All Things Italy April 2022 April is the Cruelest Month? 

April 29, 2022 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Whew! What a month it’s been! This bouquet of flowers captures one of April’s surprising bright spots, which have punctuated periods of stress. T. S. Eliot’s oft-quoted line, “April is the cruelest month,” often has come to mind. The proverbial April showers added to the gloom, but more troubling have been eye issues, as yet unresolved. Not fun for anyone, but especially for writers and readers! In early April I set aside contact lenses, which I have worn since my thirteenth birthday. Struggling with glasses for distance while trying to read the computer screen and books at hand has been less than ideal. There have been the typical dull ache of wanting the semester to be over, because students want it to be over. But these slight “cruelties,” of course, are meagre in comparison to what many in our world face right now. Indeed, as I reflect on the month, I also recall good stresses and delights. That is, there have been tastes of the May flowers ahead. 

The lovely bouquet was one–a surprise gift for a talk I gave last week, to kick off the fifth annual Missouri Humanities Symposium. The symposium theme? Food, not flowers. I drew from my essay in the new Palgrave Handbook of Utopian and Dystopian Literatures. Its appearance is one of the month’s bright spots. I committed to write the essay in the summer of 2017. What does that delay say to you about the timeline of academic publishing? The essay, simply called “Food,” is available in both paper and electronic formats. I was equally gifted last week by the other rich information on agricultural possibilities for improving Missouri eating. I’m grateful to have been a participant (and super grateful to have received the flowers).  

Engaging Italy Updates

Adding to the excitement last week and highlights this month, I also gave a talk on Engaging Italy—so much fun to do with the book in hand! Many of you saw on social media the photo of my author copies, which arrived at the end of March. After working on a book for more than seven years, and having the big baby nearby, it’s tough to select material for a thirty-minute talk. But I try to tailor to the audience and what their interests might be, of course. This last talk was for English graduate students and faculty at Missouri State, so in addition to some biographical info about Anne Hampton Brewster, Caroline Crane Marsh, and Emily Bliss Gould, and their transnational networks in 1870s Italy, I discussed a couple of literary works. I hope I get several more chances to refine the presentations for other audiences. (I have one talk scheduled for September. More on scheduling talks below . . . )

Also related—I’ve been delighted to see photos friends and family have shared of their copies, recently received! I’m looking forward to seeing some reviews posted on Goodreads, Amazon, and elsewhere . . . . And, speaking of reviews—if you or someone you know would like to write one, please reach out. I’ll help you get a review copy!  

Don’t have a copy yet? If you’re not ready to purchase an expensive hard cover edition—have no fear—Consider these options for action: 1) ask your library to purchase a copy 2) as a newsletter subscriber, hope that you’ll win a copy in the “giveaway” drawings I’ll be doing before the paperback arrives in October.

Not yet a subscriber to All Things Italy? Subscribe now to add your name to the pool! 

Want a taste of the book? You can find an excerpt from the introduction on the SUNY Press website.

Woolson, Zoar, and Italy

Zoar Separatist Community
Zoar Separatist Community, Ohio, established 1817.

Also adding to April’s busy-ness, I traveled to the Constance Fenimore Woolson Society Conference–this year in Cleveland, with a day trip to Zoar. The “Woolites,” as group members call themselves, convene regularly in a site associated with Woolson. Who was Woolson, you may be wondering?  

Constance Fenimore Woolson
Author Constance Fenimore Woolson
Constance Fenimore Woolson photo in archives of Western Reserve Historical Society Library

The popular nineteenth-century fiction writer has been labeled Henry James’s muse, featured in Colm Tóibín‘s The Master. But Woolson was much more—worthy of being known for the striking fiction she wrote. Neither romantic nor sentimental (as many nineteenth-century women writers have been categorized), Woolson wrote with a realist and almost modernist edge. (For more info, see especially the biography by Anne Boyd Rioux and critical works by Cheryl Torsney, Sharon Dean, and others.) And visit the Woolson Society webpage, which contains a wealth of information and links to much of her writing, available free in electronic form). Woolson set her stories in locales where she lived or frequently visited: Ohio, the Great Lakes, Florida, and the Mediterranean. She featured Italy in her final 14 years, while she lived on the peninsula. She died in Venice in 1894. And, yes, she figures in to Engaging Italy

