As someone who just turned fifty-six, I take comfort in the example of late bloomers, and it was a delight to note that Anne Goodwin Winslow was 68 when she published her first book, The Dwelling Place, in 1943. Now, that’s not strictly true–she did publish a collection of her poetry, The Long Gallery, in 1925, at the age of fifty. But in the space of six years between 68 and 75, she managed to publish a body of work that compares well with what some others take a lifetime to produce.
Born on her family’s estate outside Memphis, Tennessee, she and her sisters were educated by their attorney father in a rather laissez-faire manner. He gave them the run of his library and encouraged them to spend long hours reading and thinking and talking about what they read. Then, when she was still a teenager, Eben Eveleth Winslow, a West Point graduate and captain in the Corps of Engineers, asked for her hand and off she went into the itinerant life of an Army wife. Their tours included Oahu, where Winslow oversaw the construction of Fort DeReussy and other fortifications, and Panama, where he built bases to protect the new canal. He became the Army’s expert on coastal fortifications, and his 1920 book, Notes on Seacoast Fortification Construction, can be found on the Internet Archive (link). Over a thirty year career, he rose to be the acting Chief of Engineers when the U. S. entered World War One in 1917 and led the enormous expansion of the Army’s ranks and facilities over the next two years.
When General Winslow retired in 1922, he and Anne headed back to Anne’s family home outside Memphis. There they oversaw the raising of cotton, fruit and nuts, pigs and cattle, and she began to write and publish her poetry. Winslow died in 1928. With both her children grown and out of the house, Anne settled into the graceful life of a dowager, with a steady stream of visitors to keep things interesting.
Her poetry was quickly accepted by such journals as the Atlantic and the North American Review, and she developed friendships with a number of literary figures, including Vachel Lindsay and William Alexander Percy. Allen Tate and his wife, Caroline Gordon, became particular friends, and the aging Ford Madox Ford came along for a visit while on his extended stay with the Tates as their house guest. In one of his very last books, Great Trade Route (1937), Ford described the Winslow home as antebellum menagerie, very relaxed, where, “… peacocks wandered nonchalantly in and out of the room, and it was quiet, and profuse, and hospitable.” Life there seemed “to run on wheels in a deep shade.”
The Dwelling Place is Anne Goodwin Winslow’s amused, affectionate, and poetic tribute to her home. Despite her many years away with the Army–”the antithesis of permanence”–it remained at the center of her emotional life: “I do not see how anyone can get along without at least one thing in his life that he can think of as being both intimate and permanent.”
Starting with a chapter on solitude, she portrays the house, the land, its people, animals, plants and visitors (living and spectral) over the course of a year through a series of loosely-connected sketches. Although absolutely at home in a way of life–with a grand mansion, a large garden full of magnolia trees and wisteria-laden trellises, and a cook, maid, groundskeeper and handyman–that was near its end, she was also a sophisticated woman, widely-traveled and read. She wrote one of the first articles about Rilke’s poetry to appear in an American journal and was comfortable reading and translating both French and German. When she reaches for a classical allusion or a line from Keats, it’s always at her fingertips.
As a result, there is an elegance and grace throughout The Dwelling Place that makes one wish for the opportunity to have spent some time as Anne Goodwin Winslow’s guest.
She herself wondered, however, why people came to her home seeking a “quiet” week in the country:
How did the idea ever get abroad that nature is given to tranquility? A certain amount of self-restraint is necessary for tranquility, and nature has none. She is all out and total about everything, and noisy besides, and peace, I should say, is about the last thing on the list of her requirements–or solitude. Nothing in nature wants to be alone for one breathing instant, and everything that has a voice is perpetually lifting it up in desire or bereavement, with overtones of threat or challenge, and whinnyings for help–our own unrest made audible. I have grown so suspicious of nature’s motives as expressed in sound that only the accidental, frictional noises–wind rustling the leaves or water slipping over stones–gives me a feeling of repose. I made up my mind long ago that nobody who has had much sorrow, or even too much happiness, should ever go to the country to forget about it.
Writing during America’s first full year in the Second World War, she is quick to acknowledge that, compared to hers, “life has been so shot up to pieces for so many people that I would hesitate to speak again of any bombs that fell on mine.” She doesn’t claim that what she has created is a good book, one that will offer “present help in trouble,” but she credits the effort for its therapeutic value: “… maybe only those who write have learned the saving power that lay in many a poor one.”
She also questions her ability to venture into the realm of fiction: “I doubt very much if I could write a novel, but I would be willing to try for the sake of all the dear people who like to worry over me.” Ironically, the act of writing The Dwelling Place must have released hitherto-unrecognized creative energies, for over the course of the next five years, Anne Goodwin Winslow was to publish five books of fiction: A Winter in Geneva and Other Stories (1945); Cloudy Trophies (1946); A Quiet Neighborhood (1947); Springs (1949); and It Was Like This (1949).
The pace of her writing slowed down considerably after that and her published works were limited to a few short stories and poems. She died in late 1959 at the age of eight-four, and was buried with her husband in Arlington National Cemetery. You can find their grave records here. Her family home, known as Goodwinslow, still stands (see coordinates in Google Map) and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (see entry).
The Dwelling Place, by Anne Goodwin Winslow
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943