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Friday, February 4, 2011

February 4, 2011: Getting Past Grief

In my post of one week ago on Jonathan Edwards, I lamented the fate of an author whom we largely remember due to one heavily anthologized but far from representative text. Far different, but no less reductive in its own way, is the situation for an author like the talented and prolific late 19th century novelist and short story writer Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894). Woolson, who was largely forgotten for nearly a century after her death, has in the last couple of decades been heavily anthologized, and in nearly every case the anthologized text is the same short story, “Miss Grief” (1880). Partly the focus on that story is due to the uncanny resemblances between its two main characters and Woolson and Henry James (uncanny because she wrote and published the story just prior to meeting James and developing a complex relationship with him that would last until the end of her life); but mostly it’s because the story is by far her best.
“Miss Grief” really is just an extremely successful and impressive story on every front: Woolson’s pitch-perfect creation of its vain but self-aware narrator, a prominent author of short fictions who knows exactly what he’s worth and is more than happy to celebrate the success he’s had; the much more ambiguous and mysterious title character, an older female writer who enters the narrator’s life and profoundly shakes his ideas about literature and performance and talent, as well as his sense of his own work and value; the story’s affecting and tragic plot arc, and especially its final images of a dying and unknown but deeply talented female writer that would be hugely powerful even if we didn’t know (as contemporary readers wouldn’t have of course) anything about Woolson’s final fate (literally, since she may well have committed suicide; and literarily, since her writings were largely forgotten for many decades). It’s also funny and engaging, due in large part to Woolson’s ability to create her narrator’s voice and perspective, a talent with light and witty and yet meaningful phrases that certainly distinguishes her from the far more fully serious and even dour (if with good reason) Miss Grief. It’s quite simply one of the great American short stories, very unique in its own era and still accessible and relevant in ours, and I have no problem with it being the first and main text for which Woolson is now known.
And yet, in her own, much more fully literary and interestingly geographic way, Woolson was every bit as much of a Renaissance American as James Weldon Johnson. For various reasons of family and marriage and health and opportunity, Woolson travelled a good deal, and each time she moved to a new place she ended up producing stories (some travel writing, some fiction) that are grounded in that particular location while still connected to the same kinds of universal identities and themes that make “Grief” so readable and engaging. Among her first professional pieces were letters and essays from New York, where she had moved on assignment for the Daily Cleveland Herald, and while she quickly left that newspaper’s employ to publish in more national and literary periodicals (most often in Harper’s, but a number of others as well), the influence of that training as a reporter and correspondent is evident throughout her career. A few years in Michigan led to the evocative Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches (1875); a sojourn in the post-Reconstruction South produced the very sensitive stories in Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (1880); and her final decade in Italy yielded two rich posthumous collections, The Front Yard (1895) and Dorothy (1896). She also published a handful of novels throughout these years, and they too balanced between the local and the universal in very successful ways, as illustrated by For the Major (1883), a novel of the post-war South that (like most of the stories in Rodman) neither valorizes the region (as many of her Northern contemporaries had begun to do) nor dismisses or patronizes its experiences and voices.
In an era of increasingly specialized local color movements—with an entire school of writers dedicated to producing stories and novels about Indiana, for example—Woolson built on the best of that trend but refused to settle into any one space or identity, becoming a regionalist for the nation and the world. While she is not, to reiterate and despite the biographical readings of the story, very much like the titular writer in “Miss Grief,” it is true that her singular talents impressed Henry James at least as much as that character’s did the story’s narrator. Takes one master to know another, I guess. More tomorrow, my third tribute post!
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      The full text of “Grief”:
2)      Great site for the Constance Fenimore Woolson society, including very thorough bibliographies of her works:
3)      OPEN: Any unremembered writers we should be reading?  

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