Constance Fenimore Woolson

Archive Photos/Getty Images

Constance Fenimore Woolson; engraving circa 1875

The March 1877 issue of The Atlantic Monthly included a memoir by the great English actress Fanny Kemble and a set of poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. There was a travel piece about the Canary Islands, the back of the book offered a shrewd appraisal of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, and for many readers the highlight was an installment of Henry James’s The American, a serial moving toward its melodramatic conclusion.

But the issue opened with a story by Constance Fenimore Woolson set in the reconstructed South called “Rodman the Keeper.” Its title character, John Rodman, is a Union veteran, a New Englander who has taken a post as superintendent of the national cemetery at what had once been a Confederate prison camp, unnamed but clearly Andersonville. There he compiles a register of the graveyard’s 14,000 dead, filling a set of “red-bound ledgers” with their names and regiments, raising and lowering the flag at the appropriate hours, and keeping the “graveled paths smooth” for the visitors who do not come. Rodman does his duty. He doesn’t have a dog, for its barking would break the silence; he won’t smoke, because those under the grass can’t have that pleasure. He is the only Yankee in the area, and its white inhabitants show always the bitterness of their defeat, their behavior so shaped by “withdrawals and avoidances [that] he lived and moved in a vacuum.”

Woolson made Rodman talk to his dead, as perhaps she talked to hers. He asks about their lives and remembers their battles, but when the story opens the only living person to whom he speaks is the black delivery boy from the local store, who one hot day tells him about a refreshing spring at a nearby plantation. When Rodman finds it he also finds a one-armed man lying on a rug nearby, his face worn with illness and with something more besides, shadowed in a way that the keeper knows too well. Each man recognizes “the ex-soldier,” and for a while they sit with their memories, unspeaking. Ward De Rosset has needed the help of his family’s former slaves to survive, but Rodman brings him dinner, then moves the invalid into his own house, feeling that the buried men around him would approve. Still, there’s one person who doesn’t. Bettina Ward is De Rosset’s last surviving relative, a girl who has never surrendered and believes that the Union dead have killed her father. She can’t forgive them and can’t forgive herself for accepting Rodman’s help, even as she knows her hatred will destroy her.

Rodman himself will limp for life, his psyche as shattered as his wounded ankle, and his tale seems to me one of the decade’s best short stories, an apparently modest work that nevertheless catches at the central issues of its day. And there’s another way in which Woolson’s story speaks to its moment: it provides an example of the period’s “local color” movement, in which writers used national magazines like The Atlantic or Harper’s to bring the news from one corner of the country to another.1 Such tales concentrated on small towns and ordinary people, on the everyday scenes that a visitor might take as typical of a given place. Sarah Orne Jewett’s stories of coastal Maine provide the movement’s summa, but writers as various as Charles Chesnutt and Hamlin Garland worked in that vein as well, and they helped define a sense of regional difference even as they spliced the readership of those varied regions into a single audience. The worldly glamour of James’s The American might have carried more prestige, but the local color writers were just as widely read, and their work stands as the postwar era’s most important form of short fiction.

Woolson’s own life did, however, make her contribution to that movement a curious one. Walter Benjamin famously distinguished between two kinds of storytellers: those who went on a journey and brought back something to tell, and those who stayed put and mastered the local lore of their native place. Woolson never stayed put, but she mastered that lore just the same.

She was born in New Hampshire in 1840, a great-niece of James Fenimore Cooper; three of her sisters died of scarlet fever within a few weeks of her birth. Her family almost immediately moved west, and she grew up in Cleveland, with summers on Lake Huron’s Mackinac Island, the setting for some of her early work. Then in the early 1870s she began taking her widowed mother to Florida for the winters, exploring its alligator swamps and barrier islands, and traveling with the seasons through the rest of the South as well, visiting Civil War battlefields and cemeteries in the process. Most local color writers were specialists and stuck close to home, but Woolson wrote authoritatively about both North and South, often adopting the point of view of an outsider struggling, like Rodman, to understand the local mores. In that sense her fiction wasn’t much different from James’s, in which characters like Daisy Miller try and often fail to master the rules of social life abroad. And indeed it is through James that this once-obscure writer has assumed a place in American literary history.


