Jewett, (Theodora) Sarah Orne

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JEWETT, (Theodora) Sarah Orne

Nationality: American. Born: South Berwick, Maine, 3 September 1849. Education: Educated as Miss Raynes's School, 1855, and Berwick Academy, 1861-66, graduated 1866. Career: Full-time writer in Berwick from 1866; contributed to Atlantic Monthly from 1869. Awards: Litt.D.: Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, 1901. Died: 24 June 1909.



Stories and Tales. 7 vols., 1910.

The Best Stories, edited by Willa Cather. 2 vols., 1925.

Letters, edited by Richard Cary. 1956; revised edition, 1967.

The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, edited by MaryEllen Chase. 1968.

Best Stories, edited by Josephine Donovan, Martin Greenberg, and Charles Waugh. 1988.

Novels and Stories. 1994.

Short Stories

Deephaven. 1877; edited by Richard Cary, with other stories, 1966.

Old Friends and New. 1879.

Country By-Ways. 1881.

The Mate of the Daylight, and Friends Ashore. 1883.

A White Heron and Other Stories. 1886.

The King of Folly Island and Other People. 1888.

Tales of New England. 1890.

A Native of Winby and Other Tales. 1893.

The Life of Nancy. 1895.

The Country of the Pointed Firs. 1896.

The Queen's Twin and Other Stories. 1899.

Uncollected Short Stories, edited by Richard Cary. 1971.

The Irish Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett. 1996.


A Country Doctor. 1884.

A Marsh Island. 1885.

Strangers and Wayfarers. 1890.

The Tory Lover. 1901.

An Empty Purse: A Christmas Story. 1905.


Verses, edited by M. A. De Wolfe Howe. 1916.


Play Days: A Book of Stories for Children. 1878.

The Story of the Normans (for children). 1887.

Betty Leicester: A Story for Girls. 1890.

Betty Leicester's English Xmas (for children). 1894; as Betty Leicester's Christmas, 1899.

Letters, edited by Annie Fields. 1911.

Letters Now in Colby College Library, edited by Carl J. Weber. 1947.

Editor, Stories and Poems for Children, by Celia Thaxter. 1895.

Editor, The Poems of Celia Thaxter. 1896.

Editor, Letters of Sarah Wyman Whitman. 1907.



A Bibliography of the Published Writings of Jewett by Clara Carter Weber and Carl J. Weber, 1949; in Bibliography of American Literature by Jacob Blanck, 1969; Jewett: A Reference Guide by Gwen L. Nagel and James Nagel, 1978.

Critical Studies:

Jewett by F. O. Mattheissen, 1929; Acres of Flint: Writers of New England 1870-1900 by Perry D. Westbrook, 1951, revised edition, as Acres of Flint: Jewett and Her Contemporaries, 1981; Jewett by John Eldridge Frost, 1960; Jewett by Richard Cary, 1962, and Appreciation of Jewett: 29 Interpretive Essays edited by Cary, 1973; Jewett by Margaret Farrand Thorp, 1966; "The Child in Jewett" by Eugene Hillhouse Pool, in Colby Library Quarterly 7, 1967; "Women and Nature in Modern Fiction" by Annis Pratt, in Contemporary Literature 13, 1972; "The Double Consciousness of the Narrator in Jewett's Fiction" by Catherine Barnes Stevenson, in Colby Library Quarterly 11, 1975; "The World of Dreams: Sexual Symbolism in 'A White Heron"' by James Ellis, in Nassau Review 3, 1977; "'Once Upon a Time': Jewett's 'A White Heron' as Fairy Tale" by Theodore Hovet, in Studies in Short Fiction 15, 1978; "Free Heron or Dead Sparrow: Sylvia's Choice in Jewett's 'A White Heron"' by Richard Brenzo, in Colby Library Quarterly 14, 1978; Jewett by Josephine Donovan, 1980; "The Necessary Extravagance of Jewett: Voices of Authority in 'A White Heron"' by Michael Atkinson, in Studies in Short Fiction 19, 1982; "The Language of Transcendence in Jewett's 'A White Heron"' by Gwen Nagel, in Colby Library Quarterly 19, 1983; "A White Heron" and the Question of Minor Literature by Louis A. Renza, 1984; Critical Essays on Jewett edited by Gwen L. Nagel, 1984; "The Shape of Violence in Jewett's 'A White Heron"' by Elizabeth Ammons, in Colby Library Quarterly 22, 1986; Jewett, An American Persephone by Sarah Way Sherman, 1989; Jewett: Reconstructing Gender by Margaret Roman, 1992; Sarah Orne Jewett: A Writer's Life by Elizabeth Silverthorne, 1993; Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work by Paula Blanchard, 1994; Transcendent Daughters in Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs by Joseph Church, 1994.

