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Witness to ReconstructionConstance Fenimore Woolson and the Postbellum South, 1873-1894$

Kathleen Diffley

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9781617030253

Published to University Press of Mississippi: March 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781617030253.001.0001

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Tourism, Imperialism, and Hybridity in the Reconstruction South

Tourism, Imperialism, and Hybridity in the Reconstruction South

Woolson’s Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches

(p.56) Tourism, Imperialism, and Hybridity in the Reconstruction South
Witness to Reconstruction

Anne E. Boyd

University Press of Mississippi

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter analyzes Woolson’s Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (1880). It attempts not only to excavate binaries in Woolson’s Southern fiction, but also examine what happens to the tensions between them. Ultimately, these tensions are not neatly resolved, as they often were in popular postwar reunion romances. As many postcolonial theorists have noted, sooner or later the encounter between cultures and peoples results not only in clashes but also in a mingling that creates forms of doubleness or hybridity, a term often used today to connote the mixture of cultures, but which has its origins in nineteenth-century conceptions of racial difference. A reading of Woolson’s fiction in this context suggests her discomfort with the effects of imperialism, particularly a form of hybridity predicated on an inequality that blurs cultural and racial distinctions. In the process of registering this discomfort, Woolson also manages to decenter her texts in ways that challenge her Northern readers’ presumed cultural superiority in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Keywords:   Constance Fenimore Woolson, binaries, Southern fiction, imperialism, inequality

Now that the little monkey has gone, I may be able at last to catch and fix a likeness of her.


At their core, issues of imperialism coalesce around such concepts as center and margin, dominance and subjugation, self and other, binaries at the heart of the ten stories collected in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (1880).1 I am interested not only in excavating these binaries in Woolson’s Southern fiction, but also in examining what happens to the tensions between them. Ultimately, these tensions are not neatly resolved, as they often were in popular postwar reunion romances. As many postcolonial theorists have noted, sooner or later the encounter between cultures and peoples results not only in clashes but also in a mingling that creates forms of doubleness or hybridity, a term often used today to connote the mixture of cultures, but which has its origins in nineteenth-century conceptions of racial difference. A reading of Woolson’s fiction in this context suggests her discomfort with the effects of imperialism, particularly a form of hybridity predicated on an inequality that blurs cultural and racial distinctions. In the process of registering this discomfort, Woolson also manages to decenter her texts in ways that challenge her Northern readers’ presumed cultural superiority in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

As a prologue to my examination of the entire volume of Southern stories, I will briefly examine how “Felipa”(1876), one of Woolson’s most frequently anthologized Southern stories, can be read in a postcolonial/anti-imperialist context. The (p.57) story’s narrator, a white, Northern artist who struggles to “catch and fix” the image of a Spanish-speaking Minorcan girl (203), epitomizes the “imperial eyes” of the colonizer, to borrow Mary Pratt’s phrase, not least in her use of an animalistic metaphor—”little monkey”—often employed in racist portrayals of dark-skinned peoples. The girl, Felipa, whose gender identity is blurred by the boy’s clothing she wears, is “a small, dark-skinned, yellow-eyed child, the offspring of the ocean and the heats, tawny, lithe and wild, shy yet fearless—not unlike one of the little brown deer” (197). Like many colonized natives, she is described as a product of the landscape around her, even as a type of the region’s fauna; thus she is the typical exotic “other.” Felipa is also a product of Florida’s colonial past: her father was a Spanish sailor, and she is now being raised by her Minorcan grandparents, members of an ethnic group brought as indentured servants from the isle of Minorca off the coast of Spain to the British colony of Florida in 1768.2

Almost nothing is revealed about the artist and narrator, Kitty, who is convalescing as well as vacationing in Florida with two other friends: Christine, a “PreRaphaelite” beauty (202), and Christine’s persistent suitor, Edward. In fact, so little is revealed about Kitty and her friends that they become ciphers of the imperial presence of Northern tourists in the South after the Civil War, unlooked-for guests imposing themselves on a native population that contains no other whites. Of Felipa, Kitty explains, “She did not come to us—we came to her; we loomed into her life like genii from another world” (197). The magical effect they have on her, however, is anything but benign. Felipa becomes obsessed with Christine, who is so different from any woman she has ever seen, and aspires to attain her beauty. She is thus educated in the standards of western beauty and art but ultimately realizes her inability to measure up. When Felipa learns of Christine and Edward’s engagement and impending departure, she attempts to kill herself with the very tools of western art (poisonous paints) to which Kitty has introduced her, and then she stabs Edward in the arm. Her weapon, a “Venetian dagger” (219), may be a reference to Othello, which also suggests a love triangle featuring two whites and a darkskinned person. Similar to Shakespeare’s play, Woolson’s “Felipa” presents a range of imperialist responses to the colonized other, taking as its subject, in the words of Shakespearean critic Edward Berry, the “tragedy of perception” (318).3

For the two lovers, Felipa is not much more than a sometimes annoying pet. Christine, in particular, cannot perceive Felipa outside a perpetual present. She explicitly declares that educating the girl would be a harmful waste:“Teach a child like that, and you ruin her…. Ruin her happiness” (200). Felipa should remain an ignorant savage, untroubled by the complexities of civilization from which the tourists presumably have fled. In another sign of her colonial attitude toward Felipa, Christine views her as irredeemably “ugly” (203), while her suitor, Edward, cruelly points out to Felipa, “You could not look much like this lady [Christine] … because you are so dark, you (p.58) know” (207). Felipa, who was not aware of her darkness, is ultimately “ruin[ed]” by the mirror these Northern tourists hold up to her. Christine and Edward make her conscious of her difference and the unbreachable gulf between races.

