This image of Woolson, turtle-like, carrying a heavy home on her back is both appropriate and misleading. Although she spent most of her working life in Europe, no places are evoked so consistently across her fiction as the Great Lakes region and the American South. Her characters are stubborn individualists and intrepid explorers, always venturing into uncharted territory or navigating natural wildernesses.
She had horror of daintiness. In her prose, she aspired to a style muscular enough to impress itself on a reader, flexible enough to turn on a dime from domestic scenes to shipwrecks or chase sequences, and sturdy enough to bear transplanting to different settings and situations. The contradictions of her life and the circumstances of her violent death—in , she jumped from the three-story window of her Venice apartment—have been studied primarily for what they suggest about James: whether he belittled or respected her abilities; whether he refused her subtle advances; whether he privately acknowledged her severe depression; whether his lack of attention hastened her death.
Did she write as she traveled, with inspiring boldness but heavy, dragging steps? Or did her fiction—five novels and dozens of stories produced over a period of 25 years—measure up to her own high standards? In the month immediately after her birth in , three of her siblings died of scarlet fever. The next years brought a sister—Emma Alida, who died barely after her first birthday—and a brother, Charlie, who would commit suicide in after a long series of mental breakdowns.
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In , her year-old sister Emma came down with symptoms of consumption and died a few months later; Georgiana, the first-born of the Woolson siblings, succumbed to the same disease the following year. By most accounts, her strongest early attachment was to her father Jarvis Charles Woolson, from whom she inherited a love of traveling their excursions around the Great Lakes inspired many of her early stories and sketches , a predisposition to clinical depression, and a degenerative hearing condition that left her largely deaf by These early disasters help account for the writing Woolson soon started to produce, which so often was bitter, morbid, and severe.
It also clarifies the impulses and ambitions behind the first two books of fiction Woolson published under her own name, Castle Nowhere: Lake Country Sketches and Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches She began to accommodate more eccentric characters and search out settings wilder, less civilized, or farther-flung. In the fall of , Woolson relocated to St.
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Augustine, Florida, where she lived for six years between frequent reconnaissance trips across the Reconstruction-era South. The fiction she produced during that period, later collected in Rodman the Keeper , shows the limits of her sympathies. She could manage detailed, nonjudgmental portraits of penniless former plantation masters, but she came up against an imaginative wall when she wrote about the lives of black freedmen in Florida.
Undisciplined, lazy, and delighted at a gift of the smallest tossed coin, none of these characters have the depth of consciousness Woolson gives their former masters. The thinness with which Woolson imagined these characters is one of the most graceless ways her novels have aged. Woolson met James in Florence midway through , less than a year after her move to Europe. It was she who sought him out, a fact James was quick to note. American literature—19 th century. Authors, American—19 th century. Women and literature— United States.
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Reynolds, Table of Contents:. Scope and Content. Woolson Society. Often referred to as a local colorist, Woolson was not bound by genre.
Works of Constance Fenimore Woolson by Constance Fenimore Woolson
Recent scholarship proves her versatility. The plight of women artists figures prominently in her stories, especially characterized in Miss Grief. Both were left small legacies, enough to live in genteel poverty, but no more. As a writer, Woolson contributed enough to their existence to continue an independent lifestyle. They traveled in the South and beginning in , spent the winters in the mild climate of St. Augustine, a city famous as a refuge from the harsh winters of the North—especially for people of frail health, such as her mother.
Her first collection of short stories, entitled Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches , was published in This collection highlighted the region of the Great Lakes , where Woolson had spent her earlier life. The landscapes and ways of life in the South, however, began to color her newer work. Careful attention was given to distinguishing Southern regional types, and each distinctive group represented various themes.
After the death of her mother in , Woolson spent time living and traveling abroad, often with her widowed sister and her niece, Clare Benedict. She stayed in London , France , and at length, in Italy.
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She habitually chose a hotel to reside in for several months before moving on to her next location, engaging in a sort of nomadic lifestyle that fed her artistic creativity. In she published Miss Grief , which has rarely been out of print, and remains her most anthologized story. During the same month of the publication of Miss Grief , Woolson met the American author Henry James in Italy , and the two would remain close friends for the remainder of her life.
Isolated by her health, her hearing defects, and her own battles with depression, she continued nevertheless to regularly contribute to her American publishers back in the United States. On January 24, , during a bout with influenza, Woolson fell to her death from her balcony in her apartment at the Casa Semeticolo in Venice.
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Whether her fall was an accident or purposeful is not known. At the time of her death, she had written four novels, four collections of short stories, a novella, and a plethora of uncollected stories, in addition to her earlier works of literary criticism, travel narratives, and poetry. Two works were published posthumously: a collection of travel sketches and of short stories. During her lifetime, Woolson was considered one of the finest writers America possessed, for her work was not only popular, but it was a critically acclaimed.
Her gift, Woolson House, opened with much ceremony on May 31, Fred Lewis Pattee, the famous literary historian who established the canon of American literature, gave the dedicatory address. Benedict endowed her gift with a fund to assure its upkeep. It is now a showpiece in the Conference Room of the Rollins Archives.
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