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Unlike other nineteenth-century American women writers of short fiction such as Kate Chopin, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose writing was rediscovered many years later by feminist critics, the work of Sarah Orne Jewett has occupied a secure place in literary history since the publication of her masterpiece, The Country of the Pointed Firs, in 1896. For almost a century she has been considered the earliest in the series of women writers who created fiction of the highest quality in American literature. Her importance was noted 20 years after her death by Willa Cather, whose preface to a two-volume collection of Jewett's stories published by Houghton Mifflin in 1925 began with the observation that Jewett "was very conscious of the fact that when a writer makes anything that belongs to Literature," her writing goes through a process very different from that by which she "makes merely a good story."

Impressed as a teenager by the sympathetic depiction of local color (the people and life of a particular geographical setting) in Harriet Beecher Stowe's The Pearl of Orr's Island (1863), Jewett began to write what she considered "sketches" about people and places near her native village of South Berwick, Maine. She placed her first story in the Atlantic Monthly in 1869 when she was 18 years old. In 1877 she published her first collection of short fiction, Deephaven. Reviewing this book in the Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells commended Jewett's "fresh and delicate quality" as a writer and praised her for possessing "a hand that holds itself far from every trick of exaggeration, and that subtly delights in the very tint and form of reality."

Many stories were written about New England in Jewett's time, but hers have a unique quality stemming from her deep sympathy for the native characters and her ear for local speech. Henry James recognized that Jewett was "surpassed only by Hawthorne as producer of the most finished and penetrating of the numerous short stories that have the domestic life of New England for their general and doubtless somewhat lean subject." By 1890, four years after the success of her collection A White Heron and Other Stories, readers like Thomas Bailey Aldrich, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, believed that "Hawthorne's pallid allegories will have faded away long before" Jewett's realistic sketches ceased to be read, because her work captured the flavor of the landscape and the native speech of people in her Maine community with uncommon fidelity and grace.

More modern readers of Jewett's stories, like Louis A. Renza, have investigated the category of minor literature into which Jewett was slotted after Howells, James, and later critics labeled her a "local color" or "regionalist" writer. Renza interpreted Jewett's preference for marginal characters in an isolated landscape as a subject for her fiction—the aged, widowed, or eccentric people she singled out to describe in her sketches—as a strategy she chose deliberately to foster her independence as a creative artist, enabling her to "live 'outside' stereotypical patriarchal definitions of a woman's 'proper place."'

In 1881, after Jewett began her close friendship with Annie Fields (the widow of the eminent Boston publisher James T. Fields), her writing matured into a fuller expressiveness, culminating in the linked stories in her collection The Country of the Pointed Firs. Whereas earlier stories like "An Autumn Holiday" (in Harper's Magazine, October 1880) were relatively formless, often beginning with lengthy introductions and ending abruptly in the manner of a fluidly extended anecdote, Jewett's later work such as the stories in The Country of the Pointed Firs was, as Cather recognized, more "tightly built and significant in design."

Avoiding the melodramatic or didactic plots that were staple features in magazine fiction, Jewett preferred indirect portrayal of dramatic confrontation in her sketches. As a storyteller, she often positioned herself within the narrative as a character who became the conduit of another person's story. For example, in "An Autumn Holiday" Jewett goes for a long walk in the country and visits an old woman spinning in her cottage with her sister. The two older women talk about a local man they knew 50 years ago who had been a captain in the militia before he suffered a stroke and imagined he was his dead sister. He insisted on dressing in her clothes and attending the village's social functions, like church services and the Female Missionary Society. At the end of the story he thinks that the deacon, a widower, is courting him. The strangeness of the cross-dressing episodes is softened by the humorous tolerance of the two old women telling to Jewett the anecdotes about the eccentric, long-dead captain. This narrative "doubling" of a story-within-a-story lends an air of mystery to Jewett's short fiction, as if she were sketching pastels in twilight so that the darker undercurrents of deprivation, both sexual and psychological, would be less evident beneath the serenely assured surface of her material.

Stories like "The Queen's Twin" or "William's Wedding" in The Country of the Pointed Firs simultaneously offer and withhold an intensely shared experience, as if the narrator were reluctant to violate the privacy of her subjects' emotional lives by trespassing too closely upon them. Jewett's delicacy in suggesting more than she actually says may have resulted from the necessity in her nineteenth-century provincial society to veil what might have been her lesbian sympathies. As Cather observed, Jewett was "content to be slight, if she could be true." Certainly her artistry in her short fiction is superb, and her sketches are among the best surviving records of everyday life in the rural New England society of her time.

—Ann Charters

See the essay on "A White Heron."

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Jewett, (Theodora) Sarah Orne

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