Mary E. Wilkins Freeman had published verses and Sunday school exercises in children’s periodicals such as Good Times, St. Nicholas, and Wide Awake when, in late 1881, she entered a short story contest sponsored by the Boston Sunday Budget, a weekly paper that had begun publication in 1879. It was her first attempt at writing a story for adults. Her winning the contest and its fifty dollar first prize can be considered the event that launched her long career as a short story writer and, later, a novelist.
The Boston Sunday Budget story contest was announced in the paper’s issue for November 13, 1881. The rules specified “that the stories shall be strictly original” and “that they shall not be less than four thousand words nor more than five thousand words in length.”1 The deadline for submissions was December 15, and the paper announced on December 18 that 129 stories had been submitted. The story winning the first prize of fifty dollars was to be printed in the Boston Sunday Budget for January 1, 1882. As all scholars who have written on Freeman know, however, no copy of the Sunday Budget for that day has survived.
Freeman provided this account of the story and its publication for My Maiden Effort, a 1921 book presenting authors’ reminiscences of their first publications:
It was a prize story. I do not own a copy. The one and only was loaned and never returned and is somewhere, with unreturned umbrellas, in limbo.
It is a pity I haven’t it, because as I remember it, it was quite passable as an imitation of Charles Dickens. The title was “A Shadow Family.”
The story won a prize of fifty dollars and when I went with a friend to claim it the Prize Committee thought the friend must have written the story because [End Page 268] I did not look as if I knew enough. She could easily have secured my prize, but she had a New England conscience. That fifty dollars still looms up as larger than all the billions of debt consequent upon the World War. Lucky for Europe that she does not have to pay that fifty dollars. It has the market value of the Solar System.
The first step I took upon receiving it was to invest cautiously a small portion in souvenirs bought in ten cent stores, then in their sweet infancy. Then I gave away the rest.
I hope nobody will think me too good for earth because of that. I gave joyfully and it is the one and only instance where my bread has been returned to me manyfold.2
In 1926 Freeman told the same story to Henry Wysham Lanier, who was editing The Best Stories of Mary E. Wilkins, except instead of being a passable imitation of Dickens, she described the story as “a poor imitation of Dickens.”3
Freeman may not have accounted in her reminiscence for the possibility of library holdings of the newspaper. The only extended file of the Boston Sunday Budget is held by the Boston Public Library, but the first four issues of 1882 are missing from the library’s run of the paper.
The topic of her first published story was a point of comment in articles about Freeman published in the 1890s after her reputation as a storywriter was well established. Although these interviews don’t yet declare the story to be lost, it is clear that Freeman was eager to distance herself from the tale. The New York Herald reported in 1892: “Some years ago, when she was a young girl, she wrote a story in competition for a $50 prize offered by the Boston Budget. Her story, ‘The Shadow Family,’ won the prize, but Miss Wilkins now wishes she had never written it, for she says she can trace in its style the direct influence of Dickens, whom she was reading very constantly at that time.”4 In 1893 an interview in the Boston Journal says, “Her first story, which the author now would pronounce crude, was a prize story, published in a Boston...