Sketches from Solitude

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…

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