(July 24, 1876- June 11, 1916)
Tel Aviv University
Although two of Jean Webster’s books have remained in print since the beginning of the century, Dear Enemy and Daddy Long-Legs, and the latter has been translated to at least eighteen languages, the rest of her writings have disappeared from view, unobtainable even in college or public libraries. Oblivion may be a justifiable fate for many works, but in this case it serves only to prove the obscurity into which the author of one of the most famous children’s works even written has remained. Were Webster a one-book-author with an undistinguished biography, this obscurity might be justified, but the vibrancy of her other books and the paradigmatic nature of her colorful life makes the lack of biographical attention at best puzzling.
The very nature of her initial family connections should link her incontrovertibly to American literature. The grand-niece of Mark Twain, with an incontestable hunger to imitate, contradict and surpass the great author who was a major factor in her father’s suicide, Webster would be interesting if her writings merely served to reflect her imitation of, commentary on, deviation from and rebellion against Twain’s canonic texts. The fact that she was a modern, liberated, educated and traveled woman would, it would seem, automatically suggest the possibility of the transformation of her books on the relationships between women and their attempts to revise their relationships with men to documents of gender subversion and canonic questioning. But the lack of available information makes this kind of revisionism difficult, and even the books that are accessible are just beginning to be examined and debated with any degree of seriousness, as the bibliography at the end of this indicates. The following pages are intended to provide the initial materials needed to open an inquiry into the need for and value of basic research into the works of Jean Webster.
Born in Fredonia, New York, Alice Jean Webster grew up in the shadow of a conflict of the two men who most influenced her life – her father, Charles Webster, and her mother’s uncle, Samuel Clemens. Charles Webster – sensitive, talented and eccentric -- had begun working for Mark Twain before the birth of Jean as a kind of business manager or agent, but became a partner and the front for Twain with Twain’s establishment of the Charles L. Webster Publishing Company in 1884, causing the family to move from Fredonia, NY, where Jean Webster was born, to Manhattan. The responsibility, fame, and fortune that accompanied such a heady position (publishing such block-busters as Huckleberry Finn and General Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs) was not an unmitigated pleasure, however, since it was the temperamental Twain who was in charge, and when Charles Webster developed severe headaches, he was forced to take a year off in 1888, and move his family back to Fredonia. After Charles Webster’s partial recovery, Twain refused to allow him to return – having long charged Charles with inefficiency and lack of management, bought him out for much less than his share was worth, and stopped speaking to him until Charles Webster’s death in 1891 at the age of 39. So that by the time Jean Webster was 15 she had learned about the publishing industry, the necessity for efficiency, marketability and adaptability, and the limitations of patriarchal systems. In later interviews she never charged her famous ancestor with crimes against her father, but covered up her relationship with Twain until it became a matter of public knowledge, and the expression on her face when photographed at Twain’s seventieth birthday tell what she was not allowed to express. It was almost a half a century after Charles Webster’s death that Jean Webster’s brother, Samuel, published a mild vindication of his father, Mark Twain: Businessman. The rest of her life, in many ways, exhibited a protest against patriarchal authority, authoritative systems and authoritative individuals, and an examination of alternatives to destructive authoritative systems is her constant concern in almost every aspect of her life and writing.
The kind of education Jean Webster received enabled her examination of this issue. Living in the museum-like house established by Charles Webster after he left New York to commemorate his adventures and collections acquired while working with Twain for six years, Jean Webster graduated the local normal school in china-painting before being sent for a year to finishing school, The Lady Jane Grey School in Binghamton, New York. Her transformation in this school from conventional young lady to subversive rebel was recorded in 1911 in Just Patty, written fourteen years after her graduation, after she had become an established author. This series of stories about girls who manage to lead productive and significant lives while under the confinement of an establishment intent on maintaining the ineffectuality of their innocence, manages to present its revolutionary approach with the same charm and good humor that allows the characters in the book to subvert and alter established values. Although book begins with somewhat ‘childish’ concerns – like proving the emptiness of the romantic pretensions of one of the girls – it ends with the girls finding the solution to social problems because of their very innocence, freshness, and openness to possibilities. Patty, the protagonist of the stories, accomplishes three reforms in different aspects of the immediate society. She changes the focus of Christmas charity from the distribution of irrelevant toys for children to the establishment of a residence for a old poor couple forced to live apart because of poverty, redefining the objects and the purposes of the charity lesson taught in school. She also reunites a pair of lovers by opening up lines of communication – transfiguring their doomed self-destructive romantic approaches to relationships to a more realistic one (by playing the role a fortune teller, which lends her more authority and perspective). Finally she aids in the reformation of the burglar she catches breaking into the school by finding him a job instead of turning him in to the authorities. The stingy millionaire neighbor with whom she negotiates for the burglar’s employment then becomes more amenable to allowing the school to visit his art collection once he sees that their education is useful and not frivolous. The narratives of the millionaire (who sees himself as a potential criminal who just had good luck) and the hungry burglar show not only her belief in the perfectibility of man through faith in them and good will, but her proof that it is only the new generation of women who can perceive and negotiate this perfectibility.