Kitty’s perception of Felipa is more complicated but not less destructive. She ultimately has more respect for Felipa than her friends, although she portrays the girl as part wild animal—her arms “terminated in a pair of determined little paws” (202)—and as an object of her gaze—“although ugly, Felipa was a picturesque little object always” (200). However, Kitty develops an appreciation of her subject’s “full-curved, half-open mouth of the tropics” and “low Greek forehead,” suggesting they are “pretty” (201–2). When she finally completes her portrait, she challenges Christine’s reading of Felipa, saying, “You do not see the latent beauty, courage, and a possible great gulf of love in that poor wild little face?” (203). There are signs, in other words, that Kitty (whose name also signifies the status of a pet) sees in Felipa familiar qualities. Whereas Christine sees only difference, Kitty recognizes similarities, “latent” potential and therefore the capacity for “improvement.” Thus Kitty takes up the project of civilizing Felipa (fixing her in another sense) by instructing her in the conventions of western beauty and gender. Consequently, the two women represent alternative approaches to the colonial or racialized “other”: Kitty wants to help Felipa assimilate, to become more like them, while Christine rejects the child as irredeemably separate and virtually inhuman. Yet Woolson does not privilege Kitty’s view over Christine’s. On the contrary, Kitty’s attempt to civilize Felipa proves equally damaging.

Furthermore, Woolson complicates the imperial stance of her story by forcing her artist narrator to recognize her own marginality, and by making Felipa the agent of that awareness. In a stunning reversal of the recognition of otherness that has been thrust upon Felipa, the girl calls attention to Kitty’s own difference and inadequacy. When Kitty laughs at Felipa’s attempt to dress in a western feminine way, the “wild little phantom … seized me by the skirts and dragged me toward the looking-glass. ‘You are not pretty either,’ she cried. ‘Look at yourself! look at yourself!’” (208–9). What Kitty sees therein is not explicitly stated, but Felipa’s subversive act of turning the mirror on the artist/colonizer ultimately forces Kitty to recognize her own inability to measure up to the standards of western beauty as well as her exclusion from the heterosexual world that Christine and Edward represent. Kitty cannot comprehend their romance—“I do not understand you two,” she tells Edward. “What do peaceful little artists know about war?” (204), Edward responds, calling to mind the recent Civil War that has made the South a quasicolony of the North. Nor can Kitty ever be as attractive as Christine. Like Felipa, Kitty yearns to be “one of those long, lithe, light-haired women” (216), an equally impossible transformation. As an artist, Kitty casts her imperial gaze on the other, only to discover her own otherness.

(p.59) In the end, after it is clear that Felipa will survive her suicide attempt, Kitty realizes the folly of her efforts to study or civilize Felipa: “there was nothing for us to do but go away as quickly as possible and leave her to her kind” (220). Kitty’s final attempt to comprehend Felipa also fails. Kitty sees her only as a child who “does not know.” Yet the hitherto voiceless grandfather declares, “I know,” and explains that Felipa’s passion for Christine was stronger than her love for Edward (220). By giving the colonized perspective, through the voice of the grandfather, the final word in the story, and by showing the colonizers to be not only harmful but uncomprehending of the native other, Woolson challenges the imperial eyes of the Northern visitors, the narrator, and her contemporary readers. A similar dynamic is visible in nearly all of the stories collected in Rodman the Keeper, which portray a wide range of interactions between Northerners and Southerners, from a Northern abolitionist who starts a school for freed slaves to a Northern veteran who keeps a cemetery for the Union fallen in the heart of the South and a Northern spinster who adopts a Spanish gentleman’s son in Florida.

Postcolonial Studies and the Reconstruction South

Scholarship at the intersection of postcolonial and U.S. literary studies has brought to light the nation’s empire building overseas as well as the “internal imperialism” of manifest destiny and Euro-American hegemony. More important, scholars have begun to excavate the patterns of European imperialism reinscribed by slavery, the myth of the frontier and westward expansion, the conquest and relocation of indigenous peoples, responses to immigration and miscegenation, and territorial wars of annexation.4 The examination of internal forms of U.S. imperialism must also include discussion of the Reconstruction South, which was perceived by Northerners and Southerners as an occupied colony of the North. Consider, for instance, the Northern journalist Sidney Andrews’s claim in 1866 that “we may treat this State [South Carolina] as we please,—hold it as a conquered province or restore it at once to full communion in the sisterhood of States,” or, in a more figurative vein, George M. Barbour’s book Florida for tourists, invalids, and settlers (1884), which declared that “Florida is rapidly becoming a Northern colony.”5 The rhetoric of colonialism also has been part of white Southern self-fashioning at least since the Civil War, and was central to constructions of Southern literature in the twentieth century, from Charles William Kent’s reference to the South in the Library of Southern Literature (1907) as “an imperial territory,” to Jay B. Hubbell’s claim in 1954 that the South after the war “was once more reduced to the intellectual status of a colony,” to Richard Gray’s formulation in 1986 of Reconstruction as “reducing the South to a colonial status and fastening on it a colonial psychology.”6 More recently, scholars (p.60) in the fields of history and geography have examined “the South’s position as a post-Civil-War imperial holding,” just as literary scholars have used postcolonial theory to examine white male writers’ resistance to imperialism in Reconstruction novels of the 1890s and 1900s. However, very little scholarship exists on imperialist discourses in Reconstruction-era texts.7

