Jewett, Sarah Orne (1849–1909)
Jewett, Sarah Orne (1849–1909)
American author who is best known for her depictions of rural life on the coast of Maine. Name variations: First name was Theodora, rarely used. Born Theodora Sarah Orne Jewett in South Berwick, Maine, on September 3, 1849; died on June 24, 1909, at her birthplace; daughter of Theodore Herman Jewett (a rural doctor) and Caroline Frances (Perry) Jewett; graduated from Berwick Academy in 1865; never married; primary relationship was with Annie Adams Fields for approximately 30 years.
Published her first short story at 17; in addition to her short stories, wrote numerous children's books, several popular histories, and three novels; best known for The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), a novel hailed by many critics as one of the best in American literature.
Deephaven (1877); Country By-Ways (1881); A Country Doctor (1884); A White Heron and Other Stories (1886); The Story of the Normans, Told Chiefly in Relation to Their Conquest of England (1887); The King of Folly Island and Other People (1888); Strangers and Wayfarers (1890); A Native of Winby and Other Tales (1893); The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896); The Tory Lover (1901).
In the years after the Civil War, America was changing rapidly, lurching forward into a new era of urbanization and industrialization. An old way of life seemed to be dying, a new one was being born, and for those living through this transformation, both experiences could be painful. Just graduating from high school when the war ended, Sarah Orne Jewett was saddened and alarmed by the way these economic changes were affecting life along the coast of Maine. In harbors, wooden clipper ships floated still and empty, rotting on their moorings. In Jewett's home town of Berwick, a few miles from the coast along the tidal Piscataqua River, shipyards that had once turned Maine timber into beautiful four-masted vessels were now abandoned. Maine's golden age of commercial shipping was passing, as wooden sailboats were replaced by more efficient steamships and the railroad.
The town of Berwick was changing with the times, taking advantage of the nation's rapid industrial and commercial growth. New factories were being built, and Jewett's hometown grew into a bustling commercial center for the region. In her mind, this was not progress, but a step in the wrong direction. "Berwick is growing and flourishing," she told a friend, "in a way that breaks my heart."
Jewett was particularly concerned about the way the new industry of tourism was changing life in Maine's beautiful seaport towns. Adapting to the loss of shipbuilding and shipping, Mainers in the late-19th century discovered a new way to make a living from the sea, by catering to wealthy urban visitors who began to flock to the state's rocky coast each summer. These tourists brought much-needed dollars, but with some unwelcome side effects. Working ports were turned into resorts for the rich. Men and women who had once looked out to sea and around the world for their livings, now served the whims of city people who often looked upon them only as ignorant hicks, quaint and simple folk who were part of the scenery.
Jewett had a unique vantage point from which to view this clash of urban and rural cultures. She had grown up in Berwick, spending all her young life among its fishermen, farmers, and townspeople. But she was also the daughter of the local doctor, and granddaughter of one of the town's wealthiest merchants. She had one foot in rural Maine culture and the other in genteel upper-class society. Thus, when she began to write stories at the age of 17, she determined to bridge the gap between these two worlds. She decided to write about the everyday lives of working women and men on the coast of Maine, revealing what urbane visitors from Boston and New York had so often missed: the physical and moral strength, the nobility of soul, that Jewett had found in her neighbors.
In this literary project, Sarah Orne Jewett enjoyed remarkable success. In the late 19th century, she published dozens of stories, sketches, and novels about life on the Maine coast, preserving a rich literary record of a way of life that she knew was passing away. Her contemporaries recognized her as a master of the genre which we now call regionalism, or local color. But modern-day literary critics feel she did much more than compile a nostalgic record of an interesting time and place in America's past. In their view, she not only captured her subject but transcended it, creating works that still have great significance for modern readers. In Jewett's descriptions of the changes occurring along the Maine coast 100 years ago, some critics find an early and eloquent advocate of environmentalism. Other scholars have found, in Jewett's portraits of strong and independent Maine women, an important literary ancestor to the 20th-century feminist movement.
