Where Was “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” Conceived?

In New England, in California, or in bed?

“Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” illustration by Helen Mason Grose.

Jack Kerouac called Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm his favorite childhood book. Mark Twain found it “beautiful and moving and satisfying.” Jack London sent Wiggin a letter from the headquarters of the Japanese Army in Manchuria: “Rebecca won my heart.”

We have to be reminded of these opinions because Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm has an unfortunate reputation in our own time: it is associated with Shirley Temple, with the darling and sacchrine Little Girl. Unfortunately, this reputation shortchanges a marvelous book. See for yourself.

While Rebecca is endearing, she is the girlhood equivalent of Tom Sawyer — enterprising, mischievous, alive. And Wiggin’s novel is anything but a celebration of softheadedness, a fact that was recognized in her own time: While the book was still being readied for publication, the crew of hardboiled pressmen sent their congratulations to the author. After it appeared, the novel attracted a wide range of enthusiasts — including schoolchildren (who wore sashes with the letters “KDW” to indicate they were members of the author’s fan club) and the superintendent of a lunatic asylum (who wrote, “I have given ‘Rebecca’ to a number of my patients to read and they have derived great profit from it”). Equally revealing is the fact that Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and London’s Call of the Wild were the topselling books of 1903.

1. New England

For those who fondly remember it, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is the classic New England story. Most of the events in the novel take place in “Riverboro,” Wiggin’s archetypal Maine village — a place full of meddling gossips, rural folks with Yankee dialects and expressions, New England spinsters, a salt-of-the-earth old couple, unmarried young schoolmarms, the obnoxious well-to-do family, and the spunky but ragged band of kids with a shiftless father. When it comes to regional literature, and Northern New England in particular, this book reads like a latterday version of Carolyn Chute’s The Beans of Egypt, Maine rewritten by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Of course, what also make it a Yankee book is Wiggin’s use of regional dialect, and her own Yankee wit and dry humor. Take, for example, her descriptions of:

  • a luckless family: “they had settled down and invited fate to do its worst, an invitation that was promptly accepted.”
  • or Mr. Simpson, the town’s thief and “swapper”: someone who spent a good deal of time in jail because “having nothing of his own, [he was obliged] to swap something belonging to his neighbors.”
  • or Mr. Simpson’s family: they are so poor they don’t even own a chair, which is fine because Mr. Simpson “ordinarily sat elsewhere at the town’s expense.”
  • or the goodhearted ambition of a young teacher working with a group of ill-prepared, country schoolchildren: This reminds Wiggins of the story of a Canadian beaver that was transported to London and up three sets of stairs to a room, where the beaver began to build a dam with no thought about the absence of water. “In the same manner did Miss Dearborn lay what she fondly imagined to be the foundations of the infant mind.”

Given its Yankee pot-roast flavor, it may surprise some people to learn that Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was actually inspired by California. It was Wiggin’s relocation to Santa Barbara that gave her the perspective to look back at her New England childhood and write about it. In fact, throughout her life, Wiggin shuttled between the West and East, and she even advocated a kind of bicoastal exchange program for young people.

2. California

Like Rebecca, Wiggin grew up in Maine and was a spontaneous and outspoken child. Her earliest recollection was of having been given a prayer book by an Episcopal rector, saying thank you and then adding “but I do wish you had given me almost anything else.” According to her autobiography My Garden of Memory, that was when she received her first spanking. It was also when she first learned “the necessity of concealing one’s own feelings.” Like Rebecca, she was a slow learner. A six-year-old child from Maine, she encountered Charles Dickens on a train and bound for his lecture engagement in Boston. Pleased, she told her favorite author how she loved and reread his books, but she also confessed that she skipped the dull parts:

He laughed heartily, . . . and, whether to amuse himself, or to amuse me, I do not know, he took out a notebook and pencil from his pocket and proceeded to give me an exhausting and exhaustive examination on this subject; the books in which the dull parts predominated; and the characters and subjects which principally produced them. He chuckled so constantly during this operation that I could hardly help believing myself extraordinarily agreeable.

