets, very little for that which is merely beautiful, a great deal for that which is strong and for that which is true. The result is a rugged, picturesque literature, which is to be found in the old files of the journals and magazines rather than in book form. Thus it is that, all unknown to the great world east of the Rockies, has arisen a school of writers, including women, which has achieved a style and quality of composition distinctly original and native to that latitude. While it was first evolved and made known by means of the genius of Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller and Mark Twain, yet this literary movement has not been confined to them alone, nor has it ceased with their departure from the state. [Page 185] 

Having made a study of this literature for the past seven or eight years, in order to prepare a work upon the subject, I have been much impressed by the part women have played in this literary movement

There has been a list of books by California writers catalogued by a society of San Francisco women. In this list I find the names of ninety women and one hundred and fifty-five volumes. In the list of the Pacific Coast Woman's Press Association I find the names of over one hundred women connected with matters of the pen and pencil. Besides, there are many (women writers unchronicled and unrecorded) who are connected with newspapers, or who have been occasional contributors all along the route for the past thirty years or more, making about fifty more. Today their services are necessary to the columns of the journals or magazines; today they carve out niches which no one but themselves can fill. And today the work from their pens is so honest and so correct that in many cases their ephemeral articles may be classed under the head of literature, while the vivid short stories which appear from time to time are gems which have come from the lapidary's hand. But this story of the literary movement in California for women begins rather sorrowfully. Woman has been called the "Peaceful Invader," but along her path is to be found tragedy as well as comedy. The first literary effort made in California by women was as far back as 1858. A sincere and honest publication was the "Hesperian," which lasted till 1864. But as is now said of both publication and publisher, "Like her nice little magazine, Mrs. Day is dead." The first woman who entered journalism and tried to live by means of her pen fared poorly and died. She wrote under the names of "Topsy Turvy" and "Carrie Carleton" as early as 1865. She was a bright, sweet, lovable little woman, with a cheery style of composition which has earned her that most unusual title for a woman of "humorist." A few days before her death some one said to her: "When you are dead I shall kiss this lily-white hand." That night she set up to write the poem which has made her best known. It is entitled "When I Am Dead."

WHEN I AM DEAD.

When you are dead and lying at rest
With your white hands folded above your breast–
Beautiful hands, too, well I know,
As white as the lilies, as cold as the snow–
I will come and bend o'er your marble form,
Your cold hands cover with kisses warm,
And the words I will speak and the tears I will shed
Will tell I have loved you, when you are dead!

When you are dead your name shall rise
From the dust of earth to the very skies,
And every voice that has sung your lays
Shall wake an echo to sound your praise.
Your name shall live through the coming age
Inscribed on Fame's mysterious page;
'Neath the towering marble shall rest your head,
But you'll live in memory, when you are dead!

Then welcome, Death! thrice welcome be!
I am almost weary waiting for thee;
Life gives no recompense, toil no gain,
I seek for love, and I find but pain;
Lily white hands have grown pale in despair
Of the warm red kisses which should be their share. [Page 186] 

Sad, aching hearts have grown weary of song,
No answering echo their notes prolong;
Then take me, oh Death, to thy grim embrace!
Press quickly thy kiss on my eager face,
For I have been promised, oh, bridegroom dread,
Both love and fame, when I am dead!

The best known of Californian women writers is Ina D. Coolbrith, who stands peerless at the head. There is strength and there is beauty in every line she writes.

Emma Francis Dawson is the author of that celebrated poem "Old Glory." Virna Woods has written "The Amazons," a beautiful little drama of Greek life. Lillian Hinman Shuey has issued a book called "California Sunshine." A quatrain of hers upon the Golden State runs thus:

Sown is the golden grain! planted the vines;
Fall swift, oh loving rain, lift prayers oh vines!
Oh green land, oh gold land, fair land of the sea
The trust of thy children reposes in thee.

A poem by Carrie Stevens Walter is entitled

A WIFE OF THREE YEARS.

He goes his daily way and gives no sign
Or word of love I deemed once fondly mine.

He meets my warm caress or questioning eye
Without the tender thrill of days gone by.

Once at my lightest touch or glance or word
The mighty being of his love was stirred.

And now the clasping of my yearning hand
He meets unanswering, does not understand.

He gives no word of praise through toiling years,
To say he reads my truth through smiles or tears.

I cannot take for granted as my own
The love that speaks not in caress or tone.

For this, my life's sweet hopes fade sad away;
For this, my heart is breaking day by day.

Madge Morris Wagner is a woman upon whose talents an entire chapter might be spent. Suffice it to say that the Liberty Bell, which has lately been cast, was done so at the instance of her poem upon that subject, and she is invited here to the Columbian Exposition to set that bell ringing. But she is a frail creature, physically in spite of her splendid literary powers, and fears that possibly she may not have the strength for this wonderful day that is awaiting her.

