One of the generalizations made about Mary Wilkins Freeman is that she writes chiefly about women; like most generalizations, this one has often been accepted without much thought. In this well-written first book-length study of Freeman's short fiction, Mary R. Reichardt makes the idea her starting point and expands it to show Freeman as an explorer of women's relationships and interactions. Grouping the stories into chapters that focus on the basic roles of women as daughters, mothers, sisters, and friends, including those who lack normal familial ties, Reichardt's approach allows her to illustrate the range of Freeman's concern with character and behavior. Reichardt perceives Freeman as an examiner of "the continual human striving for connection, relationship, and ultimate meaning amidst the breakdown of community and communication" (33). As she looks at the stories, Reichardt wisely avoids rigid conclusions that attempt to explain all Freeman's work by a single pattern.
A Web of Relationship will please many Freeman admirers. Reichardt displays an impressively wide acquaintance with Freeman's work, not only the handful of stories that are frequently anthologized, but the lesser known and uncollected stories as well. In fact, one of the chief virtues of this study is the wide and thorough knowledge it displays. Particularly strong are the early chapters, which set Freeman in the context of her times—times that first praised her as a major voice in American literature and then rejected that voice—and also review her critical reception from the beginning of her career to recent writing.
The study presents new material in the uncollected stories it identifies and pulls together much of the thinking about Freeman's work to create a coherent approach, and thus contributes to our understanding of its subject. However, Freeman is a complex writer, and this study will not satisfy all her readers. Some will be disappointed that Reichardt has been so heavily influenced by Edward Foster's 1930s biographical approach, an influence that grows as the book progresses and exploits the idea that fiction is really biography, that the writer is either recording what she saw or writing her own feelings. How strongly one agrees with Reichardt that "Freeman's many differing women characters can be seen as constituting a composite portrait of Freeman herself" will determine the response to this study; for some that view is satisfying, but for others it is ultimately reductive and minimizes the creative imagination that transforms life into art. Nor does the study show awareness of the [End Page 373] equivocal nature of reader response to Freeman's writing or the conflict between the needs of the individual and the mores of the community that seems so important in her work.