Why does a scholar spend years writing a biography? What keeps the flame going?
“It was not just an academic exercise to me,” Anne Boyd Rioux said. “It never has been. I was finding my voice through liberating her voice.”
And the result is a duet that is clear and strong and exciting.
In “Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist,” Rioux’s chosen subject is one of America’s lost women writers, a confederate of Henry James and a bestselling novelist in her day. When Rioux saw that she was disappearing from anthologies and no longer being taught, the University of New Orleans professor got to work.
Woolson (1840-1894) was the author of a diverse array of novels and short stories. She traveled extensively and died in what many assume was a suicide during her final illness, falling or jumping from a window in her home in Venice. She struggled with money and ill health and loneliness, but kept writing, creating a still relevant and exciting body of work that Rioux guides readers to in this new book.
Woolson featured in Rioux’s earlier books, “Wielding the Pen” and “Writing for Immortality,” but it was clear the time was right for a full biography. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Rioux pursued her passion. In addition to the biography, she edited an edition of “Miss Grief and Other Stories,” with an introduction by Irish writer Colm Toibin, author of the bestselling novel about Henry James, “The Master.”
What kept her going? “I fell in love with her,” Rioux said.
The 46 year-old Missouri native grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, graduating from the University of Minnesota with an interdisciplinary study of creativity. “I dealt with the subject through theory, history and praxis, so when I wrote about sculpture, I took a sculpture class. When I wrote about theater, I took an acting class.”
Then it was on to Purdue, where she received her Ph. D. in American Studies. She came to UNO in 1999, her first academic job, and she is now a full professor in English and Gender Studies. Anne and her husband, Paul Rioux, and daughter, Emma, made their home in Lakeview until Katrina, and now live Uptown.
“I’m the daughter of a frustrated writer,” Rioux said. “And I still harbor fantasies of writing novels, but it’s easier for me to write about literature. But I’m always thinking, how is it that women writers in the past were able to overcome such huge odds?”
Her work in progress is a biography of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” to be published in 2018, just in time for that book’s 150th anniversary.
“I wanted to write a biography of a book,” she said. “There have been others — Rebecca Mead’s book about “Middlemarch” and Maureen Corrigan’s book about “The Great Gatsby.” I’ve become disenchanted with academic writing. My first book cost $85, so not very many people read it.”
As a young reader, Rioux was enchanted with the March family, especially Jo. She recalls with pleasure telling her daughter Emma that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling wanted to be Jo. But she is concerned that “Little Women” is not taught.
“That speaks so much to the attitudes we have as a culture about girls and the attitude we have to books about girls. It’s not taught as much as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which I can understand, but “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” … Really? Then how does it have this status as a classic? Why is it extra-canonical?
“For one thing, (“Little Women”) is a book that was handed down from mother to daughter. It’s a book that was read privately, not publicly. And at its heart, it’s a book about what it’s like to grow up as a girl.”
Questions and inequities remain about the status of women writers; Rioux is quick to acknowledge the contributions of the VIDA count, for example, which tallies reviews and publications by women in mainstream media, as well as Facebook groups that support women writers.
“What happened to Woolson is still happening today,” Roux said. “There are still writers who fall through the cracks and disappear.”
But not if she has anything to say about it. Her other new project is the Bluestocking Bulletin, which profiles a different woman writer every month. Find it at anneboydrioux.com. If Rioux has her way, we’ll be seeing the work of many women writers brought to light.
Susan Larson is the host of the radio program, The Reading Life, on WWNO, and the author of “The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.”