Sunday, August 1, 2021

The Lady of Little Fishing

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

Voyageurs at Dawn, 1871. Oil on canvas by British artist Frances Anne Hopkins (1838–1919). WikiCommons.

From 1858 to 1870, Frances Anne Hopkins lived in Québec with her husband, a Hudson’s Bay Company administrator soon promoted to superintendent of the Montréal department, and she accompanied him on many of his journeys to HBC stations, expeditions that took them as far as Thunder Bay on Lake Superior’s northern shore and Marquette in upper Michigan. Like the Lady in Woolson’s story, she was often the only woman at an outpost, and she made sketches of trappers, traders, and voyageurs—the French Canadian boatmen who transported furs. She transformed many of these drawings into paintings after she and her husband returned to London in 1870.

In a blog post a few years ago, Anne Boyd Rioux resurrected a scathing notice that appeared in The Nation in 1874. “Our band of heart-wrenching female dealers in false feeling was never, we think, so numerous as now,” complained the critic John Richard Dennett. The two short stories that prompted this reaction were by Constance Fenimore Woolson: “Peter the Parson” (“noticeable for the raw coarseness of its assault on the feelings”) and “The Lady of Little Fishing,” which elicited a lengthier comment:
In the September Atlantic, Miss Woolson has another tale, wildly improbable, destitute of the truth of fact or the truth of fiction, which appears under the title of “The Lady of Little Fishing,” It is of this as much as of her story in Scribner’s that we are thinking when we speak of the large school of female writers to which she belongs, and of whom there is none who seems able to keep on her feet and write a moderate word when the reader’s feelings are to be touched, by the display of the throbbing feelings of the characters. Of the uses of restraint and of the nature of reserve they seem to have really about as much conception as if they wrote letters for the Beecher-Tilton case [in which Theodore Tilton publicly accused preacher Henry Ward Beecher of adultery]; and of good sense as little. They are, in a strict and now obsolete sense of the word, indecent.
As Rioux points out, Dennett died three months later, so he did not live to see the near-universal acclaim that greeted Woolson’s first collection, Castle Nowhere: Lake County Sketches, which reprinted both of the stories he despised. Moreover, his fellow reviewers understood immediately what Dennett, predisposed against fiction written by women, seems to have entirely missed: “The Lady of Little Fishing” is Woolson’s deliberate and obvious rewrite of (and response to) “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” the story that made Bret Harte famous just four years earlier. Harte’s tale, and the collection that contained it, proved so popular that in early 1871 William Dean Howells, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, offered $10,000 for the exclusive rights to his work over the next year.

Before Woolson submitted “The Lady of Little Fishing” to Howells, “Solomon,” the first of her many stories to be published in The Atlantic, appeared in the October 1873 issue. “It has given me great pleasure to enter within the ‘Atlantic’ circle,” she wrote to him. “You may be amused to know that my three models, whose styles I study and admire, are George Eliot, Bret Harte, W. D. Howells. Quite unlike, are they not?” Her inclusion of Howells in this short list may have been meant as flattery, but the mention of Harte was probably not; by that time, The Atlantic had ended its costly arrangement with him. Harte’s popularity was declining, his new work was generally lacking in quality, and he had been unable to meet deadlines (his Christmas story appeared in the March issue). When Woolson sent her admiring letter to Howells, Harte was no longer a member of the “Atlantic circle.”

Although Woolson borrowed ambience and ideas from Harte’s popular tales, few readers would mistake her stories for anything written by him. “I do not plead guilty to imitating Harte,” she wrote to a new friend, the poet and critic Edmund Clarence Stedman, in September 1874. “In spite of all I said to you, I only meant that his style had impressed me so deeply that it would be a wonder if something did not show to others how much he was to me.” In any case, like everyone else, she was beginning to have doubts about Harte’s stature. She asked Publishers Weekly editor R. R. Bowker, “No one admires Bret Harte more than I do; but could he write a novel? — Is his fame work not like that of the journalist, — brilliant but vanishing too soon?” Before the year 1875 was out, readers had an answer of sorts to her first question. Harte’s first and only novel, the 470-page clunker Gabriel Conroy, was published, and the reaction from both readers and critics was virtually unanimous; it was “from beginning to end hopelessly and irredeemably bad,” lamented the Saturday Review. The novel, as one of Harte’s recent biographers admits, has “sufficient plots and subplots to fill a small library” and concludes “with more loose ends than a frayed rope.” After skimming parts of the book, Woolson told Stedman that she couldn't bring herself to read it through.

In “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” the only woman in the camp (and in the story) dies shortly after childbirth. Harte immediately dismisses her importance to the tale: “Perhaps the less said of her the better. She was a coarse and, it is to be feared, a very sinful woman.” Her baby, however, is left to the care of the gruff men who populate the camp. Not only does the infant boy Luck seem to bring fortune to the miners, who suddenly begin hauling in large quantities of gold, his very presence also calms and “civilizes” the men; they become concerned over the child’s upbringing and surroundings. At the end of the story, the camp is unexpectedly destroyed by a flash flood, in which both Luck and luck are swept away.

In an invaluable reappraisal of the relationship between Woolson’s and Harte’s stories, Caroline Gebhard contends that Woolson’s “self-conscious adoption of the ultramasculine style of Bret Harte is part of her declaration of literary independence. . . . Harte’s writing seemed as far as it was possible to be from the ‘pretty and sweet’ stories supposed the natural province of women.” In other words, Woolson purposefully wrote about subjects and locales that would distinguish herself from the “female writers” scorned by Dennett. (The irony is that Harte’s story has been often criticized for being too sentimental.) As Rioux notes in her recent biography of Woolson, “Harte’s phenomenal success with stories of rough, uncivilized miners and outlaws in California woke Woolson up to the literary marketability of the West.” For her version of the story, Woolson moved the setting from the gold mines of California to the remote fur-trapping camps in the Great Lakes region. “We had a cottage at Mackinac for two summers when I was a young girl,” she wrote to Howells, “and I knew all about the islands just west of the Straits, and their lawless inhabitants.”

Woolson didn’t simply change the location and retell Harte’s story with trappers instead of miners, of course. Instead of a baby, the civilizing force is a “spotless” young woman who arrives in the camp “as though she had dropped from heaven,” to preach the gospel to the wayward inhabitants, whose names and habits are near-parodies of the residents of Roaring Camp. Thus, “Woolson subtly undermines Harte’s version of the American fantasy of a happy, all-male existence uncomplicated by women,” writes Gebhard. “Not only can there not be a story without a woman in it—even Harte’s story, after all, needs a woman to produce the wonderful baby—but also, Woolson insists, the woman is the story.” The introduction of the Lady into this environment alters the entire thrust of the original story, and the camp’s history ends because of human behavior rather than a random natural catastrophe. As the scholar Alfred Bendixen puts it, “Woolson's focus is on the ways in which men construct women into objects of fantasy that meet their own emotional needs while ignoring the reality embodied in every complex human being.”

In the end, although the two tales mirror each other and share various elements, Woolson’s story is so different that readers need not have read Harte to understand or enjoy it. “The Lady of Little Fishing” has been reprinted for posterity in the recent Library of America volume collecting the best of Woolson’s stories, and we present it below as our Story of the Week selection.

Notes: The North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, competing fur-trading firms in British North America, were forced to merge in 1821 by the British government after a series of skirmishes between the two companies. Bateaux were broad flat-bottomed boats used primarily for transporting men, supplies, and goods in colonial North America and during the fur trade.

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It was an island in Lake Superior. I beached my canoe there about four o’clock in the afternoon, for the wind was against me and a high sea running. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.