About 180 paces off Huron Road running in front of the Victorian East Bluff cottages on Mackinac Island, an inconspicuous sign points westward toward “Anne’s Tablet.” Follow the trail through cedar and ironwood and basswood, over limestone rills covered in myrtle and, in June and July, a million hand-high floating yellow stars of the northern yellow lungwort, and visitors arrive at one of Mackinac Island’s remaining secret places: a dell containing a shrine to the 19th-century writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, from which visitors take in a magnificent view over the harbor and the Straits.
A bronze plaque, titled “Anne,” illustrates in basrelief a young woman reaching for a branch of spruce, her loose-fitting dress swirling around her. Next to her are poetic lines from her popular first novel, Anne, the first half of which is set on Mackinac:
She loved the island and the island trees; she loved the wild larches the tall spires of the spruces bossed with lighter green, the gray pines and the rings of the juniper. Hear the rustling and the laughing of the forest and the waves of the waters on the pebbly shores.
The text at the bottom reads, “In memoriam, Constance Fenimore Woolson, 1840–1894, Author-Traveler, who has expressed her love of this island and its beauty in the words of her heroine Anne,” dated 1916.
Still, the shrine begs this question: Why in 1916 would someone memorialize a writer who, though her fame among her contemporaries ran deep, is remembered, until recently, only here?
Her family had visited Mackinac from Cleveland several times in her youth, early tourists staying at the old Indian agency. Her memories from those days infuses the beauty of Anne. But she spent most of her writing life in St. Augustine, Florida, and Europe.
But her personal life was full of romantic heartbreak. She herself may have fallen in love with a soldier at the fort, as does her character Anne, only to have him stolen away by a sexy French-Indian vixen. Later, while living and writing in Europe, she set her sights on the unattainable “Master” of American letters, Henry James. They corresponded daily for years, and shared a villa in Florence for two months in 1887. But James was unable to respond to her romantically—perhaps due to a closeted homosexuality, or a private deformity, or, as he always said, his heart held room only for love of his art.
As well, Constance suffered many documented bouts of depression. Whatever the cause, the rebuff from James sent her reeling into despair. We’ll never know what they wrote to each other—they both burned the letters. What we do know is that, in 1894, she fell—by accident but more likely design—to her death from her rented villa in Venice.
Unlucky in love, she was hugely successful in her time as poet, travel writer and novelist, selling far more books than James. Yet while James’s star remains among the highest in the literary firmament, Woolson’s disappeared with her death.
Except on Mackinac Island. In 1916, her wealthy nephew, Cleveland industrialist and East Bluff cottager Samuel Mather, donated funds to memorialize his aunt. But, according to island historian Frank Strauss, there was a second motive. The Mackinac Island State Park Commission, then as now hungry for revenue, had leased land in the 1880’s and 1890’s where the great cottages of the East and West bluffs were built and still stand. Some islanders, worried that more beloved sites might be lost, conspired to place commemorative plaques in spectacular locations to frustrate future construction. Four such plaques, including Woolson’s, were erected in the 1910’s, and each still stands. So that is why Mackinac visitors know the story of this pioneering woman writer, and now why you do too.
Today Constance Fenimore Woolson is undergoing an inspiring renaissance. Her once best-selling novel, Anne, has been reprinted and sells briskly at the Island Bookstore. The University of Michigan Press reprinted her Great Lakes collection of “moody” stories, Castle Nowhere. The academic Woolson Society has met more or less biannually since 1995 to revive her reputation. And her intense relationship with Henry James has become the centerpiece of three recent novels, including the brilliant 2004 Booker-prize finalist The Master, by Colm Toibin.
James P. Lenfestey writes from Minneapolis and Mackinac Island. Catch his poetry workshops at the Grand Hotel, 10:45 a.m., Wednesdays, in July and August.
For over 30 years the staff at Traverse Magazine has written about the history and natural world of our region. For the web series, Traverse Classics, we’ve reached into our archives to bring our favorites to our MyNorth.com audience.