The limits of comparison between the Reconstruction South and traditionally identified colonies, however, are also apparent. As Scott Romine explains, white Southern resistance to Northern hegemony cannot be equated with the experiences of racialized others in former European colonies, the traditional terrain of postcolonial theory, let alone the experiences of Native or African Americans in the United States.8 Nor can the ways that Northern and Southern whites found common ground in the oppression of African Americans be overlooked. In addition, the North did not actually colonize the South after the war in the same way the United States colonized Puerto Rico at the end of the century. As Amy Kaplan emphasizes, the U.S. Supreme Court cast Puerto Rico as a “foreign” yet “domestic” territory, a state of inbetweenness which to some extent also characterizes the U.S. South, although not in the legal sense. Puerto Rico would be held legally apart from the nation as an “incorporated territory,”9 whereas the Confederate South was reintegrated into the nation. The metaphors of reunion after the war made it clear that the North and South were once again one country, legally if not culturally; “the union” had been preserved, however much white Southerners still perceived of themselves as inhabiting a separate country. The South also regained a certain amount of regional autonomy with the end of Reconstruction. The ousting of Northern politicians and the removal of federal troops effectively ended the South’s colonial status as an occupied territory. The South would ultimately accept its condition as again unified with the North, particularly as the region became “an equal and willing partner in imperialist expansion” during the Spanish-American War at the end of the century.10

Acknowledging that discourses of imperialism both do and do not apply to the Reconstruction South, I wish to borrow Jamie Winders’s formulation of “the region’s double placement as both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ within the nation immediately after the Civil War,”11 and, arguably, up to the present day. Woolson’s position vis-à-vis national and literary cultures was also both inside and outside, making her sympathetic with displaced, exiled, marginalized white Southerners after the war yet also aware of her difference from them. According to Sharon Dean, scholars should not “overlook the colonialist implications in Woolson’s position as a representative of the victorious North,” but, she cautions, “Woolson was never a part of the eastern establishment tradition. Aware of her position as an outsider, a single woman who has lost her home, she was sensitive to southern loss.”12

(p.61) As an accomplished travel writer who utilized her Southern sojourns to make a name for herself in the pages of Harper’s Monthly and other esteemed Northern literary magazines, Woolson was certainly aware of the portrayals of the South in travel narratives written for Northern consumption after the war. A key element of these narratives as well as fiction portraying the defeated South is their function as the dominant postwar narrative and their displacement of the voices of the conquered region. As Edward Said declared in his classic Culture and Imperialism, “The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them.” The South’s condition of voicelessness after the war is characterized by one Georgia girl who wrote in her diary, “I hate the Yankees more and more, every time I look at one of their horrid newspapers and read the lies they tell about us, while we have our mouths closed and padlocked. The world will not hear our story, and we must figure just as our enemies choose to paint us.”13 The fear of being represented by the enemy is a powerful postcolonial sentiment for which Woolson expresses sympathy in her fiction. She understood that her pen had the power to describe what few Southerners could portray for themselves.14 In various ways, then, Woolson decenters the metropolitan perspective of her texts by giving voice to continued white Southern animosity after the war. Henry James recognized this important cultural function of the stories in Rodman the Keeper: “As the fruit of a remarkable minuteness of observation and tenderness of feeling on the part of one who evidently did not glance and pass, but lingered and analysed, they have a high value, especially when regarded in the light of the voicelessness of the conquered and reconstructed South.”15 Woolson’s stories attempted not merely to speak for the desolated region but to allow Southern voices to speak back, particularly to Northern insistence on a narrative of defeat, humiliation, and, ultimately, assimilation to the dominant (Northern) culture and economy.

In addition to writing the conquered region’s story from the victor’s perspective, Northern postwar travel writing regularly adopted a variety of other colonial attitudes toward the South. Jamie Winders has provided a useful inventory of such attitudes, which included describing the South as “uncivilized or primitive” and criticizing it for “backward lifestyles and social practices”; positioning Northern women as “‘the active agents of civilization’”; “tapp[ing] well-known tropes of black subjects in need of white aid”; and depicting the land as virtually uninhabited, wild, pristine, feminine, and sexual, awaiting the improvement of (male) Northern capitalists or the enjoyment of (masculine) explorers and tourists.16 Each of these attitudes is adopted by the narrators or major and minor characters in Woolson’s Southern fiction, although in each story, as I will demonstrate, these stances are exposed as naive, inadequate, or harmful.

(p.62) Rewriting Imperial Narratives of Northern Tourism

As Sharon Dean has noted, Woolson was aware of the ways in which literature, particularly travel literature, opened up new territories for tourism, thus contributing to the destruction of land and culture.17 Woolson’s ambivalence about this situation likely accounts for the relative inaccessibility of the remote regions in which she sets her Southern fiction: islands, coastal marshes, swamps, and mountain terrains predominate. Rather than portray virgin lands awaiting male exploration and cultivation, Woolson casts Southern regions as not merely uninviting but also forbidding: “the poisonous swamp—the beautiful, deadly South Devil” (146) in “The South Devil,” or the “purple-black, wild, and pathless” (279) mountains of “Up in the Blue Ridge,” which harbor murderous men protecting the locations of their illegal stills. In “In the Cotton Country,” the lowlands are a “barren waste” (181) rather than a fecund wilderness inviting exploitation. As Nina Silber has documented, Northern reconciliation with the South was predicated on domesticating and feminizing the region,18 just as the Northern travel writers’ imaginative ownership of the land entailed a process of domestication and feminization. Woolson, however, complicates the Southern landscape, making it less familiar and more dangerous; if it is feminine, it is certainly not domestic. Ascent into the mountains or descent into the swamp are fatal or nearly fatal enterprises.

