Constance Fenimore Woolson and Zoar

Constance Fenimore Woolson

Constance Fenimore Woolson

Linking “utopian” communal groups and American women writers in Italy, I spoke last weekend on Constance Fenimore Woolson and Zoar.

Zoar Separatist Community

Zoar Separatist Community, Ohio. Woolson loved to visit from her home in Cleveland.

Woolson began her career with a sketch on the Ohio German Separatist community of Zoarites. “The Happy Valley,” published in 1870, set the foundation for Woolson’s more than two decades as a successful author. Her thought-provoking and insightful sketches, novels and short fiction  are regaining the attention they once held. Woolson’s somewhat nomadic life took her throughout Ohio and the Great Lakes region, to Florida and the Reconstruction south, to the Mediterranean and Italy, where she died in 1894.

A few weeks ago, Woolson biographer Anne Boyd Rioux asked for some specifics about my conference talk. I put off answering. Now that it’s complete, I’m better set to respond.

Potted Lemon Trees in Italy

Potted Lemon Trees in Italy

Woolson’s 1881 letter written from near Rome’s Spanish Steps invites the connection between Italy and Zoar. She wrote to friend and editor Henry Mills Alden of the loggia above her apartment:

“this loggia is a little square room with windows towards all points of the compass, and an arbor outside, made of lemon-trees, plants in pots, and climbing vines. . . . Here among the roofs and campaniles, and under the deep blue sky of Rome, I can sit and write in perfect solitude when tired of my little parlor below. It all seems so wonderful and strange,–the being here at all! I think of Ohio and the Zoar farm where I used to spend so much time; of Mackinac and the peculiar color of Lake Huron; and of Florida, and the pine-barrens. And, all the while, I am in ‘Rome’!”

At a conference where participants’ interests are primarily communal groups, I began with this quote but then concentrated on Zoar.

The Zoar Sketches

Woolson’s early works referring to Zoar set the stage for stories in which her characters often imagine better worlds. Within “The Happy Valley,”  “Solomon” (1873) and “Wilhelmina” (1875), published in Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly, Zoar prompted such glimpses for visitors from Cleveland and Cincinnati. In these stories, Woolson juxtaposes idyllic views with life’s often harsh realities—whether within or outside of the community.

Fruits of Zoar

Fruits of Zoar

To set the stage for the Communal Studies Association conference audience, who knew nothing of Woolson but something of Zoar, I mentioned Woolson’s now-better-known predecessors, contemporaries and successors—Hawthorne, Twain, James, Howells, Wharton, Cather. I depended heavily on what Woolson biographer Anne Boyd Rioux and Zoar historian Kathleen Fernandez have written on the subject. The “enclave of German separatists in the Tuscawaras Valley” was one of Woolson’s “favorite spots” to visit, coming from her home in Cleveland.

The “enclave of German separatists in the Tuscawaras Valley” was one of Woolson’s “favorite spots” to visit. . .  Anne Boyd Rioux

“Woolson’s feelings for Zoar show through.”   Kathleen Fernandez

Woolson’s “romantic” and “idealized views about the Society” include some inaccuracies. But “the stories have the ring of truth. Woolson’s feelings for Zoar show through.” I added to these overviews an assertion that Woolson’s writings about Zoar enabled her to soar.

Professionally speaking, anyway, the author’s imaginative reflections on life in and around an intentional, utopian community contributed to her following of readers. This following bolstered her financially and gave her confidence. Zoar prompted Woolson to spin stories that pushed her to consider the themes of marriage and the isolated artist’s life. As Rioux and several other scholars have noted, these themes would remain with Woolson throughout her career. I suggest additionally that the three Zoar sketches considered together reveal the beginnings of her understanding of the power of utopian imaginings and of gift exchanges that cross barriers of community and place.

“Solomon” — A Story of Gift Exchange

Through “Solomon, ” in particular, a story of gift exchange and human love, Woolson reminds us that utopia is, by definition, not a literal place. Rather, it is an imaginative vision that individuals hold and may share. By the time Woolson wrote this sketch, she realized that linking Zoar insiders and outsiders were these keys: imagining, giving and exchanging, and in doing so, creating community, however small.

Memories of past experiences lead to ideas of community shared in the present and projected onto the future. The German Separatists held memories of European traditions as they shared visions of a new home in the Tusacarawas valley and labored to build it. So, too, Woolson held on to her memories of childhood visits to Zoar. She adapted them, as the Zoarites adapted to their new environment.

First Settler House Zoar

First Settler House Zoar

While Woolson migrated as an uprooted adult, looking for the perfect place in which to write, her work also caused her to imagine other places. As she soared above and beyond Zoar in later years, moving to Italy, she never completely left behind the idyllic place in Ohio. As Rioux has noted, in the last few years before her death, she was “writing . . . of her father and their trips to Zoar and the Tuscawaras Valley in Ohio.” Memories of Zoar, even late in Woolson’s life, reflect the importance of those visions that fed her imagination and bolstered her professional position.

