Henry James, Constance Fenimore Woolson, and the Fashioning of Southern Identity
Henry James, Constance Fenimore Woolson, and the Fashioning of Southern Identity
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter introduces an intellectual genealogy for Woolson’s challenge to a nakedly cosmopolitan view of the South as sectional backwater. It weighs “new social identities” and the sense of improvisation that Stephen Greenblatt has described, along with the scrape of sectional and gender priorities.
Although Europe remained a fashionable destination of monied Americans in the late nineteenth century, the postbellum South became a popular alternative for increasing numbers of middle-class Americans. Nina Silber explains that many Americans traveled the South for the benefit of sunshine, the slower pace, and the ease with which they could get there. The Old South seemed new again to those arriving by train, travelers who sought “strange and unusual scenes in comfortably predictable tours” that they first read about in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and other popular magazines and newspapers.1 Richmond, Charleston, and St. Augustine developed nascent tourist industries toward the end of the century, thanks in large part to the ways in which the reconstructed South was reclaimed and reincorporated into the Northern imagination of writers like Henry James and Constance Fenimore Woolson.
In The American Scene (1907), which was first published in the United States serially in two of the Harper publications (Harper’s Monthly and the American Review), James observes that the South had become the new Europe: “It was American civilization that had begun to spread itself thick and pile itself high, in short, in proportion as the other, the foreign exhibition had taken to writing itself plain…. Europe had been romantic years before, because she was different from America; wherefore America would now be romantic because she was different from Europe.”2 No place seemed as romantic as the South, especially the “compromised South” that revealed to James “by a turn of my hand, or of my head” its former glory and its current defeated and debased state (371–72). James identifies the (p.74) tragic fall as a gender switch that for him explains what had been lost in the South and what was left behind: “the ancient order” of the South, which James describes unequivocally as “masculine, fierce and moustachioed,” had become “feminized” in the aftermath of the Civil War (417). In this newly feminized geography, James initially found little to incite his usually active imagination. Eventually, however, he discovered what he had imagined, and this postbellum construction of the South as well as the nostalgia for what it replaced would dominate the national narrative at least until World War II.
If the South was a feminized space that signaled little but loss of a more masculine fixity to Henry James, it became for Constance Fenimore Woolson a space of possibility for the fashioning of identity, particularly of women’s identity, in the postwar era. Like James, Woolson eventually acknowledged the dominant Northern perspective of her readers, but she acknowledged it as a perspective rather than as an objective truth. Initially, she attempted to write the South without channeling it through a distinctly Northern consciousness. Her novel For the Major (1882), which was serialized in Harper’s Monthly twenty-five years before James’s American Scene, attempts to obviate the dominant Northern perspective on regional conflict that is typically found in late-nineteenth-century writing about the South. Certainly regional conflict informs the relationship of Major and Madam Carroll as they eke out their lives in decline. In this novel, however, the focus is most squarely on one woman’s struggle to fashion a self within the existing hierarchical social system, and most particularly to fashion that self through the outward signs of clothing, gesture, demeanor.
Seven years later, Woolson returned to the subject of Southern female subjectivity in Jupiter Lights (1889), also serialized in Harper’s Monthly. Rather than avoid the conflicting regional perspectives of the South, however, in this story of a Northern woman who travels to the coastal South to meet her sister-in-law and young nephew, Woolson calls attention to them as forces that construct often artificial identities for self and others. She understood, moreover, that the fashioning of identity was an entirely different enterprise when practiced by women than when practiced by men. Woolson and James both argue that women’s identities are often contingent on men, and in the postbellum South this frequently meant that their identities were contingent on absent men. Where James saw depletion and tragic loss, however, Woolson saw possibility.
Following the war and Reconstruction, the undermining of Southern traditions and conventions that had been formed over several generations provided opportunities for Southern women willing to risk their received identities for something self-fashioned. Suzanne W. Jones and Sharon Monteith call the South of this period a “site of exchange”where “new coordinates of southern identity”were developed and learned.3 Woolson understood this, and in her fiction of the South she (p.75) offers a valuable, preemptive correction of the prevailing Northern (re)construction of Southern identity that James and others articulated in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In both of her Southern novels, For the Major and Jupiter Lights, Woolson depicts a region where the old determinants and signs of identity were losing their meaning, and new social identities were being self-fashioned. These in turn called for a new heuristic, a way of reading the new signs of identity aright. Unlike James, who favored a nostalgic construction of the South to suit Northern readers, Woolson considered the ways in which identity is constructed by uncontrollable circumstances that the individual—particularly the individual woman—could use to self-fashion an identity out of a combination of old remnants and new cloth.