The swamp in “The South Devil” is perhaps the most explicitly feminized landscape:“the Spirit of the Swamp,” the failed musician Carl rhapsodizes, “[is] a beautiful woman falsely called a devil by cowards, dark, languorous, mystical” (154). For his stepbrother, Mark, the swamp is not only seductive but deadly: “Death lives there” (145), he insists. Indeed, Carl, who is seduced by the swamp and allows himself to be drawn into it, dies, while Mark survives by resisting the allure of “its intoxicating perfume” (177) and returning North to marry his cousin. Their taste in landscapes is mirrored in their tastes in women; while Carl’s “fancy was for something large and Oriental” (165), Mark remains entranced by the “icy looks of a certain blue-eyed woman” (175). Thus Carl’s undoing is not merely the consumption from which he suffers but also his taste for the “Oriental” and the tropical. His attractions clearly mark him as an imperial wanderer, who, Woolson suggests, is in danger of being destroyed by the seductive landscape he so admires. In the end, Mark, also an imperial wanderer who has laid claim to Florida’s orange groves and employs a former slave as cook, rejects the “wild … over-ripe” oranges for the “firm … cool” apples growing in a neat orchard up north (176).

The setting of “Sister St. Luke,” the coastal marshes and islands off Florida, is similarly treacherous for two Northern “city men” (49), who also figure as imperial explorers. Keith is the prototypical “seeing-man,” as Mary Louise Pratt defines him: “he whose imperial eyes passively look out and possess.”19 For Keith, “A salt (p.63) marsh is not complete without a boat tilted up aground somewhere, with its slender dark mast outlined against the sky” (56). His friend, Carrington, is almost a caricature of white manliness, a “vigorous young Saxon” (49) who hacks his way through the wild brush and knows no limitations, physical or geographical. “The two men led a riotous life; they rioted with the ocean, with the winds, with the level island, with the sunshine and the racing clouds. They sailed over to the reef daily and plunged into the surf; they walked for miles along the beach, and ran races over its white floor; they hunted down the center of the island, and brought back the little brown deer” (51). Yet the landscape itself warns them of its recalcitrance. The only vegetation on the island is a “rope-like vine” in the sand: “try to tear it from the surface of the sand … and behold, it resists you stubbornly. You find a mile or two of it on your hands, clinging and pulling as the strong ivy clings to a stone wall; a giant could not conquer it, this seemingly dull and halfdead thing” (52). In other words, the ostensibly innocuous vine will resist any attempt to remove it, a metaphor for the way the land itself resists appropriation by adventuring tourists who come to claim its material and aesthetic enjoyments. Near the end of the story, the two men are made violently aware of their impotence in the landscape when a tornado strands them at sea. They are reduced to “two dark objects … clinging” to the reef now barely visible above the furious waves (71). Unable to save themselves, they are ironically rescued by the timid nun they have unsuccessfully been trying to “convert” (48), a female personification of the seemingly placid land. But the land and the nun, like the vine in the sand, have hidden resources the men cannot fathom, as well as the capacity to resist their influence. As in so many of Woolson’s stories, the would-be colonizers of the region are reduced in power. In this case, it is the land itself that seems to reject them. They admit defeat in the end, sending the nun back to her convent and returning to New York.

Even more important, Woolson explained to her Northern readers that the South was not a blank slate on which the nation could (re)write its national narrative, as the West appeared to be. In “The South Devil” she admonishes her readers with a history lesson:

It is all natural enough, if one stops to remember that fifty years before the first settlement was made in Virginia, and sixty-three before the Mayflower touched the shore of the New World, there were flourishing Spanish plantations on this Southern coast … But one does not stop to remember it; the belief is imbedded in all our Northern hearts that, because the narrow, sunbathed State [sic] is far away and wild and empty, it is also new and virgin, like the lands of the West; whereas it is old—the only gray-haired corner our country holds. (142)

(p.64) The South, she insists, is not another frontier for national expansion. Instead, the region has an alternative history, older than the dominant U.S. narrative, and its inhabitants have their own narratives and regional (even national) identities. Accordingly, Bettina in “Rodman the Keeper” claims, “the South is our country, and not your North” (40), and Gardis in “Old Gardiston” insists on calling the South “[m]y country” (129). Although Gardis is forced to abandon her allegiance to her “country” and marry a Northern officer, the story also contains a counter narrative to their reconciliationist marriage. The archetypal plantation home from “colonial days” (105) virtually self-combusts on the eve of its transfer to a Northern woman, “the wife of an army contractor” (136). Burning down, the house resists appropriation by its new colonizers.

“In the Cotton Country” similarly portrays white Southern refusal to adapt to Northern occupation and narrative-making. The disembodied narrator, a Northern visitor, is the essence of Pratt’s “seeing-man,” roaming the desolate landscape, admiring “the beauty and the fancies that come with the soft after-glow and the shadows of the night” (179), much in the fashion of postwar travel writers. However, when the narrator is confronted with a “solemn, lonely old house” (181) unexpectedly inhabited by “a white woman, tall, thin, and gray-haired” (182), distant aesthetic observation is no longer possible. The narrator acknowledges the woman’s despair: “The eyes haunted me; they haunt me now, the dry, still eyes of immovable, hopeless grief. I thought, ‘Oh, if I could only help her!’” (182). Stirred by her emotions, the narrator speaks directly to readers and reveals her own gender for the first time: “shall we not, we women, like Sisters of Charity, go over the field when the battle is done, bearing balm and wine and oil for those who suffer?” (184). But the woman does not welcome the intruder’s presence or aid, and the narrator must return daily to “build … up a sort of friendship with this solitary woman of the waste” and elicit “her story” (184). From here, the narrator surrenders authorial control to the white Southern woman, who tells her own tale of the war and defeat, thus transforming the imperial travel narrative into an empathic, almost sentimental, first-person account of loss and grief.20 Quite dramatically, Woolson counters the Northern narrative of conquest and possession with one of victimization and desolation. “Bitter, am I?” the woman asks her interlocutor. “Put yourself in my place” (195). Thus, as in “Felipa,” Woolson turns the tables on the Northern reader and reverses the direction of the imperial gaze, modeling empathy rather than objectification by, here, granting the white Southern victim a voice.

