Portraits of the Author

woolson

Most photographs of Woolson were taken with her turned away from the camera. She was exceptionally self-conscious about her appearance. But she was no George Eliot. No one ever reported that she was unattractive. All images of her indicate that she had a pleasant appearance. That she didn’t like her own looks is understandable, though. How many women have felt the same way? What interests me more, though, was her severe objection to having her image reproduced.

When William Dean Howells’s brother-in-law, Larkin G. Mead, an artist, wanted to make a medallion portrait of her to go with the ones he was making of Howells, Henry James, and John Hay, she was horrified and felt bullied into accepting by Howells’s wife, Elinor. Woolson wrote to Hay, “I am not a subject for a sculptor; in addition, I do not at all think that because a woman happens to write a little, her face, or her personality in any way, becomes the property of the public.”

Woolson wasn’t simply writing “a little,” though. She had become one of the most respected and prolific magazine writers in America and had recently published her first novel, Anne, which was so popular that every post brought her new letters from ardent admirers, and her publishers, Harpers, paid her a $1000 bonus on the serial rights. She had become a celebrity, and she regretted it deeply, for she only wanted to be a writer. But in those days, successful writers were celebrities.

Elinor Howells told Woolson, trying to convince her to have her portrait made, “think how nice it will be! When the Harpers want your portrait, to put in the magazine -as of course they will -it will be all ready.” For Woolson, the thought of having her portrait not only made but actually published was a “sort of night-mare.”

Eventually the Harpers did publish her portrait, and she actually liked it, because it didn’t “look at all like me,” she said. Shortly thereafter, the sculptor Richard Greenough wanted to “do” her head, which had been shorn of most of its hair due to an illness. Eventually, she had to accept that her image was requested by multiple editors to grace their pages. She scornfully referred to them as “the accumulations of representations of my pug nose!”

Recently the author of a new biography on John Hay wrote to me to ask for a picture of Woolson. He was hoping for one taken when she was younger. There is one that actually shows her face. It is at the Western Reserve Historical Society. It shows a lovely young woman who would one day regret having to appear in public as herself. She wanted the public to be satisfied with just her works. They weren’t. And I guess we still aren’t.

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  1. That sounds just like Louisa May Alcott – she hated celebrity also. But hard-headed practical businesswoman that she was, she agreed to portraits because she knew her image would help sell more books.

  2. Yes, Woolson also relented for business purposes. She let the Harpers say when she should allow her image to be published. But Woolson couldn’t help feeling exposed. Today, author portrait is still considered a draw. I suppose many authors today feel much as Woolson and Alcott did.

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