On both sides of her family, Jewett could trace her own ancestry back to some of the earliest founders of colonial New England. In the early 19th century, her grandfather had made a fortune trading Maine timber for West Indies rum and molasses. He settled his family in an impressive mansion in the center of South Berwick, a prosperous shipbuilding town just over the New Hampshire border. When his son Theodore Herman Jewett married Caroline Frances Perry and started a family, Grandfather Jewett built them a comfortable Greek Revival house next door. There Sarah was born in 1849, the first of three daughters. The Jewetts were a loving and close-knit family, and their house became a central gathering place for numerous relatives, friends, neighbors and summer visitors.
Though she grew up in the midst of this congenial and bustling household, and played a full role in family activities, Jewett still remembered her childhood as "solitary." She developed an early passion for reading, a habit easily indulged since both of her parents were voracious readers and their house was overflowing with books. But, even more than in the library, Jewett sought solitude in nature. She loved the woods and fields of Berwick and often wandered them alone, observing birds, studying plants, and exploring salt marshes and meadows. As she grew older, she ventured farther away, becoming an excellent rower and horseback rider.
Attending the local Berwick Academy, Jewett proved to be a gifted but undisciplined student. As she later put it, she suffered "instant drooping" when confined in a classroom. Making matters more difficult, she endured severe bouts of rheumatoid arthritis, a painful inflammation of her joints which often kept her out of school and plagued her for the rest of her life. Jewett received her true education, then, from her doctor father. As he made his rounds, Theodore often invited her to come along, glad to have the company and sure that the fresh air would be good for his daughter's health. Traveling country roads in his wagon, Theodore Jewett acquainted his daughter with literature, philosophy, theology, Maine history, local plants and herbs.
Jewett learned even more when they arrived at each destination. While the doctor attended his patients, his daughter was often invited in for a visit. In this way, she got an intimate look at the daily lives of Maine people at all ends of the social spectrum. Without realizing it, she absorbed the language, customs, values, and personal histories of her neighbors, storing up material she would one day use in her writing.
Theodore Jewett encouraged his daughter's independent spirit. While the options available to young women in the late 19th century were usually severely restricted by cultural convention, he seems to have imposed no such limits on her aspirations. Perhaps in part for this reason, Jewett idolized her father, once describing him as "the best and wisest man I ever knew." For a short time, she thought she might follow him into the field of medicine. But, never one for disciplined study, she wavered, still unsure of her true calling.
Jewett had been writing stories throughout her adolescence and, at age 17, she won a small but immediate success by having her first submission accepted for publication. The appearance of "Jenny Garrow's Lovers" in a regional literary magazine gave the young author an important vote of encouragement, but the story, a stock romantic tale set in England, has otherwise been dismissed by critics. Very quickly, Jewett realized that she would do better to write about the world she knew. Following her father's advice, she determined that she would try to "write about things just as they are."
For the next decade, Jewett went through what biographer Paula Blanchard has called "a long and silent apprenticeship," working hard at finding her true voice. Most of the stories she drafted in her 20s were moralistic tales, published in children's magazines. But she also wrote some of the first sketches of Maine life which would soon become her trademark. With remarkable confidence, she submitted these to the Atlantic Monthly, then the nation's premier literary magazine. Editor William Dean Howells returned most of her earliest efforts, but always included encouraging comments and helpful criticisms. "You've got an uncommon feeling for talk," he praised her. "I hear your people." Keep writing about the people and places you know best, he advised, and write from a woman's point of view.
I determined to teach the world that country people were not the awkward, ignorant set [that city people] seemed to think. I wanted the world to know their grand, simple lives.
—Sarah Orne Jewett
By the late 1870s, Jewett's hard work paid off. Her "Deephaven Sketches" appeared in the Atlantic and were then published in book form in 1877. For the next two decades, she produced a new volume almost every year. Howells continued to serve as one of her most supportive editors and critics, publishing her best pieces and sending back the rest for revision. The two became close friends, and this friendship brought Jewett into the inner circle of Boston's literary elite. She moved to the city and was soon socializing with Louise Imogen Guiney , Laura E. Richards , Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell and the rest of Boston's leading writers and artists.