Self-fashioning, a term coined by Stephen Greenblatt, is the understanding of personal identity as what Greenblatt calls “a manipulable, artful process,” one in which the public presentation of the self (including the body and speech) is recognized as a semiotic field.4 Greenblatt explains the concept as the product of historical dialectic process. In the Middle Ages, individual identity was understood as an external characteristic and fixed by God at birth. Attempts to alter or control identity were acts of hubris doomed to failure and eventual damnation. As Greenblatt observes, Augustine admonished his readers to leave themselves alone: “Hands off yourself. Try to build up yourself, and you build a ruin.”5 This notion of identity externally controlled and therefore not approved for action by the self began to change in the sixteenth century, when the connotation of fashion changed to reflect a growing sense of individual agency. Previously applied to the manipulation of appearance and adornment, fashion came to be used widely as “a way of designating the forming of a self ” (2). This notion of individual agency over the self passed through the lenses of eighteenth-century Enlightenment and early nineteenth-century Romanticism, crossing the Atlantic and informing Benjamin Franklin’s systems of selfimprovement and the rise of Freemasonry in the United States, with its similar doctrine of the self as a stone to be hewn.6
Identity signification systems are determined by culture, history, and individual will. When cultures, historical trajectories, and wills collide, however, identity signification systems can be misunderstood and misrepresented, which was often the case in literature from and about the postbellum South. In the forty years following the Civil War, the South underwent tremendous change resulting in “acute self-consciousness and an even greater pluralism than ever before,” Richard Gray explains, as well as rapid shifts in the determinants of individual identity (race, class, gender, economic status) and in the signs of it.7 As might be expected, this provided unusual opportunities for self-fashioning as well as for misreading, particularly as the signs were manipulated by the selves being fashioned. Gray argues that the emerging South was multiple—the self-fashioned that was always both (p.76) antebellum and “marginal” postbellum, and the “reverse image of itself ” due to the conflicting perceptions of others, especially in the North.8
James and Woolson both attempted to connect their ideas to palpable reality, but they worked in opposite directions. James worked deductively, beginning with his long-held beliefs about the character of the South. In the first decade of the twentieth century, James wrote about his travels south from Baltimore in search of a romantic vision of the Confederate states that he admitted to having formed “as long ago as the outbreak of the Civil War, if not even still more promptly,” and he found himself “romantically affected” by those youthful fantasies of Southern abundance, elegance, and masculine gentility (369, 365). Woolson worked inductively, creating ideas about the South and about women’s lives there based on her observations and experiences living in many areas of the nation, including Florida.
Such varied approaches reflected a larger conflict over postbellum Southern identity. James located agency over Southern identity in the Northern literary imagination; he thereby reinscribed the lines of the dominant national narrative of his time. Woolson sought signs of agency in the lives of women whose identities were self-fashioned in a matrix of “family, social convention, and deontological morality” that was often challenged by what Jil Larson calls the new “focus on the inner life” characterized by “introspection, rebellion, and self-fashioning.”9 This tension between external force and internal agency mirrors the “resolutely dialectical” view of the early modern period that Greenblatt describes: “If we say that there is a new stress on the executive power of the will, we must say that there is the most sustained and relentless assault upon the will; if we say that there is a new social mobility, we must say that there is a new assertion of power by both family and state to determine all movement within the society” (1–2). He might as well have been writing about the postbellum South, and particularly about its Northern construction in The American Scene. There, James conjures a preconceived South in buildings and gardens, and he observes Southern men and women already defined by his sense of who they were or must be, for he comprehended Southern white identity based largely on his own antebellum notions.
His accounts of Richmond and Charleston, in particular, reveal a Northern traveler consciously reading through the “feminized” present to discover a South shaped by his distinctly Northern, richly literary, and undeniably cosmopolitan imagination; he ultimately encounters a South fashioned according to the masculine past that he desires (417). Upon alighting from the train in Richmond, James finds himself not only enduring unseasonably cold weather but facing “a picture charmless at best,” a “desert” that looked “simply blank and void” (368, 370). Richmond disappoints and disorients him because he could find nothing to objectify the “mystic virtue” that he attached to “the very name of Virginia” (370). He acknowledges his romantic conception of the former capital of the Confederacy when he (p.77) asks, “How was the sight of Richmond not to be a potent idea; how was the place not, presumably, to be interesting.” After all, he expected Richmond to be “lurid, fuliginous, vividly tragic” (369). However, James’s “reverse images” of the South, as Gray calls them, find no objective correlatives in the Southern space he explores. Try as he may, James cannot find the potent, poignant, tragic South for which he longs. Instead, he succumbs to disappointment: the Richmond before him offers “the shallow vistas, the loose perspectives, [which] were as sadly simple as the faces of the blind” (370). A large, new hotel is the only building of note, and even this is “a huge well-pitched tent, the latest thing in tents, proclaiming in the desert the name of a new industry” (370). Perhaps most disappointing of all to James is that Richmond turns out to be little different than a “Northern city” with no pretence to Northern cultural resources (370). He cannot find the “‘old Southern mansions’ on the wide verandahs and … the rank, sweet gardens” (370–71). Because “there were no references” to the South as it was constructed in the imagination of a young Henry James before and during the Civil War, Richmond threatens to become for him the geography of personal loss—loss of his romantic illusion of a South that retained its difference from the North, loss that brings James near to “intellectual bankruptcy” (371). He searches Richmond for the city of his adolescent fantasies but can locate none of its signs.
