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Friday, September 3, 2010

Sarah Orne Jewett, “unsurpassed chronicler and interpreter of women’s lives”

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909) turns 161 today. She was just 19 when she published her first story in the Atlantic Monthly (accepted by then assistant editor William Dean Howells). Over the next thirty-five years she would build a devoted readership through her twenty novels and story collections, each filled with carefully wrought portraits of the farmers, fishermen, and tradespeople she lived among along the coast of southern Maine. Writing about her first novel, Deephaven (1877), Howells discerned “an uncommon feeling for talk—I hear your people.”

For a more than a century, critics have acclaimed the interlaced stories of The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) as her masterpiece. Here she populates the fictional town of Dunnett Landing, a composite of coastal towns around Boothbay Harbor, with a memorable cast of colorful characters: a fiercely independent herbalist landlady, a garrulous retired sailor, a jilted, lovelorn young woman, among many others. Rudyard Kipling wrote her: “It’s immense—It’s the very life. So many of the people of less sympathy have missed the lovely New England landscape, and the genuine New England nature. I don’t believe even you know how good the work is.”

Willa Cather counted The Country of the Pointed Firs as one of three books destined for literary immortality, alongside The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “No other [books] confront time and change so serenely.” “The 'Pointed Fir' sketches are living things caught in the open, with light and freedom and air-spaces about them,” Cather wrote in her introduction to a two-volume collection of Jewett's work in 1925. “They melt into the land and the life of the land until they are not stories at all, but life itself.”

Sarah Orne Jewett came into Willa Cather’s life at a critical moment. As Hermione Lee notes in her biography Willa Cather: Double Lives:
Though some of her few close friends, such as Dorothy Canfield Fisher or Zoë Akins, were writers, [Cather] did not meet, or admit much interest in, the other great writers of her time, Edith Wharton or Ellen Glasgow or Gertrude Stein, and was dismissive of the only other well-known Nebraskan woman writer, Mari Sandoz. The one exception to this isolation was her brief friendship, of great formative importance for Cather’s life and writing, with the New England writer Sarah Orne Jewett, which came when Jewett was in her late fifties and Cather had not yet begun to write novels.

Jewett gave Cather crucial advice about the concentration and single-mindedness needed to become a good writer. But it was her example, as well as her advice, which was important for Cather ... she warmed to Jewett’s unselfconscious, matter-of-fact love stories between women, in the sad and beautiful story “Martha’s Lady” or in the novel Deephaven.... That innocent, idealized intimacy between women, which enabled Jewett to tell Cather that she did not need to use a male narrator to describe feelings of love for a woman, was not open to the more self-conscious and self-concealing Cather. But the example Jewett gave her, at the time she most needed it, was of a woman’s writing that was strong, truthful, and authentic, and could not be dismissed as “merely” feminine.
Cather had met Jewett in 1908 at what Henry James described as the “waterside museum” at 148 Charles Street in Boston. This was the home where Annie Fields, widow of Atlantic Monthly editor James T. Fields, and Jewett had been keeping their “Boston marriage” for some twenty-five years. In fact, some readers chided James because they found his portrayal of Olive Chancellor and her young ward Verena Tarrant in The Bostonians objectionably close to Fields and Jewett. Cather captured the old-world charm of the house in her brief sketch “148 Charles Street,” and in “Miss Jewett” she set down her appreciation of Jewett’s work as well as a portrait of her in person:
“The distinguished outward stamp”—it was that one felt immediately upon meeting Miss Jewett: a lady, in the old high sense. It was in her face and figure, her carriage, her smile, her voice, her way of greeting one. There was an ease, a graciousness, a light touch in conversation, a delicate unobtrusive wit. You quickly recognized that her gift with the pen was one of many charming personal attributes.
In Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Work Paula Blanchard records how critical attitudes to Jewett have changed:
In recent years Jewett has become recognized by feminist scholars as an unsurpassed chronicler and interpreter of women’s lives.... Jewett’s women are not the self-effacing and compliant helpmates portrayed in the typical Victorian novel, but vigorous, independent country-women, mostly widows and spinsters, who support themselves and their children by farming, nursing, or whatever comes to hand. Warm, humorous, and practical, they are the mainstays of their families and communities, keeping alive not only the gardens that symbolize their vitality but also the ties of sympathy that hold any human society together.
You can read Jewett's story, “Going to Shrewsbury,” available free at LOA's Story of the Week site.

Related LOA works: Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels and Stories; Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (includes "148 Charles Street" and "Miss Jewett")


  1. I have not read any of Jewett's work, but considering your description here of The Country of Pointed Firs, her most acclaimed work seems to be a precursor to the Pulitzer Prize winning collection, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Does this similarity run any deeper than the setting, Maine, and the form, a series of connected vignettes?

  2. I have not yet read Olive Kitteridge, but I did find this comment on the blog of a reader who, after reading Strout's novel, "wanted something more, a greater unity, a more ambitious story and plot, or a more unified plotlessness (as in Country of the Pointed Firs)."


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