Audience Response and More

The best news about this presentation? The audience response. One person asked, why was Woolson popular in her day but overlooked in the twentieth-century? And why has scholarship on Woolson exploded in the last decade? More than one asked about her financial success. Several wanted to know how to access Woolson’s writings. Of course, I referred them to Miss Grief and Other Stories , to Victoria Brehm and Sharon Dean’s gathered reprints,  and to the Great Lakes collection, Castle Nowhere. I told them that their local libraries might have turn-of-the century copies of Castle Nowhere, Jupiter Lights, The Front Yard and Dorothy. I explained that the Constance Fenimore Woolson Society website provides a chronology of all her works, with active links to those available free online.

Finally, I encouraged them, as I encourage you, to read “Solomon.” Once  you do,  you will be hooked to move beyond the Zoar sketches to see how they enabled Woolson to soar as a writer.  You will be engaged by her ability to capture life’s hopes and promises, as well as its troubles and truths.

 

Vida Dutton Scudder, Christian Socialist for Several Generations

Yesterday my son, just returned from grad school,  told me he’s writing an essay on Vida Dutton Scudder.  Before stating her name, he hesitated.  Why the hesitation–in what was otherwise an enthusiastic report of his first term? Was it that Scudder, a Turn-of-the-Century and Progressive Era activist, is an unknown figure?

Vida Dutton Scudder

Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954), Political Activist and Christian Socialist

Although Scudder is relatively unknown today, that was not the reason for his noticeable pause.

Rather, he almost hated to tell me because he knows that she is one among a handful of women at the center of my research. Her political activism and spiritual journey were influenced largely by her time in Italy.

Scudder’s settlement house work, utopian writing, and teaching at Wellesley come up every semester in my Public Affairs seminar for B. A. English students. And I have given a few off-campus presentations to adult audiences about Scudder–not only her activism in Boston’s Denison House and Circolo Italo-Americano but also her writings about St. Catherine of Siena and St. Francis of Assisi. Last summer I took adult travelers to La Verna, which was an important site for Scudder as she wrote of St. Francis.

La Verna St. Francis site

La Verna, St. Francis site

During these moments of impassioned conversations about Scudder’s coinciding beliefs and actions, my son has been engaged otherwise–understandably so–with his own interests. He has not been a part of these captive audiences.

Yet somehow Scudder’s name, associated with my motherly ramblings, came into his consciousness.

Now, a few months into his intensive readings on the “social gospel” movement, he selected Scudder and Walter Rauschenbusch for further research and writing.  My son firmly underscores that his emphasis is on their theology; he is analyzing their writings and not discussing Scudder’s “utopian” endeavors in her daily life. Scudder differed from Rauschenbusch, he continues, in her affiliation with the Christian Socialist party. While Rauschenbusch claimed socialism ideologically and theologically, he was never officially affiliated with a Socialist political party.

I appreciate the clarification and the distinction.

Do I know about the Fabian Society? he asks.  A little, I say. I know of its place alongside of “utopian” and spiritual/ist groups of the “turn-of-the-century.”  I pull Joy Dixon’s book Divine Feminine from the shelf. It is the closest at hand that contains information on both Theosophists and a few references to the Fabians. I wrote a review of it–I stop to calculate and realize it was almost two decades ago. Some say that’s a generation. . . .

Yes, my son is correct. My focus has been on Scudder’s literary endeavours–her teaching of literature, her settlement house novel, A Listener in Babel (1903), her translation and editing of St. Catherine’s Letters (1905), her works on St. Francis and his followers.  These are not without their spiritual and religious components. Even her autobiography, On Journey (1937), falls into the category of spiritual narrative I analyze and regularly teach. But my approach is not theological. I am a literature professor.

La Verna Site of St. Francis vistied by Vida Dutton Scudder

Cavern known as St. Francis’s bedroom, a site visited by Scudder and by a recent group of “pilgrims.” Dr. John White, emerging, was influenced by Walter Rauschenbusch’s ideas.

I am interested, however, in Scudder’s differences with Rauschenbusch. And it is not just that my son has now taken interest in them. I first learned of Rauschenbusch, the Baptist theologian, from friends John White (who attended Rochester Theological Seminary, where Rauschenbusch taught) and Peter Browning.

They often lead discussions of Christian social activism and its traditions. So when I began to learn about Scudder and came across her relations with him, I was intrigued by the interesting lines of association that link so many of us with common interests.

What I saw then between Scudder and Rauschenbusch and continue to see now was the importance of that relationship for both of them. They depended up their correspondence and communication of ideas. They spurred each other on. Earlier in Scudder’s life, John Ruskin’s lectures about aesthetics had stimulated her. She wrote extensively of them and drew from them as she taught literature at Wellesley. But as her life and experiences piled up, and as her confidence in her own ideas developed,  Scudder set aside Ruskin’s teachings and followed other paths. I have detailed these differences in notes. . . .

Will my notes and bibliography be of interest to my son? Will they be of help? Perhaps the former, likely not the latter.  We must all make our own intellectual paths, following our own curiosities.

Sometimes, in the short and dark December days, it’s nice to know the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I only hope that the germinating seeds will grow strong enough to bear future fruits.