It is perhaps for this reason that many of Webster’s novels are set in women’s institutions or institutions run by women. Untrammeled by the men who run a clearly faulty society, the women are able to experiment and initiate numerous reforms. Webster’s college roommate, Adelaide Crapsey, said to be the model for both Patty and the heroine of Daddy Long-Legs, believed with Webster in the need for social reform (they were the only socialists in their class) and the possibility of women enacting this reform.
The fact that women are outside of the power system and therefore able to perceive social realities from a more clear perspective is almost as significant as the fact that the playfulness engendered in young women with no responsibility becomes the very means for negotiating these reforms. Although the characters and setting were accurate, Webster wrote Just Patty from the perspective of time and wisdom and arranged the imaginative anecdotes in an order that emphasizes an operative development, concluding with the declared choice of both college and marriage for Patty’s future, of the retention of female roles together with the plan for a new, responsible and effective role for women in society.
It was apparently with this approach that Jean Webster entered Vassar College in 1897 at the age of tweone, the belief that further education would prepare her to become an effective member of society as well as a more powerful author. Her serious subjects were English and Economics, which, as taught at Vassar at the time, was concerned with subjects such as charitable institutions and prison reform. An active suffragette and an ardent socialist, while in college Webster researched poverty in Italy and other issues of social reform. When she came to write about the period of her college studies, it is not surprising that she gave her most significant heroine the background of an orphanage – one not inhuman like so many of the novels of the nineteenth century, but one that genteelly depressed individuality and creativity by refusing to perceive the orphans as individuals. Paradoxically, this oppressed personage of the orphan had been employed throughout the history of the novel as the bearer of new vision. Freed from authority and like Huckleberry Finn able to begin building society from scratch, the orphan was the perfect personage to develop alternative approaches. As the orphan protagonist of Daddy Long-Legs , Jerusha Abbot, writes: “Thank God I don't inherit God from anybody! I am free to make mine up as I wish Him. He's kind and sympathetic and imaginative and forgiving and understanding - and He has a sense of humor.” (Daddy, 52) The freedom to create one’s God could only be complemented by the development of the ability to express and apply it in a nurturing university environment. The two novels written by Webster about college life almost a decade apart, When Patty Went to College (1902) and Daddy Long-Legs (1911) emphasize the absence of authoritative figures such as parents, and characterize the teachers as well-meaning, honorable, but limited individuals to be circumvented and aided whenever possible. Mothers and monomaniacially dedicated women teachers in particular are presented as well-meaning, but somewhat limited in what they can teach the new generation. Some transcend this limitation by being willing to learn and listen from the younger generation of women, but most are perceived as set in their ways, sheltered from real life, and fit only for circumvention. Fathers, when they appear, are usually occupied in their own lives and are more likely to be the source of the problem and not the solution. Marcia Coyle’s father, in The Wheat Princess, is not only incapable of understanding the economic situation of Italy during the grain riots of 1896, but is in fact the source of their travail, since, as an American magnate, his negotiation of the wheat market is the cause of the peasants’ hunger. In The Four Pools Mystery the tyrannical plantation owner is deemed responsible for his own murder because of his mistreatment of the former slaves who continued in his employment after the war.
