We live in an age of self-promotion: twitter, facebook–need I add blogging? A blog post by Nancy K. Miller about how Emily Dickinson might feel about our era’s publicity-consciousness got me thinking about how Woolson felt about her own literary celebrity. She loved it and hated it at the same time. She wanted recognition, but she didn’t want to ask for it and she certainly didn’t want anyone to think that she was asking for it. Like Miller, she wanted to write her books and send them out into the world and have people appreciate them for their own sake. But as she discovered, it’s not that simple.
Emily Dickinson’s poem, which Miller cites, sums up Woolson’s attitude as well:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
I love how Dickinson embraces the identity of a “Nobody” here. Far from a sign of lacking self-esteem, it suggests how tightly she held on to her private self, which, she felt, was her own and rightly a “Nobody” to everyone else. Dickinson, of course, chose not to advertise, or even publish, her poems (except for a few, which were heavily edited for publication). But she bound them in little booklets and left them in a drawer—a form of self-publishing, if you will.
Woolson might have done the same thing with her highly personal poems and stories if she hadn’t needed to make a living to support herself and her mother after her father’s death. In fact, there was one story that was so personal she never published it. (It describes a young woman’s failed engagement and is closely based on Woolson’s own experiences.) But she did save it, just as Dickinson did her poems, for us to find.
There is an inherent need of every writer for an audience. But what happens between the private communion with the blank page and the sharing of the printed page with the world? What compromises have to be made? What sacrifices of privacy and sense of self?
In Woolson’s time, a woman’s inmost self was to be kept hidden at all costs under thick layers of propriety and convention. What did it mean for her to expose that “secret self” to the world? For in her writings, her deepest feelings erupt at key moments, expressed through characters from which she could distance herself.
When Woolson began to publish, she wanted to adopt a pseudonym like George Eliot and George Sand had done. She feared the exposure of a public persona, and when a letter she had written about southern women was reprinted all over the country and some took offense, she was horrified and swore off newspaper writing for good.
Woolson would never have written a memoir or blogged about her experiences. And she worked hard to hide her private self by burning letters and asking others do to the same. But it’s still there in her writings. As one of my students said, reading her is like going on an archaeological dig. Like Dickinson, she may have protested that she was a “Nobody,” but she left a trail of breadcrumbs for us to find her nonetheless.