Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Soloman" by Constance Fenimore Woolson (1877, included in Miss Grief and Other Stories edited and introduced by Anne Boyd Rioux, forthcoming Feb. 2016)

Homepage of The Constance  Fenimore Woolson Society

Contains an excellent biographical sketch and a list of her works that can be found online

Homepage of Anne Boyd Rioux

"Soloman" is a heartbreakingly sad story about a man who never found his way as an artist, living his life out doing the terrible drudgery of working as a coal miner in Ohio for a community of German immigrants.  It is interesting to me to see how in "Feiipa" and "Sister Saint Claire" she focused on a very different ethnic community, the Minoracans who like the Germans kept much of their own culture, standing apart from mainstream society.   I am sensing a theme in Woolson of Protestant versus Catholic cultures but it is way too early in my venture into the oeuvre of Woolson to talk about this. In this story she also, just like  in  "Sister Saint Claire" and "Felipa" in "Soloman" deploys  visiting tourists, in this story to the Zoar community of Germans. In a sense even in "Miss Grief" Woolson employs at the least cultural tourists. 

 It helps a lot to understand this story if you know a bit about the back story of Zoar, Ohio.  (Woolson's stories are great motivators to learn new things, a big pleasure for me.)

The community was founded by Germans in 1817 seeking freedom to practice their religion. By 1877, having kept the architectural styling of a German village from the early 19th century, it had become an attraction for curious visitors from Cleveland and elsewhere in the vicinity. There were hotels and business and such catering to visitors.  The community still exists (per their very well done webpage they have about 200 residents still living in the old ways) and is designated as an American Historical Place of Importance.  Below is a picture, I think, of the hotel where the toursists ladies from Cleveland stayed when they visited Zoar.  You can book a room on the town webpage! 

Below is an image of residents of Zoar at harvest time at about the time of the story.

To compress the action of the story, which I don't desire to trivialize by retelling the plot, the tourist ladies go to the home of a man who works for the Zoar community,in their coal mine , and his wife.  They discover many paintings the man has done over the years of his wife.  He tried for a long time to make a living as an artist but failed.  You can see his spirit is nearly broken by the overwhelming sadness  and emptiness of his life.

  The relationship of man and wife is strained, odd and very hard for me to articulate.  Sometimes it seems the wife has contempt for her husband for his failure as an artist and sometimes I felt a great love.  A dog plays a central role. The artist says little but is very gratified when the ladies ask to see all his work.  In the many paintings they sense an untaught passion and a raw artistic power that nearly overpowers the one tourist lady who has studied art.  

Happy endings are, it seems so far, in short supply in the stories of Woolson and I was almost moved to tears by the deadly close of "Soloman".  This is a story that will haunt and deeply impact anyone who wanted to be an artist, a writer but gave it up  and knows in her or his twilight years that with a few simple changes what  they could have been but now understands  they never will materialize what they could have been. It is partially about the sadness of learning what you should have been to late in life, to knowing your spirit is too broken now to really matter.

The prose style of Woolson is really unique.  

I hope once Anne Boyd Rioux's anthology and her biography of Woolson come out in February next year that Woolson will take her rightful place as one of the world's great short story writers.  Toibin in his very interesting forward compares her to Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Bowen, and Virginia Woolf.

There are three short stories in Miss Grief and Other Stories i have not yet read, including one work, her only story set in England, never before published in book format, and I hope to read all in October.  Once this is completed, I will start a full read through of her fiction, by my research five novels and fifty two short stories.   Soon I will start the biography also.  

Teachers of American literature need to add Woolson to the curriculum.  I hope she is not taught just as "An American Woman Writer".

I hope early next year Rioux will do a Q and A session on The Reading Life and perhaps a guest post.

In speaking of another story in the collection, in his very interesting forward, Colm Toibin says this

"The story is bathed in the sort of irony and brittle wisdom that was, a generation later, to be found in the work of Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, and Elizabeth Bowen."

I have read all the short stories of these three writers, I love their work and have posted extensively on them.   I will pass for now and perhaps will never make comparisons  to these great authors but I  see much more than "irony and brittle wisdom" in the four Woolson stories I have so far read.  

Mel u

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