A poem by Madge Morris is as follows:

ON THE DESERT.

Thou brown, bare-breasted, voiceless mystery,
Hot sphinx of nature, cactus-crowned, what hast thou done?
Unclothed and mute as when the groans of chaos turned
Thy naked, burning bosom to the sun.
The mountain silences have speech, the rivers sing,
Thou answerest never unto anything. [Page 187] 
Pink-throated lizards pant within the shade;
The horned toad runs rustling in the heat;
The shadowy gray coyote, born afraid,
Steals to some brackish spring and laps and prowls
Away, and howls and howls and howls and howls,
Until the solitude is shaken with an added loneliness.
Thy sharp mescal shoots up a giant stalk,
Its century of yearning, to the sunburnt skies,
And drips rare honey from the lips
Of yellow waxen flowers, and dies.
Some lengthwise sun-dried shapes, with feet and hands
And thirsty mouths pressed to the sweltering sands,
Make here and there a gruesome, graveless spot
Where someone drank thy scorching hotness and is not;
God must have made thee in His anger, and forgot.

Another poem is that entitled "Motherhood," by Mary H. Field.

MOTHERHOOD,

Far, far away, across a troubled sea
  My wistful eyes espy
The quiver of a little snowy sail
  Unfurled against the sky.

So faint, so far, so veiled in softest haze
  Its quiet shimmering,
Sometimes methinks no mortal thing it is,
  But gleam of angel's wing.

With my own heart-throb throbs the tiny sail;
  My sighs its pennons move;
And hither steadfast points its magnet toward
  The pole-star of my love.

What precious gifts do freight this mystic bark
  There is no sign to show.
What frail, small mariner is there enshrined
  No mortal yet may know.

I only know the soul divine moves there,
  'Mid two eternities;
Before this secret of the Lord I bow
  With veiled and reverent eyes.

And vainly does my restless love essay
  To haste the coming sail;
Dear God! not e'en to save from sunken reefs
  Can love of mine avail.

Yet, will I keep vigil, and in peace,
  Like Mary, "dwell apart;"
Close to the mysteries of God art thou
  My brooding mother heart.

Ah, heavenly sweet will be my recompense
  When, every fear at rest,
My little bark, all tranquilly, shall lie
  Safe anchored on my breast. [Page 188] 

In journalism we have many bright names–names of women who find it easy now to survive by means of their pen. The late Mary Therese Austin, under the name of "Betsy B.," achieved fame as a dramatic critic. Adele Chretien is a follower in her footsteps–the one who was represented in the congress lately held.

"Annie Laurie" is the pen name of one of Chicago's daughters–the sister of Ada Sweet, but now is Mrs. Winifred Black–a writer on the San Francisco Examiner who has achieved great things by her powers with the pen. She is a true journalist, like a soldier, ready to obey orders without question, and thus has investigated and made known many a wrong perpetrated upon the public–has improved the methods of the hospitals and set straight many a wrinkle. These articles in some cases are studies of human nature worthy of preservation as history, or for the use of the future novelist to guide him in writing of the present time. Adeline Knapp writes well and strongly. Charlotte Perkins Stetson is a genius in her line, and has developed of her own accord without regard to the taste of the public, either east or west.

Eliza Keithis an industrious worker, who says of herself that she has written 'for the San Francisco papers miles of space articles unsigned." She is better known as "Di Vernon" (her pen name).

Millicent W. Shinn is the editor of the "Overland," and surrounded by a coterie of young women who already take the rank as writers of promise, fulfills her destiny like Diana surrounded by her maidens. I wish I had the time to tell you of our story writers, for it is they who have given us our literature.

In regard to the portrayal of the simi-Spanish <-- sic --> civilization of California, it is a woman who stands easily first–so says the editor of the "Argonaut," who is a critic. Her name is Yda Addis. I can always tell one of her stories before I see the signature. It moves along with a characteristic snap-of-the-whip in it.

Margaret Collins Graham has many stories of Southern California life now appearing in the "Atlantic" and other Eastern magazines. Flora Haines Longhead has written short stories which have made a profound impression upon the minds of the public. She deals in a kind of heroism that must do the right though the heavens fall. There are many more, but I must hasten.

