1 2 3 4 >>

Polly Oliver's Problem
Kate Wiggin

Polly Oliver's Problem
Kate Wiggin

Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin

Polly Oliver's Problem

Portrait of Mrs. Wiggin


It is an advantage for an author to have known many places and different sorts of people, though the most vivid impressions are commonly those received in childhood and youth. Mrs. Wiggin, as she is known in literature, was Kate Douglas Smith; she was born in Philadelphia, and spent her young womanhood in California, but when a very young child she removed to Hollis in the State of Maine, and since her maturity has usually made her summer home there; her earliest recollections thus belong to the place, and she draws inspiration for her character and scene painting very largely from this New England neighborhood.

Hollis is a quiet, secluded place, a picturesque but almost deserted village–if the few houses so widely scattered can be termed a village–located among the undulating hills that lie along the lower reaches of the Saco River. Here she plans to do almost all her actual writing–the story itself is begun long before–and she resorts to the place with pent-up energy.

A quaint old house of colonial date and style, set in the midst of extensive grounds and shaded by graceful old trees,–this is "Quillcote,"–the summer home of Mrs. Wiggin. Quillcote is typical of many old New England homesteads; with an environment that is very close to the heart of nature, it combines all that is most desirable and beautiful in genuine country life. The old manor house is located on a sightly elevation commanding a varied view of the surrounding hills and fertile valleys; to the northwest are to be seen the foot-hills of Mt. Washington, and easterly a two hours' drive will bring one to Old Orchard Beach, and the broad, blue, delicious ocean whose breezes are generously wafted inland to Quillcote.

Mrs. Wiggin is thoroughly in love with this big rambling house, from garret to cellar. A genuine historic air seems to surround the entire place, lending an added charm, and there are many impressive characteristics of the house in its dignity of architecture, which seem to speak of a past century with volumes of history in reserve. A few steps from these ample grounds, on the opposite side of the road, is a pretty wooden cottage of moderate size and very attractive, the early home of Mrs. Wiggin. These scenes have inspired much of the local coloring of her stories of New England life and character. "Pleasant River" in Timothy's Quest is drawn from this locality, and in her latest book, The Village Watch Tower, many of her settings and descriptions are very close to existing conditions.

Her own room and literary workshop is on the second floor of the house; it is distinctively a study in white, and no place could be more ideal for creative work. It has the cheeriest outlook from four windows with a southern exposure, overlooking a broad grass plat studded with trees, where birds from early dawn hold merry carnival, and squirrels find perfect and unmolested freedom. A peep into this sanctum is a most convincing proof that she is a woman who dearly loves order, as every detail plainly indicates, and it is also noticeable that any display of literary litter is most conspicuously absent.

Interesting souvenirs and gifts of infinite variety are scattered all over the room, on the wainscoting, mantel, and in every available niche; very many are from children and all are dainty tributes. A picture of an irresistibly droll child face, of the African type and infectiously full of mirth, is one of a great company of children who look at you from every side and angle of the room.

Dainty old pieces of china, rare bits of bric-a-brac, the very broad and old-time fireplaces filled with cut boughs of the spicy fir balsam, and various antique pieces of furniture lend to the inner atmosphere of Quillcote a fine artistic and colonial effect, while not a stone's throw away, at the foot of a precipitous bank, flows–in a very irregular channel–the picturesque Saco River.

In this summer home Mrs. Wiggin has the companionship of her mother, and her sister, Miss Nora Smith, herself a writer, which renders it easy to abandon herself wholly to her creative work; this coupled with the fact that she is practically in seclusion banishes even a thought of interruption.

And now, what was the beginning and the growth of the delightful literary faculty, which has already given birth to so many pleasant fancies and happy studies, especially of young life? A glimpse is given in the following playful letter and postscript from herself and her sister to a would-be biographer.

MY DEAR BOSWELL,–I have asked my family for some incidents of my childhood, as you bade me,–soliciting any "anecdotes," "characteristics," or "early tendencies" that may have been, as you suggest, "foreshadowings" of later things.

I have been much chagrined at the result. My younger sister states that I was a nice, well-mannered, capable child, nothing more; and that I never did anything nor said anything in any way remarkable. She affirms that, so far from spending my childhood days in composition, her principal recollection of me is that of a practical stirring little person, clad in a linsey woolsey gown, eternally dragging a red and brown sled called "The Artful Dodger." She adds that when called upon to part with this sled, or commanded to stop sliding, I showed certain characteristics that may perhaps have been "foreshadowings," but that certainly were not engaging ones.

