In 1875, Constance Fenimore Woolson published a short story collection titled Castle Nowhere: Lake Country Sketches. The collection consists of three stories. The first, “Castle Nowhere,” is set off the shores of Lake Michigan and near Beaver Island, and the other two, “Jeanette” and “The Old Agency,” which are connected, are set on Mackinac Island.
While Woolson was not the first author to set fiction in Upper Michigan, she was one of the pioneers of regional fiction for the area, and I believe the short story, “Castle Nowhere,” is probably the first Gothic work set in this region. And even the other two stories in the collection have Gothic elements, although I would not classify them as truly Gothic so I will not discuss them here.
From the beginning of “Castle Nowhere,” Woolson applies a Gothic atmosphere. The first character we are introduced to, Jarvis Waring, is a wanderer figure. He is a surveyor sent to Upper Michigan, but he feels like he has no purpose in the world. He also has conversations with “the Spirit of Discontent,” which is his restless wanderer self—in other words, he speaks to himself. (While I don’t think Jarvis Waring’s name has any symbolic connotations, it’s interesting to note that Jarvis was Woolson’s father’s middle name.)
Woolson also clearly sees the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as a Gothic place because of its wild forests. This concept of the forest as Gothic is something she borrows from her great-uncle, James Fenimore Cooper, and other earlier American authors like Charles Brockden Brown and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Cooper, especially, took the Gothic out of the castles of Europe and set it in the forests of America where people could easily become lost in the wilderness and where savage Indians threatened white settlers. That said, both Woolson and Cooper were sympathetic to Native Americans and often depicted Natives with redeeming characteristics. “Castle Nowhere” has no Native American characters in it, but the other two stories in the collection do, and Woolson includes other marginalized people in the story.
As the story begins, Waring has entered the woods of Upper Michigan to survey from the Lake Superior shore, but he becomes lost and finally stumbles back onto the lakeshore, not knowing where he is—later he’ll learn he has walked across the peninsula and has arrived on the shore of Lake Michigan, not far from the location of Beaver Island. As he is making camp for the night, Waring, speaking to his Spirit, says he would shake hands with Old Nick (the devil) himself because he is lonely. Soon after, “a phantom skiff” appears on the water, bearing Fog, a man who saw Waring’s fire and stops to visit him. Waring is wary of Fog, who says he comes from “Nowhere” and leads a “wandering life,” but he is polite and lets Fog stay.
Soon after, however, Waring wakes in the night to discover Fog has stolen a book and picture from him. Waring sees Fog making his way out into the water where he has moored his boat. Waring then takes a few days to create a dugout boat of his own and sets off in the direction Fog went to reclaim his property, saying, “I’ll find that ancient mariner,” an obvious reference that equates Fog to Coleridge’s doomed iconic Gothic wanderer figure. Indeed, as the story progresses, Fog reveals himself to be the quintessential Gothic wanderer.
Waring travels on the lake through a fog, but in the morning, the fog lifts and reveals a log house floating on the lake; this structure is the Castle Nowhere of the title, which explains Fog’s saying he was from Nowhere. This moment is interesting because it shows how Woolson is drawing on the Gothic tradition as created by her great-uncle in his novel The Deerslayer. In that novel, “Floating” Tom Hutter lives in a house in the middle of a lake. He also has two daughters living with him, whom he later on his deathbed confesses are not his daughters but stepdaughters. Waring soon discovers that Fog also has a daughter, named Silver, who lives with him (although not until the end of the story will she learn that Fog is not her father), as well as a servant who is a negress.
Woolson again draws on Gothic elements in her depiction of Silver as an innocent young girl who does not know good from evil because she is never allowed to venture off the floating house. She is a sort of Eve before eating the apple, but also a Rapunzel kept by a type of male witch in the form of Fog, and an Immalee, an innocent young woman who lives on an island in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Immalee knows nothing of the world save for Melmoth, a cursed supernatural wanderer, who visits her on the island where she is otherwise solitary. Melmoth makes Immalee fall in love with him, and eventually, she ends up entering into a satanic marriage with him. Silver is so innocent that she knows nothing of the Bible and Fog doesn’t want her to. She also has no knowledge of death. Previously, a servant boy, Jacob, and Fog’s sister Shadow, lived with them, but both died of illness and Fog took their bodies away by boat at night so Silver would never have to experience death. Woolson describes Silver in many ways to emphasize her innocence, including calling her a “water-maiden” and a “fair pagan.”
