Constance Fenimore Woolson Critical Essays

Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.