Interestingly, while Woolson’s Northern tourists are able to achieve momentary empathy with the “other,” her Northern transplants exhibit less ability to understand or adapt to the region. Like many Northern postwar travel writers, these characters (usually female) position themselves as “‘the active agents of civilization’”21 against indolent and slovenly locals. Melvyna, from “Sister St. Luke,” the (p.65) transplanted Vermont wife of a Minorcan light-house keeper, “hated the lazy tropical land” (43). Her futile efforts to change her husband’s slothful habits are echoed in one of the collection’s most complex stories, “Miss Elisabetha.” The eponymous heroine, from New York, attempts to transport her strict notions of housekeeping and the refinements of civilization to the tiny town of Beata, Florida. As the town’s name suggests, everyone in this place is happy except Miss Elisabetha, who is “striving always against the current” (104); she scolds the “colored population” for their idleness (79) and bemoans the Minorcan “lazy housewives” (81).

Perhaps more important, Miss Elisabetha, the guardian of an orphaned son of Spanish parents, has imported a piano and music books to this benighted backwater.Although “the ancient piano has lost its strength”(76), it functions as a kind of fetish of middle- or upper-class respectability and is used as a marker of refinement and civilization that distinguishes Miss Elisabetha and her ward Theodore from the African Americans and Minorcans who hover at the story’s edges. Miss Elisabetha “tunes it herself, protects its strings from the sea-damps, dusts it carefully, and has embroidered for it a cover in cross-stitch” (76). As Jamie Winders explains about the postwar Northern travel narrative, “as in other colonial settings, material objects associated with a white, northern middle-class lifestyle held the capacity … to signal the civil in white northerners.”22 Miss Elisabetha’s authority as the lone representative of Northern respectability is challenged by an opera singer, whose voice and style of singing seduce Theodore. But Miss Elisabetha sends her away, determined to provide for him the life of “a gentleman’s son” (102). When Theodore falls in love with Catalina, a beautiful Minorcan girl, who “sang as the bird sings, naturally, unconscious, for the pure pleasure of singing,” Miss Elisabetha recognizes “a certain element of the sauvage in [her voice]. No lady, no person of culture would permit herself to sing in that way” (100), she tells herself, insisting upon her own status as a “lady of culture” and casting the girl as a native savage. She rejects Theodore’s plan of marriage, reminding him, “Child, you have seen nothing—nothing” (103), suggesting that he doesn’t recognize the difference between his status and Catalina’s because he has not been exposed to the class and ethnic hierarchies that are more rigid in the rest of the United States.

Ultimately, Woolson turns that hierarchy on its head, allowing Theodore to marry Catalina and foster a “careless, idle, ignorant happy brood, asking nothing, planning not at all, working not at all, but loving each other in their own way, contented to sit in the sunshine, and laugh, and eat, and sing, all the day long” (104). While this description at first replicates the trope of the ignorant native also seen in “Felipa,” Woolson stresses that this lifestyle prevails while Miss Elisabetha’s values exert no influence. Catalina, in fact, breaks the piano. Although Theodore continues to use it, he plays Minorcan melodies rather than the French ballads Miss Elisabetha held up as the highest form of civilized music. Despite the fact that she (p.66) has devoted her life to him, she has failed to instill in him the refinements of civilization. He has, in a sense, gone native, while she unhappily clings to her outmoded way of life. Her status is reduced to the point that she is cast as a kind of slave at the end of the story: “The tall, gaunt figure that came and went among them, laboring ceaselessly, striving always against the current, they regarded with tolerating eyes as a species differing from theirs, but good in its way, especially for work” (104). Miss Elisabetha is thus the object of their gaze, the dehumanized figure of another species who is only good for labor. In this passage, Woolson most explicitly inverts the usual order of colonizer and colonized, giving Theodore and his Minorcan family the normative position and defining the white Northern woman as the “other.” “Miss Elisabetha” thus undercuts the civilizing mission of white Northern women in the South, reflecting the large presence of (often female) teachers, nurses, and missionaries following the war.

Woolson’s story “King David” more overtly deals with this cultural phenomenon. Although the missionizing educator in this story is male, he is feminized as a “narrow-chested … country student” from New Hampshire, whose “near-sightedness and an inherited delicacy of constitution … kept him out of the field during the days of the war” (255). Yet his abolitionist sentiments are complicated by his racism. David King is physically repelled by his black students. He throws away the food they have touched and makes himself a separate meal, “for he still shrank from personal contact with the other race” (259). The farmers back home scoff at David’s feeling of responsibility toward the freed slaves. “Let the blacks take care of themselves” (255), they chide. In the end, David comes to the same conclusion, but less out of a conviction that he was mistaken in his responsibility than out of a new awareness of his inability to help them. As one of his pupils, Uncle Scipio, tells him, “You hab nebbber quite unnerstan us, suh, nebber quite; an’ you can nebber do much fo’ us, suh, on ’count ob dat fack” (274). Therefore, David determines to send for “a man of your own people” (273).

