Constance Fenimore Woolson

Earlier this year I read Miss Grief and Other Stories, a collection of short stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson, edited by Anne Boyd Rioux. This collection was published to coincide with Rioux’s biography, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist. Both were published on February 29, 2016 by W.W. Norton. Earlier that month, on February 4th, The Library of America published Constance Fenimore Woolson: Collected Stories, also edited by Rioux. (It’s LOA #327 for those who are keeping track.)

Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894) published six novels and two collections of short stories. Two story collections were published after her death. Yes, she was related to James Fenimore Cooper (great niece). She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and her early stories are set in the Great Lakes region.

St. Clair Flats

One of my favorites, the lead story in Miss Grief, is “St. Clair Flats.” Published in 1873, “St. Clair Flats” is about a canoe trip set in 1855 through the great marsh area near Detroit that was already being threatened by development.

Today, what is left of St. Clair Flats is now a Michigan State Wildlife Area. The image below is from the National Audubon Society’s website. The red denotes areas most in need of protection or rehabilitation for marsh birds. Read more here.

What I enjoy about Woolson’s stories is her vibrant description and ease with dialogue. Her characters feel like real people rather than puppets on a string. They think and feel in relatable or, at least believable ways. Woolson’s stories are often windows looking onto scenes of the nineteenth century than are typically not opened by writers of the period.

Considering she was a popular and critically acclaimed writer during her day and that these stories read so well, Woolson deserves a broad readership today. Either Miss Grief and Other Stories or the Library of America’s Collected Stories should be included on the shelves of all students of American Literature and enthusiasts of women writers. (And I don’t “should” lightly on people when it comes to reading.)

Here’s the Library of America description of Woolson’s stories:

A landmark of literary recovery: the first major edition of an overlooked genius who in her lifetime was considered 19th-century America’s greatest woman writer. In the eyes of her contemporaries, Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894) ranked with George Eliot as one of the two greatest women writers of the English language. She wrote fiction of remarkable intellectual power that outsold those of her male contemporaries Henry James and Willian Dean Howells. James enshrined memories of his long, complicated friendship with Woolson in The Beast in the Jungle and The Wings of the Dove, and more recently Colm Tobin treated the relationship in his novel The Master. But Woolson’s close association with James, and her likely suicide in Venice, have tended to overshadow her own literary accomplishments, pigeonholing her as a martyr to the male literary establishment. This volume, the most comprehensive gathering of Woolson’s stories to date, represents the culmination of decades of recovery work done by scholars, and puts the focus back on the work, where it belongs.

Set variously in the Great Lakes region, the post-Civil War South, and Europe, Woolson’s short stories often concern outsiders of one kind or another–prophets and misfits living in remote landscapes, uneducated coal miners, impoverished spinsters, neglected nuns, a haunted caretaker of the dead, destitute southerners, and female artists driven to extreme behavior as they seek the admiration or approval of established (male) critics or writers. Woolson’s minute realism captures both the social texture of her time and the inner emotional lives of these overlooked and marginalized characters. Most of all her writings startle us with their simmering intensity, their sensual descriptions of the environment, and refusal to smooth out the ambiguities and tensions that inevitably result from human efforts to communicate and connect. Her fiction is deeply human, resonating with a power across the centuries that makes them remarkably modern for today’s readers.

Peter the Parson

I read the first story in the LOA edition this weekend. “Peter the Parson” is about an Episcopal pastor living in a frontier town on the shores of Lake Superior. He’s an ascetic and not winning over the hearts and minds, let alone souls, of people in town. It brought to mind Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Although the stories are very different in most respects, there is the theme of a community closing in on itself, and social and religious sacrifice.

While I have no systemic plan for reading the Collected Stories, it will live on the crate next to my reading chair. I intend to read a story here and there. Perhaps I’ll add to this post when I have something to say about a story.

Have you read anything by Woolson? Another burning question — is there a woman writer from the past that you think deserves a wider readership than her work currently enjoys?

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