A few years later, because of her stepfather’s poor health, the family moved to Santa Barbara. And California opened up a new world to her, one as beautiful as the one Dorothy found when she left the gray plains of Kansas and entered the floral world of Oz:

Now ensued what proved to be the most irresponsible, delightful, entirely healthful and enchanting year or two of my life. No words can describe the loveliness of Santa Barbara, with its semi-tropical atmosphere, its luxuriance of foilage and flowers, its semi-circle of mountains, its blue, blue sea! I had been used to the deep snows, and the late reluctant springs of Maine. In California, when the rains had ceased, April was a revelation of beauty hitherto unimagined. We had a pleasant house, although there were no positively unpleasant ones to be found. It was a free, eager, venturesome, joyous life altogether, and if I had a dozen daughters I should like those born in the East to have a breath of the West, while I would send the California girls to the East for a year or two.

Shortly thereafter, however, this bliss ended when Wiggin’s father died and left the family in a familiar California situation: he had speculated during a real estate boom and was mortgaged to the nines when the slump came. Penniless, seventeen-year-old Kate sought to help her family by writing. And she sold a children’s story (which was the germ of Rebecca) to St. Nicholas Magazine.

But Wiggin needed a more regular income and that meant returning to the East. She had heard about “the kindergarten movement” — an experiment based on the theories of the German educator Friedrich Froebel and conducted in Boston by Elizabeth Peabody at the school of her brother-in-law, Horace Mann. So, Wiggin traveled back East in 1879 to meet Peabody, and she fell under the spell of the transcendentalists.

Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Elizabeth Peabody had organized in Concord, Massachusetts, a series of summer seminars on educational reform. Among the guest speakers was the whitehaired saint Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father and a pioneer in experimental education). After the morning sessions, in the humid afternoons, the participants would lounge among the shade trees of Sleepy Hollow Burying Ground like so many Rip Van Winkles. On one of these occasions, Peabody chided Wiggin for her hairstyle: “Our friend has developed much this week. Another year [and] she must be a real student, and I hope then her hair will be drawn back smoothly from her fine forehead.” Emerson, lounging against a nearby tombstone, is said to have responded: “I have seen smoother heads with less in them.”

Encouraged, Wiggin returned to the West. She trained in Los Angeles and then set up the first kindergarten west of the Rockies. Established in a San Francisco slum known as the Tar Flats, the “California Kindergarten Training-School” took in children from all social classes. Wiggin served as the first teacher, organizer, and fund-raiser from 1880 to 1884. After her marriage and return to the East Coast, she remained interested in the school (returning there every spring) and she often donated the profits from her writing to what became a flourishing educational endeavor.

3. In Bed

Wiggin believed that it was her relocation to New England that put her health into jeopardy. But ill health, she soon learned, had its advantages. From that point on, she would use the occasion of real or feigned illnesses to write in the sanctuaries of hospitals and health resorts. She found it best to write in bed: “My superiors, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain, wrote many novels in bed. . . . One cannot see callers, answer the telephone, go to luncheons or dinners, visit the dentist or shoemaker, address charitable organizations in or from a bed; therefore a bed, in my experience, is simply bristling with ideas.”

Rebecca was conceived in bed. The book was begun at a Southern health resort and finished during a make-believe convalescence when she persuaded the doctors that the work was better out of her system than in it:

I am not the least a psychic person, but Rebecca’s origin was peculiar to herself. I was recovering from a long illness and very early one morning I lay in a sort of waking dream. I saw an old-fashioned stage-coach rumbling along a dusty country road lined with maple and elm trees. A kind, rosy-faced man held the reins that guided the two lean horses and from the window of the coach leaned a darkhaired gypsy of a child. I was instantly attracted by her long braids floating in the breeze and by the beauty of the eyes in her mischievous face. She pushed back a funny little hat with an impatient gesture, straightened it on her head with a thump, and, with some wriggling, managed to secure the attention of the driver by poking him with a tiny frilled parasol. That was all. The picture came, and went, and returned, and finally faded away, but it haunted me, and I would recall every detail of it at will. Too weak to write, I wondered who the child was, and whither she was traveling, and whence she had come. I could not content myself until I had created answers to my questions and the final answer was, indeed, the book itself.

“Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” illustration by Helen Mason Grose.

This dream would, of course, become the opening scene of the novel: Jerry Cobb as the ancient stagecoach driver and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm as his spirited child passenger.

“People of the spirit” — the Bible says and Wiggin seems to echo — “are like the wind: we do not know from whence they come or whither they go.” But while Rebecca may have come from the unknown of dreams, the answers to where she came from and where she went can be found between the covers of Wiggin’s wonderful book.

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14. November 2016 by
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