While in Boston, Jewett befriended James and Annie Adams Fields , the couple who, as publishers and literary critics, had presided over New England's cultural life for decades. When James died in 1881, Sarah grew closer to Annie, a friendship which soon grew into the most important in Jewett's life. For the rest of their days, the two spent many months each year together, sharing Annie's home in Cambridge. In the minds of their friends, they were an inseparable couple, joined in a same-sex partnership that was then known as a "Boston marriage."
This intimate and intense friendship between Sarah and Annie has led biographers to speculate about Jewett's sexuality, some suggesting that she was a lesbian. There is no evidence that she was ever romantically attracted to any man, and she clearly rejected the idea of a traditional marriage, believing that it would end her personal and artistic freedom. Yet there is also no evidence to suggest that her relationship with Fields, or with any of her other close female friends, was sexual, at least in the 20th-century meaning of that term. Most biographers conclude that, like many other Victorian era middle-class women, Jewett channeled her passion into the creation of intimate, loving, sisterly relationships with a network of female friends. Biographer Elizabeth Silverthorne sums up Sarah and Annie's relationship in this way: "In their rich, fulfilling companionship the two women found security and freedom to pursue their independent goals."
Through this friendship with Annie Fields, Jewett was connected to the literary elite on both sides of the Atlantic. The two women traveled to Europe together, visiting great writers and artists, and enjoying the landmarks of European art and culture. Despite these broadening influences in Jewett's life, she never wavered in her artistic purpose and continued to write about the people of rural Maine. Her reputation grew through the 1880s and 1890s. Some critics complained that her stories and novels often lacked effective plots, a "flaw" that Jewett was quick to admit herself. "It seems to me I can furnish the theater," she wrote, "and show you the actors, and the scenery, and the audience, but there never is any play!" She was much more effective at capturing the subtle ebb and flow of ordinary lives, the webs of history and sympathy that bound together the residents of Maine's isolated coastal communities.
And Jewett was always at her best when describing the Maine landscape. Critic Van Wyck Brooks described her sketches as "light as smoke or wisps of sea-fog, charged with the odours of mint, wild roses and balsam." As this comment suggests, one theme which infuses all of Jewett's work is the value of nature. In many of her stories, the noble qualities of her characters are amplified, and their petty evils dwarfed, by the majestic backdrop of their lives—the vast sea, the unyielding granite and the blue-green firs of the Maine coast. Following in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, a writer whom she admired, Jewett filled her stories with detailed observations about the plants and animals of her region, the changing moods of New England weather, and the feel of each new season.
Also like Thoreau, she protested against the destructive power of her own society, warning of its tendency to use and waste nature unthinkingly. Perhaps the finest example of her environmental awareness can be found in one of her best-loved stories, The White Heron. In this tale, Sylvia, a shy Maine girl living in a remote cabin with her grandmother, encounters a kind young man hiking through the woods. He is a visitor from the city, an ornithologist who is spending his vacation hunting for a rare white heron to add to his collection of stuffed birds. He offers the girl a handsome reward of ten dollars if she can lead him to the heron's hiding place. Tempted by these riches, Sylvia wakes at dawn, climbs to the peak of an ancient pine, and there comes face to face with the exotic and elusive bird, perched on its hidden nest. The ten dollars are within her grasp, but her solitary communion with the heron has taught her that some things are worth more than money. At the climax of the story, Jewett writes: "She remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together, and Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron's secret and give its life away."
Fields, Annie Adams (1834–1915)
American poet, essayist, literary host, and social welfare worker. Born Anne Adams in Boston, Massachusetts, on June 6, 1834; died in 1915; second wife of James Thomas Fields (a partner in the prestigious Boston publishing firm of Ticknor & Fields and publisher and editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who died in 1881); lived with Sarah Orne Jewett.
Annie Adams' marriage to James T. Fields, who was 17 years her senior, placed her smack in the center of New England's literary society. Because of her keen critical eye, she was often consulted by her husband in choosing manuscripts for publication. Annie Fields befriended many literary women, including Celia Thaxter , and most important, Sarah Orne Jewett . The Fieldses' Beacon Hill home became a hub for writers, including Longfellow, Hawthorne, Lowell, and Emerson. Fields was also a leading figure in charity work, founding the Associated Charities of Boston. After her husband's death, she published a book of poems entitled Under the Olive (1881), as well as The Biography of James T. Fields (1884), How to Help the Poor (1885), Authors and Their Friends (1896), A Shelf of Old Books (1896), Life and Letters ofHarriet Beecher Stowe (1897), and a handbook for charity workers, The Singing Shepherd (1896), that sold 22,000 copies in two years.
