Sunday, February 23, 2020


Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840–1894)
From Constance Fenimore Woolson: Collected Stories

Hermitage, c. 1850, by an unknown artist. The Hermitage, a log cabin, was one of the six original structures built in Zoar by German settlers in 1817–18. Courtesy of Ohio History Connection.
During the first thirteen years of Constance Fenimore Woolson’s life, six of her sisters died—three of scarlet fever, one as an infant, and two of tuberculosis—leaving Constance, the sixth born, as the oldest sibling to Clara and Charles, the only boy. When she was in her teens, her father began taking the surviving members of the family on long excursions away from their home in Cleveland into the surrounding country, and as Constance got older, she and her father would often travel on their own. Both the trauma of her sisters’ deaths and the trips reinforced Constance’s devotion to her parents, especially to her father.

One of the family’s favorite destinations was the isolated Separatist community in Zoar, about seventy miles to the south in the Tuscarawas Valley. A utopian commune founded in 1817 by German immigrants who had separated from the Lutheran Church, the Zoarites never numbered more than three or four hundred individuals. Much of the commune’s wealth came from digging seven miles of the Ohio and Erie Canal and, later, from mining the abundant iron ore of the region, smelting it in one of two blast furnaces, and making kitchen goods in an iron foundry. The village was almost wholly self-sufficient in its early years, but as the community prospered several dozen outside laborers were hired to operate the metal shops or to work the farms. By the time the Woolson family began visiting, Zoar was already going through significant changes: the commune’s charismatic leader, Joseph Bimeler, died in 1853, the furnaces closed soon thereafter, the village hotel (built in 1833) prospered as light tourism was encouraged, and the community began investing in or loaning money to outside businesses, including the Tuscarawas Coal and Iron Company. In its later years, the commune was weakened by the exodus of younger members and squabbles among its various families; the society voted to dissolve itself in 1898.

Surviving letters show that the Woolsons made several journeys to the Zoar Hotel between 1856 and 1866. Near the end of her life she looked fondly back on those trips: “I see it was the romantic side of my father’s nature that was pleased with the little Tuscarawas community,” she wrote to her nephew. “Father had so much romance. It had but little to feed upon in Ohio.” By the late 1860s she felt comfortable leaving town by herself or with friends. During the summer of 1869, while she was vacationing on her own at Mackinac Island (the family’s other favorite resort), her father died at home in Cleveland, and she expressed regret for her absence for the remainder of her life.

After her father’s death, Woolson determined that she would write to support herself and her mother. The first two pieces published under her name appeared in July 1870 in two prominent national magazines: a travel sketch on Zoar in Harper’s and another on Mackinac Island in Putnam’s. The former, titled “The Happy Valley,” was a romanticized description of a family trip to the Separatist community:
The inhabitants of Happy Valley, ignorant of the value of money, and living in the simplest manner, are yet a rich community, owing to their industrious habits and systematic labor. Their domain consists of over ten thousand acres of highly cultivated land, a coal mine, and a bed of iron ore; they have several large mills and factories, as their invariable rule is to manufacture every thing they use. . . . Few among them have ever wandered three miles away from the village; they shun all contact with strangers, and when we asked one of the girls if she would not like to go with us to the city, she smiled, and replied, “Oh no! I’se better here.”
In addition to writing the essay on Zoar, Woolson set two of her early works of fiction, “Solomon” and “Wilhelmina,” in the village. “Her story of Solomon is really a triumph of its kind—a novel kind, as simple as it is fresh,” wrote William Dean Howells, who accepted both stories for publication in The Atlantic Monthly. “The Zoar Community, with its manners and customs, and that quaint mingling of earthy good-feeding and mild, coarse kindliness with forms of austere religious and social discipline . . . has had the fortune to find an artist in the first who introduces us to its life.”

Woolson biographer Anne Boyd Rioux has written recently that “Solomon” is an “excellent example of Woolson's belief that literature should strive to make the humanity of those who are overlooked and marginalized known to readers.” Indeed, in the story, Solomon and his wife, Dorcas, are doubly remote from American society: they are pariahs in a parochial community. Moreover, adds Rioux, the story “introduced a figure that would reappear at key moments in Woolson’s career: the failed or frustrated artist.” What keeps Solomon’s sad tale for becoming maudlin is the deliberately comic yet perceptive banter between the narrator and her friend, two young women who meet the couple while vacationing in Zoar. “It’s a sort of Burns and Allen or Stiller and Meara routine,” writes literary scholar Cheryl B. Torsney. “Throughout the story [one of the women] understands the pathos of the marriage of Solomon and Dorcas Bangs through Solomon’s eyes, the other through Dorca’s eyes.”

Notes: Käse-lab (Käselaib) is German for a wheel of cheese, chany is chinaware or porcelain dishes, and in German folklore a kobold is a spirit that haunts the home and is often invisible but can take the form of an animal. Other colloquialisms and dialect should be obvious from context. The M.B.’s discussed on page 52 are the Mound-Builders of the Great Lakes region, living roughly 2,000 years ago, who built large mounds for burial and ceremonial purposes. The thinly disguised references to C—— are to Cleveland; Sandy is the town of Sandusky, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie.

Où la vanité va-t-elle se nicher? means Where will vanity settle? The German couplet on page 58, from Henrich Heine’s “Die Lorelei,” translates as “I don’t know what it means / That I am so sad.” Later on the same page, Dorcas misquotes Tennyson’s Maud, which correctly reads “Before I am quite sure / That there is no one to love me; / Then let come what may / To a life that has been so sad, / I shall have had my day,” and she then alludes to Robert Burns’s popular poem and song, “A Man’s a Man for A’ That” (although Burns makes no reference to women). Dux nascitur, on page 65, is Latin for born leader.

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Midway in the eastern part of Ohio lies the coal country; round-topped hills there begin to show themselves in the level plain, trending back from Lake Erie; afterwards rising higher and higher, they stretch away into Pennsylvania and are dignified by the name of Alleghany Mountains. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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