Uplift must come from within, not from without, this story suggests, rejecting the imperial missionary impulse replicated in the U.S. South after the war. But more than skin color is at issue here. Uncle Scipio explains, “a color’d man will unnerstan us, ’specially ef he had lib’d at de Souf; we don’t wan no Nordern free niggahs hyar” (274). In other words, region and legal status (free or slave) matter just as much as race. Meanwhile, Uncle Scipio gratefully sends David back to the North: “we hopes you’ll go j’yful back to your own people, an’ be a shining light to ’em for ebbermore” (274). Uncle Scipio talks back to the would-be colonizer, just as Felipa’s grandfather does to the Northern tourists. Woolson thereby rewrites the imperial texts of Northern exploration and tourism of the Reconstruction South by sending her missionaries, adventurers, and tourists back home and making space for local characters to voice their resistance.

(p.67) Anxieties of Hybridity

By ejecting her Northerners from the South or portraying their civilizing missions as ineffectual, Woolson takes an anti-imperial stance in her Southern stories. Yet the discomfort she displays with the mingling of cultures and races is also apparent. Most of these stories end with separation and acknowledgment of irreconcilable difference rather than coexistence or the possibility of cross-fertilization. Those that do end in union also stress the dissolution of one identity into another and thus do not portray a hybrid formation of mixed identity. It is therefore difficult to see Woolson advocating the forms of hybridity that are today celebrated in postcolonial literary studies. Yet an examination of the anxieties surrounding nineteenth-century hybridity and its colonial context can help us understand the basis for Woolson’s discomfort as both conservative and anti-imperialist.

The term hybridity is often employed to convey the annihilation of difference as two distinct entities combine to create a new form, or the embodiment of difference as one entity contains elements of previously separate identities. However, as Robert Young explains in Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race, the concept of hybridity, which today connotes the mixing of cultures, originated in discussions of racial distinction. “[T]he preoccupation with hybridity in the mid-nineteenth century,” he writes, centered on the question of whether Africans were a separate species, which “stood or fell over the question of hybridity, that is, intra-racial fertility.” Hybrids, or crosses between species, are doomed to extinction because they are sterile. For contemporary theorists, hybridity has much more fertile connotations. Linguistic or cultural hybridity is essentially a challenge to the hegemony of the dominant culture, a way of opening up the supposedly homogenous “dominant cultural power” and changing it from within. Andrew Smith explains that “the idealized liberal view [of ] hybridization occurs on a level ground of equality, mutual respect and open-mindedness.”23

However, in Woolson’s day, such progressive notions of hybridity were not current. Racial and ultimately cultural mixture were associated with the tropical regions of the South, colonial regions where imperial dominance dictated relationships. As Barbara Ladd has argued, colonies are sites of amalgamation, of racial and cultural mixing, whereas nations are sites of racial segregation and (forced) cultural unity:

In a racist and xenophobic culture, the creation of a “creole” caste makes sense only when a region is defined as a colony, or a borderland. When a nationalistic United States expands its own territory into what used to be a “colony,” when it pushes back the frontier, the creole caste has to be either assimilated completely by the national culture or displaced in order to preserve the integrity/unity/homogeneity of the nation, which supposedly comprises the state.24

(p.68) Ladd is concerned primarily with Louisiana, which Woolson did not visit on her Southern sojourns. However, Florida was also a contested colonial region subsequently incorporated into the United States. In Woolson’s stories, Florida is similarly portrayed as a site of racial and cultural mixing that raises questions about how difference is incorporated into the national narrative.

Woolson’s Southern stories tend to reject hybridity due to the imperial damage it inflicts on local cultures. In her stories of contact between Northern and Southern whites, Woolson critiques the inevitability of enforced assimilation. But her stories portraying encounters between different races attempt to preserve racial boundaries; thus they could be read as anticipating the “separate but equal” logic of segregation. Rejecting the model of colonial hybridity predicated on inequality and coercion, Woolson nonetheless falls back on what Ladd identifies as national models of preserving homogeneity through assimilation or separation. It was not possible for her to anticipate notions of hybridity grounded in equality or counterhegemony.

In her “southern sketches,” intersectional encounters between upper-class whites, even those resulting in marriage, are not successful attempts at the mingling of disparate entities. In the collection’s title story, the keeper of a Union cemetery learns to respect a white Southern woman’s faithfulness to the memory of her dead father and brothers, which prevents her from writing her name in the cemetery’s visitors’ log. The story forecloses the possibility of a union between North and South as Rodman tells Bettina, “Nothing can change you … you are part of your country, part of the time, part of the bitter hour through which she is passing…. Yet do not think, dear, that I have not seen—have not understood” (40). Understanding must keep its distance, however, as mutual respect can blossom but not love. In “Old Gardiston,” the white Southerner Gardis does marry the Northern officer. But “[s]he never was a real Gardiston” (138), so she can shed her familial affiliations and adopt a new cosmopolitan identity as the officer’s wife. The Southern girl, Honor, in “Up the Blue Ridge,” is similarly robbed of her separate identity when she marries a Northerner: he “took her away to the North, and was, on the whole, a good husband. But, from first to last, he ruled her, … she was too devoted to him, too absorbed in him, too dependent upon his fancies” (338). In “Bro,” although the male character is not from the North, he does represent the “bohemian” wanderer. His childhood friend from Georgia falls in love with him only to lose her vitality: “she was not what she had been. She seemed to have become timid, almost irresolute; … she seemed disposed to sit more in the shadow, or half behind the curtain, or to withdraw to her own room” (242). In the end, he takes her away to Europe. Thus these women, with the exception of Bettina in “Rodman the Keeper,” are absorbed by their husbands and removed from the South, losing their distinct identities and identification with the region.

