The Ephemeral Mateel

Kansas newspaper editor Edgar Watson “E. W.” Howe published his first novel, The Story of a Country Town, in his own newspaper, the Atchison Daily Globe, in 1883.

Encyclopedia Britannica said the novel “was the first realistic novel of Midwestern small-town life,” but an early 20th-century review said that the realism wasn’t, in fact, very realistic at all: “[T]he test of veracity fails in the unrelieved gloom of the story, which is bereft of all sunshine and joyousness, and even of all sense of relation to happier things.”

mateel, baby name, book, 1920s
Mateel Howe

One of the characters in the novel was pretty-but-shallow Mateel Shepherd, the daughter of a Methodist minister (named Rev. Goode Shepherd, naturally).

E. W. Howe must have liked the name “Mateel” quite a bit, because he named one of his children Mateel in 1883.

Readers must have like it, too, becase the number of U.S. babies named Mateel rose in the 1880s and was at its highest from the 1890s to the 1910s, judging by the records I’ve seen.

But the rare name Mateel didn’t appear in the U.S. baby name data until 1927, and it only stuck around for a single year:

  • 1929: unlisted
  • 1928: unlisted
  • 1927: 6 baby girls named Mateel [debut]
  • 1926: unlisted
  • 1925: unlisted

Why?

Well, Mateel Howe went on to become a writer like her father. Her career seems to have peaked with her debut novel, Rebellion, which won the Dodd, Mead & Co. and Pictorial Review “First Novel Prize” of $10,000 in 1927.*

What was Rebellion about? Essentially, the book was about “the difficulties of a daughter living with a depressed, authoritative and demanding father.” (Hm…)

Though both Edgar and Mateel publicly denied that the characters and conflict were inspired by real life, Edgar cut Mateel out of his will soon after the book was published. Here’s how Time put it:

Left. By Editor-Author Ed Howe, an estate valued at $200,000; in Atchison, Kans. To Society Editor Nellie Webb of his Globe, he left $1,500. To Niece Adelaide Howe he left $50,000. To Sons Eugene Alexander and James Pomeroy he left the remainder except for $1, which went to Daughter Mateel Howe Farnham who in 1927 won a $10,000 prize for Rebellion, a novel in which she satirized her father.

Old-timey drama aside, I’m still left wondering about the name Mateel. Did E. W. Howe create it for the character, or discover it somewhere? (I do see a couple of early Mateels in Louisiana. “Cloteal” was often used for Clotilde there, so I wonder if “Mateel” arose as a form of Matilde…?)

What are your thoughts on the name Mateel?

Sources:

*The very same year, author Mazo de la Roche also won $10,000 in a novel-writing contest…

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