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Contents: Country By-Ways

Reviews of Country By-Ways, 1881
by Sarah Orne Jewett

    "Country By-ways" The Critic 1 (Nov. 5, 1881) pp. 304-5

     It is hard to analyze the charm of Miss Jewett's work. It is a subtle charm; flavor rather than shape; essence rather than body; not that the body lacks substance or the shape is faulty; but when one has weighed and considered all that is to be accredited to her for excellence of form, and for substantial aim and thought, their sum all told - though it is by no means small - does not seem adequate to explain the pleasure one has in reading all she writes. Perhaps genuineness comes nearest being the name of her secret; and her genuineness is truly genuine. It is as far as possible removed from that counterfeit article which is becoming so common in modern literature, and is one of the most exasperating affectations of the day; the thing which is to true genuineness and simplicity of style what cant is to religion, and which too often succeeds, as cant does, in so catching the words and the tone of the thing is feigns and imitates, that the world is deceived and led into doing it reverence for a season. It parades puerilities of detail with an elaborate and evident intent and consciousness; as if one said, "Go to! I am realistic, and now I will be simple." It spins out sentimentalisms, mawkish and endless. It travesties the daily speech and behavior of all people it professes to describe; travesties them even while using their very language. There is no better example in American literature today of the excellences which are opposed to these vices than Miss Jewett's work. Her portraitures of New England characters and scenes [is] are inimitable; and her reproduction of New England dialect - so far as it is a dialect - is marvelously accurate. We do not know another writer who has done it so well. Mrs. Stowe, who is usually credited with giving it in perfection, often intensifies its peculiarities, and always exaggerates the proportion of oddly pronounced words in any given conversation. Even Mr. Howells does not always escape this error; neither does Rose Terry Cooke, whose New England stories are truer to the life than Mrs. Stowe's. All these writers draw their characters too much from exceptional men and women; persons who would be thought, even in New England, to have a "drefful queer way o' speakin'." But Miss Jewett's New Englanders are New England's own; there are tens of thousands of such in every State. She must have looked and listened with almost preternatural acuteness to have thus early in her youth caught so exactly the turns of sentences; the idiosyncrasies of thought as well as of phrase; the slurrings of syllables, transmuting of vowels, and loppings of final letters, which make the New England speech a vernacular. Another of the accessories to the pleasantness of Miss Jewett's sketches is the unexpectedness of some of the out-door thoughts that she tells so naturally. Speaking of wild creatures, she says: "Taming is only forcing them to learn some of our customs; we should be wise if we let them tame us to make use of some of theirs." And apropos of a musk-rat that she sees hurrying into his hole to sup on mussels, she says: "I do not think people are thankful enough who live out of the reach of beasts that would eat them." In the charming paper, "River Drift-wood," is this sentence: "One sees the likeness between a harborless heart and a harborless country where no ships go and come." This is a poem.

     There are many sly touches of humor in Miss Jewett's stories, as indeed there could not fail to be, seeing that her stories are studies from New England life. But the humor is always put in in the under thread, so that only a keen ear and eye will know how humorous it is; just as in old silvery brocades the silver is often kept in the under threads, and only those who understand and love tapestries know where the sheen comes from. Of this order of humorous touches is her mention of the New England spinster, who, at the age of sixty, fell in love with an aged clergyman.

     "She began to feel uncomfortably self-conscious and to insist upon it to herself that she took no interest in the man whatever. She openly said (feeling all the time that she might be sorry for it) that she did not consider him gifted in prayer; but even this bold treason did not keep her heart from fluttering at the mention of his name. She married the clergyman and they were both profoundly grateful for the chance that had brought them together. Dear Miss Becky! She often thought that her life had been most wonderfully ordered. Everything had happened just right, and she did not see how it was that all the events of life, other people's affairs and things that seemed to have no connection with her, all matched her needs and fitted in at just the right time. If she had come to Brookfield the year before, she was sure that she would have had no temptation to stay there, though she and Mr. Beacham did seem to have been made for each other. Mr. Beacham would have said that it was the unfailing wisdom of Providence; but she wondered at it none the less, and was very grateful. Perhaps her life would seem dull, and not in the least conspicuous or interesting to most people; but for the dullest life, how much machinery is put in motion, and how much provision is made! While to its possible success the whole world will minister and be laid under tribute."

     From "New Books: Country By-Ways." New York Times (Nov. 14, 1881) p. 3

     -- Country By-ways. By Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. -- Five pictures of New-England, with three stories of New-England life, make up this book. The author has the happiest conception of those peculiarities of New-England landscape, and with her one can float most delightfully down the Piscataqua, deck the boat with cardinal flowers, or fill the blue and white ginger-pot full of daisies. Books in this particular mode are often attempted, ever since Thoreau tried his master-hand, but they sometimes tire. The writer of "Country By-ways" is not only vigorous in her method of painting what she sees, but evinces exceeding delicately in the handling of her topics. The plaint of the "Mournful Villager" is a charming reminiscence of child life. In "An Autumn Holiday" a most charming story is told, and the exact words of two country gossips are given. One must smile over the vagaries of poor Daniel Gunn, who, being of weak mind, thought himself to be his sister Patience, and once went to meetin' in woman's clothes. "He'd fix'd himself nice as he could, poor creatur': he'd raked out Miss Patience's old Navarino bonnet with green ribbons and a willow feather, and sat it on right over his cap, and he had her bead-bag on his arm, and her turkey-tail fan." Daniel imitated the woman exactly, only "that he took off his bonnet all of a sudden, as if he'd forgot it, and put it under the seat - like he did his hat - that was the only thing he did that any woman wouldn't have done." "Andrew's Fortune," the history of a young man who expected a fortune, which did not come to him because the will was mislaid, is a well-told story. The book is remarkable for excellence of style and purity of language. "Country By-ways" is certainly a most charming New-England idyl.

