Any day I discover a new to me writer whose first work I read makes me want to read all their work is not an entirely bad day. My most recent "discoveries" are Iréne Némirovsky and Clarice Lispector. After reading "Miss Grief" I am close to adding Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840 to 1894, USA, her grand uncle was James Fenimore Cooper) to my read all I can list.
Drawing on the very insightful historically informed introduction of Rioux, Woolson was born in 1840 in Cleveland, Ohio and died in 1894 from a fall from a third story window in Venice, Italy. She wrote five novels, the post popular was Anne what way out sold at the time Henry Jame's Portrait of a Lady. James and Woolson were friends, both Toibin and Woolson talk about the influence of James and their relationship. Woolson never married, having lost a man she loved to another woman in her younger days. She was raised in a cultured enviorment, encouraged to read Dickens, and, as Rioux tells us, and I saw it clearly in Anne, was very influenced by Eliot.
Her writing live can be roughly divided into three periods. From around 1870 to 1875 she wrote stories centering on the American Great Lakes region, where she grew up. From late 1875 to 1879, she and her mother spent much time in the American south and her stories center in this region. When her mother died she moved to Europe, spending most of her time in Italy. It is here she developed her relationship with James.
Woolson, in her life very popular, quickly faded to obscurity where she still largely lingers. I hope so much Rioux's collection and her biography (I will post on it soon, after I reread it) revitalize her readership. I did a book blog search and found very few posts on her but mine.
When I saw a collection of her short stories offered to reviewers on Edelweiss I decided to request it largely because Colm Toibin contributed the foreword. I based this on my love for his novel on Henry James, The Master. I was embarrassed as I read the foreword and introduction to learn she was at one time one of America's best selling authors,as I had never heard of her. I learned she faded from public view and was only currently mentioned by and large because of her long term friendship with Henry James. James lived for a while in a villa Woolson rented in Florence. Toibin and Anne Boyd Rioux make a lot of interesting observations about the use James might have made of their relationship in Portrait of a Lady and a few of his short stories. The fioreward and introduction are really well done.
The anthology of her short stories is truly a first rate production. Every story is introduced and full details on the publication history of the stories is provided. (One of my bet literary peeves centers on collections of short anthologies that do not include first publication data.)
I will talk in enough detail on the stories to give readers a sense of the great range of her talents.
I strongly endorse this collection to all lovers of the short story and urge all teachers of American literature to add Woolson to the ciriculum.
"Miss Grief" is set in Florence. An older slightly impoverished looking woman begins making daily visits to the home of a very sucessful American writer. He thinks she is probably an antique dealer or collector. He keeps avoiding her, having his butler tell her he is not in. Finally he relents and it turns out she has written something she wants him to read. He reluctantly agrees and she insists she will come back in a few days for his reactions. He sees lots of faults with the work but he is deeply impressed by the sheer depth of her creation. When she returns he tells her of changes she should make in the work. He tells her if she follows his suggestions, he will submit it to his editor for possible publication. She adamantly refuses to his great surprise. She begins, in the company of what he takes to be her maid, to visit regularly. He reads more of her work and is amazed. He tries himself to rewrite her work but he finds he cannot change it without the work falling apart.
I will leave the close unspoiled. It is very interesting, sad and moving.
Part of the power of the story is in the very brilliant way the relationship between Miss Grief, which is actually a mispronouncing of her name, and the male author is depicted. Of course as I read it I found it hard not to see the writer as Henry James.
"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 story centers in part on two men from Cleveland come to the flats to fish.
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 talkof a canal that 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.
This story is a great work of art
"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. 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" 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.
"Rodman the Keeper"
Roman the Keeper" is a truly great short story.
As I learned in Rioux's introduction to the story, it is set in a Union (Northen States) Civil War cemetrary like the one in Salisbury, North Carolina. Emotions still ran very deep in the defeated South against northerners. Rodman was a soldier for the North in the war. He advanced to the rank of Colonel and suffered serious wounds. During the war he lost his fiancé, his family and afterwards his money. He accepted a job as the keeper, manager, of the cemetrary as he wanted solitude and he somehow sought atonement for the massive war deaths. Woolson does a just wonderful job of slowly bringing Rodman to greater and greater realization.