(p.69) Woolson’s Florida stories, each of which touches on the issue of racial mixture, more overtly express her discomfort with hybrid identities. Her depiction of mixed-race or Minorcan characters is marked by a mixture of distaste and ambivalence. Sister St. Luke, who is an orphan of unknown parentage—“she don’t know herself what she is exactly” (48)—speaks Spanish but could be Minorcan or even Creole, which may explain why Keith and Carrington think of her condescendingly as “a gentle being of inferior race” (49). The mixed-race hunter in “The South Devil” is a particularly unsavory character. As “an old man of unknown, or rather mixed descent, having probably Spanish, African, and Seminole blood in his veins” (165), he is a Creole; instead, however, Woolson repeatedly refers to him by the derogatory term of “mongrel” (170, 171, 177). He is also portrayed stereotypically—“The mongrel had no idea; he had not many ideas” (171)—and somewhat threateningly—he “looked around stealthily, stole several small articles, and hastened away” (177). A mulatto also appears briefly in this story and is likewise pejoratively described as “a bronze piece of insolence” (162). Nowhere else in the collection does Woolson overtly portray a Creole or mixed-race character, despite her acknowledgment of “this vast, many-raced, motley country of ours” (43).

However, Woolson does recognize the significant Minorcan presence in Florida, thus unsettling the black-white binary typical in portrayals of the South. Her Minorcans inhabit a kind of middle ground between whites and blacks, similar to Kate Chopin’s Cajun characters or George Washington Cable’s Creoles of color. Contemporaries of Woolson identified Minorcans as a “sub-Spanish population” or as “Greek and Italian in type.” These ethnic identities were not necessarily considered “white” in Woolson’s day, which may explain why she portrayed Minorcans as potentially mixed-race in two works published early in the period of her Southern travels.25 Her poem “Dolores” describes Minorcans as “A simple folk c[o]me from the Spanish sea-isles, / Now tinged with the blood of the creole quadroon” (34). In her travel narrative “A Voyage to the Unknown River,” Woolson included an “olive[-]skin[ned]” woman whom the narrator assumes is Minorcan. However, the woman insists she is Spanish, “throwing back her head, with a quaint little air of hauteur.”“[A]ll the Minorcans are invariably ‘pure Spanish,’” the narrator comments, suggesting an element of passing that carried a racial subtext.26 Although the stories in Rodman the Keeper do not overtly identify Minorcans as racially mixed, Woolson repeatedly distinguishes Minorcans from descendants of the Spanish and marks them as “dark” or “yellow,” slow-witted, Catholic, and indolent.

Woolson portrays two marriages between “whites” and Minorcans, and, again, neither suggests a positive form of hybridity. Melvyna’s marriage to Pedro in “Sister St. Luke” has resulted in only a still-born child, evoking the sterility of the union between separate species. She also is not transformed by her marriage to Pedro. As the story concludes, “Melvyna went every Sunday to the bare, struggling little (p.70) Presbyterian mission over in town, and she remains to this day a Sawyer,” a reference to her maiden name (74). Thus no merging or mixture has resulted from their union, merely a toleration of the other and a fierce resistance to change. Theodore’s marriage to Catalina in “Miss Elisabetha” is more fruitful, yet it seems to reflect the fears of those who objected to amalgamation as the potential extinction of the white race, for Theodore blends into the Minorcan community, and his children are raised as Minorcans. His identity as a descendant of Spanish colonists has been easily submerged into his wife’s Minorcan cultural background, suggesting a further distinction between the whiteness that Miss Elisabetha represents and her ward’s more easily assimilable cultural/racial status. Closer in language and coloring, Theodore and Catalina can mix. But Miss Elisabetha remains a distinct “species.” Felipa, as the product of a Minorcan mother and Spanish father, is similarly portrayed as simply Minorcan. Thus, in her portrayals of Minorcans, Woolson allows for the possibility of cross-cultural/racial mixture, yet she displays anxiety about such unions.

Despite the warnings her stories encode of the dangers of imperial appropriation or hybridization, Woolson also understood that such processes would inevitably transform the region. The South will have “her new dawning,” the forlorn woman of “In the Cotton Country” concedes, only when “new blood … come[s] to her” (196). Ultimately, Woolson’s anxiety about racial or cultural hybridity is eclipsed in Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches by the acknowledgment of new voices and “new blood” like that of the potentially mixed-race Felipa, who asserts her power not only to reverse the mirror on the artist narrator but also to attempt the destruction of the male adventurer who told her she could never measure up to Western standards of womanhood. As her grandfather tells Kitty, Felipa is not a child. Although she is only twelve, “[h]er mother was married at thirteen” (220). His (and Felipa’s) assertion of an alternative notion of womanhood displaces the normative logic of the colonizers, challenging Woolson’s readers to acknowledge the South’s resistance to a hegemonic homogeneity. Although Woolson’s Southern stories may call to mind the coming era of racial segregation, they can also be considered an acknowledgment of the South’s hybridity. As Andrew Smith explains, “hybridity” has come to mean not only mixture but “an arena of struggle,” in which the voice of the “other” can be heard.27 In this sense, Woolson’s Southern stories do perform a type of hybridity in their acknowledgment of multiple, conflicting subject positions in a quasi-colonial context. They therefore anticipate our early-twenty-first-century preoccupation with global cultures and the interplay of hegemonic and postcolonial voices.

(p.71) Notes


(1) . I am grateful to John Lowe for sharing with me his essay for this volume. His keynote speech inspired me to read Woolson in a postcolonial context. While his essay focuses more on the context of the “global South” in her fiction, I have emphasized the imperial dynamics of her Southern stories. I am also grateful for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay by Kathleen Diffley, Doreen Piano, Elizabeth Steeby, Nancy Easterlin, and Catherine Loomis.