Howe, M.A. DeWolfe. Memories of a Hostess, 1922.
Another facet of Jewett's writing which interests modern readers and critics is her depiction of strong, independent women. In her earliest novel, The Country Doctor, Jewett told the semi-autobiographical story of a young woman who decides to defy gender barriers by becoming a physician. To learn her trade, she apprentices with a wise and broad-minded country doctor, a character modeled on Jewett's father. Through the courageous decision of her female heroine, Jewett argues that women should have the right to reject the confines of marriage if they find they are chosen by God to pursue a different calling. According to the story's country doctor, this young woman had to be true to "the law of her nature," pursuing "something else than the business of housekeeping and what is called woman's natural work, for her activity and capacity to spend itself upon."
Many of Jewett's stories depict unmarried women, usually widows or "spinsters," living energetic and independent lives in the small villages of coastal Maine. Through their gossip and their charity, their medicinal wisdom and their maternal common sense, these women weave a sustaining network of social relations, binding together their communities.
Perhaps Jewett's finest creation, in this regard, is the character Elmira Todd, the central figure in her best-known novel, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896). The story is narrated by a young woman writer who has rented a room in the widow Todd's home for the summer, hoping to get some writing done in the quiet village of "Dunnet's Landing." Instead, she gradually gets drawn into Mrs. Todd's world, and the novel traces the two women's growing friendship. In Paula Blanchard's words, the middle-aged Elmira Todd is "earthy and heavy bodied, attuned to the natural cycles of life and death." She is an herbalist, a woman who knows the hidden healing powers of plants. As the residents of the village come to her door, hoping to be healed by her ancient concoctions, her young friend comes to appreciate the bonds of kinship, history, and sisterly affection, and also some of the secret sorrows, that are at the foundation of this community. Many of Jewett's contemporaries recognized The Country of the Pointed Firs as her finest work. After finishing it, Rudyard Kipling exclaimed, "It's immense—it's the very life!" Henry James described the book as "Sarah Orne Jewett's beautiful little quantum of achievement."
At the peak of her artistic powers, Jewett's writing career was cut short by an accident. On her 53rd birthday, she was thrown from a wagon and suffered severe head and spinal injuries. For the next six years, she lived on in deep pain, bedridden and unable to write. On June 23, 1909, she died from a cerebral hemorrhage while staying at her family home in South Berwick, Maine.
The year before she died, Jewett was introduced to Willa Cather , then a young writer just making a name for herself. Cather was deeply impressed by Jewett and turned to her for advice about her fiction. Echoing what Howells had once told her, Jewett advised her young friend to write about the place and people she knew best. "Find your own quiet centre of life," she taught, "and write from that world." Following this advice, Cather turned to her early experiences growing up in Nebraska as a source of inspiration, producing some of her finest works.
Cather returned the favor by becoming an ardent champion of Jewett's work. The Country of the Pointed Firs, she once wrote, was one of the three great masterpieces of American fiction, alone in a class with Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. Yet, for many years, few shared Cather's opinion; Jewett's work was largely ignored by critics, left out of anthologies, and dismissed by some as "regional" literature.
As feminist scholars began to look back through the past to recover and reconsider literature by and about women, there was renewed interest in Sarah Orne Jewett's life and work. Many of her stories and novels were reprinted, new biographies were written, and scholars produced a growing body of appreciative criticism about her writings. A century after she published her last volume, Jewett's stories about the "grand, simple" lives of rural Mainers continue to offer insights which speak to a new generation of readers.
Blanchard, Paula. Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1994.
Matthieson, Francis O. Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1929.
Silverthorne, Elizabeth. Sarah Orne Jewett: A Writer's Life. Woodstock: Overlook Press, 1993.
Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories. Edited by Mary Ellen Chase . NY: Norton, 1982.
Ernest Freeberg , Ph.D. in American History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia