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Canadian Review of American Studies/ Revuecanadienned'etude.s americame.s Volume 28, Number 3, 1998, pp. 15-29 The Other Face of History in Constance Fenimore Woolson's Southern Stories Leonardo Buonomo 15 In an essay included in PartialPortraits([1888] 1988),1 Henry James noted that an "interest in secret histories" (272} was one of the most distinctive traits of Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894). What renders the expression "secret histories" intriguing is that it suggests narratives that need to be unveiled, recovered, and that can both complete, and dispute, official History. It is, moreover, a definition that strikes me as admirably fitting the stories of bereavement, alienation, and defeat that Woolson set in the South of the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War. To be brought to the surface in Woolson's pages, to be salvaged from oblivion and the omissions of historiography are for the most part, not surprisingly, the bitter memories, resentment, the struggle for survival and sacrifices of southern women. At the same time, effectively rendered in the backdrop of these portraits is also what Sharon Kennedy-Nolle (forthcoming) has called the "absence or disabled presence" of southern men in the postwar southern landscape. And the picture is completed by the frank disclosure of the inadequacy, ambivalence, or hypocrisy, of northern "missionaries" in the South: "envoys" from the winning side whose efforts to relate to the locals are disempowered by their own self-righteousness and meagre knowledge of 16 Canadian Review of American Studies Revue canadienne d'etudes americames southern life. Focussing on four short stories and a novella with postwar southern settings ("In the Cotton Country" [(1876) 1988], "King David" [(1878) 1967], "Old Gardiston" [(1876) 19671, "Rodman the Keeper" [(1877) 1967], and FortheMajor [(1882-83) 1967] )/ this paper will analyse the rendering of "secret, unsung histories" as a strategy that enabled Woolson to illuminate obscure or neglected sections of American reality and to tackle themes of remarkable modernity. Transcending the conventions of local colour (with which she has been for too long dismissively identified), Woolson was able to use the postwar scene to explore the changes in race and gender roles and relations that resulted from the upheaval of the great conflict, as well as their interactions with the confrontation between northern and southern culture. James justly attributed to Woolson the merit of having been among the very first American authors to cover the "conquered and reconstructed South" and to have responded sympathetically to its "voicelessness" ([1888] 1988, 272). Indeed, in Woolson's postbellum southern fiction, the losers become individuals with a name and a story, or rather a "counterstory," to tell. Theirs is the perspective of the silenced and the forgotten, which Woolson presents as a testimony that is finally heard after having been long kept secret. By recreating these voices, Woolson, a northerner who made the South her home from 1873 to 1879, attempted to render the devastating experience of finding oneself on the defeated side and seeing one's world and entire system of values collapse. Through the eyes of the "new poor" we see the postwar period of reconstruction not as a process of national healing, but as the humiliating experience of the loss of status. Woolson's sympathy for the plight of frustrated and impoverished southerners does not prevent her, however, from exercising her critical judgment. In particular, through the portrayal of fearfully proud, indignant, and unhappy southern belles in "Old Gardiston" and "Rodman the Keeper," she exposes the shortcomings of the southern ideal of womanhood, of a musty code of conduct made all the more preposterous by the concrete, inescapable hardships of the postbellum period. Together with "In the Cotton Country" and the novella For the Major, these stories give the impression that the burden of keeping up appearances in spite of adverse circumstances, of defending whatever remains of southern "honour,'' or simply surviving among Leonardo Buonomo I 17 the ruins of the old South, rests entirely, and unfairly, on the shoulders of women. No help can come from the men who are either absent, or, if present , physically or mentally impaired, or who have simply withdrawn from life, severing almost every tie with the real...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 15-29
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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