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(madison icon)1902

A Letter

by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
from Madison, Past and Present   1902

Wilcox Portrait

The Bungalow

The Bungalow,     
Short Beech, Conn., October, 1902.  

Editor State Journal: Your letter came to me as I sat in the study of my beloved seashore home, looking out over thirty miles of salt water which stretches between it and Long Island--dimly discernible in the clear sunlight of a perfect October day.

But as I read your letter, the beautiful prospect faded for the moment, and I was back in the little unpainted Wisconsin farmhouse twelve miles from the suburbs of Madison, with only a few lonesome looking "Lombardy poplars" and consumptive plum trees to break the monotony of surrounding prairies, and I was reading a copy of the Weekly Wisconsin State Journal, which contained the first printed compliment ever paid my verses. I do not recollect the year--but I have an impression I was not over sixteen or seventeen years old. I had been contributing to the New York Mercury and Frank Leslie's Bazar, weekly and magazine, since my fourteenth year.

The New York Mercury published my first work--some girlish "essay"--and in the "Waverly Magazine" my first published poem appeared. At that time it was the custom of the Leslie's and Harper's to give no name to the poems and stories which filled their periodicals, unless the author was a famous one.

My contributions were paid for, but were used anonymously. This was unsatisfactory to my ambitious nature, and I carefully copied them, and sent them to country newspapers throughout the west, requesting the editors to credit them to the proper eastern periodical. This was sometimes done, but the editor more frequently gave them as original contributions to his paper.

Westport Township School

David Atwood

Mrs. David Atwood

It was one of these poems, entitled "King and Siren," which the Wisconsin State Journal complimented. The verses had been published in Leslie's Journal and I had received five dollars for them. When I forwarded a second copy to the Journal, they brought forth some very pleasing words from David Atwood, an honor which sent me into an ecstacy of happiness and gratitude. I had seen General Atwood on the street, and I had gazed on the exterior of his residence by the lake.

To have him write about me in his paper--it was overwhelming. Somewhere in an old scrap-book the paragraph is still treasured. Afterward the still more exciting honor of an invitation to General and Mrs. Atwood's "silver wedding" reception was sent me, but alas! I had no suitable gown for such a brilliant function, and I remember crying myself to sleep that night with the disappointment, for I possessed an abnormal appetite for pleasure and this was my first invitation to a city reception.

Atwood Residence

Years later I told this little story to sweet Mrs. Atwood, who assured me with tears in her eyes had she known my dilemma, she would have sent me a gown with the invitation. Soon afterward the first poem I ever wrote for a public occasion was read on a Decoration Day by Major Mears, and both the Madison Democrat and State Journal gave it kind words. That same year, I believe, the great reunion of the G. A. R. took place in Madison, and I was asked to be the poet of the occasion. Again Major Mears officiated as my interpreter, and his splendid elocution caused the poem to receive an ovation. General Sheridan was present, and said: "If this goes to that girl's heart it will do her good; if it goes to her head it will spoil her."

I was the guest of that noble, gifted and lovable man, Judge A.B. Braley, and I recall his pleasure and pride and my own delight when the Journal account of the occasion appeared.

General Fairchild

General Fairchild, the one-armed hero of many victories, was governor of the state then, and after the city papers had been issued, he drove to Judge Braley's door and came in where we were all seated and said to me: "Had I two arms I should put them about this little Wisconsin singer of whom I am so proud. As it is, I can only pat her on the head."

For days thereafter I walked on rosy clouds, and I doubt if in my eventful life anything has seemed more wonderful to me than that call from the governor of Wisconsin.

When the more ambitious work of my early life, "Maurine," was ready for the publisher (whom I had difficulty to find), Miss Ella Giles, a gifted and prominent young lady of Madison (now Mrs. Ruddy of Los Angeles, California), asked General Atwood to be one of a critical committee to hear it read. He kindly gave me his time and attention, as well as cordial praise and encouragement.

When the book finally appeared the Journal was one of the kindest in its criticisms.

And so, dear Mr. Editor, although your name was unknown to me, your letter called up many memories--which I could continue until I absorbed the space in your whole colossal edition.

Poem Card

Wilcox, Ella Wheeler. "A Letter." Madison, Past and Present. [Madison: State Journal Printing Co., 1902]
Held by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin: F589 M1 M32 (Oversize).