Few writers have so successfully described Jewett’s achievement and characteristics as Cather does in her preface to The Country of the Pointed Firs, and Other Stories. Cather says that Jewett “once laughingly told me that her head was full of dear old houses and dear old women, and that when an old house and an old woman came together in her brain with a click, she knew that a story was under way.”
Jewett’s best fiction deals mainly with women, especially older women, in the villages and towns and on the farms of Maine. Her themes generally concern the beauty and dignity of these characters, who live in the shadow of a more prosperous and culturally richer past and who often have suffered losses—those of husbands and sons to the sea, or of friendship to accident, time, or human weakness. Jewett shows how these people succeed or fail at transcending their circumstances.
Many of her stories deal with the relations of the individual to the larger community. Sometimes, an individual must withdraw from an oppressive community in order to create or strengthen the independent self, as in “A White Heron” (1886). Sometimes, the individual who has experienced unhealthy separation must be gathered into a vital community in order to find happiness, as in “Miss Tempy’s Watchers” (1888). Human happiness in Jewett’s works always involves finding a balance between the need to be a self and the need to belong intimately to a community. Perhaps her best representation of this ideal of balance is Mrs. Blackett in The Country of the Pointed Firs.
Cather praises Jewett for possessing “the kind of beauty we feel when a beautiful song is sung by a beautiful voice that is exactly suited to the song.” Jewett has not been widely recognized for her style, but it is a very important aspect of her writing. Cather points out that Jewett’s subjects are not often exciting in the usual sense: She “wrote of people who grew out of the soil and the life of the country near her heart, not about exceptional individuals at war with their environment.” For example, “A Native of Winby” (1893) concerns not the heroic actions of Joseph Laneway but rather his evening’s visit with a dear friend of his youth. This choice of subject creates two major problems of style: how to make the stories interesting and how to avoid sentimentality.
The development of Jewett’s writing career is, in part, an illustration of how to find the right tone. Jewett learns to vary her tone within a fairly narrow range, rising quietly to heights such as the vision of the heron in “A White Heron” and the moments of self-transcending sympathy in “Miss Tempy’s Watchers,” without creating a false melodrama of pastoral/urban opposition in the former or gothic mystery in the latter. This command of style is crucial to the success of stories such as “Martha’s Lady” (1899), in which a servant woman recalls a brief summer visit from a lovely and loving lady, remembering her chiefly by means of a few relics of their short time together.
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- Critical Essays