I returned yesterday from the tenth biennial conference of the Constance Fenimore Woolson Society. As always, it was intellectually stimulating and just plain fun. The congeniality of this group of scholars is like nothing I’ve experienced before. From the founders of the society eighteen years ago to the new graduate students, everyone is supportive and eager to share their work. There is no competitiveness or possessiveness. We keep the conference small enough so that there is only one session at a time. It’s not the kind of conference where you hop between panels or give your paper then leave. Everyone goes to every panel, as they are able. Discussions afterwards are lively. You can’t help but feel when it’s all over–I can’t wait until the next one!
The amiability of the participants is more than matched by the quality of the papers. Each year they get smarter and more interesting, proving how ripe Woolson’s work is for close literary analysis and historical investigation. The unreliability of her narrators and the complex ideological stances of her characters make her stories anything but straightforward.
The theme of the conference was “Witnessing and Remembering Civil Wars,” in honor of the war’s sesquicentennial. Some of the papers discussed one of her most well-known stories, “Rodman the Keeper,” a story of the keeper of a federal cemetery in the South after the war. He is an ex-soldier himself and finds that he is able to come to a separate peace with a former Confederate soldier, whom he nurses back to health. But no such reconciliation is possible with that soldier’s cousin, a woman who carries the bitter memories of death and defeat with her into an uncertain future. As we learned from the outstanding keynote lecture from historian John Neff, an expert on Civil War and memory, it was the women of the South who embraced the duty of preserving the memory of the war and the sacrifices of the dead. As political nonentities, they were allowed to do what men were prohibited from doing, namely keeping alive sectional discord in their commemorations of the war. Woolson’s stories reflect this postwar reality, just as they also record the historical fact that freed slaves visited the graves of Union troops and decorated them on Memorial Day.
Other papers also discussed empathy in Woolson studies, Woolson’s awareness of class divisions in the Gilded Age, her portrayal of moonshiners, representations of the “good death” in her stories, her attitudes toward southern women, homoeroticism, the tropical sublime, and emancipation. My own paper was on her Civil War beau, Lt. Col. Zephaniah Spalding, and his experiences during the war, including incarceration in a Confederate prison camp, experiences that she used in her early story “A Merry Christmas” (1872).
The prison camp, also referred to in “Rodman the Keeper,” was a theme of the conference’s final panel, which prepared us for our field trip to Andersonville, the most notorious of the prisons. The site is now a national park. It was a cloudy, hazy day, creating the perfect atmosphere for us to peer through the mists of time. Ranger Stephanie gave us an excellent tour of the grounds, helping us envision what the conditions were like for the 35,000 men who were crammed into an open pen without adequate water or sanitation. We also visited the cemetery, where 13,000 of those men are buried, their small headstones almost touching, like endless rows of teeth. It was cemeteries like these all over the South that affected Woolson very deeply in the 1870s. She lamented how soon the countless sacrifices were being forgotten in the North and wrote letters and stories to remind her northern readers of the recent bloody past.
We also had members of the Rebecca Harding Davis Society with us. It was great to see the way issues in the two authors’ works intersected. But even more interesting were our discussions about the ongoing recovery projects of these two writers. How do we as author societies promote the recuperation of their reputations? The Davis Society is having a plaque erected on the site of Davis’s school in the town where she was born. They have also been successful in getting some of Davis’s works reprinted, something our society needs to pursue more.
On my way home yesterday, I was exhausted, relieved that everything went as planned, and exhilarated. Having connected with so many smart scholars doing such interesting work on Woolson, I feel reenergized and ready to get back to work on her biography. Thanks to all who participated! You make being President of this society a labor of love.