There are, however, significant exceptions to the negative patriarchal figure, exceptions which appear to register the evolution of Webster’s ideal. In Just Patty, the protagonist discovers a ‘millionaire’ on a little escape from her boarding school, who provides her with serious companionship, conversation, and material for reflection, and in When Patty Went to College the same function is fulfilled by a Bishop Patty encounters while playing hooky from church. While this is now a standard characteristic of adolescent literature, the democratic attitude toward authority figures appears to have characterized only one other major author of the time, Mark Twain.
The culmination of the paternal figure whose knowledge and limitations provide an equal and productive factor in partnership appears only in Webster’s last books, Daddy Long-Legs and Dear Enemy in the characters of Jervis Pendelton and Dr. Robin MacRae. Despite the anticipation of Jerusha Abbott for a revolutionary life, she vents the fear that she "may end up by marrying an undertaker and being an inspiration to him in his work" (121). This throw-away line in Daddy Long-Legs nevertheless registers the two significant problems for the new woman as Webster conceives her – the fear of failure, the fear that all the bravado, talent, and good will will not be sufficient to change such fundamental structures of society and the fear of falling into a standard effacing role, with the woman as “inspiration” rather than companion. Consequently the kind of men encountered in these last books are powerful figures who have to be taught the limits of their power and the lessons to be learned in true dialogue with women. Earlier, Webster experimented with other permutations, such as a male antagonist who proves an appropriate lover by relinquishing power altogether: in Jerry Junior, which takes place in Italy, the young carefree American man manages to get close to the liberated American girl by masquerading as an Italian guide whose foreignness, inferior status, and comic insensibility to the fact that his ruse has been discovered allows for an opportunity for the progress of an otherwise threatening intimacy. But in Daddy Long-Legs and Dear Enemy there is a concerted effort to portray the development of a realistic and equal relationship. The Pygmalion story of Daddy Long-Legs is transformed from the standard pattern of the older, remote male benefactor who educates a young enthusiastic woman to his level of sophistication and then marries her to a complex study of the nature of relationships. In Daddy Long-Legs the potential husband is not only the silent benefactor and the unresponsive recipient of intimate letters for the period of Jerusha Abbott’s college education, but he is also the uncle of her roommate who courts her and deceives her of his true identity in her life. This extremely manipulative situation is overcome not by equal manipulations or feminine wiles but by the authenticity, sincerity, and steadfastness of Judy Abbott’s own character. Judy Abbott and Jervis Pendelton only engage to marry after Judy graduates from college, becomes an independent and self-supporting author, and agrees to the marriage on her own terms. Following the pattern of so many nineteenth century novels, the ‘happy end’ of marriage only takes place when the groom is sick, weak, and somewhat chastened. This ensures that the domination characterized in society by the orphanage, but proven irrelevant by the education in a women’s college, will not spill over into the institution of their marriage.
That this interlocking pattern of romantic relationships and social reform was a welcoming one to Webster’s contemporaries is extremely evident from the popular success of Daddy Long-Legs. Webster was engaged to write a play from her novel, starring the celebrated Ruth Chatterton, which was so successful it was immortalized in three film versions. The original, with Mary Pickford, remains close to the script of the play and the ideals of the novel, but the second and third, with Janet Gaynor and then with Leslie Caron and Fred Astaire, returned Webster’s innovative look at romance to a conventional one.
Dear Enemy, while somewhat less popular than Daddy Long-Legs, was also filmed by the BBC. It is a more sophisticated development of the theme of establishing a new form of relationship in a modern world – protagonist and antagonist are equal. Both Daddy Long-Legs and Dear Enemy deal with this division, but Dear Enemy reflects a more realistic and human conflict. Sally McBride, Judy Abbott’s socialite roommate from college, is sent to the orphanage of Judy’s youth by Judy and Jervis Pendelton in order to reform it to transform it into a humane and productive institution. There the wealthy socialite discovers the values of hard and productive work, eventually rejecting the conventional dazzling marriage she had previously engaged upon in favor of one with a work-partner and friend. The ideals of self-reliance here combine with the Aristotelian concept of friendship, with the couple teaching, supporting, and complementing each other in all matters of relevance – philosophical as well as practical. Sally McBride has been educated in economics and is therefore suited by charaand background to run and reform the orphanage, but needs to understand that she has a responsibility to society, and can be enriched by her contribution. The wise and sour Dr. MacRae needs only to learn that his authoritative position in medicine and human relationships must be modified to adapt to a new world of potential, of equality, and of the new woman. Together they can not only lead happy lives, but they can influence the character and attitude of the institutions of society.
