Constance Fenimore Woolson Essay - Critical Essays

Woolson, Constance Fenimore


Constance Fenimore Woolson 1840-1894

American novelist and short story writer.

Defining herself in opposition to typical American female sentimental writers, Constance Fenimore Woolson became one of the most well-known and respected women authors of nineteenth-century America. Woolson is frequently described as a "local colorist" due to her vivid evocations of such settings as the Great Lakes, Florida, Tennessee, and Italy. In contrast to most regional writers, she does not write about her "native" homes—New Hampshire and Cleveland; Peter Caccavari thus modulates this identification by describing her as a "traveling regionalist." Woolson is also noted for her subtle characterizations that emerge out of the interaction with these physical locales. Widely popular during her lifetime, Woolson remains popular among scholars today for her talented use of locale and character and for her struggle to reconcile the role of female author with nineteenth-century conceptions of woman's place in society.

Biographical Information

Born in Claremont, New Hampshire, on March 5, 1840, Woolson survived all five of her sisters, a biographical detail which pivotally shaped Woolson's experience. After the death of one of her sisters in New Hampshire her family moved to Ohio. Woolson received her education in Cleveland and later in New York City, far exceeding that of many women of her day. Woolson began traveling with her mother and sister after her father's death in 1869. It was during this period that Woolson produced her first short stories, set in Michigan and the American South. In 1875, her first collection of short stories, Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches was published, after appearing piecemeal in journals such as Atlantic Monthly and Harper's. Her mother's death in 1879 spurred Woolson to travel abroad with her sister. Publicity for her first novel, Anne (1882), emphasized her kinship with James Fenimore Cooper, a maternal greatuncle. She spent time in England, Switzerland, and Italy, the last forming the backdrop to some of her later short stories. Introduced to Henry James in 1880, Woolson sustained a supportive literary correspondence with him until her death in Venice in 1894. It is not clear whether she died during a bout with fever or if her death was a suicide.

Major Works

Woolson is commonly described as a "local color" author, yet her settings vary from the contemporary streets of Rome to the wilderness camps of the Lake Huron region. Her attention to locale is not merely descriptive, however; character development often emerges primarily in interaction with the physical features of the environment. Many of her narratives, particularly her short stories set in Italy, focus on characters who are not native to the environs. The principal figures are often foreigners who have assimilated into Italian society. Woolson's depictions of exile in conjunction with her description of locale function as metaphors which reveal the emotions and motivations of her characters. In many stories, the plot is driven by the "troubled personal relations," as Alexander Cowie has suggested, between genders. Woolson inherits the figure of the self-sacrificing woman bound by romantic entanglements from the sentimental tradition. Although most of her main characters are women, her novel Horace Chase (1894) is, in Arthur Hobson Quinn's words, "a study of the [eponymous] self-made man." Woolson's novels and short stories do not lend themselves to political or social criticism although many deal with potentially controversial issues like Reconstruction ("Old Gardiston" and Anne)—and Anglo-American interactions with Native Americans in the Great Lakes Region ("The Lady of Little Fishing"). Instead, most of Woolson's works involve struggles of virtue and personal relationships. In her portrayals of these struggles, which appear throughout her stories, there is often a decision to be made hetween independence, which signifies a certain isolation, and belonging, which often stifles individuality.

Critical Reception

The popular and critical success of Woolson's short stories and novels provided her with financial stability and allowed her to cultivate friendships with Henry James, the poet Paul Hamilton Hayne, and other contemporary literary figures. Yet, in this century, Woolson's work has attracted less attention from critics until recent feminist interest in Woolson's work and life, and in her attempts to negotiate the sometimes conflicting demands of nineteenth-century womanhood and artistic imagination. Of many favorable reviews in her time, Henry James' reflections on her later works, particularly East Angels (1886) and For the Major (1883) remain among the most frequently cited. James writes, "what is most substantial to me in the book [East Angels] is the writer's general conception of her task, her general attitude of watching life, waiting upon it, and trying to catch it in the fact." For James, Woolson only partially succeeds in leaving behind the sentimentalism and conventionalism that marks most writing by American women in the nineteenth century. The naturalism of her characters and her precise study of human relationships are often praised by critics, in addition to her ability to evoke a particular setting and allow that setting to figure crucially in the narrative. Quinn attests, "what distinguishes Miss Woolson's stories from the usual magazine fiction is the way she can fix a character with one brief sentence." Readers generally agree that her shorter work tends to be more cohesive and well-paced because her skill lies more with characterization than with elaborate plotting.

