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The following review appeared 4 August 2011 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Alice Hegan Rice's first book is her most remembered and, I dare say, her most successful. It was made into a movie three different times, one starring W.C. Fields. Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch is the tale of an unfortunate woman, who despite her poverty and the deaths of her child and husband, maintains a Victorian dignity and an eternal optimism that overshadow all her misfortune. Mrs. Wiggs is the quintessential Victorian woman, who despite her husband's vice of alcohol and his resulting death, is the "angel" of her household and her community. In her book Beyond the Cabbage Patch: The Literary World of Alice Hegan Rice Mary Boewe presents a literary biography which traces the life of Alice Hegan Rice, both in her native Louisville, Kentucky, and in the literary milieu of the end of the Victorian Era during the early twentieth century
Boewe structures the literary biography of Rice around the author's major works, dividing her career into four periods that trace her first publication of Mrs. Wiggs in 1901 to her last and posthumous publication in 1942 of Happiness Road. Beginning with the "Prologue: 1900," Mary Boewe details the background of "Miss Alice," her life in Louisville, in the broader literary world, and with her future husband, poet and author Cale Young Rice. She also provides the basis for the character of Mrs. Wiggs and of the Louisville neighborhood of the downtrodden, the Cabbage Patch. Throughout all parts of the text, Boewe provides a plethora of details of the literary world of the early twentieth century and of the authors whose lives and careers intersect that of Rice. Of particular interest to this forum will be the numerous parallels of Alice Hegan Rice and her career with Mark Twain and his career.
The first of these parallels between Rice and Twain lies in each author's view of the age in which they lived. Boewe juxtaposes the seemingly opposing views of the Victorian Era that Twain defined in The Gilded Age to the world of Rice's Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, describing the latter's work as a "Victorian tract." Twain's American Victorianism is "a stuffy America of grandiose dreams and dubious morality." Juxtapose Twain's gilded view of the age with Rice's idyllic view and the reader can see through the Wiggs story:
"the obvious elements of Victorianism: the virtues of domesticity, an exaltation of motherhood, the work ethic, the evils of drink, female interdependence, child-rearing techniques, child labor concerns, social welfare programs, and the intricacies of etiquette" (7).
The two authors embodied separate sides of the coin of the gilded Victorian Age. On one hand, Rice represented the female perspective of the angel of the household while Twain defined the permissive attitude to the decadence and over-indulgence of the male during the era. Likewise, each author accepts the other's perception because each has her and his view of the opposite gender of the era. The fictional character of Mrs. Wiggs acquiesces to her husband's foibles when she describes his death as "travel[ing] to eternity by the alcohol route, . . . bur[ying] his faults with him and for want of better virtues . . . [extolling] . . . the fine hand he wrote" (Rice, 4). Mark Twain depicts the women of the era (except for anomalies such as Roxy) as gentle women of the home like the Widow Douglass who taught their charges the virtues of memorizing Bible verses and having table manners.
During the summer of 1904, shortly after his wife Livy's death, Twain and the Rices coincidentally spent the summer in Tyringham, Massachusetts, staying in neighboring residences. Boewe describes the two authors' views of each other. While Twain is described by other members of the company as "bitter and tragic," Rice graciously perceives him, as if with rose-colored glasses. She describes his "wonderful shaggy head of snow white hair, . . . [his] expression of . . . amused interest, and . . . his [listening] attentively" (59).
While Alice Hegan Rice had long admired Mark Twain, having studied his use of characterization and vernacular language in his classic works, Mark Twain did not feel the same about her. Alan Gribben in Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction cites the harsh view Twain had of Rice and her work. Twain once wrote his wife Livy a note criticizing Rice's book Mrs. Wiggs "for the poverty & crudeness & vulgarity" and comparing it to another work as being "the difference between Emerson & a 'nigger-show'" (Gribben, p. 576). During the summer of 1904, after Livy's death, Isabel Lyon accompanied Twain to Tyringham and in her journal discussed meeting the Rices. According to Boewe, Lyon explains that she was "disappointed with the author of _Mrs. Wiggs_ . . . but to 'Mr. Clemens' . . . Alice's book was not literature. Therefore the author was not literary." However, despite Twain's view of Rice and her work, his friend and editor Albert Bigelow Paine described "the humanity of Mrs. Wiggs [going] straight to the heart of the reader, [despite] . . . the matter of a little artistic crudity, more or less." Perhaps, as Boewe explains, Twain's opinion of Rice could have been tainted by her misinformed profession of admiration for Bret Harte, "learn[ing] too late that Harte was Twain's nemesis, the target of many a furious tirade" (59).
