Woolson, Constance Fenimore Collection by Clare Benedict
Scope and Contents
The collection consists of papers preserved by Clare Benedict in memory of her aunt, the American author Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840 – 1894). The contents partially document Woolson’s literary career, including original manuscripts and reviews of her work, as well as the literary ambitions of her family, in particular those of her niece, Clare Benedict. Very well documented is Benedict’s gift of the Woolson House to Rollins College, largely expressed through the correspondence between Benedict and the College’s president at the time, Hamilton Holt. The formation and development of a literary society in Woolson’s honor is similarly well recorded. Though personal correspondence does exist, the collection does not thoroughly record Woolson’s personal relationships. In contrast, Benedict’s are particularly well documented, and it is worthwhile to note that she shared many of her aunt’s acquaintances, such as Henry James. The collection consists of Woolson’s literary contributions; family information, including genealogy and correspondence; the connection between Benedict and the College, particularly in regard to their joint venture, the Woolson memorial; the beginnings of and contributions from the Woolson Society; photographs of the collection’s inventory, places of significance to Woolson and her family, and the conferences of the Woolson Society; and media documenting the Society’s events, including both VHS cassettes and DVDs.
- Created: 1800-2002
Conditions Governing Access
Open access except one box.
Conditions Governing Use
The materials of the Constance Fenimore Woolson collection are governed by the Copyright Law of the United States.
Biographical or Historical Information
Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840 – 1894) was born in New Hampshire on March 5, 1840. After three of Woolson’s sisters died of scarlet fever, the family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. She attended the Young Ladies’ Seminary at Cleveland and continued her education at Madame Chegaray’s Finishing School in New York City. Though she wrote throughout her childhood and young adulthood for her own betterment, it was not until the death of Woolson’s father in 1869 that she sought in earnest to write professionally. Travel narratives comprised her earliest works, and in 1870, her first story, “The Happy Valley,” was published in Harper’s Monthly. She contributed regularly to this publication as well as Putnam’s Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Scribner’s, and Appleton’s Journal. Though she refrained from following the trend of the times by appealing to her readers’ tastes with overt sentimentality, her writing was well-received. Often referred to as a local colorist, Woolson was not bound by genre. Recent scholarship proves her versatility. The plight of women artists figures prominently in her stories, especially characterized in Miss Grief.
After her father’s death, Woolson, as the unmarried daughter, assumed responsibility for her own and her mother’s welfare. Both were left small legacies, enough to live in genteel poverty, but no more. As a writer, Woolson contributed enough to their existence to continue an independent lifestyle. They traveled in the South and beginning in 1873, spent the winters in the mild climate of St. Augustine, a city famous as a refuge from the harsh winters of the North—especially for people of frail health, such as her mother.
Her first collection of short stories, entitled Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches, was published in 1875. This collection highlighted the region of the Great Lakes, where Woolson had spent her earlier life. The landscapes and ways of life in the South, however, began to color her newer work. Careful attention was given to distinguishing Southern regional types, and each distinctive group represented various themes.
After the death of her mother in 1879, Woolson spent time living and traveling abroad, often with her widowed sister and her niece, Clare Benedict. She stayed in London, France, and at length, in Italy. She habitually chose a hotel to reside in for several months before moving on to her next location, engaging in a sort of nomadic lifestyle that fed her artistic creativity. In 1880 she published Miss Grief, which has rarely been out of print, and remains her most anthologized story. During the same month of the publication of Miss Grief, Woolson met the American author Henry James in Italy, and the two would remain close friends for the remainder of her life. The American expatriate community provided Woolson with a most curious study, for here was a new and unique regional type that found its way into several of her short stories, including “The Front Yard” and “A Transplanted Boy,” published in 1888 and 1894, respectively.
Health problems occasionally dampened Woolson’s European sojourns, and complications with her hearing resulted in steadily increasing deafness. Isolated by her health, her hearing defects, and her own battles with depression, she continued nevertheless to regularly contribute to her American publishers back in the United States.
On January 24, 1894, during a bout with influenza, Woolson fell to her death from her balcony in her apartment at the Casa Semeticolo in Venice. Whether her fall was an accident or purposeful is not known. At the time of her death, she had written four novels, four collections of short stories, a novella, and a plethora of uncollected stories, in addition to her earlier works of literary criticism, travel narratives, and poetry. Two works were published posthumously: a collection of travel sketches and of short stories. During her lifetime, Woolson was considered one of the finest writers America possessed, for her work was not only popular, but it was a critically acclaimed.