(2) . Constance Fenimore Woolson, “Felipa,” Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (1880; rpt: New York: AMS Press, 1971), 203, 197. All further references to Woolson’s fiction come from this collection and will be made parenthetically in the text. The phrase “imperial eyes” is borrowed from Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992). For information on Minorcans, see “The Minorcans in Florida,” Amelia Island Genealogical Society Web site: http://www.aigensoc.org/story_minorcans.asp; and Patricia C. Griffin, Mullet on the Beach: The Minorcans of Florida, 1768–1788 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1991). For a compelling reading of “cultural alterity” in “Felipa,” which came to my attention after I had completed this essay, see Neill Matheson, “Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Anthropology of Desire,” Legacy 26.1 (2009): 48–68.

(3) . Edward Berry, “Othello’s Alienation,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 30.2 (1990): 318. Berry goes on to summarize the “paradigm of early colonial attempts to rationalize contact with the ‘other’” in Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America (New York: Harper & Row, 1984). Berry’s explication of “the two opposing ways of defining and ultimately oppressing the ‘other’”—to view them as “essentially the same … and therefore worthy of assimilation; or as essentially different” and thus not human (318)—has informed my reading of “Felipa.”

(4) . See, for instance, Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993); John Carlos Rowe, Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism: From the Revolution to World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); and Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity, and Literature, ed. Amritjit Singh and Peter Schmidt (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000).

(5) . Andrews is quoted in Jamie Winders, “Imperfectly Imperial: Northern Travel Writers in the Postbellum U.S. South, 1865–1880,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 95.2 (2005): 396. George M. Barbour, Florida for tourists, invalids, and settlers. (New York: D. Appleton, 1884), 225.

(6) . Kent is quoted in John Lowe, “Introduction,” Bridging Southern Cultures: An Interdisciplinary Approach, ed. John Lowe (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005), 3. Jay B. Hubbell, The South in American Literature (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1954), 709. Richard Gray, Writing the South: Ideas of an American Region (1986; rev. ed., Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997), 88.

(7) . A notable exception is the article by the geographer Jamie Winders, cited above. For the South as an “imperial holding,” see Winders, “Imperfectly Imperial,” 392. Literary analyses include Walter Benn Michaels, “Anti-Imperial Americanism,” Cultures of United States Imperialism, 365–91; and Scott Romine, “Things Falling Apart: The Postcolonial Condition of Red Rock and The Leopard’s Spots,” Look Away!: The U.S. South in New World Studies, ed. Jon Smith and Deborah Cohn (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 175–200.

(8) . Romine, “Things Falling Apart: The Postcolonial Condition of Red Rock and The Leopard’s Spots,” 176.

(9) . Quoted in Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 7.

(10) . Nina Silber, The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865–1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 11.

(p.72) (11) . Winders, “Imperfectly Imperial,” 392.

(12) . Sharon L. Dean, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Homeward Bound (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995), 34.

(13) . Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1993), xiii. Diary quoted in Gray, Writing the South, 75.

(14) . As Hubbell has documented in The South in American Literature, Southern writers only slowly gained access to Northern periodicals by refraining from “‘unreconstructed’ point[s] of view” (728).

(15) . Henry James, “Miss Woolson” (1887); reprint in Women Artists, Women Exiles: “Miss Grief” and Other Stories, ed. Joan Myers Weimer (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988), 271–72. The perception of Woolson as a sympathetic observer has prevailed in Woolson scholarship. A notable exception is Karen Weekes, “Northern Bias in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches,” Southern Literary Journal 32.2 (2000): 102–15.

(16) . Winders, “Imperfectly Imperial,” 396, 397, 401–2.

(17) . See Sharon L. Dean, Constance Fenimore Woolson and Edith Wharton: Perspectives on Landscape and Art (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002), 47–48. Timothy Sweet complicates this view in his essay for this volume.

(18) . Silber, The Romance of Reunion, 9–10.

(19) . Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 7.

(20) . Leonardo Buonomo, in “The Other Face of History in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Southern Stories,” Canadian Review of American Studies 28.3 (1998): 19, views the narrator’s “surrender” as a kind of defeat. Instead, I see Woolson portraying a victory of empathy over imperialism.

(21) . Mona Domosh quoted in Winders, “Imperfectly Imperial,” 397.

(22) . Winders, “Imperfectly Imperial,” 398.

(23) . Robert Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race (London: Routledge, 1995), 9, 8, 22–23. Andrew Smith, “Migrancy, Hybridity, and Postcolonial Literary Studies,” The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies, ed. Neil Lazarus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 251. On hybridity and doubleness, see also Kenneth Mostern, “Postcolonialism after W. E. B. Du Bois,” Postcolonial Theory and the United States, 258–76; and Steven G. Yao, “Taxonomizing Hybridity,” Textual Practice 17.2 (2003): 357–78.

(24) . Barbara Ladd, Nationalism and the Color Line in George W. Cable, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), xiv–xv.

(25) . James Dabney McCabe, The Great Republic: A Descriptive, Statistical and Historical View of the States and Territories of the American Union (Philadelphia: William B. Evans, 1871), 661; and Edward King, The Great South (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Co., 1875), 396.

(26) . Constance Fenimore Woolson, “Dolores,” Appletons’ Journal ( July 11, 1874): 34. Constance Fenimore Woolson, “A Voyage to the Unknown River,” Appletons’ Journal (May 16, 1874): 616.

(27) . Smith, “Migrancy, Hybridity, and Postcolonial Literary Studies,” 252.