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Sarah Orne Jewett is often classified as a writer of New England fiction as part of what was known as the ”local color movement” during the last half of the nineteenth century. Jewett, like other writers of this movement, stayed true to a particular setting, making sure to capture the flavor of a local history, speech, and culture. Jewett focused on the rural past of her native Maine and faithfully depicted the characters, culture, and flavor of that area. Jewett wrote across genres, publishing several novels, short stories, verses, and one book of nonfiction, but is best known for her sketches about provincial life in New England during the 1800s.
Biographical and Historical Context
Jewett, the second of three daughters, was born on September 3, 1849, in South Berwick, Maine, to Caroline F. Perry and Dr. Theodore H. Jewett. Her childhood was spent with a large extended family in her paternal grandfather’s home, where she cultivated diverse reading interests in discovering authors like Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Jewett’s formal education was inconsistent as a result of her rheumatism, a type of arthritis or soreness of the joints. Since her father, a doctor, prescribed being outdoors for the serious illness, she freely explored her surroundings and even accompanied her father on house calls. Along the way, he taught her about nature and literature, and Jewett learned the intimate ways of local community, to be reflected in her future creative work.
Writing and Pseudonyms
Born into a financially comfortable family, Jewett began to write at her leisure, and by 1867, was ready to submit short stories to magazines under the pseudonyms A. D. Eliot, Alice Eliot, and Sarah C. Sweet. During the next few years, she published several pieces on the ”local color” of villages in coastal Maine in the Atlantic Monthly. William Dean Howells, an editor of the periodical as well as a novelist, encouraged Jewett to revise the stories and publish them in a single volume. To frame the different sketches, she created two fictional narrators—Helen Denis and her friend Kate Lancaster, two Bostonians spending the summer in a Maine fishing village. The work became the episodic novel Deephaven (1877).
Literary Circle and Friendship
After the publication of Deephaven, Jewett participated in a literary circle fostered by Atlantic publisher James T. Fields and his wife, socialite and biographer Annie Fields, a close friend of Jewett’s since childhood. When James died in 1881, Annie deepened her relationship with Jewett and leaned on her for comfort and companionship. The two women toured Europe and socialized with notable writers, including English poets Christina Rossetti and Alfred Tennyson. When they returned to Boston, Jewett would live with Annie for six months of every year after 1882. Together, they held literary salons and invited the likes of novelist and short story writer Henry James, ”fireside poet” and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, and novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Jewett and Annie’s close relationship was characterized as a ”Boston marriage,” the common nickname for close relationships between financially independent, intellectual, progressive women during that time. Many scholars debate whether Annie and Jewett’s relationship should be classified as lesbian. Jewett biographer Paula Blanchard argues: ”Sarah Orne Jewett’s love for other women was as passionate and absorbing as any heterosexual man’s, but from all available evidence, it never led to direct sexual expression.”
Short Story Collections and A Country Doctor
Jewett published the collections Old Friends and New (1879), Country By-Ways (1881), and The Mate of Daylight, and Friends Ashore (1884), a book dedicated to Annie. Jewett wrote about the intense connection to her friend, a heartfelt ”understanding” that was ”like a flame on the altar to friendship.”
In 1884, Jewett published a novel, A Country Doctor. This semi-autobiographical novel focuses on orphan Nan Price as she accompanies her guardian, Dr. Leslie, on his country rounds and ultimately grows to become a young woman inspired to pursue a career in medicine. A Country Doctor received praise for its characterization and setting, but negative press for its dull and unrealistic romance between Nan and suitor George.
A White Heron and Other Works
Critics praise Jewett’s A White Heron and Other Stories (1886) as an example of her strongest fiction. After the successful collection, Jewett switched genres and published The Story of the Normans (1887), a historical volume in the ”Story of the Nations” series published by G. P. Putnam’s. Critics consider the work one of Jewett’s worst, as Jewett combines history, legend, and anecdote with the personal theory that the Norman race was superior to other races. Jewett returned to fiction with the short story collection The King of Folly Island and Other People (1888).
In the 1890s, the prolific Jewett published four more collections of short stories, a children’s book, and her most famous novel, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), which was serialized before its print in book form. Jewett and Annie traveled to Florida, the Caribbean, and Chicago, where they attended the Columbian Exposition, and sailed twice to Europe where they socialized with Rudyard Kipling and Henry James, among other literary figures. In 1889, friend Alice Longfellow suggested Jewett holiday in the Boothbay Harbor region of Maine, and from then on, Jewett frequented the area. In September 1895, she and Annie rented a small guest house, the Anchorage, in Martinsville for a month of reading, rest, and long walks. The geography—the rocky coast, the view of offshore islands, the fir trees of the St. George Peninsula—seems to have inspired the creation of Dunnet Landing, the village in The Country of the Pointed Firs.