Everybody who’s heard of Woolson knows that she and James eventually became great friends, and that she was probably in love with him. And they know too that she died, desperately lonely and ill, in Venice in January 1894, having either fallen or thrown herself from a third-floor window. That’s what people remember, and it’s also what they need to forget. What’s more interesting is the story of just how those facts became salient, somehow more important than such great stories as “Rodman the Keeper” or “St. Clair Flats” (1873), with its sad, magical evocation of a midwestern marsh country. Woolson was well known in her lifetime. Her first novel, Anne (1882), followed its heroine from Mackinac Island to the Civil War hospital where she works as a nurse, and sold almost 60,000 copies, far more than any of James’s. None of her later books did as well, but she got strong reviews and enjoyed an exclusive contract with Harper’s; after her death the publisher brought out two new volumes of tales and a uniform edition of her novels.

Then she fell out of print and public memory alike, only to reappear as a supporting player in Leon Edel’s five-volume life of James.2 Woolson professed a devotion to her family—her surviving siblings and their children—as well as a craving for a settled home, and dreamed of a lakeside cottage in Cooperstown. But after her mother’s death in 1879 she took ship for Europe and never returned. The next year she met James in Florence, where he was at work on The Portrait of a Lady. He found her “amiable, but deaf,” a hereditary condition that grew worse with time; though his first epistolary references to the “authoress” were condescending, the two writers quickly grew close. She in turn wrote that his work provided “my true country, my real home.” He visited her the next year in Rome, they saw each other in London, and in the winter of 1886–1887 they had flats in the same Florentine villa. James valued her friendship and respected her judgment, but she may have wanted more from him than that deeply closeted man could ever give, and just before her death she had learned that he would not be coming to Venice on a long-hoped-for visit.

The story is a complicated one, and Edel told it well, while growing franker with time about what James couldn’t say and Woolson couldn’t recognize. Her own, more recent, biographers have added to that portrait—Lyndall Gordon in 1998 and then in 2016 Anne Boyd Rioux, the editor of the Library of America edition of her stories.3 Their work has joined that of other scholars in correcting Edel’s most significant omission: his failure to do any kind of justice to Woolson’s fiction. To him she remained but a needy “authoress,” and he presented James’s friendship as a kindly indulgence on the part of the great man. Yet even after a generation of recovery her life remains better known than her work. The twenty-three stories collected in this volume should change that, but the irony is that without that friendship—without Edel’s work in uncovering it—she might have been forgotten completely.

Nor can her connection with James simply be ignored. Her work after her move to Europe is too much in conversation with his, commenting on it, rewriting it, and above all using it to explore the sharply different possibilities available to male and female artists. A man of their time had the liberty to go anywhere and think anything. A woman did not, and Woolson was just conventional enough to accept as truths the social facts that chafed her. “‘Miss Grief’” (1880), the first story she wrote in Europe, employs a parody version of James as its narrator, and two of her best late stories depend on two of his. “A Transplanted Boy” (1894) is a more plangent version of “The Pupil,” and “In Sloane Street” (1892), which Rioux can claim to have rediscovered, stands as a feminist revision of “The Lesson of the Master,” a story about the relation between marriage and artistic success. James knew about renunciation. Woolson knew about loss, and her later stories in particular are touched with an aching, haunting hunger.


Still, the best way to get a handle on the scope and variety of her work is to begin at the beginning, with the two early volumes in which she collected her tales of North and South. Lake St. Clair sits between lakes Erie and Huron, with Detroit along its western edge and then up in its northeast a wetlands area called the Flats. The story Woolson set there takes place in 1855 and features a nameless male narrator, out for a few weeks of bird hunting. She often used male protagonists whose presence in odd places required no explanation, and liked to set her work back a generation in order to depict a vanishing, vanished world. Yet this narrator is simply a lens, and what matters is what he sees, a

low green land which was yet no land, intersected by hundreds of channels, narrow and broad, whose waters were green as their shores…[yet] clear as crystal…. You might call it a marsh; but there was no mud, no dark slimy water, no stagnant scum; there were no rank yellow lilies…. The clear waters of the channels ran over golden sands.

He finds the place at once magical and illegible, seemingly trackless despite the confidence with which the steamer captain finds his way through. Eventually the labyrinth takes him to a man called Waiting Samuel—waiting for the Judgment Day that his visions have taught him to expect. The narrator agrees in return for lodging to observe the man’s strange rules: no candles, among other things, for “false lights…as imitations of the glorious sun…are abominable.” What really holds him, however, is the sheer enduring forbearance of Samuel’s wife, Roxana, who longs for the New England village of her childhood yet never questions either her husband’s beliefs or her need to follow him.

“St. Clair Flats” is the best story in Woolson’s first book, Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches (1875), but its other tales depict similarly isolated lives and places: a mining village on Lake Superior, a community of religious separatists in central Ohio. None of them has much of what a nineteenth-century reader would call “story,” a chain of action that leads to some climactic event. They are instead “sketches,” as the period understood the term; sketches like Turgenev’s hunting pieces that offer mood, and setting, and the people one glimpses in moving from place to place. Her second collection (1880) took its title from “Rodman the Keeper,” and included several other tales about Reconstruction. But the title story aside, its best work all grows out of her experiences in Florida, stories about weather and sun and water, water especially, which always prompted her finest prose. Saw-grass and “sugar waste,” sand and “sea-damps”: on every page Woolson puts in what painters used to call “touches,” patches of detail and color, and always does it superbly. In “Sister St. Luke,” set in the remnants of Spanish Florida, the dunes are like “movable hills…a few feet in height, blown up by the wind, and changed in a night.”

Few of her characters seem as entirely isolated as John Rodman, but almost all of them live with a sense that their world was once more peopled, and their personal past more sustaining than their present. She takes loneliness as the fundamental human situation, and that’s especially true in the stories she wrote after her expatriation, when she shifted her settings to Europe. Prudence Wilkin in “The Front Yard” (1888) comes to Italy as a companion to a monied cousin and stays on after the cousin’s death, captivated by a “handsome [and] wholly unexpected” waiter, a widower who marries her for her savings and then almost immediately dies, leaving her with his children. She takes them on, stoically, learning a “peasant Italian” that she remains convinced is “simply lunatic English”; she finds them work, pays their debts, and longs for the boiled dinners of her youth, with Indian pudding to follow. None of James’s Americans abroad has an existence so fully removed, and none is seen with the same tender combination of comedy and pathos.

In “A Transplanted Boy,” Violet Roscoe has been widowed young and then gone abroad with her son Thomas—Tommaso, or Maso, as he’s called in the Pisan pensione where they live. She dreads a return to New Hampshire, subsists on coffee and sweets, and has a body winnowed by illness. So Maso conspires, at thirteen, to send her away for a cure. But they can’t afford Aix-les-Bains for both of them and the boy remains behind, assuring her that he will be all right. He’s not: one accident follows another, his money goes, and with starvation near Maso falls sick himself, while writing letters that seem so reassuring that his mother moves on to Paris, believing in the boy’s health and happiness. Right at the end Woolson expertly switches point of view: an old acquaintance sees Maso in the street, and we realize how desperate he’s become.

The boy’s great love, his mother’s careless charm—reading this story left me raw. Rioux describes it as Woolson’s attempt to explore her own “fears of being alone and penniless in Europe.” She was never so alone as Tommaso, nor so broke, though she did at the end have to touch her small cushion of inherited capital. But facts are not feelings, and “A Transplanted Boy” was published posthumously.

Woolson’s five novels don’t have as much to recommend them. The best of them, For the Major (1883), is scarcely a novel at all, a bare hundred pages set in a town modeled on Asheville, North Carolina, where she once spent a summer. The title character is a veteran of the Mexican War and later of the Confederate army, a local hero now slipping into senility; the novel turns on the mutual suspicion of his grown daughter and young second wife, who must learn to trust each other as they work to preserve his dignity. Woolson was always willing to seize a difficult subject, and a later novel, Jupiter Lights (1889), grows out of a woman’s attempt to hide her husband’s abuse, fearing and protecting him at once. But the novelist wastes that strong premise. She gets the batterer quickly offstage and spends the rest of the book in talk, padding it out to serial length as a group of conscience-stricken characters wonder what to do next. That’s what Harper’s wanted, that’s what paid, and yet all Woolson’s abilities lay in short forms, a quickly defined situation that she might explore in thirty-odd pages, and not in the construction of an extended narrative.