Contrary to James' conclusion that Woolson is conservative in her concept of gender roles, recent feminists such as Victoria Brehm have argued that her stories self-consciously depict the dilemmas of the woman author: "[Woolson] did write one story over and over, and it was about the cost and gains to women who refused to go along with the obligatory domestic femininity of their time." Although her popular success has faded with that of the sentimental writers she strove to surpass, Woolson's indirect depictions of her own struggles and complex use of setting lend a naturalism to her work that has earned her critical praise.

Principal Works

The Old Stone House [as Anne March] (juvenilia) 1872

Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches (short stones) 1875

Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (short stories) 1880

Anne (novel) 1882

For the Major: A Novelette (novel) 1883

East Angels (novel) 1886

Jupiter Lights: A Novel (novel) 1889

Horace Chase (novel) 1894

The Front Yard and Other Italian Stories (short stones) 1895

Dorothy and Other Italian Stories (short stories) 1896


Henry James (essay date 1887)

SOURCE: "Miss Constance Fenimore Woolson," Harper's Weekly Vol. XXXI, No. 1573, February 12, 1887, pp. 114-15.

[In the essay that follows, James evaluates Woolson's writing as possessed by "a spirit singularly and essentially conservative," opposed to the entrance of women into public life.]

Flooded as we have been in these latter days with copious discussion as to the admission of women to various offices, colleges, functions, and privileges, singularly little attention has been paid, by themselves at least, to the fact that in one highly important department of human affairs their cause is already gained—gained in such a way as to deprive them largely of their...

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Arthur Hobson Quinn (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: "Place and Race in American Fiction," in American Fiction: An Historical and Critical Survey, D. Appleton-Century Company, 1936, pp. 332-42.

[In the following excerpt, Quinn discusses Woolson 's ability to blend vibrant descriptions of physical settings with the actions of realistic characters.]

Usually a novelist's impulse to deal with the life of a locality was confined to one section, but Constance Fenimore Woolson dealt not only with the North-west and the South but also with the European scene. She was born in Claremont, New Hampshire, in 1840, her mother, Hannah Cooper Pomeroy Woolson, being the niece of James Fenimore Cooper. She was educated in...

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Alexander Cowie (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Local-Color, Frontier and Regional Fiction," in The Rise of the American Novel, American Book Company, 1948, pp. 568-78.

[In the following essay, Cowie studies Woolson's five novels and argues that their principal qualities are simplicity of plot, realism of character and dialogue, and precision of description.]

An author able to elicit the high praise of so austere a critic as Henry James may be assumed to have mastered important elements in the technique of writing.84 Praise from such a quarter would indeed for some people be presumptive evidence that the writer was more skilled than readable. Yet Constance Fenimore Woolson was not only an able...

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Rayburn S. Moore (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "The 'Immeasurable World of Print': The Short Fiction," in Constance Fenimore Woolson, Twayne Publishers, 1963, pp. 41-50.

[In the essay that follows, Moore discusses Woolson's first collection of short stories and examines its increasingly sophisticated character development.]

Constance Woolson's first contributions to the great national magazines were descriptive articles in the guise of fiction. She wrote of the Zoar Community in the Tuscarawas Valley of Ohio, of Mackinac in the far north of the Lake country, and of Lake Otsego near the ancestral home of the Coopers. Gradually she began to concentrate more on her characters and less on description, though...

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Robert L. White (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Cultural Ambivalence in Constance Fenimore Woolson's Italian Tales," in Tennessee Studies in Literature, edited by Richard Beale Davis and Kenneth L. Knickerbocker, Vol. XII, University of Tennessee Press, 1967, pp. 121-29.

[In the following essay, White considers Woolson 's letters and short stories as expressions of American ambivalence toward "the foreign " in general and Italy in particular.]

Until recently, Constance Fenimore Woolson, grandniece of Fenimore Cooper and a respected authoress in her own right during the 1870's and '80's, was a figure but dimly remembered by most students of American literature, a figure occupying one of the shadowier niches...

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Rayburn S. Moore (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Editor's Introduction," in For the Major and Selected Short Stories, College & University Press, 1967, pp. 7-22.

[In the essay that follows, Moore provides a general introduction to Woolson's short stories.]


