“If the unresponsive gods, so often invoked, so seldom complaisant, would grant me one sweet boon, I should ask of them that I might join that little band of authors, who, unknown to the wide careless world, remain from generation to generation the friends of a few fortunate readers.” This was Agnes Repplier’s introduction to Epistolae Ho-Elianae, a two-volume collection of the familiar letters of James Howell a 17th Century English bureaucrat and man of letters.
At the time, Repplier was one of the better-known American writers, and it was Howell she was referring to as unknown. Today, the statement could well be considered her literary epitaph. About four years ago, the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute released a collection of her essays titled, American Austen: The Forgotten Writing of Agnes Repplier, with an introductory essay by John Lukacs taken from his 1981 book, Philadelphia, Patricians and Philistines, 1900-1950.
If ISI intended this quite misleading title to attract more attention than, say, “Selected Essays by Agnes Repplier,” it succeeded, garnering at least a few reviews in the major press. Michael Dirda covered it in the Washington Post. Titled “A Woman of Masterful Persuasion,” the review included Dirda’s admission that, as a lifelong scourer of bookstore shelves, he’d seen used copies of Repplier’s books hundreds of times, but that,”in appearance they all seemed mere period pieces, ladylike albums revealing a sensitive soul’s adventures among the masterpieces.” It was, however, “An understandable mistake. After all, there were so many similar litterateurs of that era–Augustine Birrell, Edmund Gosse, Alice Meynell, Robert Lynd, Logan Pearsall Smith.”
The main reason ISI’s title is misleading is not that Repplier was in no way a contemporary of Austen’s (she was born 38 years after Austen died, and lived to the ripe age of 95–twice as long as Austen). It’s that Repplier wasn’t even a novelist. After publishing a dozen or so short stories, she abandoned fiction almost entirely. Repplier was an essayist.
The literary canon seems to allot each century an average of one or two essayists for remembrance. Born in 1855 and still writing until 1937, Agnes Repplier didn’t make the cut for either of her centuries.
Not that she would have lost any sleep over it. She was pretty sanguine about her place in literature: “My niche is small,” she said, “but I made it myself.” She gave up fiction in favor of essays at the advice of her first editor, Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Catholic World magazine. “‘I fancy,’” he said, ‘that you know more about books than you do about life, that you are more of a reader than an observer.’” He suggested she write a piece about her favorite author, John Ruskin. “And make it brief,” he added.
“That essay turned my feet into the path which I have trodden laboriously ever since,” she wrote. Her choice of genre was entirely pragmatic, however. Her father, a coal broker, lost his fortune in a failed iron foundry south of Philadelphia, and it fell to Agnes to be the main breadwinner, caring for her father, sister, and a feeble-minded brother who lived to the age of eighty. “The imperious necessities of life have driven me, in common with other workers, to seek the best market I could find for my wares.” “I have been a mere laborer in the trenches, with no nobler motive underlying my daily toil than the desire to be self-supporting in a clean and reputable fashion,” she wrote in a 1909 essay, “Catholicism and Authorship.”
The piece on Ruskin was published in 1884. Within a year of that, her work was appearing in almost every issue of the Catholic World. Her great ambition, though, was to be published in the Atlantic Monthly, the leading American literary and cultural magazine of the time. It took two years, but in 1886, her essay, “Children, Past and Present,” was accepted and appeared in the April issue.
The piece is a classic of the compare-and-contrast school. She cites numerous examples of child-rearing in the past, ranging from abuse to “Spare the rod and spoil the child” to simply leaving the child to fend for itself. Then she discusses contemporary views, influenced by a mix of romanticism (“the innocent babes”) and early professional educators. As is often the case in her essays prior to the First World War, Repplier sees merits and demerits on both sides. She acknowledges the charm of children brought up with “relaxed discipline,” but maintains that “The faculty of sitting still without fidgeting, of walking without rushing, and of speaking without screaming can be acquired only under tuition.”
While “Children, Past and Present” isn’t a good place to start if you’re interested in experiencing the pleasures of Repplier’s best work, it does display one of her greatest strengths: a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of literature, from the great classics to obscure books and writers. Among the names she mentions or quotes from in just the first half of the essay are Maria Edgeworth, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill, Giacomo Leopardi, Jehan le Cuvelier, Madame de Rochefoucauld, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, Edgar Quinet, Sir Francis Doyle, Adam Smith, and her favorite, John Ruskin.
“What Children Read,” which appeared in the January 1887 issue, is a better example of Repplier’s voice and viewpoint. In it, she mourns for the passing of a time when there were few books actually written for children, and what many young readers had to choose from were books intended for an adult audience: “Those were not days when over-indulgence and a multiplicity of books robbed reading of its healthy zest.” By the time Repplier was writing, no end of “Ripping Yarns” and tales of stalwart young heroes and heroines ala Horatio Alger were flooding the book market, substituting a safe world full of moral models for one in which an unsuspecting child might pick up “A Tale of a Tub,” “The Faerie Queen,” or The Three Musketeers.
