January 28, 2011

Death of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward died on January 28, 1911 in Massachusetts. In her 67 years, she had been an advocate for various reform movements and written over 50 books — her first (Ellen's Idol) published when she was 20 years old, her last (Comrades) published posthumously.

Ward's most famous book, however, remains The Gates Ajar (published well before her marriage to the significantly-younger writer Herbert Dickinson Ward). That book took her two years to write; she then spent two more years revising it "so many times that I could have said it by heart," she claimed. It was ultimately published in 1868 by Ticknor & Fields.

The Gates Ajar describes a conceptual afterlife where people retain their physical shapes and personalities, basically an idealized or perfected version of the living world. The book's popularity came, in part, from such a positive view on death shortly after the Civil War. She received thousands of letters in response and the book had two sequels: Beyond the Gates (1883) and The Gates Between (1887). Told in the voice of the fictional Mary Cabot, whose brother died in the Civil War, the journal-styled book The Gates Ajar comes to an eventual acceptance of death. From the chapter marked "January":

Morning and noon and evening come and go; the snow drifts down and the rain falls softly; clouds form and break and hurry past the windows; shadows melt and lights are shattered, and little rainbows are prisoned by the icicles that hang from the eaves.

I sit and watch them, and watch the sick-lamp flicker in the night, and watch the blue morning crawl over the hills; and the old words are stealing down my thought: That is the substance, this the shadow; that the reality, this the dream.

*For much of this information, I am indebted to Nina Baym's introduction to a modern collection of Phelps Ward's series, Three Spiritualist Novels (2000).

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