Keeping Woolson in My Life

It hasn’t been easy to keep Woolson in my life since I returned to teaching this fall. I’ve taught her stories “Miss Grief” and “Jeannette” in my American Literature Survey class. But presenting a paper at the South Central Modern Language Association conference here in New Orleans last week gave me the opportunity (or should I say made me make the time) to write about her again as well. Literary biography isn’t often a subject explored at academic conferences. But I made it one, organizing a panel titled “Unmasking the Subjects of Literary Biography.”

Emily Toth from LSU delivered a wonderful paper on Kate Chopin, about whom she has written two biographies. And Juliette Utard from the University of Paris-Sorbonne delivered a fascinating paper about how biographers have approached Wallace Stevens. One of the best lines from her paper was a take on a quote from Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot: “What makes us randy for relics? Don’t we believe the words are enough?”

My paper, “Lifting the Veil on the Henry James-Constance Fenimore Woolson Relationship,” was very much about how to approach a subject about which are there few relics (a few signed books from James to Woolson) and not very may words either. Here is a little bit about what I had to say on the subject:

Any biographer of James or Woolson attempting to lift the veil on their friendship quickly comes face-to-face with the great wall of silence they left behind them. While 163 letters survive to tell the tale of James’s friendship with Edith Wharton, only 4 letters between Woolson and James remain. We know that the two writers had a pact to destroy their correspondence. As a result, only four letters that Woolson written to James while he was in the U.S. survived the flames. They were discovered by Edel during the research for his five-volume biography of James, and Woolson’s niece, still alive in the 1950s, was not entirely pleased to learn from him of their discovery. They provide a rather one-sided view of her aunt’s relationship with the famous writer and are also from the first few years of their friendship, when they had seen each other face-to-face only twice. They tell us little about how their relationship developed over the next eleven years through repeated visits, crises in their careers, and the deaths of siblings and close friends.

Some have guessed that James was eager to destroy the secrets he shared with his confidant and that he may have even desired to erase her from his life. Many have also suspected that the two writers wished to thwart future biographers. But just as likely their agreement was designed to maintain their privacy in the present. Letters were often treated as a public commodity, to be read aloud to friends and family or sent on to others for their perusal. James had a habit of doing this with the letters of one of his other close female friends, Grace Norton. When she reprimanded him for reading portions of her letters aloud to others, he wrote to her, “It is indeed, I think, of the very essence of a good letter to be shown,–it is wasted if it be kept for one.”  Woolson, who always closely guarded her privacy, may have, in fact, known of his practice of sharing the letters of his correspondents and asked him to destroy hers.

On her side, such a pact was not unique, and it is therefore most likely that she initiated it, contrary to the more intriguing and often-repeated suspicion that he imposed secrecy upon her. Woolson had a similar agreement with her sister, Clara, who once said that Constance always “wrote me when she was going to use me as a ‘safety valve,’ and pour out to me what at that moment was overpowering her.”  The explosive feelings that Woolson funneled into her fiction had found another outlet, while James offered her his comprehension.

I’ll share some more of the paper in a future post. Writing it helped me to think about the arc of Woolson’s and James’s 14-year friendship in a new way that will definitely inform my rewriting of that part of the biography. (I can’t wait until Midterm grading is over and I can back to work on it!)

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