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

Saturday, October 3, 2015

"Saint Claire Flats" by Constance Fenimore Woolson (1873, included in Miss Grief and other Stories edited and introduced by Anne Boyd Rioux, forthcoming Feb. 2016)

"He showed us what it was like on Mount Tabor, with it he passed through closed doors, walked upon the water, and ruled the elements; so will it be with us. Paradise will come again; this world will, for a thousand years, see its first estate; it will be again the Garden of Eden. America is the great escaping-place; here will the change begin. As it is written, ‘Those who escape to my utmost borders.’ As the time draws near, the spirits who watch above are permitted to speak to those souls who listen. Of these listening, waiting souls am I; therefore have I withdrawn myself. The sun himself speaks to me, the greatest spirit of all; each morning I watch for his coming; each morning I ask, ‘Is it to-day?’ Thus do I wait.” “And how long have you been waiting?” I asked. “I know not; time is nothing to me.” “Is the great day near at hand?” said Raymond. “Almost at its dawning; the last days are passing.” “How do you know this?” “The spirits tell me. Abide here, and perhaps they will speak to you also,” replied Waiting Samuel. We made no answer. Twilight had darkened into night, and the Flats had sunk into silence below us."

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

Anne Botd Rioux in her excellent introduction tells us that the short stories of Constance Fenimore Woolson, fifty two I think, can be divided into three groups based on their setting.  There are stories set in the Great Lakes region in the USA, stories in the American South and stories set in Europe, mostly Italy.  Woolson loved to travel and she clearly has real knowledge of all these places.  

I have so far had the amazing experience of reading five of Woolson's short stories, the more I read the more amazed by her work am I.  Just like in "Soloman" I got more out of "Saint Claire Flats" with a little research.  (How did we read before Google?). Most of my readers are in South and South East Asia, their level of erudition and knowledge is very high but the history and geography of the American Great Lakes is not in the curriculum in schools in these areas.

"Saint Claire Flats" is set in a very marshy area of the Saint Claire Lake area near Detroit, Michigan.

Flats are a very marshy, normally with water not deep enough for big boats.  They are, or in those days were ideal habitats for very abundant fish and birds.  They were often visited by sports fisherman and duck hunters.

The flats probably looked something like this.  

Tourists, holiday travelers play an important part in three of the five Woolson stories I have so far read. Two of the four important characters in the story are from Detroit, headed on a paddle roll steam ship down to the flats to enjoy a holiday day.

The story starts out marvelously with very beautiful nearly lyrical descriptions of the rushes, the birds and the water.  I really felt and wished I was there.  There is talk a canal will be built that will greatly damage the flats, destroying the habitat.  The work is in a powerful way the story of the destruction of the American natural environment for the sake of commerce and money.    The men need to leave the big paddle boat, Woolson describes the boat trip perfectly, as well as Mark Twain.  

Compressing a good bit, the two fishermen are directed to a small island in the flats where they are told they can be boarded while fishing and hunting the area.  The opening of the story is beautiful but nothing prepared me be taken by Woolson deeply into a very dark strain of American culture through the words spoken by the man and wife who live on the island.  This story alone makes buying Miss Grief and Other Stories necessary.  It would, I think, make a wonderful class room story in American schools.  I think in order to really "get" this story you need an understanding of the American concept of Manifest Destiny and an overview of the westward expansion of the country from the Atlantic coast. You also would benefit from an understanding of the part chiliastic religious thought played in American society in the period in frontier areas.

Like the other stories I have read, there are two sets of people in the story, "tourists" from main stream society and near outcasts, stranger seeming people into whose world they temporarily intrude.  I thought for a good while as to whether or not to try to tell the "plot" and I decided not to do so.  

I will instead quote a few of the remarks made by the man on the island, a visionary who feels he is in direct contact with God.  I will say the depiction of the relationship of the couple is just so deep, so complex as to be a great wonder of American literature.  

"“What seek ye here?” continued the shadow. “Rest!” replied Raymond. “Hunting and fishing!” I added. “Ye will find more than rest,” said the voice, ignoring me altogether (I am often ignored in this way),—“more than rest, if ye stay long enough, and learn of the hidden treasures. Are you willing to seek for them?” “Certainly!” said Raymond. “Where shall we dig?” “I speak not of earthly digging, young man. Will you give me the charge of your souls?”  Spoken by the husband as they enter the house on the marsh island.

"“I am not Mrs.; I am called Roxana,” replied the woman, busying herself at the hearth. “Ah, you are then the sister of Waiting Samuel, I presume?” “No, I am his wife, fast enough; we were married by the minister twenty years ago. But that was before Samuel had seen any visions.” “Does he see visions?” “Yes, almost every day.” “Do you see them, also?” “O no; I’m not like Samuel. He has great gifts, Samuel has! The visions told us to come here; we used to live away down in Maine.” “Indeed! That was a long journey!” “Yes! And we didn’t come straight either. We’d get to one place and stop, and I’d think we were going to stay, and just get things comfortable, when Samuel would see another vision, and we’d have to start on. We wandered in that way two or three years, but at last we got here, and something in the Flats seemed to suit the spirits, and they let us stay.” The story of how Roxanna and Samuels got to the flats where they work hard but have a good life. 

There is an incredible description of a meal Roxana serves her guests.  You will love it.

"“Do you believe in these visions, madam?” asked Raymond, as we left the table, and seated ourselves in front of the dying fire. “Yes,” said Roxana; emphasis was unnecessary,—of course she believed. “How often do they come?” “Almost every day there is a spiritual presence, but it does not always speak. They come and hold long conversations in the winter, when there is nothing else to do; that, I think, is very kind of them, for in the summer Samuel can fish, and his time is more occupied. There were fishermen in the Bible, you know; it is a holy calling.” “Does Samuel ever go over to the mainland?” “No, he never leaves the Flats. I do all the business; take over the fish, and buy the supplies. I bought all our cattle,” said Roxana, with pride. “I poled them away over here on a raft, one by one, when they were little things.” “Where do you pasture them?” “Here, on the island; there are only a few acres, to be sure; but I can cut boat-loads of the best feed within a stone’s throw. If we only had a little more solid ground! But this island is almost the only solid piece in the Flats.”

The narrator returns to the flats many years later.   The close of the story is mysterious heartbreaking.  Roxana and Samuel will remain with those who give this story the respect it deserves for a very long time.  

There are two more longer stories in Miss Grief and other Stories and soon I will read them.

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