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Agnes Repplier Papers - Biographical Sketch


Agnes Repplier (1855-1950) was an essayist and biographer who was admired for her common sense, courage, and sense of artistry in crafting an essay. Independent-minded, well-read, and with a incisive sense of humor, she had a writing career that spanned sixty-five years, during which she developed friendships with a number of noted writers, artists, and scholars.

Born in Philadelphia on 1 April 1855, she was the daughter of John George Repplier (of Alsatian descent) and his second wife, Agnes Mathias (of German descent). As a child she had a phenomenal memory and could recite lengthy poems which her mother had taught her viva voce. Her mother also tried to teach her to read--unsuccessfully for years. Agnes taught herself to read at the age of ten and read extensively from that time on. At twelve she was enrolled in Eden Hall, the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Torresdale, north of Philadelphia. The pleasures of her two-year stay are captured in her memoir, In Our Convent Days (1905), written more than thirty years later and dedicated to her closest friend there, Elizabeth Robins Pennell. It is not clear why she was asked not to return to Eden Hall after her second year there, except that her willfulness and independent spirit were to blame. She was enrolled in Agnes Irwin's West Penn Square Seminary for Young Ladies. This school required serious scholarship and strict discipline: it was not merely a finishing school. Agnes Irwin recognized Repplier's intelligence and wit, and their relationship later developed into a strong mutual friendship; however, Agnes Repplier completed only three terms at Miss Irwin's school when she was dismissed for rebelling against the headmistress's authority. Miss Irwin maintained contact with Repplier and was ambitious for the success of Repplier's writing career. Agnes Repplier wrote a short biography of Agnes Irwin after Irwin's death in 1914.

At the age of twenty Agnes Repplier began to write and publish stories. When her father lost all his money in an unsuccessful business venture, her mother determined that Agnes's writing would contribute to the family income, as did the teaching job of Agnes's older sister Mary. Repplier began writing essays after meeting Father Isaac Thomas Hecker, the founder of the Paulist order and editor of the Catholic World, where some of her early poems and stories had been published. He advised her that she was not equipped for writing fiction, for she was "more a reader than an observer" (Stokes, p. 59). Repplier recognized this as one of most valuable pieces of advice that she received in her life, and from then on she cultivated her particular talent for the short essay.

As a writer and a Catholic, Repplier was at times called upon to write on Catholic subjects. For example, in 1936 she was asked by the Philadelphia Inquirer to write some lines on the death of the pope. Towards the end of her writing career Repplier was asked to write biographies of three Catholic figures, Mere Marie of the Ursulines, Pere Marquette, and Junipero Serra. Repplier's biographers have noted how her independence of mind was not in the least compromised by the conservatism of the Catholic church, but rather strengthened by its intellectual traditions.

The year 1886 marked the point at which Repplier achieved literary success with the publication of her essay, "Children, Past and Present," in The Atlantic Monthly. Afterwards she published regularly in The Atlantic Monthly until 1940. She published numerous essays as well in Life, Appleton's Magazine, The New Republic, McClure's, Harper's, Monthly Magazine, Commonweal, America, Century Magazine, and The Yale Review. She was invited to Boston to meet the literary circle of Lowell and Holmes, the arbiters of literary taste for the country at that time.

Recognition of Repplier's literary accomplishments led to speaking engagements and travel. Agnes Repplier enjoyed the company and conversation of men. She developed close relationships with those she called her "literary friends," among them Dr. S. Weir Mitchell; Horace Howard Furness, Jr.; Harrison S. Morris (later editor of Lippincott's Magazine); author Owen Wister; book collector A. Edward Newton; physician J. William White; and British author, Andrew Lang. Repplier's friendships with women were warm and long-lasting: among these friends were Cornelia Frothingham; Helen Jastrow; artist Cecilia Beaux; poet Amy Lowell; Mrs. Schuyler Warren, mistress of a literary salon in New York; and Frances Wister, Philadelphia patroness of the arts; and many others.

As soon as proceeds from the sales of her books and essays permitted, Repplier traveled to Europe for extended visits and wrote of her experiences there. She was a founding member of the Cosmopolitan Club in Philadelphia in 1886 and a member of the Acorn Club. She received honorary doctor of letters degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia.

In later life, Repplier, who never married, lived with and cared for her older sister Mary and brother Louis, who suffered from partial paralysis and poor health. She was close to her niece, Emma Repplier Witmer (wife of the psychologist, Lightner Witmer). Emma Repplier Witmer was the daughter of J. George Repplier, one of two sons of the first marriage of Agnes's father. After her mother's death, Agnes sought out her older brothers and then established a warm relationship with her niece, Emma.

The press visited Agnes Repplier at home in Philadelphia as she passed one milestone birthday after another through her eighties and into her nineties. They always exclaimed over her nimble mind, witty repartee, and fresh views on political situations. She died in Philadelphia at the age of ninety-five.

Her published books include Books and Men (1888); Points of View (1891); Essays in Miniature (1892); Essays in Idleness (1893); In the Dozy Hours (1894); Varia (1897); Philadelphia: The Place and the People (1898); The Fireside Sphinx (1901); Compromises (1904); In Our Convent Days (1905); A Happy Half Century (1908); Americans and Others (1912); The Cat (1912); Counter Currents (1915); J. William White, M.D.; a Biography (1919); Points of Friction (1920); Under Dispute (1924); Life of Pere Marquette (1929); Mere Marie of the Ursulines (1931); To Think of Tea (1931); Times and Tendencies (1931); Junipero Serra (1933); Agnes Irwin (1934); In Pursuit of Laughter (1936); and Eight Decades (1937).

Note: Material for this biographical sketch has been drawn from John Lukacs' chapter on Repplier in his Philadelphia Patricians & Philistines, 1900-1950; from Agnes Repplier's autobiographical sketch in her Eight Decades; from the memoir written by her niece, Emma Repplier Witmer, titled Agnes Repplier: A Memoir; and from the biography Agnes Repplier, Lady of Letters (1949) by George Stewart Stokes.

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Last update: Friday, 31-Jan-2003 21:00:13 EST
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