My mother was a good deal embarrassed when questioned, and finally confessed that I never said anything worthy of mention until I was quite "grown up;" a statement that is cheerfully corroborated by all the authorities consulted. . . . Do not seek, then, to pierce my happy obscurity. . . .

Believe me, dear Bozzy,

Sincerely your Johnson,

(K. D. W.)

Postscript by Johnson's Sister,–

The above report is substantially correct, though a few touches of local color were added which we see Johnson's modesty has moved her to omit.

My sister was certainly a capable little person at a tender age, concocting delectable milk toast, browning toothsome buckwheats, and generally making a very good Parent's Assistant. I have also visions of her toiling at patchwork and oversewing sheets like a nice old-fashioned little girl in a story book; and in connection with the linsey woolsey frock and the sled before mentioned, I see a blue and white hood with a mass of shining fair hair escaping below it, and a pair of very pink cheeks.

Further to illustrate her personality, I think no one much in her company at any age could have failed to note an exceedingly lively tongue and a general air of executive ability.

If I am to be truthful, I must say that I recall few indications of budding authorship, save an engrossing diary (kept for six months only), and a devotion to reading.

Her "literary passions" were the Arabian Nights, Scottish Chiefs, Don Quixote, Thaddeus of Warsaw, Irving's Mahomet, Thackeray's Snobs, Undine, and the Martyrs of Spain. These volumes, joined to an old green Shakespeare and a Plum Pudding edition of Dickens, were the chief of her diet.

But stay! while I am talking of literary tendencies, I do remember a certain prize essay entitled "Pictures in the Clouds,"–not so called because it took the prize, alas! but because it competed for it.

There is also a myth in the household (doubtless invented by my mother) that my sister learned her letters from the signs in the street, and taught herself to read when scarcely out of long clothes. This may be cited as a bit of "corroborative detail," though personally I never believed in it.

Johnson's Sister,

N. A. S.

Like many who have won success in literature, her taste and aptitude showed themselves early. It would be unfair to take Polly Oliver's Problem as in any sense autobiographical, as regards a close following of facts, but it may be guessed to have some inner agreement with Mrs. Wiggin's history, for she herself when a girl of eighteen wrote a story, Half a Dozen Housekeepers, which was published in St. Nicholas in the numbers for November and December, 1878. She was living at the time in California, and more to the purpose even than this bright little story was the preparation she was making for her later successes in the near and affectionate study of children whom she was teaching. She studied the kindergarten methods for a year under Emma Marwedel, and after teaching for a year in Santa Barbara College, she was called upon to organize in San Francisco the first free kindergarten west of the Rocky Mountains. She was soon joined in this work by her sister; and the enthusiasm and good judgment shown by the two inspired others, and made the famous "Silver Street Kindergarten" not only a great object lesson on the Pacific Coast, but an inspiration to similar efforts in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, and the Hawaiian Islands.

This school was, and is at the present time, located in a densely inhabited and poverty-ridden quarter of the city. It was largely among the very poor that Mrs. Wiggin's full time and wealth of energy were devoted, for kindergartening was never a fad with her as some may have imagined; always philanthropic in her tendencies, she was, and is, genuinely and enthusiastically in earnest in this work. It is interesting to know that on the wall of one apartment at the Silver Street Kindergarten hangs a life-like portrait of its founder, underneath which you may read these words:–


In this room was born the first free Kindergarten west of the Rocky Mountains. Let me have the happiness of looking down upon many successive groups of children sitting in these same seats.

We are told that the children love that room the best; it is pictured as a bright, cheery spot, where the children used to gather with "Miss Kate" in the bygone days. By the window there is a bird-cage; the tiny occupant bearing the historical name of "Patsy." Connected with this kindergarten is a training-school, organized by Mrs. Wiggin in 1880, and conducted by Miss Nora Smith for several years afterward. The two sisters in collaboration have added much valuable matter to kindergarten literature, notably the three volumes entitled The Republic of Childhood, Children's Sights, and The Story Hour.

On her marriage, Mrs. Wiggin gave up teaching, but continued to give two talks a week to the Training Class. She was also a constant visitor in the many kindergartens which had sprung up under the impulse of herself and her associates. She played with the children, sang to them, told them stories, and thus was all the while not only gathering material unconsciously, but practicing the art which she was to make her calling. The dozen years thus spent were her years of training, and, during this time she wrote and printed The Story of Patsy, merely to raise money for the kindergarten work. Three thousand copies were sold without the aid of a publisher, and the success was repeated when, not long after, The Birds' Christmas Carol appeared.

