‘The clear waters of the channels ran over golden sands….’ – “St Clair Flats,” by Constance Fenimore Woolson

January 21, 2018 at 3:29 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Short stories)

  Miss Grief and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson was my choice for our discussion, but I was having a very difficult time getting the presentation to come together in a satisfactory manner.

This volume consists of a foreward by Colm Toibin, an introduction by the editor Anne Boyd Rioux, and a selection of seven  stories. The stories were carefully chosen to represent the different aspects and settings of Woolson’s oeuvre: “St. Clair Flats”(1873)  is set in the Great Lakes Region; “Solomon”(1873), in eastern Ohio; “Rodman the Keeper'(1877), in North Carolina; “Sister St. Luke”(1877), in Florida; “‘Miss Grief'”(1880) in Rome; “A Florentine Experiment”(1880) in Florence, Italy; and “In Sloane Street”(1892) in London.

I asked the group – AAUW Readers by name – to read the foreward, the introduction, and four of the stories: “St. Clair Flats,” “‘Miss Grief’,” “A Florentine Experiment,” and “In Sloane Street.”

In her introduction, Anne Boyd Rioux reveals enough of Woolson’s biography for us to know that she lived a somewhat peripatetic, restless life, always trying to stay true to her writer’s art while fighting off the wolves of encroaching penury. Rioux’s final paragraph made my heart ache:

Woolson’s works deserve wider attention today, not only for the way they broaden our understanding of late-nineteenth-century American literature, but also for the way they capture both the social texture of her time and the inner emotional lives of her characters. Her works contradict our assumptions about women’s writing from that era, for Woolson did not seek recognition as a woman writer but as a writer. Thus she often tread on masculine territory in her work, while never trying to simply mimic the successes of her male peers. She sought instead to show them what was missing from their views of humanity, broadening the scope of literature to include the heartaches and triumphs of those most often overlooked, such as impoverished spinsters, neglected nuns, self-sacrificing wives and widows, uneducated coal miners, and destitute Southerners. Most of all her writings reflect what is deeply human in all of us, particularly our need to be loved, to be understood, and to belong, none of which are easily accomplished in her stories, or in life.

The most famous of the ‘male peers’ Woolson was trying not to imitate was Henry James. They met when both were living in Florence. James was generous and companionable with his fellow writer, even though Woolson’s encroaching deafness made it difficult for her to socialize. (Included in their close Florentine circle were composer Francis Boott, his daughter Lizzie, a painter, and her husband Frank Duveneck, also an artist. I began our discussion by recounting the way in which I most unexpectedly encountered a scion of the Duvenecks this past November in Northern California. For more on this curious confluence, read “The Nature of California.”)

“St.Clair Flats” was the first story I ever read by Constance Fenimore Woolson. (And yes she came by that middle name honestly: James Fenimore Cooper was her great-uncle.) I fell under its enchantment at once.

The year is 1855. In the course of their search for a congenial place to hunt and fish, two men find find themselves boating through a region of the Great Lakes known as the St. Clair Flats. The place is both bleak and beautiful, depending on whom you ask, and when:

The word “marsh” does not bring up a beautiful picture to the mind, and yet the reality was as beautiful as anything I have ever seen,— an enchanted land, whose memory haunts me as an idea unwritten, a melody unsung, a picture unpainted, haunts the artist, and will not away. On each side and in front, as far as the eye could reach, stretched the low green land which was yet no land, intersected by hundreds of channels, narrow and broad, whose waters were green as their shores. In and out, now running into each other for a moment, now setting off each for himself again, these many channels flowed along with a rippling current; zigzag as they were, they never seemed to loiter, but, as if knowing just where they were going and what they had to do, they found time to take their own pleasant roundabout way, visiting the secluded households of their friends the flags, who, poor souls, must always stay at home. These currents were as clear as crystal, and green as the water-grasses that fringed their miniature shores.

Thus does the narrator reflect on his surroundings. Later, he has an exchange with a boatman that portrays things in a different light:

“It is beautiful,— beautiful,” I said, looking off over the vivid green expanse.

“Beautiful?” echoed the captain, who had himself taken charge of the steering when the steamer entered the labyrinth,—“ I don’t see anything beautiful in it!— Port your helm up there; port!”