I first came in contact with Woolson’s work because of her writings about Italy. I recommend these to any Italian lover, but especially to those who like late-nineteenth century fiction. You will not be disappointed! My favorites: “The Front Yard,” “A Transplanted Boy,” “A Christmas Party,” and “A Florentine Experiment.” But there are so many others! 

During the conference, on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, we visited the Western Reserve Historical Society, where many of Woolson’s papers are in the archives.

Reading room, Western Reserve Historical Society Library, which houses many Woolson papers
A letter from Woolson to her niece Flora, upon her arrival in Florence. The letter is one of many manuscripts in the Western Reserve Historical Society Library archives.
Statesman and Colonel John Hay, Woolson’s uncle by marriage, paid for her burial and headstone in Rome’s cimitero acattolico, also known as the Protestant Cemetery. Poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley and US Ambassdor George Perkins Marsh were also interred there. Document source: Western Reserve Historical Society Library

We also toured the Hay-McKinney Mansion (which Woolson’s aunt, Clara Stone Hay, had built). One highlight of the many insightful conference talks was Anne Boyd Rioux’s keynote, the annual Sadar Lecture for the university. She placed Woolson’s writings (and recovery of her works) into the larger context of women writers in the academy and in the publishing world. You can see a video of the Sadar Lecture here.

Anne Boyd Rioux gives annual Sadar Lecture at Case Western Reserve University

Woolson also has a connection to utopian or intentional communities. She often visited the German Separatist community at Zoar, Ohio. This year our conference group headed south from Cleveland to   Zoar, following Woolson’s footsteps. Our tour guide (and a conference speaker) was former Executive Director Kathleen Fernandez, author of two books on Zoar. She shared some fascinating correspondence between Woolson’s father, Charles, and Zoar leaders. Constance wanted a boat built for her use during her summer stays, and the family enjoyed the agricultural goods the community provided (butter, eggs, “bretzels,” and wine).Fernandez’s latest book (image below), includes quotations from these materials as well as a previously unpublished poem Woolson wrote about Zoar.  

I first met Fernandez at Zoar long ago, through our mutual membership in Communal Societies. I knew nothing of Woolson then, nor did I know that I would give a talk on Woolson and Zoar at my second visit to the historic site in 2017. (I wrote a bit about that here).  

Zoar Greenhoues
Zoar Greenhouse
Kathleen Fernandez, inside the Zoar greenhouse

What’s Ahead: Off the Beaten Track in Italy?

This newsletter has gone on for so long—with no reviews of contemporary fiction or film. Woolson’s 19th century works will have to suffice!  You can see that April has been a busy month. I’m looking forward to a little more breathing room in May, and more joys, as I travel to Italy. My itinerary is not yet finalized. But in addition to time in the busy cities of Rome, Florence, and Naples, I anticipate trips to less-visited sites. I’ll be seeking them out in Tuscany, Liguria, and the Piedmont. As I work on the next book project, I plan to share pictures of the more memorable moments.  

Keep Reaching Out 

In the meantime, I hope you keep reaching out. Do keep me informed of your journeys. I love being involved in your dreaming, planning, and experiencing! One of you (you know who you are!) just retuned from a first trip to Italy, with time in Bologna and its outskirts and in Florence. A second trip is in the works!  

Will you be in Italy this summer? Do you have questions about your plans? Would you like to meet up? Or, are you thinking of next winter, spring or summer of 2023?  

Are you part of a group or organization—a book club, a historical society, etc.–who looks for speakers? 

Feel free to reach out, as I am looking ahead to the fall (one talk scheduled!) and winter, even as the summer in Italy lies ahead.

Alla prossima!  


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Etta Madden