Regarded as a premier writer of American regional, or local color, fiction, Jewett is best known for her short stories about provincial life in New England during the late nineteenth century. Her works are often discussed in conjunction with those of other contemporary local colorists, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and Rose Terry Cooke, and she is considered an important contributor to the development of the local color movement. Jewett was never an advocate for women's rights, but critics have noted that she presents portraits of strong, self-reliant, and optimistic women, most of whom are unmarried, and shows a concern for women's issues in her works. Feminist scholars have been particularly interested in exploring Jewett's unconventional portraits of women, her subversion of traditional patriarchal literary elements, and her subtle critique of male-dominated society.
Jewett was born September 3, 1849, in the rural port community of South Berwick, Maine, the daughter of Theodore H. Jewett, a wealthy and respected physician, and Caroline F. Perry. As a child she often accompanied her father on his daily rounds to patients' homes, where she met many of the New England characters she later recalled in her fiction. Jewett's youth was for the most part uneventful, secure, and happy. Her fathered tutored her in literature and local history, encouraging her to read from his vast library. Jewett began publishing short stories in 1867 under the pseudonyms A. C. Eliot, Alice Eliot, and Sarah O. Sweet. Her first notable success came just before her twentieth birthday when William Dean Howells accepted the short story "Mr. Bruce" for publication in the Atlantic Monthly. Guided by Howells's suggestions as well as her own understanding of life in New England, Jewett subsequently produced a number of successful local color stories for the Atlantic Monthly; at Howells's behest, she revised and collected these stories in 1877 in Deephaven. The success of Deephaven gained Jewett many literary admirers, and her close association with the Atlantic Monthly brought her frequently into contact with its editor, James T. Fields, and his wife, Annie, an esteemed philanthropist and literary hostess. Jewett was welcomed into the circle of eminent writers and editors who frequented the Fields's Charles Street salon in Boston. Following the deaths of Jewett's father in 1878 and Charles Fields in 1881, Jewett and Annie Fields cultivated a lifelong friendship. They traveled extensively, making several trips to Europe, during which Jewett met Alfred Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Henry James, Christina Rossetti, and Rudyard Kipling. Although she thrived on such encounters, Jewett invariably returned to South Berwick every summer to write, believing her travels enabled her to focus more clearly on the unique aspects of her home community. In 1902, Jewett seriously injured her spine in a carriage accident, after which she never returned to writing. She spent her remaining years in leisure, visiting and corresponding with friends. She died from a stroke on June 24, 1909.
Deephaven, Jewett's first collection of stories, is woven around the observations of a young woman who arrives from the city to spend the summer in the village house of her companion's deceased aunt. In the tales, the narrator reports her impressions of New England country culture and its people to the reader. Jewett used this technique of the outsider-narrator in other works as well. Another important feature of her writing is the description of the natural environment. Her most famous story, "A White Heron," published in 1886 in A White Heron and Other Stories, examines the relationship between humanity and the natural world. The young protagonist of the story must choose between love of nature, represented by the heron, and human love, represented by an ornithologist who wants to capture the bird. While "A White Heron" is Jewett's most anthologized work, critics agree that The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) represents her highest achievement. The work has been classified variously as a novel, a series of sketches, and a collection of stories; some critics note that it is in a genre of its own. In the work, which is regarded as the culmination of the author's local color writing, Jewett once again uses the outsider-narrator as the frame. The narrator is a writer from the city who comes to the town of Dunnet Landing in search of a suitable place to work. She stays for the summer as the boarder of Mrs. Almira Todd, an herbalist. As with her other works, Jewett emphasizes setting rather than action, and she offers detailed descriptions of the natural environment and the (mostly female) characters that populate the small town in which the stories take place. In addition to her twelve collections of short stories, Jewett published three novels, juvenile fiction, and a volume of verse. Of these other writings, her novel A Country Doctor (1884), about a woman who chooses her career in medicine over marriage, is best known and was clearly influenced by Jewett's experiences growing up as a physician's daughter.
Although Jewett does not explicitly address feminist concerns in her work, much of her writing explores questions about women's roles in society. The 1882 story "Tom's Husband" deals with marriage and female emancipation, and stories such as "Mrs. Bonny" (1876) offer depictions of unconventional women who rely on themselves and are uncontaminated by the male-dominated world. "A White Heron" explores questions about the socialization of girls, gender relations, and the need for women to be true to themselves and to be useful to society. Virtually all of Jewett's fiction contains detailed character studies of unusual women; indeed, some critics have noted that few of her male characters are realistic at all while her descriptions of older females are vivid, sympathetic, and humorous. Jewett also writes extensively about relationships between women, and in The Country of the Pointed Firs female friendships form the primary link between the individual and society. Women in Jewett's stories are also depicted as the holders of cultural traditions, those who understand and are identified with the natural environment, and symbols of a receding past in the face of industrialization.
After the publication of her first collection of short stories, Jewett was considered a writer of national importance. Howells praised her work, and in her preface to The Country of the Pointed Firs Willa Cather declared that she would name Jewett's book along with Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn as three American books that have the possibility of an enduring literary reputation. The popularity of Jewett's work declined after the 1920s, and although some of her stories, most notably "A White Heron," were read in survey courses of American literature, she was considered a minor figure and cited merely as an example of a local colorist. Since the 1970s, however, after feminist critics have reassessed her work, Jewett's reputation has grown and the universality of her writing has been affirmed. Critics have noted that Jewett's fiction rarely addresses questions about women's issues in an overtly political manner, but her work treats women's roles in a patriarchal society. Feminist critics have paid particular attention to the subtle manner in which Jewett critiques the patriarchal establishment with the use of original narrative techniques. They have also examined her depiction of unconventional women, discussed her characters' psychological journeys of self-revelation, and explored her ideas about nature, female heritage and tradition, and the effects of culture on women's psychological development.