In her own day Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894) was popular with both public and critics. Many American and British readers read her work when it first appeared in Harper's New Monthly and other literary magazines, and incomplete figures from her publishers Harper and Brothers on the sale of eight of her twelve volumes show that more than one hundred thousand copies of these books were sold. Anne, her...

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Sharon L. Dean (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Constance Woolson's Southern Sketches," Southern Studies, Vol. XXV, No. 3, Fall 1986, pp. 274-83.

[In the following essay, Dean praises Woolson 's sensitivity to the complex position of women in the South which is evident through her fictional accounts of Southern society during Reconstruction.]

Constance Woolson was not a Southerner. Born in Claremont, New Hampshire, on March 5, 1840, she moved that winter to Cleveland where she lived, aside from schooling in New York and summer visits to Mackinac Island, Michigan, until her first of many extended visits South in 1873. From 1873 to 1879, she spent much of her time in Florida, Virginia, the Carolinas,...

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Joan Myers Weimer (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Women Artists as Exiles in the Fiction of Constance Fenimore Woolson," Legacy: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall 1986, pp. 3-15.

[In the essay that follows, Weimer studies Woolson 's reflections on the extent to which "women artists … are ultimately exiled from their own art."]

American women starting to write just after the Civil War found themselves standing on uneven new ground. Not because it was an act of daring for women to present themselves as professional writers: women novelists of the previous generation had broken that ground, and some, like Susan Warner and Maria Cummins, had written best sellers. These...

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Sharon L. Dean (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Homeward Bound: The Novels of Constance Fenimore Woolson," Legacy: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers, Vol. 6, No. 2, Fall 1989, pp. 17-28.

[In the following essay, Dean explores the idea of independence which is developed in Woolson's later novels.]

When Henry James wrote his generally favorable review of Constance Woolson in the February 12, 1887, edition of Harper's Weekly, he criticized her for limiting women's choices by too often having them choose marriage: Miss Woolson, he says, "likes the unmarried … but she likes marriages even better" (182). For him, Woolson was not revolutionary in her portraits of women: rather than...

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Cheryl B. Torsney (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: 'Anne: Woolson's Portrait of a Lady," in Constance Fenimore Woolson: The Grief of Artistry, University of Georgia Press, 1989, pp. 34-49.

[In the essay that follows, Torsney compares Woolson 's first novel Anne with Henry James 's Portrait of a Lady, and contends that Woolson "adapted her literary inheritance from the domestics of earlier in the century to suit her original purposes."]

Woolson's transitional position—on the one hand a member of the "scribbling" sorority, on the other an exile who isolated herself from society in order to devote herself to art—is best demonstrated, perhaps, by example. Woolson's earliest stories are...

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Victoria Brehm (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Island Fortresses: The Landscape of the Imagination in the Great Lakes Fiction of Constance Fenimore Woolson," American Literary Realism: 1870-1910, Vol. 22, No. 3, Spring 1990, pp. 51-66.

[In the following essay, Brehm contests the idea that Woolson is either "a failed realist or a failed sentimentalist" and argues that Woolson's writing reflects her own conflicts and renunciations as a female author.]

Henry James noted only two "defects" in Constance Fenimore Woolson's 1889 novel Jupiter Lights: "One is that the group on which she has bent her lens strikes us as too detached, too isolated, too much a desert island…. The other fault is that the...

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Peter Caccavari (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: "Exile, Depatriation and Constance Fenimore Woolson's Traveling Regionalism," in Women, America, and Movement: Narratives of Relocation, edited by Susan L. Roberson, University of Missouri Press, 1998, pp. 19-37.

[In the following essay, Caccavari examines Woolson 's attempt at being a "writer in exile" and her simultaneous yearning for homecoming.]

In a letter she wrote as a young girl to a friend who was about to be married and then live in Europe, Constance Fenimore Woolson touched on issues that would preoccupy her writing life throughout her adult-hood: exile, travel, place, freedom, art, patriarchy, and depatriation:


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Further Reading


Alden, Henry Mills. "Constance Fenimore Woolson." Harper's Weekly XXXVIII, No. 1937 (February 3, 1894): 113–14.

An obituary that traces the late stages of Woolson's literary career.


Dean, Sharon. "Constance Fenimore Woolson and Henry James: The Literary Relationship." Massachusetts Studies in English VII, No. 3 (1998): 1–9.

Details the mutual influence of Woolson and Henry James.

Gingras, Robert. '"Hepzibah's Story': An Unpublished Work by Constance Fenimore Woolson." Resources for...

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