American Literature Constance Fenimore Woolson
Anne Boyd Rioux
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0171


Constance Fenimore Woolson (b. 1840–d. 1894) was considered the most accomplished American woman writer of the late 19th century, yet her reputation quickly faded after her death. Often compared to Henry James and George Eliot, she was nonetheless grouped with other women writers who were excluded from the American literary canon as it formed in the early 20th century. Woolson was born in Claremont, New Hampshire, but moved with her parents to Cleveland, Ohio, when she was still a baby. Although she was well educated at the Cleveland Female Seminary and showed early promise as a writer, her parents sent her to a finishing school in New York, an indication of the tug-of-war between new opportunities for women and the privileging of conventional feminine virtues that marked her life. Although she became engaged to an officer during the Civil War, they never married and Woolson took care of her ailing parents. After her father’s death in 1869, she began publishing her writing to support herself and her mother. The grandniece of James Fenimore Cooper, her middle name helped her to gain entrance to magazines such as Harper’s and Appletons’. She also published under a pseudonym her first novel, The Old Stone House (1873), a children’s novel that she never acknowledged. Meanwhile, the first decade of her career established her as a short story writer of some significance. Her first collection of stories, Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches, was published in 1875. From 1873 to 1879, she lived with her mother in the South and wrote the stories collected in Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (1880). After her mother’s death in 1879, Woolson traveled to Europe and stayed for the rest of her life. She lived primarily in Italy, England, and Switzerland but traveled widely, including to Egypt. While in Europe, she published five novels—Anne (1882), For the Major (1883), East Angels (1886), Jupiter Lights (1889), and Horace Chase (1894)—all set in America. Her short stories were set in Europe, however; many of them describe the struggles faced by women writers and artists. During these years, she also became close friends with Henry James. The two lived under the same roof, forming a sort of artist colony with Francis and Lizzie Boott and Frank Duveneck, on the hill of Bellosguardo outside of Florence. After Lizzie’s death, however, Woolson was never again able to find a supportive community and home in Europe. She had struggled with depression for many years and either fell or jumped from her window in Venice, dying on 24 January 1894.

General Overviews

James 1888 is the most important 19th-century assessment of Woolson’s work, up to and including her novel East Angels (1886). In the 20th century, academics such as the authors of Kern 1934 and Moore 1963, as well as Gray 1957, judged Woolson to be an accomplished, albeit minor, author deserving of critical attention in the context of American literary realism and regionalism. Beginning with Weimer 1988, Woolson became known as a writer who had unduly languished in the shadow of her friend Henry James. Viewing Woolson through the lens of feminist literary criticism, Weimer 1988, Torsney 1989, and Dean 1995 helped establish Woolson as one of the foremost female writers to receive renewed attention in the aftermath of the recovery movement. Dean 2002 extended this argument by comparing Woolson favorably to Edith Wharton.

  • Dean, Sharon L. Constance Fenimore Woolson: Homeward Bound. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.

    Dean examines the entire body of Woolson’s work, taking a thematic rather than chronological approach. Attuned to Woolson’s life as a wanderer in search of a home, Dean’s readings center on the tensions between convention and rebellion, region and nation, outsider and insider that radiate throughout her work. As a result, Dean paved the way for many critics to examine Woolson’s writings in new contexts.

  • Dean, Sharon L. Constance Fenimore Woolson and Edith Wharton: Perspectives on Landscape and Art. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002.

    Noting many points of comparison between Woolson and Wharton (who was twenty years her junior), Dean examines their writings in the context of the rise of tourism, landscape design, and theories of nature in the United States and Europe. She concludes that their views of nature made them very different artists.

  • Gray, Stella Clifford. “The Literary Achievement of Constance Fenimore Woolson.” PhD diss., University of Wisconsin, 1957.

    Gray’s dissertation benefitted from correspondence with Woolson’s niece, Clare Benedict, who was still alive then. It is also an important early assessment of Woolson’s literary significance, when she was virtually unknown in academia.

  • James, Henry. “Miss Woolson.” In Partial Portraits. By Henry James, 177–192. London and New York: Macmillan, 1888.

    James’s essay, originally published in Harper’s Weekly in 1887 and revised for Partial Portraits, conveys his great appreciation for Woolson’s artistry, particularly in her stories of the Reconstruction-era South. However, he also reveals his inability to judge her work without regard to her gender. The essay is also reprinted in Weimer 1988.

  • Kern, John Dwight. Constance Fenimore Woolson: Literary Pioneer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1934.

    DOI: 10.9783/9781512803082

    Kern’s book was the first modern assessment of Woolson’s writings, positioning her as a pioneer in local color writing and judging her works to possess an “authentic individuality” (p. 2) that set them apart from her regionalist and realist peers. He focuses on her short stories, with some attention to her poetry and novels.

  • Moore, Rayburn S. Constance F. Woolson. New York: Twayne, 1963.

    This accessible guide to Woolson’s life and work tends to focus on what Moore deemed her aesthetic shortcomings and to judge her writings as primarily of historical significance. Moore did, however, argue that Woolson made important contributions to the novel of analysis that had been overlooked by other critics.

  • Torsney, Cheryl B. Constance Fenimore Woolson: The Grief of Artistry. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1989.

    Eschewing the formalist approach of Kern 1934 and Moore 1963, Torsney took a feminist contextual approach to Woolson’s writings. Torsney focuses on Woolson’s relationships with male editors and writers, particularly Henry James, and her dilemmas as a woman and artist, as expressed in her novels Anne and For the Major as well as her stories about female writers and artists, most of whom are grief-ridden and silenced.

  • Weimer, Joan Myers. “Introduction.” In Women Artists, Women Exiles: “Miss Grief” and Other Stories. Edited by Joan Myers Weimer, ix–xlvii. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

    This introduction to Woolson’s life and work helped establish her as a significant woman writer deserving of recovery by feminist critics. Also contains a selected bibliography of primary and secondary sources, the latter of which is dated.

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