The area is isolated. Rodman stops at the well at a nearby house, he thinks it is abandoned and is shocked to find a sick man there. He was a confederate soldier and they bond over their common experiences. He sees the man has only the simplest foods so he brings him dinner. Compressing a lot, he meets the man's only living relative, his younger female cousin. There is a lot of real depth and brilliance in the depictions of the characters. I don't want to give away too much. Some very politically correct readers may rankle at how ex-slaves are portrayed in the story but those were the ways of the times.
"Sister Saint Luke"
There are five people in the story. Keith and Carrington are two friends who have come together from the north to enjoy the wildness of the area and get away from the cold, tourists. The other characters include Pedro, a descendent so of the Minorcan colonists who had come long ago in a group of 1300 or so from Greece, as indentured servants, I Goggled the Minorcans and was fascinated to learn some very interesting Florida history. I admit I was impressed that pre-Internet Woolson knew this aspect of local history. To me this shows the real respect Woolson has for her subjects. Never in this story do I feel the what could have been made backwoods Florida characters treated in a fashion that tries to reduce their full humanity. We also meet Melvyna, she came from the north to be a private duty nurse and stay there when her patient died. She ended up marrying Pedro. I really liked the depiction of their marriage. They live on Pelican Island and keep the lighthouse there. Keith and Carrington are staying there a while and they also meet an ex-nun, Sister St Luke who also stays there.
Melvyna is a strong self reliant woman living in a place where you have to know how to take care of your self and your family. She and Pedro have a good, it seems, relationship. Buried in the storyline is no doubt a commentary on the differences of the attitudes toward life of Catholic Pedro, his name is no accident, and Protestant Mevyna of tough "Yankee" stock. Sister Saint Luke is an interesting person, it seems somehow she was left at a nunnery at an early age and put out once she became an adult. She is a bit child like, longing to return to the security of the nunnery. The characters of Keith and Carrington are not quite as well developed but from their actions and words we get to know them. They are both decent men.
There are beautiful descriptions of the area. There is a powerful storm. The description of the flock of 100s of Pelicans makes me so wish I could time travel to see it.
Exciting things happen toward the close of the story which I will leave for others to enjoy discovering as I very much did.
I really enjoyed reading this story. I have a special interest in Florida history and that made the story resonate greatly with me.
In her very well done introduction to Miss Grief and other Stories Anne Boyd Rioux mentions two other set in Florida short stories and I hope to read them both very soon.
There is a lot of depth in this story, issues about cultural contrast buried in a passing remark. It is also flat out a lot of fun to read.
"In Sloane Street"
"In Sloane Street", her only story set in England is described by Toibin as a work showing her skill at writing a story closely observing emotions in a small setting in the manner of Henry James. He says it is her best story in the collection. I found the characters discussion of art and the work of George Eliof fascinating.
This anthology should be studied by anyone contemplating editing a volume of short stories. Rioux deeply knows Woolson, works from an academic background and helped me understand not such Woolson but the business side of American literary life.
I have added Woolson to my read all I can list. Woolson is an amazingly versatile writer. I thank Rioux for introducing me to her.
I strongly endorse this book for all lovers of the short story, maybe especially Americanx. I hope teachers will add her work to the ciriculum and suggest all librarians acquire this work.
Rioux does not belong in the shadow of Henry James and I hope Rioux's books help her reemerge. These stories are tremendously enjoyable and exemplfy short story art at a very high level.
I will soon, I hope be doing a Q and A Session with Rioux and will post on her biography of Woolson, also forthcoming in February.
I hope later in the year to do post sort of comparing her to other writers whose work I love, Iréne Nemirovsky and Clarice Lispector.
Anne Boyd Rioux is a professor at the University of New Orleans and the author of Constance Fenimore Woolson: The Portrait of a Lady Novelist, forthcoming from W. W. Norton.