In 1888 Mrs. Wiggin removed to New York, and her friends urged her to come before the public with a regular issue of the last-named story. Houghton, Mifflin and Company at once brought out an edition, and the popularity which the book enjoyed in its first limited circle was now repeated on a very large scale. The reissue of The Story of Patsy followed at the hands of the same publishers, and they have continued to bring out the successive volumes of her writing.

It is not necessary to give a formal list of these books. Perhaps The Birds' Christmas Carol, which is so full of that sweet, tender pathos and wholesome humor which on one page moves us to tears, and the next sets us shaking with laughter, has been more widely enjoyed and read than her other stories, at least in America. It has been translated into Japanese, French, German, and Swedish, and has been put in raised type for the use of the blind. Patsy is a composite sketch taken from kindergarten life. For Timothy's Quest, one of the brightest and most cleverly written of character sketches, the author feels an especially tender sentiment. The story of how the book took form is old, but will bear repeating; it originated from the casual remark of a little child who said, regarding a certain house, "I think they need some babies there." Mrs. Wiggin at once jotted down in her note-book "needing babies," and from this nucleus the charming story of "Timothy" was woven into its present form. It is said that Rudyard Kipling considers Polly Oliver one of the most delightful of all girl-heroines; and Mrs. Wiggin really hopes some day to see the "Hospital Story Hour" carried out in real life.

She owns a most interesting collection of her books in several languages. The illustrations of these are very unique, as most of them are made to correspond with the life of the country in which they are published. Timothy's Quest is a favorite in Denmark with its Danish text and illustrations. It has also found its way into Swedish, and has appeared in the Tauchnitz edition, as has also A Cathedral Courtship. Her latest book, The Village Watch Tower, is composed of several short stories full of the very breath and air of New England. They are studies of humble life, interesting oddities and local customs, and are written in her usual bright vein.

It was not long after her removal to the Atlantic coast that Mrs. Wiggin, now a widow and separated much of the year from her special work in California, threw herself eagerly into the kindergarten movement in New York, and it was in this interest that she was drawn into the semi-public reading of her own stories. Her interpretation of them is full of exquisite taste and feeling, but she has declared most characteristically that she would rather write a story for the love of doing it, than be paid by the public for reading it; hence her readings have always been given purely for philanthropic purposes, especially for the introduction of kindergartens, a cause which she warmly advocates, and with which she has most generously identified herself.

I may say that there is an old meeting-house in Hollis in which she has been interested since her childhood. Each succeeding summer the whole countryside within a radius of many miles gathers there to hear her bright, sympathetic readings of her manuscript stories, sometimes before even her publishers have a peep at them. These occasions are rare events that are much talked over and planned for, as I learned soon after reaching that neighborhood. During the summer of 1895 she read one of her manuscript stories–The Ride of the Midnight Cry (now published in The Village Watch Tower)–to a group of elderly ladies in the neighborhood of Quillcote, who are deeply interested in all she writes. The story takes its title from an ancient stage-coach well known throughout that region in its day, and known only by the suggestive if not euphonious name of "The Midnight Cry."

Mrs. Wiggin possesses rare musical taste and ability, and enthusiastically loves music as an art. It is simply a recreation and delight to her to compose and adapt whatever pleases her fancy to her own flow of harmony. She is the possessor of some very rare and interesting foreign instruments; among this collection is a Hawaiian guitar, the tiniest of stringed instruments, and also one of curious Portuguese workmanship.

In the early months of 1895 she was married to George C. Riggs, of New York, but she prefers to retain in literature the name with which she first won distinction. I will speak of her New York winter home only to say that it is the gathering-place of some of the most eminent authors and artists in the country. She goes abroad yearly, and Maine levies a heavy claim on her by right of home ties and affection, for the 'Pine Tree State' is proud to claim this gifted daughter, not only for her genius but her beauty of character and true womanliness.

Mrs. Wiggin's work is characterized by a delicious flow of humor, depth of pathos, and a delicate play of fancy. Her greatest charm as a writer is simplicity of style. It enables us to come in perfect touch with her characterizations, which are so full of human nature that, as some one has said, "we feel them made of good flesh and blood like ourselves, with whom we have something, be it ever so little, that keeps us from being alien one to another." Her keen but sympathetic penetration attains some of the happiest results in the wholesome realism of her child characters; her children become real to us, creep into our hearts, and we love them, and in sympathy with this sentiment springs up a spontaneous reawakening of interest in the child-world about us.


"What you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."




1 2 3 4 >>