Tourism, Imperialism, and Hybridity in the Reconstruction South: Constance Fenimore Woolson's Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches

Article excerpt

"Now that the little monkey has gone, I may be able at last to catch and fix a likeness of her."

--Kitty, "Felipa" (1876)

At their core, issues of imperialism coalesce around such concepts as center and margin, dominance and subjugation, self and other--binaries at the heart of the ten stories collected in Constance Fenimore Woolson's Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (1880). I am interested not only in excavating these binaries in Woolson's southern fiction, but also in examining what happens to the tensions between them. Ultimately, these tensions are not neatly resolved, as they often were in popular postwar reunion romances. As many postcolonial theorists have noted, sooner or later the encounter between cultures and peoples results not only in clashes but also in a mingling that creates forms of doubleness or hybridity, a term often used today to connote the mixture of cultures, but which has its origins in nineteenth-century conceptions of racial difference. A reading of Woolson's fiction in this context suggests her discomfort with the effects of imperialism, particularly a form of hybridity predicated on an inequality that blurs cultural and racial distinctions. In the process of registering this discomfort, Woolson, a northern writer, also manages to decenter her texts in ways that challenge her northern readers' presumed cultural superiority in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

"Felipa," first published in 1876 and later collected in Rodman the Keeper, is one of Woolson's most frequently anthologized southern stories and can be read in multiple contexts for its complex portrayal of race, ethnicity, and sexuality. (1) I will begin with a brief analysis of "Felipa" to suggest the possibilities for reading Woolson's southern stories in a poscolonial/anti-imperlialist context. The story's narrator, a white, northern artist who struggles to "catch and fix" the image of a Spanish-speaking Minorcan girl (203), epitomizes the "imperial eyes" of the colonizer, to borrow Mary Pratt's phrase, not least in her use of an animalistic metaphor--"little monkey"--often employed in racist portrayals of darkskinned peoples) The girl, Felipa, whose gender identity is blurred by the boy's clothing she wears, is "a small, dark-skinned, yellow-eyed child, the offspring of the ocean and the heats, tawny, lithe and wild, shy yet fearless--not unlike one of the little brown deer" (197). Like many colonized natives, she is described as a product of the landscape around her, even as a type of the region's fauna; thus she is the typical exotic "other." Felipa is also a product of Florida's colonial past: her father was a Spanish sailor, and she is now being raised by her Minorcan grandparents, members of an ethnic group brought as indentured servants from the isle of Minorca off the coast of Spain to the British colony of Florida in 1768. (3)

Almost nothing is revealed about the artist and narrator, Kitty, who is convalescing as well as vacationing in Florida with two other friends: Christine, a "Pre-Raphaelite" beauty (202), and Christine's persistent suitor, Edward. In fact, so little is revealed about Kitty and her friends that they become ciphers of the imperial presence of northern tourists in the South after the Civil War, unwanted guests imposing themselves on a native population that contains no other whites. Of Felipa, Kitty explains, "She did not come to us--we came to her; we loomed into her life like genii from another world" (197). The magical effect they have on her, however, is anything but benign. Felipa becomes obsessed with Christine, who is so different from any woman she has ever seen, and aspires to attain her beauty. She is thus educated in the standards of western beauty and art but ultimately realizes her inability to measure up. When Felipa learns of Christine and Edward's engagement and impending departure, she attempts to kill herself with the very tools of western art (poisonous paints) to which Kitty has introduced her, and then she stabs Edward in the arm. …