And then in an instant, everything changes. James suddenly understands that the South he cannot find is actually immanent in the scene. He peers through the insipid and oddly familiar urban landscape of Richmond and spies behind it “the very essence of the old Southern idea … [of ] the immense, grotesque, defeated project—the project, extravagant, fantastic, and to-day pathetic in its folly, of a vast Slave State” (371). In The American Scene, James arrives in Richmond so utterly prepared to discover a “defeated project” that he finds what he is looking for in the very absence of all markers. The memory of wide verandahs and sweet gardens becomes an “immense, grotesque” postbellum Richmond that can never become itself because, in Gray’s words, its past is constantly “altering” and leading away from the idealized Richmond of James’s youthful fantasy.10 Still, James finds his way back to his ideas of the South through some athletic leaps of imagination. Richmond’s residents are “such pathetic victims of fate, as so played upon and betrayed, so beaten and bruised, by the old burden of their condition” that James feels sorry for them, but he is relieved that this lost generation of Southerners gestures toward a former rebellious if not righteous glory (374–75). In short, James reads these postwar Virginians as signs of what they have forfeited. By working back through this dialectic, he finds a semiotic path to his original destination, a path that later leads through Charleston’s tea-houses to proprietors dressed in aging gowns and thus to women of commerce who trade on the residual signs of a time and position now lost.
(p.78) In this manner, James looks through the signs of female self-fashioning in front of him to discover the thetic masculine for which he was originally searching. James’s willful act of sublation—the preservation of the thesis even as it was overwritten through the dialectical process—marks perfectly the conceptual site of the conflict between a Northern fashioning of the postbellum Southern self and the Southern self-fashioning within a frame that offered little semiotic certainty. In Charleston at least, Southern women of commerce might manipulate the signs of their identity in the “ancient order” that James—the Northern tourist—longed to experience. This suggests the possibility that the old order had carnivalized itself, creating a new, commercial order in the South that catered to (while ironizing) the Northern romantic ideal of Southern womanhood, and, to a certain extent, Southern manhood. When James says that his Richmond hotel proclaimed “the name of a new industry,” after all, he was acknowledging the new industry of tourism and business that brought Northerners to the South (370).11 For James, a priori ideas of the South always dominated whatever he discovered there, and so he brought a conceptually conquered South home to his readers.
In an oeuvre that also presents the postbellum South to Northern readers, and does so long before James wrote The American Scene, Constance Fenimore Woolson attempted to unsettle the Northern gaze as the ruling fashioner of Southern identity. She was deeply concerned with the necessities and possibilities of female self-fashioning, and she looked always to the geographical spaces where identity was in flux. Woolson’s fiction of the Michigan frontier, of the South, and of the Europe discovered by nineteenth-century Americans privileges place as the context that sometimes throws identity construction into the light and sometimes constructs identity itself. In For the Major, Woolson asks how Southern women created make-shift selves immediately after the war; in Jupiter Lights, she asks how women— Southern and Northern—reconstructed their identities in a postwar nation that normalized aggressive,“moustachioed,” absent masculinity and rendered women as either dependent and helpless or independent and degraded, but in either case as nothing more than signs of the men they had lost.
In the opening pages of For the Major, Woolson describes the process of selffashioning that accounts for individual autonomy and external forces.12 This process begins with the broadest geographical terms and gradually hones in on the individual locating herself on the map. Woolson affects a tone that is mildly ironic and exquisitely careful as she presents the Southern hillside towns of Edgerley and Far Edgerley, which seem to foreshadow James’s dialectic of the commercial desert that Richmond would become and the old Confederate capital it once was. Simultaneously lower on the mountain and closer to “the high civilization of the State capital,” Edgerley “had two thousand inhabitants, cheese factories, saw-mills, and a stage line across Black Mountain to Tuloa” (November 1882, 907, 908). Lacking these (p.79) markers of nineteenth-century progress, Far Edgerley defines itself by contrast. It is higher up the mountain and, as Woolson explains, “it had no factories, no sawmills, no stage line to Tuloa, and no necessity for one, and no two thousand inhabitants” (908). While the merchants of Edgerley pride themselves on their progressive spirit of commerce and their relatively close connection to the state capital, the inhabitants of Far Edgerley boast a reactionary antebellum social identity that they consider virtuous and superior. In Far Edgerley, commerce is a social slur reserved for its nearly named neighbor downhill. With this comparative and cartographical construction of identity, Woolson offers a corrective to the reconstruction of the South in the Northern imagination. She begins to weave the thread of Southern self-fashioning that appears throughout For the Major, demonstrating the inefficacy of an insular identity with no connection to national contexts—historical and conceptual—from which it must derive some of its signification.
