Constance Fenimore Woolson

Biographical Information

Constance Fenimore Woolson was born 1840, in Claremont, NH. Three older sisters died from scarlet fever soon after Constance's birth, and the family decided to move west to start a new life. They relocated in Cleveland, Ohio, where Constance grew up. She attended Cleveland Female Seminary, and finished off her education at a fashionable boarding school in New York.

Woolson acquired a taste for travel at an early age. She accompanied her father on business trips throughout Ohio and Wisconsin, her family vacationed on Mackinac Island, where they owned a summer cottage, she went to school in New York, visited Cooperstown, and toured New England. On these trips, Woolson encountered a variety of regional types and terrains--her keen eye for place and her interest in cultural differences would later find expression in her fiction and travel pieces.

The Civil War was the central event of Woolson's young adulthood, and became for her an emotional fulcrum against which she measured later times. She called it "the heart and spirit of my life" in letter to her friend Edmund Clarence Stedman, and remarked that "everything has seemed tame to me since." She eventually wrote a number of stories set in the Reconstruction South; these often hinge on the strong feelings evoked by the War and are some of her most emotion-laden works.

By the War's end, Woolson already assumed she would never marry. In 1869 her father died; the following year Woolson became a steady contributor to literary magazines. She had written for her own amusement since childhood, but now she began to write seriously, and to think of herself as an author. Her pride in her kinship to James Fenimore Cooper, her mother's uncle, perhaps helped her from the first to envision writing as an artistic calling, not a business venture.

Woolson was a literary success almost from the start, and soon her stories, poetry, and sketches were appearing regularly in periodicals such as The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and Scribner's. Her best early work were stories set in the Great Lakes region; many featured characters who lived lives of isolation in inaccessible wildernesses. Woolson's detailed descriptions of landscape and a tough-minded realism put her in the ranks of early local colorists such as Bret Harte, whose fiction she greatly admired.

Woolson became her mother's companion after her father's death, and she accompanied her when she left Cleveland to relocate in New York. In 1873 her mother's doctor advised a warmer climate, and Constance and her mother began a pattern of summering in New York and wintering in Florida, a state Woolson grew to love. Years after Woolson had left the United States to live abroad, she would tell friends she planned one day to return to Florida.

Saint Augustine was the usual base of these Southern sojourns; from this hub Woolson made side trips to Virginia, the North Carolina mountains, and up the Eastern coast to Charleston and beyond. In 1875 her first collection of short stories, Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches, appeared, bringing together the best of her Great Lakes tales. Her newer stories, however, now featured Southern landscapes and people. These Southern stories and travel pieces carefully distinguished between regional types within the South, and cotton country planters, Florida Minorcans, and mountain people each came to represent different themes and attitudes in Woolson's works.

Woolson wintered in Florida from 1873 until her mother's death in 1879. Devastated by the loss of her mother, she moved abroad, spending time first in London, then France and finally Italy. She immediately took up a pattern she would maintain the rest of her life, living in hotels, staying in one location for several months at a time, and then moving on. She wrote home explaining, "So I shall see Europe slowly, and by no means extensively; but I shall see and enjoy thoroughly the places I do see..." Although she had no permanent home, Woolson established a routine of sorts, often spending falls and winters in Florence, springs in Venice, and summers in Switzerland or Germany. She would set up residence, then use this as a homebase for side trips and tours.

In Italy Woolson met and became a close and lifelong friend of Henry James. Their friendship no doubt flourished in part because of the similarity of their literary tastes and themes. James was a great admirer of Woolson both as a writer and friend.

Woolson was occasionally plagued by health problems during her European years. Moreover, hearing difficulties she had experienced for some time worsened; her deafness deepened throughout her life, increasingly isolating her. She was also prone to depressions. Nonetheless, she remained productive. Her second collection of stories, Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches, was published in 1880, and installments of her novel Anne began to appear that same year. She continued to contribute regularly to American periodicals, now with short stories set in Italy and England, and serialized novels with American locales. Over the next thirteen years she produced a steady flow of materials for her publishers in the States.

In early 1894, suffering from a severe bout with influenza, Woolson either leaped or fell from her second-story bedroom window. She died from the injuries. By this time Woolson had written four novels, a novella, four collections of short stories, and numerous uncollected stories, in addition to her early poetry, travel pieces, and articles of literary criticism. A collection of short stories and one of travel sketches were published posthumously. Woolson's reputation in her day was solid: both Henry James and William Dean Howells thought her one of America's finest writers, and her work was always a popular as well as a critical success. It would not be until the 20th century that her reputation would fade during the rise of New Criticism, when so many women writers were dropped from the American canon.

THEMES: Woolson returned time and again to favorite themes in her fiction. A tourist most of her life, she was always alert to outsider/insider dynamics within communities, and to regional and ethnic differences among persons. She frequently positions her narrative center of consciousness with the outsider. For instance, in her Southern stories, her narrator is often a transplanted Northerner who cannot feel at home in the culture around him. In her stories about artists, the outsider is often a woman not accepted as an equal by a male artist who represents the artistic establishment. Her stories often concern isolated individuals--people living at edges of civilization; misfits; persons set apart by their value systems.

The stories below are representative samples from each of Woolson's three major periods: "Peter the Parson" and "Jeannette" are Great Lakes stories. "Peter the Parson" is one of her earliest tales, and shows the influence of Bret Harte, whom Woolson greatly admired. "Jeannette" is a good example of Woolson's response to what she labeled "sweet" stories by women; although she wrote some romances with conventional endings, her best stories, like "Jeannette," play against this tradition.

"King David" and "Rodman the Keeper" are from Woolson's Southern period. "King David," one of Woolson's most disturbing stories, is a revelation of the racism beneath David's desire to uplift newly emancipated Southern blacks, but the story also uncovers Woolson's own racism. "Rodman the Keeper" is a powerful tale that highlights the irreconcilable differences between Northern and Southern cultures, with dignity and sympathy allotted to representative characters of both worlds.

"In Sloane Street," a work of psychological realism, comes from Woolson's European period. The story explores the relationship of a spinster to the couple with whom she is staying. Miss Remington admires the writer husband and has the intelligence and longing to foster his talent, unlike his wife, who has little appreciation of her husband's talent or of literature in general. But the writer repays Miss Remington's support with condescension, and the wife alternately ignores and criticizes her. The solidarity of the mismatched couple makes Miss Remington's isolation in their midst all the more ironic and acute.

TEXTS: Constance Fenimore Woolson's best short stories were collected in Castle Nowhere; Lake Country Sketches (1875), Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (1880), The Front Yard and Other Italian Stories (1895), and Dorothy and Other Italian Stories (1896). In addition, she published four novels (Anne, 1882; East Angels, 1886; Jupiter Lights, 1889; and Horace Chase, 1894). A collection of travel sketches, Mentone, Cairo, and Corfu came out in 1896. Throughout her life Woolson published in leading periodicals of her day. The texts of the stories that follow are taken from the original periodical publications. Significant changes made in the collected version of the stories are noted; minor changes in punctuation, spelling, or wording are not noted.

Grace McEntee, Appalachian State University