Throughout her book, Boewe offers several examples of Rice's failure to acknowledge Twain's distaste of her and of his failure to consider her a part of the literary community. Rice was not invited to Twain's birthday dinner hosted by his publishers Harper and Brothers at Delmonico's in 1905 while other friends and authors attended. Rice seems to rationalize her exclusion and relates in a letter that "I am crazy to be on hand for the dinner, and I feel like a small boy on the _outside_ of a circus, but my Poet and I are pledged to spend our Thanksgiving down in Tennessee" (79). Boewe further explains that "Meanwhile, two Louisville friends [and authors] were going to the party" (79). Boewe seems to suggest that Rice was aware of Twain's real feelings, but would never fully acknowledge them. Later that year, Rice wrote to a friend, almost admitting to some envy at not being invited to the gala. "My one consolation in not being at that dinner lies in the fact that my picture was not in Harpers Weekly. Weren't they funny? I enjoyed them for a week!" (79). Rice was too much the Victorian woman to profess any truly unladylike feelings such as envy or resentment.
Boewe additionally offers another example of the less than stellar assessment Mark Twain (and other critics) gave to Alice Hegan Rice and her works. Any scholar of Mark Twain knows that one of his primary goals in his writing was authenticity, but Twain did not see that in Rice's 1909 novel Mr. Opp. Inspired by a response from Mark Twain to a newspaper item she sent him, Rice created the character Mr. Opp from the typically Twain response and description of the writer of the piece, calling him "a brother with an atrophied lung & a petrified brain" (96). Rice took this description and used it to create the character who "was the personification of Optimism when he wasn't in the depths of Despair" -- Mr. Opp (96). In one chapter of this novel, Rice details a riverboat trip that earned Twain's ridicule. In a rambling essay titled "Getting the Details Right" Mark Twain criticized the author for "steamboaty details" and complained that writers describing the technicalities of a trade they had never mastered would always make serious errors. He went on to enumerate Rice's mistakes regarding steamboat piloting and travel. However, Twain was not the only critic to pan the 1909 novel, nor the author. One critic wrote that "Mrs. Wiggs was going into its fifty-second printing, but Mr. Opp would be lucky to reach its fifth" (104).
Throughout the book, Mary Boewe traces Alice Hegan Rice's literary career and encounters. While her career is not much remembered in the twenty-first century, the author of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch shared a table with and rubbed shoulders with many of the literary, political and social elite of America. However, the most touching story Boewe relates is that of the love affair between Alice and her poet husband Cale Young Rice. Theirs is a love affair not that dissimilar to Sam Clemens and Olivia Langdon, especially regarding the death of the wives. When the Rices met Twain during the Tyringham summer that followed Livy's death, Cale Rice describes Twain as "bitter and tragic . . . [and] the plight of [Twain's] mind . . . was lamentable" (58). In very similar fashion, at the death of Alice in January of 1942, Cale was inconsolable; "there was no mourning period. The grief and loneliness went on and on and on" (349). On Saturday, January 23, 1943, Cale Young Rice committed suicide: "Let me forget forever, or let me die!" (352). The last line of his final poem, titled "Last Lines," foretold his final act.
The period of the Gilded Age in America paralleled and overlapped the Victorian Age of England and Europe. The Gilded Age denoted a lifestyle of flamboyance and excess, much like the gilded edges of a classic book. The Victorian Era emphasized the responsibility of the woman to be the moral and spiritual center of society. As a student of Twain, I could not help but key on the obvious parallels between Mark Twain and the literary life and career of Alice Hegan Rice and this era which each author occupied. Just as Mark Twain represents his own personal duality and view of life through his works, together Twain and Rice embody the dichotomy that was the Victorian Era. On one side, Twain is the quintessential Victorian male, self-indulgent, extravagant and a willing participant in the gendered "acceptable" vices of the era. Alice Hegan Rice, through her literary works and her personal experiences, thus embodies the optimism, naiveté, virtue and innocence of the Victorian woman. Through her detail of the life and literary travels of Alice Hegan Rice, Mary Boewe offers an enlightening look at one of the most prolific writers of the early twentieth century, if not one of the last remnants of the Victorian Era.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Carolyn Leutzinger Richey is a graduate of University of Missouri (BS English and Education) and San Diego State University (MA English). She currently teaches in the English Department at Tarleton State University, and she previously taught in the English Department of San Diego State University. Having written her Master's Thesis on Mark Twain, Ms. Richey has presented papers on Mark Twain and Children's Literature at several Mark Twain conferences and American Literature conferences. She has written numerous reviews on Twain and Children's Literature, along with contributing the entries on Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn for the Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English.
Other Works Cited:
Gribben, Alan. Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction. Boston: G. K. Hall and Company, 1980.
Rice, Alice Hegan. Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. New
York: D. Appletobn-Century Company, 1936.