For the Major presents the processes of postwar self-fashioning via two dominant metaphors—one geographical, to indicate the external forces that shape identity, and one sartorial, to indicate identity self-construction. The geographical metaphor begins with the opening comparison of Edgerley with Far Edgerley and extends throughout the narrative to reveal that identity exists always already in context, which acts of self-fashioning may in turn re-form. Setting aside a dominant Northern perspective, Woolson examines the geographical underpinnings of identity apart from national politics and more broadly, even as she focuses more narrowly. The “prejudiced creed,” as Woolson calls it, of the citizens of Far Edgerley enables them to construct a group social identity that depends upon geographical relations to other Southern places (Tuloa, the state capital, Edgerley). The carriage that the coachman Inches drives through Far Edgerley offers one revealing source of geographical pride: its steps “impart an especial dignity to ‘the equipage’” that does not derive from its near approximation to some platonic ideal of carriage steps. Comparing places instead, the narrator explains, “No other carriage west of the capital had steps of this kind” (909). The prodigal daughter, Sara Carroll, who returns to Far Edgerley and brings readers with her, makes a map of her father’s house and its environs so that she will understand herself as “home” when she gets there. Both of these instances suggest that identity is neither autonomous nor strictly individual but an understanding of the self ’s place in a larger context and a manipulation of the significance of that place as well as of other signs. Identity is contingent on location, here a single regional location that at first seems invisible because it is not contrasted with the North.
Woolson then uses a sartorial metaphor to present individual self-fashioning and refashioning as an ongoing project, one that is caught in a broader social narrative sometimes authored by others. Not surprisingly, therefore, self-fashioning is sometimes about actual fashion. When Sara Carroll returns home to the Farms, (p.80) her stepmother insists that the occasion requires an “especial reception.”As Madam Carroll explains, “There are, you know, in every society certain little distinctions and—and differences, which should be properly marked; the home-coming of Miss Carroll is one of them. I suppose you have without doubt an appropriate dress?” (909). The undertones are clear: Sara is not only an autonomous, individual subjective consciousness; she is also an important part of the lexicon used by her stepmother as she tells the story of her own self to the community.
Woolson understood the semiotics of self-fashioning and the need for “an appropriate dress.” As it turns out, appropriate is a matter of distinction within context, for Sara’s “best” dress is “severely plain,” which her mother decides “will have the added advantage of being a contrast.” As if discussing her own identity, she says about Sara’s clothing, “We have few contrasts in Far Edgerley, and I may say, no plainness … Rather, a superabundance of trimming…. But even with the best intentions you can not always construct new costumes from changes of trimming merely; there comes a time when the finest skill will not take the place of a little undoubted new material, no matter how plain it may be” (910). This is not merely a metaphor: it is Woolson’s understanding that self-fashioning requires “a little new material,” an appropriate dress (which is to say a form or base on which to build), and particular skill. Perhaps most important of all, self-fashioning requires a readership that understands the language of female self-presentation.13
Woolson here rehearses self-fashioning as contiguous and relative to, if not contextualized within, the fields of family, social convention, and duty-bound morality because, like the two Edgerleys, the self exists and understands itself in these contingent relations. Indeed, Sara Carroll “believed that her tastes, her wishes, her ideas, possessed rather a superior quality of refinement; but far beyond this did her pride base itself upon the fact that she was her father’s daughter” (911). In For the Major, Madam and Sara Carroll present their fashioned selves through their clothing, which they adjust to express exquisite differences and refinements. Yet identity is at least in part derived through familial relations; the Carroll clothes anticipate the ghostly moustachioed Southern gentlemen that James would see in the ragged gowns of Charleston’s women of commerce, their cultural widows. Woolson actually takes a much stronger stance in portraying the Major’s second wife. Madam Carroll has fashioned herself as a young(er) woman of some means to secure for herself a family connection. Rather than judge her selffashioning as deceitful, immoral, and doomed, Woolson suggests that Madam Carroll maintains a sure hand in her self-creation. As Cheryl Torsney explains, Madam Carroll “successfully asserts selfhood, having acquired the authority that attends its discovery in choosing both to write the fiction of her life and to reveal its made-up character… . Marion Carroll is an essential, creative spirit.”14 By foregrounding Southern women in their inventive artistry, Woolson’s narrative suggests triumph rather than tragedy.
(p.81) For the Major casts the self as a semiotic field in which the “I” is both author and authored. Greenblatt calls this understanding of self-fashioning improvisation—“the ability both to capitalize on the unforeseen and to transform the given mate-rials into one’s own scenario” (227). This is made possible, he explains, “by the subversive perception of another’s truth as an ideological construct[;] that construct must at the same time be grasped in terms that bear a certain structural resemblance to one’s own set of beliefs.”15 Madam Carroll fashions herself as a woman born into the Southern gentry by dressing herself accordingly. She manipulates the ideological constructs of class just as Charleston’s women of commerce would manipulate the constructs of Southern identity that Northern tourists brought with them to the tea-houses. In both cases, the manipulative play bears “a certain structural resemblance” to their own sense of self and yet reveals the sometimes stunning disconnect between Northern and Southern constructions of Southern identity. Woolson and then James find the significant overlap—the structural resemblance—that offers at least the possibility of a common language as well as a common interpretive heuristic.