When Waring arrives, Silver is happy to meet him, and they become acquainted before Fog returns from one of his journeys. Fog is not happy at first to see Waring, but when he sees how Silver likes Waring and when Waring understands that Fog stole the book and picture for Silver, he keeps his mouth shut for a while. Later, however, Waring learns that Fog manages to support himself and Silver by being a scavenger and stealing, and worse, he is a “wrecker”—someone who puts lights on the shore to make sailors think it is a safe place to land a ship in a storm and then the ship ends up wrecked on the rocks. Fog then collects what belongings get washed ashore. Fog justifies the fact that he causes death for the shipwreck victims by saying that their lives matter nothing when compared to the pleasure he can give Silver by bringing her their belongings. Waring tries to stop Fog from wrecking a ship and the two end up in a scuffle with Fog hurting his leg. Waring then decides to stay to care for him for Silver’s sake because no one will provide for the family otherwise.
During this time, Fog tells Waring his story—that he committed a crime in New York unintentionally that caused him to become a wanderer, and finally, he convinced his sister to join him in his wanderings. They decided to call themselves Fog and Shadow because both are gone by morning—a wandering metaphor. Fog obviously suffers greatly, saying how his crime only took a minute, but his suffering is endless. Still, he believes God will eventually forgive him and be merciful (this despite how he continues to murder through causing shipwrecks). He claims that when he found Silver as an orphan child, he felt God was letting him know he would eventually be forgiven.
As winter approaches, Fog tells Waring he’s well enough to provide for Silver again, so Waring can leave before the lake freezes and the ice makes it impossible for him to depart. Waring, however, decides to stay because it’s clear he’s fallen in love with Silver. In time, it’s decided that Waring and Silver will marry and Waring will take her back to the real world. They wish to marry before they leave, so Fog and Waring go to nearby Beaver Island to kidnap a former Presbyterian minister who lives there among the Mormons so he can perform the marriage ceremony. This reference to the Mormons on Beaver Island makes it clear the story is set between 1848 and 1856 when the Mormons had a colony there before being driven off the island.
After the wedding, Fog becomes ill and dies, but not before his deathbed confession to Silver that she is not his daughter, but an orphan he found and cared for as if she were his own. This scene is obviously heavily influenced by Floating Tom’s death scene in The Deerslayer, as well as other scenes in Gothic tradition where people reveal family secrets on their deathbeds. As he dies, Fog asks God whether his sin is expiated, but whether he receives an answer is unknown as he dies right after the question is asked. After Fog’s death, Waring and Silver return to the civilized world, taking the negress with them, while Castle Nowhere slowly disintegrates and sinks into the lake until it is, indeed, Nowhere.
“Castle Nowhere” is both a remarkable and gripping story to read in many ways, as well as an early work that shows Woolson is clearly imitating authors she has read. It is also fascinating because of its Gothic, supernatural, and somewhat fairy tale atmosphere. Woolson would go on to write her first novel, Anne (1880), which bears some resemblance to “Castle Nowhere,” although it is more realistic; in that novel, the title character is also a young girl who has lived a sheltered but happy life on an island—although Mackinac Island and so she is isolated but not solitary—and eventually, Anne also leaves to enter the real world, only her experiences will not be happy, while we can predict that Silver and Waring will live happily ever after.
As a resident of the Upper Peninsula who is familiar with many of the locations Woolson writes about, I can say that the area remains heavily forested, and I can definitely see why it would inspire a Gothic atmosphere for a novel. Woolson, who was a close friend of Henry James, would go on to write many more books set in the Great Lakes area as well as the South before her fatal death falling out of a window in Venice. Some speculation exists that she committed suicide. Perhaps Woolson had a bit of the Gothic wanderer’s spirit about her.
If you wish to learn more about Woolson, a biography of her life will be published this year by Anne Boyd Rioux titled Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the Children of Arthur series. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com