Friday, April 29, 2016

Florida sojourner: Constance Fenimore Woolson

Black and white 19th century photo of Constance Fenimore Woolson
Constance Fenimore Woolson
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Part 1 of 2

I just read the excellent new biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, an under-appreciated 19th century writer. Anne Boyd Rioux's Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of A Lady Novelist (Norton, 2016) covers an entire life, but it was Woolson's Southern sojourns that most interested me. She wintered in St. Augustine for several years in the 1870s, and set some of her short stories and at least one of her novels, the mid-1880s East Angels, in Florida.

It's probably safe to say that literate Florida pioneer settlers read Woolson's works or were aware of her. She was a lauded and popular writer of both fiction and nonfiction - travel articles, stories, and novels. The same can't be said today. She's hardly known anymore, although her reputation is on the upswing again.

I became aware of Woolson via English professor Dr. John Pearson, now AVP of Academic Affairs, at Stetson University. He's part of a group of scholars who have published on Woolson and have worked to rebuild her literary reputation. Thanks to his introduction, I started to explore her literature. I began with her short-story collection Rodman the Keeper because of its Southern focus.

Immediately, I was taken with Woolson's keen perceptions of local mores, her descriptions of Florida, and her respectful handling of colorful locals whom lesser writers might have disparaged. The stories are so rich in sense of place, time, and people that they function as windows to a distinct era long past. The stories also are enjoyable - even to the modern reader -  and often poignant.

Next on my Woolson reading list is East Angels, which one Goodreads reviewer says is a "fascinating picture of post-Bellum Florida, the role of women in 19th century life, and of women in the period." First, though, I plan to focus on Part 2 of this blog post: a look at some of the ways Woolson spoke of 19th century Florida and Floridians in her letters. Stay tuned. In the meantime, read some of her literature for yourself. You won't be disappointed.

Fun fact: Woolson was grandniece of James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans.

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