Woolson demonstrates in For the Major that self-fashioning is, as Stephen Greenblatt says,“the fashioning of human identity as a manipulable, artful process,” but it is a process bound within the confines of semiotic fields that are as large as history and as complex as society (2). The authoring self places and replaces the frame over that field to determine semiotic boundaries. Self-fashioning in Woolson thereby combines what Julia Kristeva describes as the symbolic and the semantic—the externally authored self and the individually authored self—and perhaps Wool-son shows this most clearly at the end of For the Major through a small outward ornament. With a gesture that signifies greatly in Madam Carroll’s authoring and authored self as she exchanges wedding vows with the Major, she “drew off her own wedding ring, and guided his feeble fingers to put it back in its place again” (April 1883, 763). Woolson refers to her as “the wife” in this sentence, naming the contextual identity that she effects with the work of her own artful hand.
The gender politics of self-fashioning and family relations thus appear in a new light, apart from social privilege. With the loss of the Major’s sight and hearing, Madam Carroll is, in Lyndall Gordon’s gorgeous phrase,“release[d] from the laborious falsities of femininity.”16 Enacting the earlier contention that self-fashioning sometimes requires “undoubted new material, no matter how plain it may be,” Madam Carroll “pins back her hair and bares the lined face of a woman who has grieved over the deaths of children; she extends to visitors a worn hand, no longer covered by muslin frills.”17 Individual will and exigent circumstances team up to empower her self-fashioning or, more exactly, to empower the fashioning of self. Changing the style of her clothing, like changing her physical appearance, Madam Carroll indicates a significant re-fashioning of the self that acknowledges her own (p.82) history as well as her place in the Carroll family.With this scene,Woolson completes her earliest examination of Southern self-fashioning among women: it is geographical, which is to say relational, and it is sartorial, which is to say representational.
In Jupiter Lights, less than a decade later, identity and self-fashioning would have everything to do with geography and perspective. The novel begins with Eve Bruce, an American Yankee residing in London and readying herself for a trip to the American South, where she hopes to take custody of her late brother’s infant son. When Eve first arrives at her Southern destination, which her English maid marks as exotic by referring to it as “the farawayest place,” she appears as an excessively displaced figure alienated from the natural world around her.18 The maid, frightened and quivering at the sight of largely unindividuated, scantily appareled, African American men who try to help with the luggage, launches her bag into the air as a diversionary missile before running off.19 Apparently she is equipped with no intellectual framework with which to comprehend the South. The Northern American woman, however, understands the region as the idea with which she, like Henry James, was raised. Eve comes to the South equipped with romantic a priori notions, and she imposes these constructs on the place and the people she encounters, beginning with her sister-in-law Cicely. As the smoke from the ferry engines clears, the young, self-absorbed, and not especially interesting Cicely appears to Eve, “one of Diana’s young huntresses, a creature light, fleet, and cool as the wind of dawn, untrammeled by too much womanhood”; she becomes mythic only “to a person with an eye for such resemblances”—the Northern Eve—and not to Cicely herself, who seems utterly unaware of analytical and mythic perspectives (249). Cicely’s lack of self-consciousness registers her inability to comprehend the project of conceptual reconstruction of herself and the South, whereas Eve’s constant discernment and evaluation are reminiscent of James, “the anxious explorer” who learns to “see straight” by grasping “the whole piece at a series of points that are after all comparatively few.”20
Eve grasps “the whole piece” by relying on familiar myths. She calls upon these throughout Jupiter Lights and transforms the South through an act of artistic will into a place already seen. Woolson thereby reveals, on the one hand, the mythic structures of which Eve’s apparently singular narrative is a part and recalls, on the other, the authorial eye through which her readers see and understand the novel’s world, in particular the South. Woolson’s use of free indirect discourse in much of the narrative further identifies this perspective as dominant among her readers. From the beginning, the use of imported myth as the conceptual framework for the postbellum South requires a place that does not have its own indelible identity with which to contend—at least in the minds of mythmakers like Eve. To many like her after the Civil War, the South was a devastated land that was conceptually rehabili-tated through such means, the very reason James sought the tragic in Richmond.21 (p.83) It isn’t surprising, then, that Woolson would draw on music and myth, particularly when focalizing the narrative through a Northern visitor who holds the region (and its embodiment in the Southern ingenue) responsible for the death of the man on whom her identity had long depended.
Eve’s perspective is privileged because the novel begins with her trip across the Atlantic, and the South first materializes as she sees it. Through Eve, Woolson establishes early on a series of oppositions that set up the novel’s eventual clash of perspectives and ideas: North/South, analytical/mythic, and Eve/Cicely. These are gradually dismantled as disabling to the self-fashioning of regional and individual identity, a dismantling process that eventually encourages Woolson’s readers to reflect on their own practices. At first, however, she appears to be engaged in the same project as Northern writers who, like James, brought the South home in their work by privileging a Northern, geographically defined identity. This is why the initial oppositions are so stark: they must be perceived and acknowledged before they can be examined critically and, in some cases, defused if not dismantled.
