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Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 201-202



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Constance Fenimore Woolson's Nineteenth Century: Essays. Edited by Victoria Brehm. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001. 255 pp. $39.95.

This excellent collection of fourteen essays justifies the editor's claim that the work of Constance Fenimore Woolson is a "rich source for understanding nineteenth-century history and culture" (15-16). Although still not as widely known as she deserves to be, Woolson has become less obscure since some of her ground-breaking stories about women and art ("'Miss Grief" and "Felipa") have appeared in major anthologies. This new collection of essays expands the contexts and contests some of the arguments made in Critical Essays on Constance Fenimore Woolson, edited by Cheryl Torsney (1992). I am one of the writers challenged as well as acknowledged in many of these essays—which makes reading them a bracing experience.

Victoria Brehm's introduction describes Woolson's keen commentary on many dilemmas of post-Civil War America—Reconstruction, industrialization, the degradation of the environment, gender roles, and the shifting place of the artist. While three essays in the volume look at some of Woolson's precursors—Emerson, Stoddard, and Jewett—and Nina Baym argues for more historically and aesthetically sensitive appraisals of early women writers, the rest examine Woolson's contributions to the thorny debates of her time.

Several essays productively look at Woolson's extensive and original travel writing. Dennis Berthold notes that throughout the nineteenth century the genre overwhelmingly belonged to men, and examines how Woolson's pieces use a female perspective to "extend the narrative possibilities of travel writing with social satire, comic dialogue, mock-romance plots, [and] ironic characterization" (112). Victoria Brehm shows that Woolson wrote with irony about the changes wreaked by industry and commerce in the Great Lakes, changes "she could neither prevent nor accept," rather than with the nostalgia of Jewett or the humor of Twain and Harte. Kathleen Diffley fruitfully studies the illustrations that accompanied Woolson's Great Lakes sketches and stories to appraise "the normative role of the picturesque"(121), although I would dissent from her conclusion that the texts show "less isolation than confrontation, less solitude than solicitude" (120).

Especially strong is Sharon Kennedy-Nolle's "'We are Most of Us Dead Down Here," which makes excellent use of the papers of the Freedmen's Bureau to study Woolson's travel writing [End Page 201] about Reconstruction in Florida. Woolson challenges the contention that freed people were discontented with freedom and asserts their legitimate claim to national concern. However, while her scenery "bristles with political intent" she still "attempts to mollify, not antagonize, and educate, not alienate her Northern readers" (146)—essential strategies in a literary market that demanded conciliation.

Editors were also highly sensitive about the representation of gender, yet Woolson managed to address extremely inflammatory material: wife-battering and lesbian love. In a brilliantly argued essay, "Romantic Love and Wife Battering," Caroline Gebhard examines Woolson's most daring and most flawed work, Jupiter Lights, as an attempt to merge violent content with the romance genre. The novel deserves revival for its original and astute portrait of a battered wife who alternately woos and tries to kill another woman, although it ends with the capitulation of heroine and author to the marriage plot.

Also subtly written is Kristen Comment's "The Lesbian 'Impossibilities' of Miss Grief's 'Armor." She fails to persuade me that Woolson dropped a lesbian lover into the story, but she does show that the "flaw" that makes Miss Grief's genius unacceptable to publishers is her "perversity"—a term that occurs repeatedly in the story and that was commonly used in contemporary medical discourse to describe homosexuality. Comment also suggests that the friendship of Henry James and Woolson, like that of May Bartram and John Marcher in James's "The Beast in the Jungle," may have been "heterosexual cover" for their own ambiguous sexuality (220, n.10). Those relations are also reappraised by Anne Boyd and Sharon Dean, who contrast Edith Wharton's early love stories about artists with Woolson's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-0643
Print ISSN
0748-4321
Pages
pp. 201-202
Launched on MUSE
2003-11-18
Open Access
No
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