How I Met Woolson

No one introduced me to Woolson. I didn’t discover her writings in a class in college or in graduate school. I didn’t stumble upon an essay about her or find her buried in a footnote somewhere. My first encounter with her was altogether different. You could call it a fluke or maybe fate.

I was a graduate student with a burning desire to know how American women writers had become serious artists. I wanted to know when and how they developed the chutzpah to say, “I am a writer above all else, and I deserve the recognition that traditionally only men have received for their work.” I figured that the modernist era would give me my first examples—Gertrude Stein and H.D., perhaps.

I spent my afternoons reading articles and books, looking for signs of the woman artist that I knew was still rare in 1990s. I wasn’t quite sure where to find her. It felt like digging for buried treasure.

One day, as I wandered through the deserted library stacks, aimlessly admiring the nineteenth-century bindings that seemed like relics from a distant land, a book caught my eye. It had my name on it: “ANNE.” There was even an “E” on the end. Beneath the title was the name Constance Fenimore Woolson.


I scanned the small row of books with the same author’s name and saw a recently published book titled Women Artists, Women Exiles, a collection of Woolson’s stories edited by Joan Myers Weimer. I opened it up and knew that I had finally struck gold. Here was a woman exploring all of the issues women writers still faced: how to gain the respect of the male literary elite, how to make a home for oneself and one’s art in an inhospitable world, how to resist the temptation to chuck it all and just have a conventional, domestic life. And the stories were published in the 1870s and 1880s.

Woolson opened up a whole new world of nineteenth-century women writers as artists for  me. I ended up finding others—Elizabeth Stoddard, Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and more—a whole generation, in fact, which I wrote about in my first book. But it was Woolson who stuck with me as the most dedicated. She committed herself most fully to the financially and emotionally risky enterprise of professional artistry.

And if I hadn’t seen my name, almost twenty years ago, glowing in gilt letters like a beacon from the library stacks, I might have missed all of that and missed my chance to get to know an amazingly brave, talented woman who deserves to be discovered–and not by chance.

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