The problem with reading identity geographically, Woolson reveals, is that the reader’s own identity is partially contingent on location and environment, and this contingency becomes an important but unstable variable in comprehending what is read. Woolson shows this repeatedly in Jupiter Lights, particularly when Eve finds herself increasingly affected and gradually refashioned by her location. Soon after settling in with her in-laws on Abercrombie Island, she is nearly swept up in a reverie with Cicely that foregrounds Eve’s struggle to remain steadfastly herself in this land she has half discovered and half constructed. Late at night, Cicely finds Eve alone in her room, and then takes her through the dark house, lit mostly by moonlight, to an old ballroom where Cicely puts on an “old-fashioned ball dress made of lace interwoven with silver threads and decked with little silvery stars” ( January 1889, 254). The dress is a clear sign of the antebellum South for both Cicely and Eve, but the meaning and value of this sign are quite different for the two women. For Cicely, the dress signifies her freedom from social restraint and responsibility: she is free to become the wind, to “run and shriek,” but she dances to a tune called “Niggerless” (255); in short, she is what Richard Gray would predict—a version of her antebellum self. Cicely takes up a silver streamer and begins “moving over the moonlit floor” to Eve, whom she sweeps up in her arms and dances across the room “in a wild gallopade,” as she simultaneously lets loose Eve’s hair (254).
Yet Eve cannot give in to this impulse to lose her self-restraint and, with it, her Northern difference if not her Northern identity. Cicely’s dress appears almost mythic, but Eve cannot participate in this myth. She reminds herself of her role as the scene’s critical reader, specifically by inciting a self-protecting fear of the consequences that chased the first Eve out of that other Eden. “Suppose a dark figure should appear on the veranda and peer in at us through one of the windows!” she (p.84) exclaims to Cicely, fearful of discovery by a predatory figure as much from her dream world as from the dark Southern landscape. In this way, her conscience functions to maintain her Northern distance.22 In turn, Cicely takes an almost intoxicated bacchanalian stand: “I don’t care about it, really; I don’t care about anything!” She seems thoroughly a part of a natural world that orients the geography of her longheld identity: “It’s the wind, you know,” she explains to Eve: “When it blows like this, I always have to do something. Sometimes I call out and shout” (255). Cicely seems utterly in sympathy with the forces of the Southern landscape and able to communicate with them; her will is expressed as one small note in the music of the wind. For a brief moment, Eve is joined with her and experiences at least the possibility of self-forgetting. But the moment is cut short by her insistence on remaining apart, fashioned as she and her background have made her.
The early tension between characters begins to collapse, not because Eve gives in to the allure of the Southern landscape, with its moonlight and wind, but because she asserts a conscious agency over the South as semiotic construct, an agency more in tune with her own sense of self. Instead of ignoring the geographical forces at work, Eve transforms the South into a world she recognizes: England, where she last lived with her brother. She traces Southern place-names to their English origins and even begins to predict what she will find based on her knowledge of the similarly named places in England. Because “the South had forgotten her beginnings” (April 1889, 708), Eve is able to control the region as her own semiotic field and as a reflection of her will. By contrast, “Cicely’s imagination took no flight toward” such an act of artistic will (February 1889, 436) because she has no desire to change herself or her sense of place.
In fact, finding the right place becomes the greatest challenge in Eve’s quest to fashion her own postbellum, post-brother identity, in part because she discovers the limits to the fashioning influences of place. The singular act of shooting Cicely’s first and murderous husband, Ferdie, to save Cicely and her son becomes an act that she can never separate from her sense of self no matter how far she travels. At first she attributes her actions to her location—the South and, most particularly, Abercrombie Island. From the moment when Eve picks up the gun, she is no longer acting singularly according to her subjective will but, instead, seems to be entranced by her dream of the place where she now resides. Even the initial description of the shooting fails to attribute individual agency: “there was a crack, not loud, of a pistol discharged very near” (March 1889, 602). As Eve runs through the brush, a hand reaches out and a gun goes off. It’s as if the place itself channels its will through her. Thereafter, Eve struggles to make sense of this event and to determine what it signifies in the semiotics of self that she had previously taken for granted. In an effort to re-compose her self-portrait, she runs from one location to (p.85) another—to the northwest, to the South, and eventually to Italy. There she isolates herself within the most limiting and barren geographic space, a cell, as if desperately trying to determine if a new location will help her construct a new self that bears no visible reminders of what she has done.
A change of location does seem to bring about at least a change of behavior, and this is the lesson that Eve learns about the limits of self-fashioning. After she and Cicely race northward to the Great Lakes and the safety of Ferdie’s brother, Paul Tennant, Eve becomes uncontrollably anxious, the result of her past action and a suffocating fear of its moral and legal consequences. Woolson’s narrative doubles back on itself as Eve, within range of a Northern Jupiter Light that matches its Southern counterpart at least in name, takes up Cicely’s role and nearly loses herself in a Dionysian reverie: aboard ship in the Northern wilderness, “the river growing constantly more wild as they ascended it, the high Northern air … was like an intoxicant—all of these seemed to her wonderful. She breathed rapidly; it seemed as if she must clasp her arms about herself to hold herself in” (April 1889, 713). And then, just as Cicely had done in the warm Southern wind, full of self-forgetfulness, Eve knocks on Cicely’s door with an invitation to walk in the dark.