Woolson’s niece, Clare Benedict, determined to create a worthy monument to the memory of her aunt, gave Rollins College a small building that she furnished with items from Woolson’s estate, including some of her books and manuscripts. Her gift, Woolson House, opened with much ceremony on May 31, 1938. Fred Lewis Pattee, the famous literary historian who established the canon of American literature, gave the dedicatory address. It was Clare Benedict’s desire that Woolson House be used for literary gatherings of aspiring, as well as accomplished, writers. Benedict endowed her gift with a fund to assure its upkeep. For security purposes, Woolson’s library and her manuscripts were moved to the Department of Archives and Special Collections in 1992. Woolson’s desk, which had fallen into disrepair, was restored through the generosity of Rollins Alumna, Carolyn Van Bergen Rylander, Ph.D. It is now a showpiece in the Conference Room of the Rollins Archives.
Most of the manuscripts given to Rollins were published by Benedict in her memorial book, Constance Fenimore Woolson (London n.d.). One of the prized possessions are a set of caricatures, drawn for Plum (Woolson’s pet name for her niece), titled “Visiting in Asheville,” and the manuscripts of her Fern poems, penciled in Chapman’s Flora of the Southern United States (N.Y. 1872).
Woolson’s fame waned during the 1930s; however, appreciation of her work experienced a renaissance in the 1980s, and today an active international scholarship has developed. As a result, the Constance Fenimore Woolson Society was founded in January 1995 at Rollins College. The Woolson House has been renovated, and the English Department uses it as its faculty lounge while continuing to make it available to small groups on request.
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Language of Materials
The materials in this collection highlight the writing career of Constance Fenimore Woolson, as well as the history of the Woolson family as a whole. Special attention is given to the Woolson genealogy and to Woolson descendants’ accomplishments, including the contributions of Clare Benedict. Very well documented is Benedict’s connection with Rollins College, including correspondence of business and personal nature. The development of the Constance Fenimore Woolson Society is also well documented, including photographs, correspondence, and conference programs. The collection is divided into six series: ADMINISTRATION, LITERATURE, WOOLSON FAMILY, C.F. WOOLSON SOCIETY, PHOTOGRAPHS, and MEDIA. The ADMINISTRATION series contains documents pertaining to the shipments received at Rollins College from Clare Benedict, for the express purpose of establishing a Woolson memorial. Inventories of these shipments, as well as lists of returned items, are likewise included. Documents pertaining to the construction and dedication of the Woolson House are found in this series. There is one sub-series, Memorabilia, which contains a list of the current items in the Collection. Some of the material in this series is restricted, and is appropriately marked. The LITERATURE series is divided into two sub-series: Manuscripts and Criticism. The Manuscripts sub-series includes a wide array of Constance Fenimore Woolson’s writing, both personal and published, as well as a list of books that are currently in print. Additionally, the sub-series includes writings by and about members of Woolson’s family. The Criticism sub-series includes reviews by Woolson’s contemporaries as well as scholars who have pursued her work after her death. The sub-series also contains historical information regarding the world Woolson herself lived in, and the world she created for her stories. The WOOLSON FAMILY series possesses extensive information regarding the Woolson family line, including Constance Fenimore Woolson’s predecessors and successors. Correspondence among members of the family and addressed to members of the family is found in this series. The Clare Benedict sub-series is also included, which contains correspondence between herself and Rollins College in addition to documentation of her life abroad. The C.F. WOOLSON SOCIETY series is divided into two sub-series: Conferences and Correspondence. In the first sub-series, documentation of the planning and execution of the Society’s various conferences is included; in the second sub-series, correspondence between members of the Society is organized by surname. The PHOTOGRAPHS series contains pictures which largely focus on the following themes: the C.F. Woolson Society and its members, locations important to the Woolson family (both in the United States and abroad), portraits of the Woolson family, pictures of the Woolson House, and pictures of the individual items included in the Woolson Collection. The MEDIA series includes four DVDs and five VHS cassette tapes, all of which document the C.F. Woolson Society’s initial conference, which was hosted at Rollins College in 1995. Not considered a series but still a part of the Woolson Collection is a library of 214 books, which includes works written by Constance Fenimore Woolson, volumes from her personal library, and works regarding her literature and her life. Records are available online through the Olin Library catalog.
Source of Acquisition
Constance Fenimore Woolson, January 1894; Clare Rathbone Benedict, October 1961.
Existence and Location of Originals
multi-part note content
- Clare Benedict Collection of Constance Fenimore Woolson
- Kathleen Reich and Bethany Reynolds
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Code for undetermined script
- Language of description note