Her Last Fiction
Jewett’s last volume of short fiction, The Queen’s Twin and Other Stories, published in 1899, included two more Dunnet Landing sketches that were later incorporated into most editions of The Country of the Pointed Firs. In 1901, Jewett was the first woman presented an honorary doctorate by Bowdoin College, her father’s alma mater. Also in 1901, Jewett published her last novel, a historical romance set in the American Revolution about her hometown of Berwick, called The Tory Lover. On her fifty-third birthday, she was thrown from a carriage and sustained serious head and spinal injuries. Jewett never fully recovered. In 1904, ”A Spring Sunday” was her last story published. Jewett still wrote letters to friends and established a new pen pal in author Willa Cather. Jewett had a stroke in March 1909, and on June 24 of that year, died at home of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was buried with her parents and sisters in South Berwick.
Works in Literary Context
Jewett strove to depict the truth through authentic characterization and realism, a result of reading famous contemporary authors George Eliot, known for her realism, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, known for her sentimental-ism. Jewett was also influenced by French realist Gustave Flaubert, who emphasized the ordinary. She pinned two quotations from him over her desk: ”Write ordinary life as if writing history,” and ”The writer’s job is to make one dream.”
Depictions of Maine
Like much of Jewett’s body of work, The Country of the Pointed Firs is built on themes of nostalgia, community, family, and friendship. She looks to a village of Maine seamen and their families and uses a narrator, Mrs. Todd, to provide personal and specific description of the rural Dunnet Landing. The novel’s narrative holds together through the narrator’s encounters with various townspeople who tell her long stories from their past. The novel uses the idea of storytelling to demonstrate how individuals connect to their larger community through their sense of common experience. Mrs. Todd becomes the keeper of the town history as she encounters each person and collects their stories.
Nature in ”A White Heron” (1886)
In the short story ”A White Heron,” the female protagonist, Sylvia, has a close relationship with nature, as she lives with her grandmother in a pastoral setting. In keeping silent about the heron’s nest when a hunter offers her money for information about finding the bird, Sylvia values the natural world over her own human community, particularly since she sacrifices the means to help her grandmother save the aging farm. In ”A White Heron,” as throughout much of her work, Jewett addresses the questions that surround a woman’s relationship to herself, a woman’s relationship to humanity at large, and a woman’s relationship to the natural world.
Works in Critical Context
Jewett’s critical contemporaries praised her for the sense of regionalism or ”local color” in her work. Today, criticism of Jewett’s work is much more multi-faceted. Many modern-day critics mark her canon as a nostalgic archive of American history. Other critics see a timely environmental message in Jewett’s rich detail of the Maine coast, while still others focus on the characterization of independent women and analyze the proto-feminist/lesbian aspects of her work.
A Very Charming Characterization
Jewett was known for the details of her fictional worlds, most specifically in the way she depicted her characters. Eleanor M. Smith in the New England Quarterly writes that Jewett’s work ”was centered in the misunderstood people of her countryside.” Martha H. Shackford of Sewanee Review elaborates on the idea, suggesting Jewett’s stories are ”always stories of character.” Shackford goes on to say that ”[p]lots hardly exist in [Jewett’s] work; she had little interest in creating suspense or in weaving threads of varied interests.” Author Willa Cather remarked that Jewett ”had with her own stories and her own characters a very charming relation; spirited, gay, tactful, noble in its essence and a little arch in its expression.”
Though Jewett’s contemporaries, Willa Cather and William Dean Howells, praised Jewett’s first book, many critics did not think the episodic novel was very successful. Some reviewers argued that the two female narrators failed to unite the novel’s ”episodes” in a coherent plot. But Patti Capel Swartz argues for a more complex reading and proposes in Gay and Lesbian Literature that Deephaven contains meaning for lesbian readers: ”The relationship of Kate and Helen in Jewett’s Deephaven, particularly the scene where they dance in the moonlight, has touched deeply the hearts of lesbian readers attempting to find themselves in literature.” One popular analysis of the novel, as with other Jewett works, has, in fact, been a lesbian interpretation, as exemplified by Judith Fetterley’s ”Reading Deephaven as a Lesbian Text.” However, Margaret Roman, in Reconstructing Gender, suggests that the relationship between the female narrators in the novel illuminate the development—and stagnation—of a young woman’s identity and her search to break free from the conventional gender roles to which she is assigned.
- Roman, Margaret. Sarah Orne Jewett: Reconstructing Gender. Birmingham, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1992.
- Cather, Willa. Not Under Forty. New York: Knopf, 1936, p. 84.
- The Country of the Pointed Firs: Novels for Students. Ed. David Galens. Detroit: Gale, 2002, pp. 21-38.
- Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. Eds. Jessica Bomarito and Jeffrey Hunter. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 2005, pp. 251-261.
- Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909), Modern American Eds. Joann Cerito and Laurie DiMauro. Vol. 2. Detroit: St. James Press, 1995, pp. 101-103.
- Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Eds. Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer. Vol 8. Detroit: Yorkin Publications, 2002, pp. 145-149.
- Shackford, Martha H. ”Sarah Orne Jewett: General Commentary.” Sewanee Review (January 1922): 23.
- Smith, Eleanor M. New England Quarterly (December 1956): 474-75.
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