Repplier convinced Houghton, Mifflin to publish a collection of seven of her early essays in her first book, Books and Men (1888). As Geore Stewart Stokes puts it in his 1949 biography, Agnes Repplier: Lady Of Letters (available on the Internet Archive), “she had become convinced that a book is a necessary form of advertisement for a periodical writer.” As it was, she had to subsidize the book, and the publisher “made it painfully clear that she was very probably throwing her money away.” Instead, it sold well enough to lead to three more printings, and Repplier went on to publish nineteen more collections of essays over the next fifty years.
At her best, Repplier is pragmatic, cuttingly insightful, and funny. Take her piece, “Lectures,” from her 1894 book, In the Dozy Hours: “Now, is it industry or a love of sport which makes us sit in long and solemn rows in an oppressively hot room, blinking at glaring lights, breathing a vitiated air, wriggling on straight and narrow chairs, and listening, as well as heat and fatigue and discomfort will permit, to a lecture which might just as well have been read peacefully by our own firesides?” (Remember, this was at the height of the Chatauqua movement). She remarks that, “The necessity of knowing a little about a great many things is the most grievous burden of our day”–an observation still true today. Or take her comment in “How the Quaker City Spent Its Money,” from Philadelphia, the Place and the People (1912), about a Quaker preacher: “He came to make a dull world duller.” This is an echo of the statement in one of her most famous pieces, “The Mission of Humor,” from Americans and Others (1904), that ” A man destitute of humour … is often to be respected, sometimes to be feared, and always–if possible–to be avoided.”
Something muddled her thinking and writing around the time of the start of the First World War. She developed a deep hatred of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Prussian militarism, and the German Empire. In his review of American Austen, Michael Dirda writes, “Repplier isn’t really squishy in the least; she regularly delivers sentences and similes of epigrammatic sharpness,” and he cites a passage from “The Cheerful Clan,” published in Points of Friction (1920):
Things are as they are, and no amount of self-deception makes them otherwise. The friend who is incapable of depression depresses us as surely as the friend who is incapable of boredom bores us. Somewhere in our hearts is a strong, though dimly understood, desire to face realities, and to measure consequences, to have done with the fatigue of pretending. It is not optimism to enjoy the view when one is treed by a bull; it is philosophy. The optimist would say that being treed was a valuable experience. The disciple of gladness would say it was a pleasurable sensation. The Christian Scientist would say there was no bull, though remaining–if he were wise–on the tree-top. The philosopher would make the best of a bad job, and seek what compensation he could find.
These are some wonderful lines. But one has to overlook these lines, which come a few pages earlier in the same essay:
Germany cannot–for some time to come –spring at our throat. If we fail to readjust our industries on a paying basis, we shall of course go under, and lose the leadership of the world. But we won’t be kicked under by the Prussian boot.
Her bitterness towards Germany may have just been part of an increasingly acerbic view of the world. The last essay in Points of Friction is titled “Cruelty and Humor,” and in it, she offers a contrarian view of the Reader’s Digest adage of “Laughter is the Best Medicine”:
We hear so much about the sanitary qualities of laughter, we have been taught so seriously the gospel of amusement, that any writer, preacher, or lecturer, whose smile is broad enough to be infectious, finds himself a prophet in the market-place. Laughter, we are told, freshens our exhausted spirits and disposes us to good-will–which is true. It is also true that laughter quiets our uneasy scruples and disposes us to simple savagery. Whatever we laugh at, we condone, and the echo of man’s malicious merriment rings pitilessly through the centuries. Humour which
has no scorn, wit which has no sting, jests which have no victim, these are not the pleasantries which have provoked mirth, or fed the comic sense of a conventionalized rather than a civilized world.
Repplier got to be a tough old gal in her later years. In the introduction to his biography, Stokes recalls their first meeting, when “We sat and talked that afternoon in October in the Victorian parlor of Miss Repplier’s Clinton Street apartment, her Grandmother Shorb’s tea set spread on a little table between us, its cups serving as a series of convenient ash trays.” She grew less and less patient with interruptions and unwanted visitors. There is a perhaps apochryphal story of a young admirer who came to call and then kept dithering about as she began to leave. “There was something I meant to say, but I’ve forgotten what it was,” she confessed. “Perhaps, my dear, it was ‘Good-bye,’” Repplier replied.
Repplier died in 1950, thirteen years after publishing her last book–a collection of essays titled Eight Decades (1937). All of her books up to Points of Friction are available in electronic form on the Internet Archive.