“Port it is, sir,” came back from the pilot-house above.

“These Flats give us more trouble than any other spot on the lakes; vessels are all the time getting aground and blocking up the way, which is narrow enough at best. There’s some talk of Uncle Sam’s cutting a canal right through,— a straight canal; but he’s so slow, Uncle Sam is, and I’m afraid I’ll be off the waters before the job is done.”

“A straight canal!” I repeated, thinking with dismay of an ugly utilitarian ditch invading this beautiful winding waste of green.

“Yes, you can see for yourself what a saving it would be,” replied the captain.

The narrator and his friend have a somewhat surreal time of it, enveloped by the strange beauty of this region and moreover, finding a place to stay with two unusual individuals: a man called Waiting Samuel and his wife Roxana. What Samuel appears to be waiting for is what we now term the End Times. He is a thoroughly otherworldly visionary. Roxana mainly acts the part of his submissive helpmate; at the same time, she’s the one that takes care of practical matters and keeps their dwelling afloat and viable.

After a particular glorious day spent enjoying the unique and seductive beauty of the Flats, the two men receive news of a sad and urgent nature. They are forced to return home with all due haste. The parting with Roxana is especially poignant:

At the turn I looked back; Roxana was sitting motionless in her boat; the dark clouds were rolling up behind her; and the Flats looked wild and desolate. “God help her!” I said.

Years passed quickly. In 1870, the narrator has occasion to revisit the Flats. He finds them, not unexpectedly, much changed:

“It is beautiful, beautiful,” I thought, “but it is passing away.”

This vision of a paradise lost in our own country is one of the most affecting passages of fiction that I have ever encountered. Affecting – and strangely unique in our literature.

As our discussion of this story was reaching its conclusion, Doris asked, “Is this a metaphor?” A metaphor, perhaps, for the waywardness of our journey through this life? And also, perhaps, for the sudden and unexpected turnings of that journey. (And by the way, the perceptive observations made by this excellent group of book lovers made this discussion a real pleasure – at least, I thought so!)

When I returned home from this discussion -more specifically, from our subsequent lunch out as a group, always a pleasant follow-up activity – I did something I hadn’t done before: I did a Google Image search for Lake St. Clair:

Canal leading to Lake St. Clair

Constance Fenimore Woolson was living alone in Venice, Italy in 1894 when she passed away. Although it is not known for certain, the manner of her death would seem to indicate that she died by her own hand. She was 53 years old.

When Henry James heard this news, he was devastated. Asked to help dispose of Woolson’s effects, he had himself rowed out to the depths of a lagoon in order to push her voluminous garments under the water. In The Private Life of Henry James, author Lyndall Gordon describes the scene:

In April 1894, a middle-aged gentleman, bearing a load of dresses, was rowed to the deepest part of the Venetian lagoon. A strange scene followed: he began to drown the dresses, one by one. There were a good many, well-made, tasteful, and all dark, suggesting a lady of quiet habits and some reserve. The gondolier’s pole would have been useful for pushing them under the still water. But the dresses refused to drown. One by one they rose to the surface, their busts and sleeves swelling like black balloons. Purposefully, the gentleman pushed them under, but silent, reproachful, they rose before his eyes.

“….they rose before his eyes.” As a remonstrance, even a rebuke? In an article in The New Republic entitled “Betrayed by Henry James,” author Max Nelson might agree with that assessment.

I was so taken by the life and works of Constance Fenimore Woolson that I went on to read this biography: Concerning her work as a scholar of literature,  the following appears on Anne Boyd Rioux’s  website:

In her teaching and writing, Rioux is passionate about the recovery of 19th-century American women writers who wrote fascinating, sometimes provocative, and often daring works that have been unavailable and unread for generations.

I am deeply grateful to Boyd Rioux for rescuing this worthy artist from obscurity and placing her front and center in the ranks of great American writers. She has every right to be there. And next, I’d like to see more re-issues of her works along the lines of Miss Grief and Other Stories. Meanwhile, Amazon has on offer quite a few of Woolson’s works in e-book format.

Constance Fenimore Woolson 1840-1894

(And one more thing: I’d like to suggest that Professor Boyd Rioux have a look at the life and work of Metta Fuller Victor.)

 

 

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