Novels made her struggle, and she was a year late with the last of them, Horace Chase (1894), kept from her desk by both physical illness and depression. An English doctor fit her with artificial eardrums that gave her headaches; the right side of her body felt deformed by the physical act of writing; and she was always susceptible to influenza as well as to what’s now called seasonal affective disorder. Writing had been easy in her thirties; she was prolific and earned a more than comfortable living. After fifty it was hard, and though Woolson exaggerated her financial worries, she was troubled by the fear of needing her midwestern relatives’ help. She moved from London to Venice in the spring of 1893 and decided to stay on through the city’s raw winter. In the new year she realized that she would not have the strength for another novel, and then fell ill once more, ill enough for morphine. She had a nurse, a young nun, whom she sent out of the room one night for a cup of milk; when the woman returned the window was open.

Woolson’s death has often been read in light of her relations with James, with Lyndall Gordon suggesting that in his self-protective reticence he had failed to recognize the depths of her loneliness and her love. That judgment fails to take James’s sexuality into full account, and yet he may have agreed with it, seeing Woolson as the face of all he had missed, the face behind such late masterpieces of his as “The Beast in the Jungle” and “The Jolly Corner.” My own sense is different: that her need for their friendship to be more than it could be served to confirm some prior space of solitude within Woolson herself, a suspended life in which she seemed always to be searching for some place or way to be. She craved a domesticity that she never found and with which her own restlessness would not have allowed her to be happy, even as she also wanted to be what in Dept. of Speculation (2014) Jenny Offill has called an “art monster,” someone ruthless enough to sacrifice the world and everything in it for the sake of the word alone. She was a “lady novelist,” as the subtitle of Rioux’s biography puts it. Both terms, “lady” and “novelist,” applied, the tension between them palpable, and yet in the most powerful and original of her European stories she transcended that.

“‘Miss Grief’” is as fine as the utterly different “Rodman the Keeper,” and takes its title from the name by which its male narrator thinks of an unpublished writer named Aaronna Crief. He is an urbane American critic in Rome, and she is what can only be called a distressed gentlewoman, a shabbily dressed figure who has read his every word and wants—no, requires—him to look at her own work in return. He tries to get rid of her, fails, reads her pages, and finds to his surprise that they have force, even genius, but a genius without any sense of finish or form, as though her work was “a case of jeweller’s wares [with] each necklace purposely broken.” No editor will take her, and she soon sickens and dies, killed not by poverty so much as by the neglect of the literary world itself. The story seems almost naked in its sense of need, naked enough to make one forget that its success depends on Woolson’s own professionalism; Aaronna Crief recalls the emotionally famished Lucy Snowe, the narrator of Charlotte Brontë’s sublime Villette, a woman who claims all while appearing to claim so little.

So at times it doubtless was with Woolson herself, and yet to end there would make her work subordinate to her biography. “In Sloane Street” suggests a better conclusion. The novelist Philip Moore relies on the taste and advice of his childhood friend Gertrude Remington, but has married a bubbly, demanding girl from whom he expects nothing but smiles and children. Still, that situation isn’t what really counts here. This is:

Omnibuses, with their outside seats empty, and their drivers enveloped in oil-skins, constantly succeeded each other; the glass of their windows was obscured by damp, and their sides bore advice (important in the blackest of towns) about soap…. On the opposite corner a baker’s shop displayed in its window portly loaves, made in the shape of the Queen’s crown—loaves of a clay-colored hue, and an appearance which suggested endurance…. A hideous child now appeared, with a white face streaked with dirt, and white eyelashes; it wore a red feather in its torn wet gypsy hat, and it carried a skipping rope, with which, drearily, it began to skip, after a while, in the rain.

That’s what Gertrude sees when she looks out of a London window on a rainy day: a page and a half of description in which the commas of that last sentence stretch the whole city out in an exhausted futility. It is as vivid a bit of street-painting as any I know, and while the character finds the scene depressing, the pace and detail of the prose is exhilarating. And that too was Constance Fenimore Woolson. That’s why one should not just remember but read her.