- “The Revolt of ‘Mother’” and Consumer Culture
In Mary E. Wilkins’ “The Revolt of ‘Mother,’” New England farmer Adoniram Penn, husband of Sarah and father of Nanny and Sammy, constructs a new barn without consulting his wife and despite having promised to build a larger family house. Initially, Sarah Penn, the “Mother” of the title, advises her daughter, whose upcoming wedding to a young man named George Eastman their old house cannot properly accommodate, to accept Adoniram’s will. But then, to secure a suitable room for Nanny’s wedding and a comfortable living space for the extended family, Sarah moves the household into the barn while Adoniram, “Father,” is away. When he returns, he yields to this “revolt,” promising to convert the rustic structure into a home.1
Since its publication in Harper’s Monthly in September 1890, “The Revolt of ‘Mother’” has been the story (except perhaps for “A New England Nun”) most closely identified with Wilkins. She and her fiction were firmly associated with New England throughout her career, even after she moved to New Jersey when she married Charles Freeman in 1902. But Wilkins Freeman (writing more than a decade after her marriage) denied the fidelity to New England of this story that had done so much to establish her eminence as a chronicler of the region. In a very brief “Autobiography,” published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1917, she repudiated the work by which she was “lamentably best known.” She “confess[ed]” that “The Revolt of Mother is not in the least true. When I wrote that little tale I threw my New England traditions to the winds and trampled on my New England conscience.”2 According to the author’s testimony a quarter century after she wrote “Revolt,” [End Page 248] Sarah Penn had betrayed her community’s values and Wilkins had thereby betrayed her own mission to depict New England accurately.
Wilkins Freeman did not confess that she had misrepresented the assertiveness of a New England wife in the face of a New England husband. “As a rule,” she claimed, “women in New England villages . . . hold the household reins, and with good reason. They really can drive better.” Instead, she accused herself of distorting Sarah’s economic principles. “There never was in New England a woman like Mother,” she wrote, disavowing not Mother’s capacity to revolt but her reason for revolting. “New England women of that period coincided with their husbands in thinking that sources of wealth should be better housed than consumers. That Mother would never have dreamed of putting herself ahead of Jersey cows which meant good money. Mother would have been to the full as thrifty as Father.”3 Adoniram commits resources to a larger barn to enhance the farm’s productivity; Sarah diverts them to the family’s consumption of goods and comforts. In the contest between production and consumption, Wilkins Freeman regretted in 1917, Sarah had favored consumption, violating the local values the author felt she should have been recording.
In 1917 Wilkins Freeman was remembering an idealized, archaic New England exempt from the challenge to traditional values of industry and thrift posed by the late-nineteenth-century development of mass consumerism. She was affirming local-color literature’s alleged function of preserving a regional enclave as a static imaginative refuge from modern economic uncertainty, for urban readers needing nostalgic havens at least as much as for rural New Englanders themselves. She was also performing the public role of “authentic” New England storyteller, a self-representation she had successfully marketed for three decades. But in 1890, rural communities in Vermont and Massachusetts had hardly escaped economic transformation, and in fact some women there valued consumption as well as production. Wilkins had depicted such a woman.
Indeed, Wilkins Freeman in 1917 confessed her own consumerism when she repudiated Sarah’s: she had written “Revolt” out of a desire, she was “inclined to think,” for “gold of the realm.” The author frequently defined her motivation for writing in terms of the goods and comforts it afforded her. If she could criticize the fetishistic attachment of many of her female characters to commodities, as Monika Elbert has...