Article abstract: Author of twenty books, Jewett was the most accomplished of the American writers associated with literary regionalism and a major force in the creation and development of an American women’s literary tradition.
The second of three sisters, Theodora Sarah Orne Jewett was born into an established and wealthy family in South Berwick, Maine, on September 3, 1849. Her grandfather, Captain Theodore Furber Jewett, had prospered in the West Indies trade in the early part of the century, leaving the family financially independent.
Although Sarah received her formal education at Miss Raynes’s School and at Berwick Academy in South Berwick, much of her true education came from her father, a country doctor. She was her father’s frequent companion on his house calls, especially when bouts of ill health kept her out of school. As they moved from house to house, he shared with her his close observations of the surrounding landscape as well as his thoughts on life and literature. Later, Sarah, by now an accomplished writer, would credit her father with pointing out to her that really great writers do not write about people and things, but describe them just as they are.
Young Sarah read widely in her parents’ substantial library, and when, at the age of seventeen, she read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862), she found in Stowe’s portrayal of scenes from Maine life a hint of the possibilities of the regionalist fiction in which Sarah herself would excel.
Sarah’s first published story, “Jenny Garrow’s Ghost,” appeared in The Flag of Our Union, a Boston weekly, on January 18, 1868. The nineteen-year-old author, unwilling at this point that others should know of her literary activities, used the pen name “Alice Eliot.” In December of the following year, after two polite rejections, the prestigious Atlantic Monthly published her story “Mr. Bruce,” confirming Sarah’s conviction that she was at least an apprentice writer.
She continued to write for the Atlantic and other publications. Finally, William Dean Howells, the novelist and editor, suggested to Sarah that she organize some of her sketches and short stories into a book. Sarah found this work painfully difficult, but the result, Deephaven (1877), marked her arrival at maturity as a writer.
The death of her father in 1878 was a difficult blow for Sarah Orne Jewett. Until his death, her relationship with him had been the most important of her life. Her closest adult emotional relationships were her friendships with women. The most important of these was with Annie Fields, whom Sarah met in the 1870’s, when Annie was married to the publisher James T. Fields, Annie’s senior by some seventeen years. After Fields’s death in 1881, Sarah and Annie’s friendship flowered into a “Boston marriage.” The term denotes a virtually spousal—although not necessarily, or even usually, sexual—relationship between two women. Sarah and Annie lived together for part of each year, they traveled together, and, when physically separated, kept in touch by letter. To their friends, it became natural to think of them as a couple.
In the years following Deephaven, Sarah continued to develop as a writer. She enjoyed her greatest success in the sketches and short stories set in her native Maine. That her life as an adult involved long periods of residence in Boston and of foreign travel seemed to strengthen her imaginative possession of the Maine setting. Her own experience justified the advice she later gave the younger novelist Willa Cather, that to know the parish one must first know the world.
She was mastering a form that was very much her own: a short narrative devoid of plot in terms of dramatic event and linear structure. The form allows for patient observation of the gradual unfolding of human relationships and the interrelationship of the human and the natural in places Sarah had known since childhood. Many of her stories have a conversational quality: a speaker, usually a woman, moves, by what seems superficially like random association, toward a clarification of emotional, spiritual, or moral truth that is the heart of the story.
She had less success with the more conventional sort of novel. Most readers find The Country Doctor (1884) her most interesting work in the novel form because of its content, the relationship of Nan Prince and Doctor Leslie, with its intriguing autobiographical resonance, and Nan’s determination to enter the medical profession, which was regarded by her contemporaries as a male preserve. Yet the novel achieves only limited dramatic power.
Still, Sarah continued to develop as a literary artist. Her progress was dramatically displayed in the collection A White Heron and Other Stories, published in 1886. The title story of the collection, perhaps Jewett’s most famous short story, exemplifies its author’s respect for the reader’s share in the...
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