Cicely, however, refuses. “I am in bed already,” she says, before turning her back on Eve. Despite repeated promises to herself that she will return to bed (to “that narrow shelf” in her “cell”) and that she will not wander about on deck at night, Eve finds herself alone as she once was that night on Abercrombie Island, where she feared a dark and critical stranger (714). In this scene, a figure in the dark unexpectedly lights his cigar. It’s Cicely’s brother-in-law, Paul Tennant, and in the brief conversation that ensues, Eve quickly admits to Paul, “‘I control no one,’” and to herself “(‘Not even myself ’),” as if she were admitting that she could not create and control her own identity (714). Eve learns that the possibilities of self-fashioning are limited by geography and by personal as well as national history.
In the Northern wilderness, Eve allows the boundaries of self to become porous because she senses the possibility of being made anew in a landscape she endorses: “here was the freshness of a new world” and so of a new self (708). When she returns with Cicely to the South, she returns with a new sense of what it means to self-fashion and to read and interpret others within a context that includes the external forces that shape the self. She no longer assumes a privileged, judgmental position toward the South and its inhabitants. With the Southern Jupiter Light in view, “Eve remembered that less than a year before she had landed here for the first time, a woman imperious, sufficient to herself; a woman who was sure that she could direct her own course …. How like child’s play did this all seem now” (September 1889, 585). At this point, Eve understands that identity is not a fixed mark like the Jupiter Light but is partly fashioned by the (p.86) self and partly fashioned by the context in which it stands. As a result, Eve no longer sees Cicely as the other, the Southern woman she preconceived, but as another self who, like her, is contextualized by the place and the history they now share.
As Eve learns that identity can be shaped by geographical and historical contexts, she also learns the possibilities of self-fashioning within those parameters. After Cicely and Eve return South, Cicely demands that they take a walk one night to reenact the shooting of Ferdie. The moon “silvered the forest,” recalling of that first strange pas de deux in the old ballroom (587). Once again, Eve’s sense of self is influenced by geography: she is under “the spell of the place” much as Cicely had been in the first scene, but there is a notable difference: “She felt herself forced by some inward compelling power to go through the whole scene” (587). Although Eve is swept up by a tide that she cannot finally control, it is not the wind or the landscape that pushes her; the power of place is now felt as an inward compulsion. She again expects to see a dark figure observing her, but this time she has a name for it—Ferdie, the man she shot in this same spot.
This time, Cicely does not dance her way to Eve. Instead, she “came rushing … and with quick force bore her to the ground” and began strangling her sister-in-law and crying, “‘Do you like it? Do you like it? Do you like to be dead?’” as if the deed were already done (587). Eve exercises no will to define herself in this scene; she allows herself to become part of another’s scenario. As quickly as she gives up her self, she is released. “Like a person in a dream,” Eve gets up from under the limp, now almost mindless Cicely, goes to the beach, dampens her kerchief, and returns to cool Cicely’s feverish brow (587). Then she carries Cicely to the verandah. Because she accepts the external forces beyond her control, she can now harness the power to self-fashion that also shapes identity.
While the regional conflict of North and South, particularly as it fuels the geographical determinants of identity in Jupiter Lights, seems to reinforce the dialectic that dominates the national narrative in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Woolson suggests a more productive way of thinking in this novel. The two Jupiter Lights, one south and one north, overlook nearly identical scenes in which each of the two women takes her turn at fusing her identity with the natural forces around her. Eve and Cicely, moreover, dance and fight their way like sister states to become the single unifying figure of Eve carrying her dazed sister-in-law. No man watches or threatens to watch since Ferdie, the imagined observer, is dead and gone. The absence of the fierce masculinity for which James searches becomes an opportunity for Woolson: a world of absent men recalls the subject of For the Major, the novel in which Woolson began her examination of identity formation in the South. Woolson returns to this subject because there, and not within the dialectic of North and South, is where she locates the possibility for female self-fashioning.
(p.87) It would take more than a change of clothing or a change of place to settle Reconstruction’s battle for signification and interpretation. As James’s account of his Southern sojourn suggests, the “latent poetry” of the South remained a fixed conceit in the Northern imagination. James and Woolson focus on the fashioning of Southern women, however, to suggest that what remained after the Civil War was a place—a nation—with a future that was not so fixed to the assumed certainties of the past. If as Madam Merle explains to Isabel Archer in James’s The Portrait of a Lady, “‘a woman … has no natural place anywhere; wherever she finds herself she has to remain on the surface and, more or less, to crawl,’” then the identity of the postbellum United States was not rooted in the places themselves—the North, the South, the West—but in the idea of place, in the movement from location to location, and in the possibilities of self-fashioning that presented themselves.23 The cultural project of the late nineteenth century that sought the familiar and the strange at home rather than abroad was aimed largely at Northerners and aimed to reaffirm the sense of Northern normativity. That postwar project also asserted the combination of individual autonomy and external forces that shape identity, at least for Woolson, and this implies the possibility of change within the larger boundaries that define self, region, and nation.
