In her “happy half century” as an essayist, Agnes Repplier produced 18 volumes of essays. She placed the first of her Lamb-like “conversations” in the Atlantic Montbly in 1886 and continued to appear regularly in the Atlantic and other outlets of higher journalism, such as the Century Magazine and Harper’s, until the late 1930s.
Repplier used what she called “the light essay” to explore such specific and seemingly random subjects as mirrors, dogs, letters, diaries, spinsters, cakes and ale, as well as topics as abstract and diverse as superstition, education, pleasure, ennui, Christianity, humor, and war. Of her many subjects the two she returned to the most were those that made up the title of her first book—Books and Men (1888)—with the “men” usually being authors.
Repplier was an autodidact. Though she would eventually receive honorary degrees from Notre Dame, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Yale, and Columbia, her formal education ended when her rebelliousness got her expelled from convent school at the age of 15. The many allusions and quotations in her essays testify to the fact that she read voraciously and always with a pencil in hand. Her essays flow from the tradition of the commonplace book. An early (1894) and anonymous reviewer in the Atlantic cited them as examples of “the bookish essay,” a “harvest of book-browsings” that makes “no attempt at criticism beyond the report of the effect of a volume upon the personality of the essayist.” Such a summary statement overstates the case, but Repplier’s displays of knowledge are sometimes intrusive. Witness for example the piling up of (often obscure) allusion in this single sentence:
Actaeon flying as a stag from the pursuit of his own hounds; Circe’s swinish captives groveling at their troughs; Björn turned into a bear through the malice of his stepmother, and hunted to death by his father, King Kring; the swans of Lir floating mournfully on the icy waters of the Moyle; the loup-garou lurking in the forest of Brittany, the oborot coursing over the Russian steppes; Merlin sleeping in the gloomy depths of Broceliande, and Raknar buried fifty fathoms below the coast of Helluland, are alike the victims of “woven and of waving hands,” whether the spell be cast by an outraged divinity, or by the cruel hand of a malignant foe.” (“On the Benefits of Superstition,” 1888) Repplier does not so much criticize literature as talk about her reading, which ranged widely in the Latin classics and the established canons of both France and England. She offers impressions, but does not build a system. She is often enthusiastic, sometimes acerbic, but never a true theoretician.
Repplier’s essays ramble, but Repplier’ style is always polished and energetic. Her tone is at once companionable and ironic, gentle and biting. She wrote often on humor—e.g. “A Plea for Humor” (1891), “Wit and Humor” (1893), “Humor: English and American” (1894), “The Mission of Humor” (1912), “Cruelty and Humor” (1920), “The American Laughs” (1924), and “The Unconscious Humor of the Movies” (1931)—and though she criticized the tendency in both individuals and nations to hold the humor of others in disdain, she herself favored the English brand of wit and drollery. She expects, even requires, an alert reader. Of motion pictures, which she termed a “kind of amplified and diversified Punch and Judy show, depending on incessant action and plenty of hard knocks,” she wrote, “Even the animals—dogs, donkeys and pigs—are subject to catastrophes that must wreck their confidence in life” (“The American Laughs”). Of the snobbery of colonial Philadelphia Anglicans who were willing to forego their privileges as British subjects in order to have their way with the Quakers, she noted, “The ardent churchman felt no sacrifice too great for the coveted privilege of correcting his neighbor’s misdemeanors” (Philadelphia: The Place and the People, 1898).
Her humor was her saving grace, for her opinions were firmly held and often unpopular. Her irony was as self-deprecating as it was wicked. Unmarried herself, she wrote essays on “The Spinster” (1904) and “Three Famous Old Maids” (1895)—e.g. “Miss Austen, Miss Edgeworth, Miss Mitford.” She was a political conservative and devout Catholic, but did not shirk from alluding to her own weakness for drink (“The Strayed Prohibitionist,” 1920), though it should be noted that she wrote with equal enthusiasm about tea (To Think of Tea!, 1932). She was less evenhanded with other topics. Her attacks on feminists, pacifists, and other reformers were always uncompromising and sometimes contemptuous. Immigrants were holding America back.
Liberals were pessimists who lacked “sympathy with man and with his work, with the beautiful and imperfect things he has made of the chequered centuries” (“Consolations of a Conservative,” 1920).
She saw herself as a classicist and a patrician whose task it was to defend literary tradition, that “little band of authors who, unknown to the wide careless world, remain from generation to generation the friends of a few fortunate readers” (introduction to the biography James Howell, 1907). If she could choose one “happy half century,” she said, it would be the one that straddled 1800. For her, this meant that the essay should be Lambian. She recognized the obstinacy of such a position, but persisted. As early as 1894 she allowed that “the essay may die, but just now it possesses a lively and encouraging vitality” (“The Passing of the Essay”). To prove her point, she cited the popularity of seven particular essayists. Unfortunately, three of them were already dead and two more would die within the year. By 1918, she was admitting defeat: “The personal essay, the little bit of sentiment or observation, the lightly offered commentary which aims to appear the artless thing it isn’t—this exotic, of which Lamb was a rare exponent, has withered in the blasts of war” (“The American Essay in War Time”).
Repplier’s version of the personal essay may have been narrow and antiquated, but she practiced it with enough energy, wit, and style that James Gray in American NonFiction: 1900–1950 (1952) credits her with keeping it “alive almost without aid far into the 1930’s.”
Born 1 April 1855 in Philadelphia. Studied at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Philadelphia: expelled at age 10; Eden Hall Sacred Heart convent, Torresdale, Pennsylvania, 1867–70; Miss Agnes Irwin’s School, Philadelphia, 1870–71: expelled.
Lived primarily in Philadelphia; traveled a great deal in Europe. Contributor to many journals, from 1881, including Catholic World and the Atlantic Monthly. Friends with other writers, including Oliver Wendell Holmes and Walt Whitman.
Awards: Laetare Medal, 1911; American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal, 1935; honorary degrees from five universities.
Died in Philadelphia, 15 December 1950.
Essays and Related Prose
Books and Men, 1888
Points of View, 1891
Essays in Miniature, 1892
Essays in Idleness, 1893
In the Dozy Hours, and Other Papers, 1894
Philadelphia: The Place and the People, 1898
The Fireside Sphinx, 1901
A Happy Half-Century, and Other Essays, 1908
Americans and Others, 1912
Points of Friction, 1920
Under Dispute, 1924
Times and Tendencies, 1931
To Think of Tea!, 1932
In Pursuit of Laughter, 1936
Eight Decades: Essays and Episodes, 1937
Other writings: the autobiography In Our Convent Days (1905) and biographies. Also edited A Book of Famous Verse (1892).
“Contemporary Essays,” Atlantic Monthly 73 (February 1894): 265
Flanagan, John T., “A Distinguished American Essayist,” South Atlantic Quarterly 44 (1945):162–69
Hall, James Norman, “A Word for the Essayist,” Yale Review 32, (September 1942):50– 58
Pattee, Fred Lewis, A History of American Literature Since 1870, New York: Century, 1915:42,8–32
Pattee, Fred Lewis, The New American Literature, 1890–1930, New York: Century, 1930:434–35
Repplier, Emma (Mrs. Lightner Witmer), Agnes Repplier: A Memoir, Philadelphia: Dorrance, 1957
Rickenbacker, William F., “Agnes Repplier Revisited,” Modern Age: A Quarterly Review 36, no. 4 (Summer 1994):341–50
Stokes, George Stewart, Agnes Repplier: Lady of Letters, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, and London: Oxford University Press, 1949
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