The effects of these last two novels on the concept of playful, combative, and productive partnerships between a man and a woman in American novels and film have yet to be examined, but it is obvious that from Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey to the present, the pattern was first adapted from the British novel and fixed by Webster.
This experimentation with the nature of male-female relationships in an era of the educated and independent woman is in part the product of Webster’s own experiments after graduating from Vassar while she divided her time between writing and travel. Having fallen in love with a wealthy married man, Glenn Ford McKinney, the brother of one of her best friends, she discovered the necessity of negotiating this long-term and complex situation, of maintaining the individualistic life of self-reliance that had characterized her from her days at Vassar, while entering into a relationship of equality with a man entirely unprepared for these goals, brought up to the standard Victorian ideals of marriage. She was also continually occupied with social reform and found that her novels were effecting social changes. An interview to the Brooklyn Eagle on November 28, 1915, for example, proves her intimate knowledge of the workings of local orphanages and her commitment to the very changes of humane and healthy treatment enacted in Dear Enemy.
On September 7, 1915 Jean Webster married Glenn Ford McKinney following his divorce. On June 11 1916, at the height of her career, Webster died the morning after the birth of her daughter, apparently of childbirth fever. The irony of the woman whose last novel in particular deals with simple and practical human solutions to institutional dilemmas dying from a disease spread by the dirty hands of hospital obstetricians cannot be overemphasized.
When Patty Went to College. New York: Century, 1903.
The Wheat Princess. New York: Century, 1905.
Jerry Junior. New York: Century, 1907.
The Four Pools Mystery. New York: Century, 1908.
Much Ado About Peter. New York: Century, 1909.
Just Patty. New York: Century, 1911.
Daddy Long-Legs. New York: Century, 1912.
Dear Enemy. New York: Century, 1915.
Foreword Upon the Poems of Adelaide Crapsey. Vassar Miscellany 44 (1915): 414-415.
Alkalay-Gut, Karen. ’If Mark Twain Had a Sister’: Gender-Specific Values and Structure in Jean Webster’s Daddy Long-Legs,” Journal of American Culture, Winter, 1993, V. 16, #4, 91-99.
Alkalay-Gut, Karen. Alone in the Dawn: The Life of Adelaide Crapsey. Athens: University of Georgia Press, December 1988.
Alkalay-Gut, Karen. “Jean Webster, Storyteller,” Atlantis V. 9, No. 1, Autumn 1985, 167-170.
Bower, Ann. “Delettering: Responses to Agencies in Jean Webster’s Daddy Long-Legs” in Epistolary Responses: The Letter in Twentieth Century American Fiction and Criticism. University of Alabama, 1997.
Simpson, Alan and Mary with Ralph Connor. Jean Webster: Storyteller. LeGrangeville, New York: Tymor Associates, 1984.
Simpson, Alan. Mark Twain Goes Back to Vassar: An Introduction to the Jean Webster McKinney Family Papers, published for the dedication of the Francis Fitz Randolph Rare Book Room in the Helen D. Lockwood Library, 1977.
Smith, Susan Sutton. The Complete Poems and Collected Letters of Adelaide Crapsey. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977.
Smith, Susan Sutton. “Jean Webster,” American Woman Writers. V. 4, edited by Lina Mainiero, N.Y. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.
Vinson, James, ed. Twentieth Century Romance and Gothic Writers. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.
Dictionary of American Biography. Vol 10. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928-36.
Phillips, Anne Kathryn, “Domestic Transcendentalism in the Novels of Louisa May Alcott, Gene Stratton-Porter, and Jean Webster,” The University of Connecticut, 1993.
Jean Webster McKinney Collection. Vassar College.
Moffett Collection, Mark Twain Papers, Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley.
Clifton Waller Barrett-Samuel Clemens Collections, Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, North Carolina.
Charles L. Webster Collection, Darwin R. Barker Library, Fredonia, New York