Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Northern Bias in Constance Fenimore Woolson's Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Northern Bias in Constance Fenimore Woolson's Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches

Article excerpt

Constance Fenimore Woolson is praised for her accuracy in depicting a variety of locales, including the northern "lake country," Italy, and the South, but her tales of the South are especially remarked upon for their realistic portrayals. Her collection of short stories Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (1880) was hailed as "the first adequate presentation to the North without sentimentality or local prejudice of southern conditions during the decade after 1865" (Pattee 134). A northern sojourner in this region, Woolson spent the years 1873-1879 in the deep South, caring for her invalid mother. As the two women traveled throughout Georgia, the Carolinas, and Florida, Woolson gathered material for her southern writings, eventually producing travel sketches, three novels, a novelette, and fifteen short stories all based on aspects of this area (Rowe 58). Northern interest in things southern had been spurred by Union soldiers' travels into the region as well as an awareness that the destructiveness of the war and subsequent impoverishment had doomed this entire culture, with its "pathos and grandeur of a lost civilization" (Rowe xix). Northern periodicals including Scribner's, Harper's, and Atlantic Monthly sent writers and illustrators into the South to report on its conditions.(1) Accounts rendered immediately after the Civil War tended to be critical of the South:

   In the prewar period tensions among various sections of the country
   precluded the acceptance by a northern audience of any sympathetic
   depiction of the South in fiction. This was also true immediately after the
   war, when many nonsoutherners still thought of southerners as heathens who
   must be `democratized' or further punished for their transgressions. In
   fact, southerners' continued resistance to northern influence only
   intensified the predominant opinion that the South must be rescued and the
   way cleared for the implementation of Reconstruction governments. (Rowe
   xvii)

In the latter part of the 1860s, southerners were perceived as ready to revolt anew, and northern readers and publishers were hostile to conciliatory representations of the region (Silber 40, 41; Buck 208). However, as the legislation of Reconstruction stumbled and progressed, more and more northerners began to evince sympathy for the dispossessed southerners.(2) Once the South was no longer a political threat, it could be romanticized and idealized: "A culture which in its life was anathema to the North, could in its death be honored" (Buck 208). Essays and fiction in the 1870s began to be less politically critical and more interested in preserving a record of the quickly-fading southern values, society, and way of life.

Woolson wrote her stories in this latter period, and reviews both at the time of and since the publication of Rodman have repeatedly described her work as epitomizing this sympathy and sensitivity for the South. But the collection belies this assessment; it manifests the harsher, earlier attitude much more strongly than the sympathetic, later one. In almost all of these stories, a northern "caretaker" intervenes to provide physical, emotional, or financial salvation to needy, denigrated southern figures. More often than not, a heroic male is entangled romantically with a recalcitrant belle, enacting a patriarchal metaphor that dominates much of the writing of this period. "This image of marriage between northern men and southern women stood at the foundation of the late-nineteenth-century culture of conciliation and became a symbol which defined and justified the northern view of the power relations in the reunified nation" since the South was perennially cast in the role of the female, or submissive, partner (Silber 6-7). Nina Silber points out that this familiar metaphor emphasized "traditional notions of domestic harmony" while enabling the North to enshrine "the image of their victory in this metaphor, using it to reflect the political and economic leverage they hoped to exercise over Dixie" (10). …

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