The proper classification of Sarah Orne Jewett’s first effort at long fiction, Deephaven, remains problematic even after a century. In some circles it is regarded as a novel, while many literary historians regard it as a collection of short stories, a contention immediately attributable to the book’s genesis. It originated as a popular series of sketches that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly beginning in 1873. Howells encouraged her to combine the sketches and flesh them out with a suitable dramatic framework and continuity, and the result—which was titled Deephaven after the composite Maine seaport in which the sketches are set—was an immediate popular success. Even if a reader were unaware of the book’s origins, however, he or she still might be inclined to perceive it as a collection of stories, for the individual chapters—and, at times, even portions of chapters—tend to function as discrete fictional units rather than as elements subsumed within a satisfying whole. Deephaven’s confusing fictional status is caused in part by its young author’s inexperience with revision, and as such it may be perceived as a flawed book; the fictional hybrid quality of Deephaven, however, ultimately became Jewett’s stylistic trademark, and for many readers this blurring of the traditional distinctions between the novel and the short story is precisely the source of much of the charm and uniqueness of Jewett’s work.
Regardless of whether one reacts to Deephaven as seriously flawed or charmingly eclectic, the fact remains that structurally speaking it is a sort of fictional quilt: The individual chapters retain much of their original discreteness, while the fictional framework that was constructed around them is patently an afterthought; in other words, the seams show.
Jewett introduces two young ladies of Boston, Kate Lancaster and Helen Denis, who spend an extended summer vacation in Deephaven, Maine, at the home of Kate’s late grandaunt, Katharine Brandon. The two women are wealthy, educated, and affectionate twenty-four-year-olds: All of this background is revealed in a flurry ofexposition within the first chapter or two, and in fact one learns nothing more of the women in the course of the next 250 pages. Their sole function in the story is to react to Deephaven and to record those reactions, and although Kate and Helen fulfill this function dutifully, their characterizations suffer accordingly. One has no sense of them as flesh-and-blood humans; indeed, they disappear from the text while some salty sea captain or rugged farmer, encouraged by an occasional “Please go only on!” from Kate, recounts a bit of folklore or personal history. Thisnarrative frame, however annoying and contrived a technique it may be, suited Jewett’s interests and purposes: Never skillful at portraying upper-class urbanites, she was strongest at presenting the colorful, dignified, and occasionally grim lives of common people clinging to a dying way of life in coastal Maine in the late nineteenth century. These farmers, villagers, and seafarers were a source of perennial interest to Jewett, and the rich variety of their lifestyles, skills, and experiences were elements that she lovingly recorded, even as they were dying before her eyes. Ultimately, it is this impulse to record various aspects of a cross section of American life, rather than poor judgment or technical incompetence, which must be cited as the source of Jewett’s distinctive fragmentary style.
That style was rapidly being crystallized in the creation of Deephaven . As noted, the two outsiders who react to the coastal village almost disappear from the text despite the novel’s first-person narration, but frankly they are not missed. The book dissolves rapidly into a series of character studies, anecdotes, events, and descriptions of the landscape or...
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- Critical Essays