Sunday, March 19, 2023

St. Clair Flats

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

“The St. Clair Shooting and Fishing Club House, St. Clair Flats, Michigan.” Hand-colored engraving by American artist Charles Graham (1852–1911) from Harper’s Weekly, November 5, 1887. The inset shows the nearby marsh with recently constructed buildings in the background. The accompanying text notes that the Flats “during the spring and autumn teem with ducks of many edible varieties. For years past these marshes have been a favorite resort for sportsmen.” The club was established in 1872; its original headquarters, little more than a shanty, was replaced in 1887 by the new Club House.
At the end of 1876, Constance Fenimore Woolson wrote to Daniel Cady Eaton, a botanist with whom she shared an interest in cataloging species of ferns. She recalled the years her family spent vacationing in their cottage on Mackinac Island:
Every summer we went “up the Lakes,” and the whole lake-country is engraved on my memory as no other country can ever be, because I saw it all at the most impressionable age. Do you know Fort Gratiot? I am quite devoted to the little Fort, and used to wish I could live there. It was such a wild lonely little port, on the edge of the great Lake. I remember that the steamer always passed it just at twilight, hurrying to get through the river before dark. Fort Gratiot and the St Clair Flats were my favorite points on the way to Mackinac.
The Woolson family would travel north by steamboat from Cleveland, across Lake Erie, up through the Detroit River (and past Detroit), across Lake St. Clair, and northward up the St. Clair River, which emerges at the southern tip of the Lake Huron. The final segment of the journey was the longest: a 250-mile trek across the lake to Mackinac Island, situated between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. The two spots Woolson loved most are at either end of the St. Clair River: Fort Gratiot, located where the river begins at Lake Huron, and the marshes of St. Clair Flats, where the river empties into Lake St. Clair.

In 1872 Woolson described “the enchanted region” of St. Clair Flats in “Round by Propeller,” a semi-fictional travel narrative that appeared in Harper’s Monthly. Chronicling a summer excursion by steamboat through the Great Lakes from Buffalo to Chicago, the essay is surprisingly acerbic, mourning the increasingly ugly industrialization of the region and mocking the obliviousness of her fellow tourists: “All day we sailed up the beautiful river. Inside the cabin sat the pale women, intent on worsted-work. What was the scenery to them?”

When the vacationers arrived at the Flats, something was blocking traffic through the newly built canal, so they had to take the old route through the marsh:
On all sides, as far as we could see, the low meadow extended, broken by innumerable channels, a network of silver upon green. The great reeds almost brushed the sides of the boat, and long-legged birds stood in the water and eyed us solemnly as we passed. Suddenly the passage would be barred by a green island, and we were to all appearances completely landlocked. Then the captain would give a rapid order to the men at the wheel above; whir, rattle, went the chains, and veering directly to the right, the Columbia would run her slender length in among the grasses of a hidden channel and pass into a new archipelago. On either side we saw vessels sailing mysteriously over the meadow; we met them, left them behind, and, presto! there they were again, apparently still in advance of us. Queer little lighthouses, too, were there—solitary towers in the bewitched region; and strange signs, bits of cloth fastened on boughs in the water, or saplings curiously bent as if with a hidden purpose. On the shore, or what we supposed to be the shore—for we were never sure where the water ended and shore began—stood at intervals small huts without doors. Who they were for, unless mermaids and water-sprites, we could not imagine. Amphibious beings alone could inhabit them. . . .

It was a mystic region, and we sighed regretfully as we left it behind us.
Her awe of the “amphibious” people who would live in such an environment led her to write “St. Clair Flats” during the following year.

“The word ‘marsh’ does not bring up a beautiful picture to the mind,” the unnamed male narrator acknowledges early in the story, “and yet the reality was as beautiful as anything I have ever seen,—an enchanted land.” He and his companion, on a holiday to hunt and fish in the region, row through the Flats’ maze-like passages and ultimately encounter a defiant, reclusive, and self-absorbed “holy man” who lives with his long-forbearing wife in a home hidden away in the middle of the labyrinth.

Critics and scholars in recent decades have regarded “St. Clair Flats” as one of Woolson’s finest and most intriguing stories. In her 2016 biography of Woolson, Anne Boyd Rioux argues it is the best of her early stories. “The subtle biblical symbolism of the story’s Edenic setting is overlaid with the realism of women’s thwarted lives and the industrial development of the Great Lakes region,” and the banter between the narrator and his companion “plays out the struggle between idealism and realism.” In an essay that appeared in The New York Review of Books in 2020, Michael Gorra agrees that “St. Clair Flats” is the highlight of Woolson’s Lake-Country stories. “She often used male protagonists whose presence in odd places required no explanation, and liked to set her work back a generation in order to depict a vanishing, vanished world.” Yet the narrator, Gorra concludes, is “simply a lens” through which is seen a landscape that is both “magical and illegible.”

Notes: The Flying Dutchman refers to the doomed ghost ship in Richard Wagner’s 1843 opera of that name [Der Fliegende Holländer], based on Henrich Heine’s retelling of a seventeenth-century maritime legend. Woolson’s narrator paraphrases lines from “Annabel Lee” (1849) by Edgar Allan Poe. Crash is a coarse weave of absorbent cotton and linen. After the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, he was imprisoned on St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean until his death in 1821. The stanza beginning “The moping bittern” is slightly altered from the English poet Thomas Hood’s “The Haunted House” (1844). The opera Faust (1859) by French composer Charles Gounod, with libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, is based on the German legend of a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power. Jacob Boehmen [Jakob Böhme] was an early-seventeenth-century Christian mystic and Lutheran theologian. William Cowper Prime was an American writer known for the book I Go A-Fishing (1873).

Woolson’s story includes a parenthetical aside about Bret Harte’s story “Melons” (1870) which features a boy whistling “John Brown’s Body,” a popular Union song about the abolitionist who tried to spark slave insurrections across the South. (For more on Woolson’s debt to and admiration of Harte’s stories, see the introduction to “The Lady of Little Fishing.”) The Hebrew poet is King David, to whom many of the Psalms are attributed. The phrase “folded their tents, like the Arabs, and silently stolen away” echo the concluding lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Day is Done” (1845).

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In September, 1855, I first saw the St. Clair Flats. Owing to Raymond’s determination, we stopped there. . . . 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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