(1) . Nina Silber, The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865–1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 67. For a discussion of print culture as a means of shaping ideas about the South, particularly in regard to self-fashioning and slavery before the Civil War, see David Waldstreicher, “Reading the Runaways: Self-Fashioning, Print Culture, and Confidence in Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic,” William and Mary Quarterly 56.2 (April 1999): 243–72.
(2) . Henry James, The American Scene (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 366. All subsequent references will be to this edition and will be made parenthetically in the text. For a succinct publication history of The American Scene, see Rosalie Hewitt, “Henry James, the Harpers, and The American Scene,” American Literature 55.1 (1983): 41–47.
(3) . Suzanne Jones and Sharon Monteith, “Introduction: South to New Places,” South to a New Place: Region, Literature, Culture (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002), 10, 9.
(4) . Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 2. All subsequent references will be made parenthetically in the text.
(5) . Quoted in Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 2.
(6) . I am indebted to Carol Del Vitto’s work on Freemasonry in nineteenth-century America. See especially “The Symbolic Masonic Initiation of Herman Melville’s Pierre” (MA thesis, Stetson University, 2007).
(p.88) (7) . Richard Gray, “Inventing Communities, Imagining Places: Some Thoughts on Southern Self-Fashioning,” South to a New Place: Region, Literature, Culture, ed. Suzanne W. Jones and Sharon Monteith (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002), xx.
(8) . Gray, “Inventing Communities, Imagining Places,” xxiii. Gray contends that the idea of the South “has become a vital instrument of knowledge, linked to the broader human project of trying to spin a sense of reality out of language. It is also a palpable sign of ignorance to the extent that the histories it maps must remain irreducibly other” (xxii).
(9) . Jil Larson, Ethics and Narrative in the English Novel, 1880–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 32–33; quoted in Annette Federico, “Irony, Ethics and Self-Fashioning in George Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man,” Marketing the Author: Authorial Personae, Narrative Selves and Self-Fashioning, 1880–1930, ed. Marysa Demoor (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 97.
(10) . Gray, “Inventing Communities, Imagining Places,” xxii.
(11) . For more information on postbellum tourism in the South, see Silber, The Romance of Reunion, and 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): 391–410.
(12) . All reference to For the Major are to the novel’s first serialized publication in Harper’s Monthly: 65 (November 1882): 907–18; 66 (December 1882): 93–105; 66 ( January 1883): 243–51; 66 (February 1883): 405–14; 66 (March 1883): 564–71; and 66 (April 1883): 749–64. Page references will be made parenthetically in the text.
(13) . In Constance Fenimore Woolson: The Artistry of Grief (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989), Cheryl B. Torsney points out that Henry James noted the focus on fashioning the self in For the Major. In “Miss Woolson,” James claims that “it is the first time that a woman has been represented as painting her face, dyeing her hair, and ‘dressing young,’ out of tenderness of another.” See Literary Criticism: Essays on Literature, American, English Writers (New York: Library of America, 1984), 643. Quoted in Torsney, Constance Fenimore Woolson, 128.
(14) . Torsney, Constance Fenimore Woolson, 131.
(15) . Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 228.
(16) . Lyndall Gordon, The Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art (London: Norton, 1998), 214.
(17) . Gordon, The Private Life of Henry James, 214.
(18) . Constance Fenimore Woolson, Jupiter Lights, Harper’s Monthly (January 1889): 247. Woolson’s novel was first serialized in this and subsequent issues: (January 1889): 240–55; (February 1889): 435–53; (March 1889): 589–611; (April 1889): 703–22; (May 1889): 951–58; (June 1889): 114–23; (July 1889): 265–82; (August 1889): 415–32; and (September 1889): 582–99. Page references will be made parenthetically in the text.
(19) . In Constance Fenimore Woolson: Homeward Bound (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995), Sharon Dean reads this scene as evidence that Woolson “understood the degree to which one’s own ethnicity shaped social attitudes” and that she attended “to issues of race … [and] social class” (70).
(20) . James, The American Scene, 368.
(21) . In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche argues that “music and tragic myth … transfigure a region where dissonance and the terrible image of the world fade away in chords of delight; … both justify by their play the existence of even the ‘worst of all worlds.’” See The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, trans. Ronald Spiers, ed. Raymond Geuss and Ronald Spiers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 115. In Jupiter Lights, Eve invokes myth to transform the terrible image of the South that she carries with her as a Northern visitor, making the South at once both less palpable and more familiar.
(p.89) (22) . Caroline Gebhard notes that this scene offers a moment of intimacy between the women approaching “a triangulation of lesbian desire” that is actively repudiated in the novel, especially here by Eve. I would argue that she further reasserts her Northern identity by inciting a kind of homosexual panic and fear of discovery. See “Romantic Love and Wife-Battering in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Jupiter Lights,” Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Nineteenth Century: Essays, ed. Victoria Brehm (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001), 90.
(23) . Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (London: Penguin, 1984), 248.