Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2101
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...
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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 literary experience. She credited her father for pointing out to her the importance in fiction of leaving readers some work to do, rather than bullying them into a passive acceptance of predigested motives and meanings. In this story, indirection in presenting the moment of decision involves the reader centrally in the process of making meaning. This is an art based on process rather than product, on cooperation rather than conquest. Some readers have suggested that it is very much a woman’s sort of art, although appreciation of this art is by no means denied to men. In this case, any attentive reader must admire the delicacy and force (the two easily coexist in Jewett’s work) with which the author brings into play within the reader’s active mind many of the themes central to her fiction. She includes meditations on innocence and experience, on continuity and change, on the city and the country, on nature and culture, on masculine and feminine, on the imagination’s power to soar, and on the reaching of the mind toward an androgyny of the spirit that may obviate the need for the sexual union of man and woman. This is much to build on a moment in the life of a nine-year-old girl, but Jewett (who, in a letter written when she was forty-eight, stated that she always felt nine years old) makes it all work.
The collections of stories and sketches published in the decade following A White Heron and Other Stories contain much of Jewett’s best work in these forms. By now a fully mature artist, she published in 1896 The Country of the Pointed Firs, generally regarded as her masterpiece and the finest work of literary regionalism produced by any American writer. Like Deephaven, the new book consisted of a sequence of related short narratives unified by setting, characters, and, most powerfully, by the development of the narrator’s involvement in the fictional community of Dunnet Landing. An important part of this development is the narrator’s relationship with Almira Todd, a native of Dunnet Landing and one of Jewett’s greatest triumphs of characterization. Structurally similar to Deephaven, The Country of the Pointed Firs is, because of its formal control and thematic depth, a much richer work. Writing in 1925, Willa Cather suggested that the work stands with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) as one of the three American literary works of its century likely to achieve immortality.
Jewett would publish only two more books in her lifetime, The Queen’s Twin and Other Stories in 1899 and The Tory Lover, an attempt at a historical novel, in 1901. In 1901, she was awarded an honorary degree by Maine’s Bowdoin College, an all-male institution. She was delighted, she said, to be the only sister of so many brothers. Then, in September, 1902, she suffered a severe spinal injury from which she would never fully recover. Writing fiction became increasingly difficult and, finally, impossible. On June 24, 1909, she died in the Jewett family home in South Berwick, Maine.
Sarah Orne Jewett was inspired by Plato’s maxim that the noblest service that can be done for the people of a state is to acquaint them with one another. The regionalist’s literary vocation is precisely to acquaint the people of the larger society—ultimately, perhaps, of the world—with the life of a single region, often one remote from any cosmopolitan center. This vocation was realized by Sarah Orne Jewett more fully than by any other American writer. The stature of The Country of the Pointed Firs has been recognized since its first publication. Although there is always the danger that this book will dominate Jewett’s posthumous reputation to the extent of reducing her to the status of the “one-book author,” the last quarter of the twentieth century has seen a resurgence of interest in the totality of her work. This resurgence has in part been fueled by feminist concerns. That Jewett was a woman who wrote most powerfully about women and whose deepest emotional relationships were with women lends her an undeniable interest. Yet her audience has never been limited to women.
Jewett enjoyed considerable critical recognition in her lifetime. Among the writers who came to be associated with the regionalist movement, she was quickly and widely recognized as preeminent, as was the value of her sort of realism, even if it was a qualified sort. Although she tended to keep the grimmest of realities at the margins of her fiction, she did not expel them completely. For some of her characters, life in the country of the pointed firs follows a pattern of frustration and despair. Certainly, Jewett leaves her readers in little doubt that economic decline is the fundamental condition within which her characters live out their lives.
Jewett was an inspiration to such younger writers as Kate Chopin and Willa Cather, the latter of whom dedicated to Jewett the novel O Pioneers! (1913) and in 1925 edited and introduced a collection of Jewett’s best fiction. Although Edith Wharton claimed to reject Sarah Orne Jewett’s influence, many critics who are familiar with both writers find that the truth of the matter is more complicated.
Her stories continue to be published separately and in anthologies. Her work has been translated into German, Japanese, Spanish, and French. Critical interest in Sarah Orne Jewett’s work has never been higher. Narrow though her range may have been, her work within that range reveals clarity, compassion, and the courage of an artist who developed the forms that her imagination demanded. What Willa Cather said of The Country of the Pointed Firs may be said of its author: She confronts time and change securely.
Cary, Richard, ed. Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett: Twenty-nine Interpretive Essays. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1973. This selection of criticism published prior to 1973 reflects the critical formalism dominant at the time of the book’s publication. Supplemented by Nagel’s collection.
Cary, Richard, ed. Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Twayne, 1962. This book, the earliest full critical review of Jewett’s work, analyzes her materials, methods, and forms, examining each work in relation to the long maturation of her genius. The organization is, for the most part, topical rather than chronological, and the case for Jewett as more than a one-book author is made convincingly.
Donovan, Josephine. Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. The author explores the themes of city versus country and isolation versus community in Jewett’s mature fiction and finds in The Country of the Pointed Firs the consummation of her thematic and formal concerns.
Mobley, Marilyn Sanders. Folk Roots and Mythic Wings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991. A critical study that asserts the importance of myth and folklore in the work of two women of different races and generations who draw on the cultural roots of their people.
Nagel, Gwen L. Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. A collection that supplements Cary’s Appreciation and reflects later tendencies in Jewett criticism, including feminist perspectives.
Roman, Margaret. Sarah Orne Jewett: Reconstructing Gender. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992. Argues that Jewett consciously collapses gender dichotomies, dissolving binary oppositions of gender.
Sherman, Sarah Way. Sarah Orne Jewett: An American Persephone. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1989. Explores the growth of Jewett’s art out of nineteenth century American culture and the terms in which that culture defined womanhood.
Silverthorne, Elizabeth. Sarah Orne Jewett: A Writer’s Life. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1993. This biography emphasizes the relationships between its subject’s life and work and places her clearly within the literary and cultural life of her time.