The women novelists known abroad, as well as at home, are Mrs. Gertrude Franklin Atherton and Mrs. Kate Douglass Wiggin. Mrs. Atherton has achieved a style of composition original and strong. Her last stories show a constantly increasing power and grasp, a taking hold on literary workmanship. Her "Doomswoman" is a remarkable book of semi-Spanish civilization, full of pictures of early days. "Amidst the silence of mountain tops in a snow-storm" is one of the felicitous images found in her sentences. A quotation is here made of the picturing power of Mrs. Atherton, which she possesses in a high degree: "We were followed in a moment by the governor, adjusting his collar and smoothing his hair. As he reached the doorway at the front of the house, he was greeted with a shout from assembled Monterey. The plaza was gay with beaming faces and bright attire. The men, women and children of the people were on foot, a mass of color on the opposite side of the plaza; the women in gaudy cotton frocks, girt with silken sashes, tawdry jewels and spotless camisas, the coquettish rebozo draping with equal grace faces old and brown, faces round and olive; the men in glazed sombreros, short, calico jackets and trousers; Indians wound up in gala blankets. In the foreground were caballeros and donas on prancing, silver trapped horses, laughing and coquetting, looking down in triumph upon the duenas and parents who rode older and milder mustangs and shook brown, knotted fingers at heedless youths. The young men had ribbons twisted in their long, black hair, and silver eagles on their soft, gray sombreros. Their velvet serapes were embroidered with gold; the velvet knee-breeches were laced with gold or silver cord, over fine, white linen; long deer-skin botas were gartered with vivid ribbon; flaunting sashes bound their slender waists, knotted over the hip. The girls and young married women wore black or white mantillas, the silken lace of Spain, regardless of the sun, which might darken their Castilian fairness. Their gowns were of flowered silk or yellow satin, [Page 188]  the waist long and pointed, the skirt full; jeweled buckles of tiny slippers flashed beneath the hem. A few Americans were there in the ugly garb of their country–a blot on the picture."

(And far more true to life than Helen Hunt Jackson's "Ramona" which, beautiful as it is, does not suit the California standard, because it is not based upon such absolute fidelity to history as would make it true.)

The pen of Kate Douglass Wiggin is employed in studies of character, humorous and pathetic, containing that heart touch that makes the whole world akin. This is the bare recital of the literary movement in California for women thus far, as typified in a few names of those who have shown by their clever, original work that they are capable of greater things, and worthy of achievement. But the field of encouragement is small, and the growth of genuineness is more rapid than there are laurels for them to wear.

What is to be said of those with hearts aflame, who have died unchronicled and unrecorded? What is to be said of those yearning to tell the story that is in their hearts, who day by day are condemned to fill the journalistic sieves with water? What answer is there for such unfulfilled hopes as these? What answer is there for any of us who have aspirations, longings and desires, and yet fall asleep by the wayside with empty hands? Only the profound belief that that which is good is worth doing without recompense can sustain us through the years. Only in producing that which is true can bring us genuine satisfaction, even though our hands be empty.

I believe in resistance to false standards even though we perish voiceless. I believe that woman in literature must reach out her hands ever toward the infinite standards of right and truth though she perish from hunger and want.

The rank weeds spring in a single night,
  While rarest plants take years;
An evil name may leap to fame
  While the good name scarce appears.

But the rank weeds die in the morning light,
  While the rare plant still lives on;
And the evil name will sink to shame
  While the good name's in its dawn.

The way that is won without any work
  Is not worth winning at all;
A sudden light, a meteor flight,
  A sprinkle–a trail and a fall.

Fear not, brave heart, whate'er thy lot,
  Like the coral build deep in the sea,
And a beautiful land, with a glittering strand,
  Shall owe its existence to thee.

And if failure be thy part, oh heart
  What compensation shalt thou find
For thy weary years and bitter tears,
  And thy mission half divined?

But this can comfort bring to thee
  That like a sounding bell,
Men shall say on thy judgment day
  "This little work's done well."


[Page 184] 

Mrs. Ella Sterling Cummins was born in Sacramento County, Cal. Her parents were Sterling B. F. Clark, of Vermont, and Rachel H. Mitchell Clark, of Pennsylvania. After the death of her father her mother married Mr. D. H. Haskell, and with her little brothers and sisters she received the name of Ella Clark Haskell. She received her education from her mother and from the Sacramento public schools. She was also much influenced by her husband, the late Adley H. Cummins, of San Francisco, whom she married in 1872. He was a scholar and orator as well as lawyer, and was phenomenal in his attainments, having a knowledge of sixty languages and dialects. They had but one child, a daughter. Mrs. Cummins' principal literary works are: "The California Story of the Files," "A Review of Californian Writers and Literature;" a novel, "The Little Mountain Princess," and many short stories and articles contributed to "Lippincott's," to "North American Review," and many Californian magazines and journals. In religious faith Mrs. Cummins is a Christian. Her ancestors were Methodists. Her postoffice address is 1605 Baker Street, San Francisco, Cal.

[Next]

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom