The Sunday Rumpus Essay: How To Make Sure Your Writing Is Forgotten


I know a lot of you writers secretly fear fame. Admit it. All of those exhausting book tours, the public exposure, and invasive interviews. Suddenly you would have to worry about how every little tweet would be construed. Why go through it? So, you think, I’ll just hope that my work is immortalized after my death. Some scholar can rediscover me (they love doing that, right?) and I’ll be famous forever, like Moliere or Shakespeare.

But be careful what you wish for. Do you really want to have to listen from the grave as students discuss your themes and scholars analyze your syntax and trace your influence? You know they will get it all wrong—for eternity. Imagine how many times Shakespeare has rolled over in his grave. But fear not. It’s been proven that the posthumous spotlight can be avoided, even if you happen to accidentally become famous while you are still alive. Legions of writers who earned accolades in their day have simply vanished, as if they never existed. No matter if the quality of your work would seem to ensure it could stand the test of time, there are many ways to all but guarantee your erasure.

Take the case of the American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson. Her name’s not ringing any bells? She must have done something right. Never mind that The Boston Globe declared her America’s “novelist laureate” after the publication of her second novel in 1886, or that her writing was often compared to that of George Eliot, Henry James, and William Dean Howells. Forget that she was so famous that her editors at Harper’s valued her writing so much that they got her to sign an exclusive contract with their publishing house. The point is that she is virtually unknown today, except as the friend of Henry James who committed suicide in Venice. Her writings have been out of print for most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. How did she make it happen? Pay close attention. Here is how you, too, could disappear from literary memory, as if you had never written at all. 

1. Be a woman (preferably of color).

Although many male writers have been forgotten too, being a woman writer sure does help. The female sex was so thoroughly excluded from surveys and anthologies of American literature as the field was established at the turn of the twentieth century that most people didn’t know there were any women writers in the 1700s or 1800s.

Of course, being a writer of color, whether male or female, has been an even surer path to obscurity. (Charles Chesnutt and Sui Sin Far, among many others from the nineteenth century, were neglected for a century or more before scholars uncovered their work, and they are still largely unknown outside of academia.) By the second decade of the twentieth century, the American literary canon was for white men only. And by mid-century, if your name wasn’t Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, Hawthorne, or James (last name only, please), then you simply didn’t exist, unless you were a minor imitator of one of these “greats” (the basis on which Edith Wharton was initially included).

Constance Fenimore Woolson was a white woman who climbed probably as high as someone of her race, gender, and class (middle in comparison, say, to Wharton’s decidedly upper-class status) could in the nineteenth century. Fortunately for her, her demise was just as precipitous. A few voices objected. In 1906, only twelve years after her death, a reader wrote to the New York Times, “Miss Woolson has done too much for America and Americans to be forgotten and ignored.” And by 1920, an apparently lone critic lamented, “Miss Woolson, it seems, is forgotten. No one remembers her name, even.” Then the voices virtually stopped. Yet she wasn’t alone in disappearing from literary memory. The same could have been said of just about any other woman writer of her era.

2. Become close friends with a talented male writer who can overshadow you.

While you might run some risk of posthumous fame if you remain an independent entity, your reputation will usefully suffer if you befriend male writers (who will probably become more famous than you), unless perhaps you marry one of them. Female friends of famous male writers are rarely remembered, but wives carry the same name and thus might be resurrected. If you are a literary wife, playing the role of secretary or even unacknowledged co-writer, you could very easily be linked to his reputation. You might get a “wife of _____” biography written of you one day if you’re not careful.

Woolson wisely wasn’t interested in marrying her famous writer friend Henry James (despite his biographers’ assumptions to the contrary). She was drawn to him not because he was dapper or famous (in fact, when they met in 1880, the verdict was still out on James) but because she admired his writing and was looking for a fellow writer with whom to talk shop. Although he didn’t know who she was (she had made her reputation in America while he was living in Europe), they still became close friends. He showed her around Florence for a few weeks when he was supposed to be writing The Portrait of a Lady. In fact, it was her similarities to his heroine, Isabel Archer, that intrigued him. He would later that year begin to publish his famous novel in the Atlantic Monthly, and the rest is history—or his story.

Woolson chose well. She could not have chosen a larger shadow to obscure her. In some respects, being one of James’s closest friends has regrettably kept her name alive, but in others it has enabled her disappearance. Her writing couldn’t possibly be anywhere near as good as his, the assumption goes, so she must have been a wannabe or a hanger-on. It doesn’t matter that he wrote an appreciative essay of her work (the only essay about an American writer besides Emerson that he published in his collection Partial Portraits) or that he once said the only contemporary novels he read were Woolson’s and William Dean Howells’s. By being so close to him, she must always pale in comparison.

3. Burn all of the letters your famous male friend writes to you.

If you really want to be forgotten, then make sure you burn as many of your papers as you can, particularly the letters of your famous male writer friend. You don’t want anyone knowing how much he respected you or sought out your advice about his writing. You want to leave the impression that your relationship was one-sided and that you probably had an unrequited crush on him.

In an attempt to preserve her privacy, Woolson asked James to burn her letters to him and promised to do the same. He kept up his end of the bargain, for the most part. However, four of her letters to him from the early years of their friendship survived, left behind in the US to wind up in the papers of his brother, William James. There they were found by Henry James’s biographer Leon Edel. Woolson’s niece, Clare Benedict, who was still living at the time of the discovery, was dismayed that only Woolson’s side of the correspondence had survived. No one has ever been able to read the letters James wrote to Woolson that elicited the mockingly flirtatious tone in her letters to him

4. Piss off the biographer of your famous male writer friend with your presumption in thinking you are in the same league with him.

To ensure your fade into obscurity, may I suggest that you let on in your letters or perhaps a story that you think you are good enough to be your male writer friend’s peer. That way, the biographer who will inevitably come along to write his biography will do his best to put you in your place. That is precisely what Leon Edel did to Woolson after reading her story “Miss Grief,” in which a failed woman writer tells a successful male writer, “I had the greater power.” Edel destroyed Woolson’s reputation in his five-volume biography of James, calling her “prosy and banal, a journey-woman of letters.” He couldn’t imagine why James chose to bestow “upon work as regional and ‘magazineish’ as hers the discriminating literary taste which he had hitherto reserved for the leading European writers of fiction, or upon figures such as Hawthorne or even Howells.” Never mind that Edel had written to Woolson’s niece that he admired Woolson’s work very much and was thinking of writing her biography when he was done with James’s. (By the time Edel’s opus on James was published, Woolson’s niece had died. She didn’t live to see her aunt’s reputation ruined by the man who had once claimed to admire her.)

5. Stray beyond the borders of what is expected from a female writer.

Venturing outside of your sphere as a woman writer is a great way to court obscurity. It’s safer to aim for the margins of literary history by being a popular writer who appeals to female readers. Today we call such writing “chick lit” or “women’s fiction.” In the nineteenth century, a significant portion of the literature produced was also by and for women, relegated then as now to second-class status. But trying to contend in the same sphere as the men (what we today call “literary fiction”) is a sure way to disappear. Woolson gained short-term fame but long-term obscurity by writing her stories from a male perspective and eschewing happy endings in favor of realism. Some critics attacked her for not writing in a feminine mode, but by and large her writing was praised as “powerful” or “vigorous.” After her death, however, when the era of Realism was remembered, there was no room for a woman writer in the all-male club. When room was later made for one, Edith Wharton took the place of honor. And, of course, there could only be one.

7. Avoid overt feminism in your writing.

This way when feminist critics create an alternative women’s literary canon, they will ignore you. If you stick close to the guys by writing what is more respected, then you will escape detection, as Woolson did. I have heard at least one prominent feminist critic say that Woolson was too male-identified and thus was less worthy of recovery than other female writers who created female communities of writers and wrote primarily about women and children. Woolson wrote from a male perspective in some of her stories and did not overtly promote a feminist argument in favor of women’s independence (as Kate Chopin did in The Awakening, for instance), choosing instead to poke holes in the prejudiced perspectives of her male narrators. Subtlety, you might say, is also a way to make sure you fade into oblivion and stay there.

8. Experiment in your writing and take risks.

One breakout experimental work, particularly if you forge a new path that others follow, could gain you lasting fame, so be careful. But if you continue to innovate, critics may initially applaud your efforts, but they won’t know how to categorize you in the long run and will leave you alone. In each of her novels, Woolson experimented with new techniques, wanting to write modern novels that responded to then-current debates about artistry in the novel. As a result, she is difficult to label. Rather that cultivate one style or literary mode and stick with it, Woolson wrote about many different regions (the Great Lakes, the Reconstruction South, and Europe) and wrote many different types of novels: a female picaresque/Bildungsroman (Anne), a Jane Austen-esque novella set in a post-Civil War Appalachian community (For the Major), a marriage novel that responds to The Portrait of a Lady and is set in Florida (East of Angels), an action-driven novel that addresses domestic abuse and women’s passions (Jupiter Lights), and a Gilded Age novel of a robber baron and the young wife who marries for money and then falls in love with another man (Horace Chase). Each of these novels contains elements of domestic and social realism, literary regionalism, and emotion and empathy (pejoratively labeled sentiment), further indicating how Woolson colored outside the lines, only to confuse later critics.

9. Commit Suicide in Venice

Actually this might backfire and make you more famous after death, but it worked for Woolson. When word leaked out that her death was reported in Venetian newspapers as a suicide, her literary reputation took a nose dive. The woman writer who had seemed so genteel and refined was unmasked as unstable and unnatural. (This was before suicide developed a cultish respect, especially for women writers, á la Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath.) Even James deserted her, resenting that she had kept him “ignorant” of her final illness “with a perversity that was diseased.” Her death was so painful for him that he never wrote about her in print again when he could have doomed her to lasting fame by paying tribute to her. His silence was the final nail in the coffin that let her and her work rest peacefully ignored all these years. Now you know how to ensure your very own oblivion as well.

Cover of CFW--POLNOne caveat, however: results are not guaranteed, even if you follow each of these recommendations. Despite your best efforts, an academic might come along a century later and stumble across one of your books in a library and read it. Your words might stir in her a desire to share them with the world and reawaken your memory. She might even reprint them and write your biography, thinking that she really has your best interests at heart. Oh well, you can rest assured that you did your best to avoid it.

Anne Boyd Rioux is the author of Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist and editor of a collection of Woolson’s stories, Miss Grief and Other Stories, both published by W. W. Norton. She is a professor of English at the University of New Orleans and the recipient of two National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, one for public scholarship. She can be found on Facebook and Twitter and at More from this author →