At the beginning of Woolson’s career, she wrote to William Dean Howells that the “critics seem to hold my very life in their hands.” She could not sleep after reading her reviews. In September 1874, she must have laid awake for nights after reading The Nation’s review of two of her stories just published. Without the support of Howells and other elite male writers, she might never have recovered from it. It was precisely the sort of review that was calculated to get women to break their pens in two and go back to their knitting.
It appeared in The Nation, a magazine that Frank Luther Mott said was known for its decided lack of “’genial’ criticism.” Henry James was writing reviews for The Nation then, although he did not review the periodicals. That task was undertaken by John Richard Dennett, who called Woolson’s story “Peter the Parson,” just published in Scribner’s,
noticeable for the raw coarseness of its assault on the feelings, and the unsteady, unskillful hand with which some commonplace figures are drawn.
Not content to denounce Woolson’s story, Dennett then launched an attack on women writers generally, the surest way to make yourself look like you have an axe to grind.
Our band of heart-wrenching female dealers in false feeling was never, we think, so numerous as now. Some of them are better, some worse, but all their performances, from Mrs. Harding Davis’s down to ‘Saxe Holme’s’ [Helen Hunt Jackson] and her companions, have the general truth of sentiment of a romance by the leading graduate of a young ladies’ seminary. Their good effects on their writers and their readers may be guessed.
From here Dennett launched a further attack on another story that appeared the same month:
In the September Atlantic, Miss Woolson has another tale, wildly improbable, destitute of the truth of fact or the truth of fiction, which appears under the title of ‘The Lady of Little Fishing.’ It is of this as much as her story in Scribner’s that we are thinking when we speak of the large school of female writers to which she belongs, and of whom there is none who seems able to keep on her feet and write a moderate word when the reader’s feelings are to be touched, by the display of the throbbing feelings of the characters. Of the uses of restraint and the nature of reserve they seem to have really about as much conception as if they wrote letters for the Beecher-Tilton case; and of good sense as little. They are, in a strict and now obsolete sense of the word, indecent.
[“Beecher –Tilton case”: The most famous preacher in America, Henry Ward Beecher, had been accused of adultery by Theodore Tilton. The salacious details of the case were widely reprinted in the press.]
Dennett’s view of Woolson was in the minority. Only one year later, when these two stories were published in her first collection, Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches, Howells, writing for the Atlantic Monthly, praised “The Lady of Little Fishing” for its “dramatic skill and force.” He continued,
It argues a greater richness in our fictitious literature than we have been able to flatter ourselves upon . . . [and] it has a high truth to human nature never once weakened by any vagueness of the moral ideal in the author.
The New York Tribune was even more enthusiastic:
Since the day when [Bret Harte’s] ‘The Luck of Roaring Camp’ awoke us all to a new sensation, there has been published no book of stories so fresh in scenery and incident, so indisputably original.
In addition, the reviewer claimed she bested Henry James “in the quality of freshness, in the use of unhackneyed scenery and incident.” She displayed “positive genius” and exhibited such “power” that the reviewer was “ready to offer Miss Woolson glad welcome into the field of letters.”
The Nation was eating crow, but Dennett himself did not live to see his verdict of Woolson’s work overturned. He died of consumption less than three months after penning his virulent attack.