"Recent Publications" New Orleans Daily Picayune (November 27, 1881), 2.

     Miss Jewett is a sprightly, comforting writer. She is familiar with cattle and clover, green lanes and brooks. She makes common places attractive and common people interesting. In this volume is gathered "River Driftwood," "Andrew's Fortune," "An October Ride," "From a Mournful Villager," "An Autumn Holiday," "A Winter Drive," and other sketches.

"Miss Jewett's Country By-ways," The Literary World (Nov. 19, 1881), 419-20.

     This new collection of Miss Jewett's sketches, with the happy title, is not, as a whole, of so choice a quality as her previous work. Of the eight, the girls' story, "Good Luck," has evidently its place in order to help out the volume. "Becky's Pilgrimage," in spite of some capital touches, is hardly up to the writer's average. In "Driftwood" and "A Winter Drive" she indulges in little preachments which are not so natural to her as the descriptions - in which latter field she has had no superior. The moralizings are after a dainty fashion - she could do nothing that was not dainty, but as one reads one can hardly help the feeling that they are studied. They lack that spontaneity, that irrepressibleness of things that must be said - which we have been used to expect in Miss Jewett's writings.

     The other chapters are "An October Ride," full of those bits of outward life, not the most insignificant of which escapes her eye; "An Autumn Holiday," rounded off with a story; "From a Mournful Villager," deploring the extinction of certain types of New England village character and civilization; and "Andrew's Fortune," which is one of the best. There could hardly be a more perfect reproduction of New England country life than in this simple story. It is to such pages as these that one must turn, years hence, and not very many years either, to know what that kind of life was. Miss Jewett enters intimately into the feelings of the common people, and with rare fidelity and skill pictures everyday scenes and events. Whether or not her powers are limited to this range, whether she has equal ability outside of subjects with which her own personality is concerned, are at least questions which naturally suggest themselves to the reader.

     Miss Jewett does not believe in the modern village improvement societies which do away with the front-yard fences:

     People do not know what they lose when they make way with the reserve, the separateness, the sanctity of the front yard of their grandmothers. It is like writing down the family secrets for any one to read; it is like having everybody call you by your first name and sitting in any pew in church, and like having your house in the middle of the road, to take away the fence, which, slight as it may be, is a fortification round your home. More things than one may come in without being asked; we Americans had better build more fences than take any away from our lives.

     We find occasional instances of careless writing in the pages of this little book. When its author can express herself in such crystalline prose as this:

     Along the country road a short, stout-built woman, well wrapped with shawls, was going from her own home, a third of a mile back, to the next house, where there were already lights in one of the upper windows;
    and this:
     They were about the same size, and were cheerful old bodies, looking a good deal alike, with their checked handkerchiefs over their smooth, gray hair, their dark gowns made short in the skirts, and their broad little feet in gray stockings and low leather shoes without heels;
how could she leave a sentence, standing by itself, in this way?
     Not the sheltering shores of England but the inhospitable low coast of Africa and the dangerous island of the southern seas are left unvisited.
The meaning of which, whether taken as it stands, or in connection with anything else, we have tried in vain exactly to make out.

"Our Bookshelf" Cottage Hearth 7 (December 1881) 369.

     This little volume will be welcomed by thousands of readers as a choice addition to their library, and will be found to be both fascinating and instructive. The author has the same wonderful power of description of whatever she meets with in her rambles that Thoreau possessed, and writes of it so charmingly that you forget your surroundings and find yourself accompanying her in her pleasant saunterings.

     Her description of the little child's grave, with its simple stone, mossy with age, standing in the midst of a lonely pasture, with only the cellar of a house to show that a home once stood there, is very pathetic, and one feels better for having read it. Her delineation of character is perfectly true to life, and is very amusing and quaint.

     Taken as a whole the book is as fragrant and fresh as a wayside flower, and as invigorating as a clear October morning.

Delightful Books by Sarah Orne Jewett: The Sword and the Pen (8 December, 1881), 8.

From an advertisement.

"The poetry of her sentiment, the unstrained felicity and naturalness of her style, the thorough likeableness of all the people to whom she introduces us, all conspire to render her stories about as nearly perfect in their way as any thing in this world ever gets to be." -- Good Company

Country By-Ways. A New Book of Stories and Sketches. Beautifully printed and bound, gift top. $1.25.

"We find in them a certain kind of country life and scenery presented with delightful freshness and truth to nature. They belong to the most refined order of literature, yet they have a fidelity that is at times almost photographic in their depiction of the quiet scenes and the rural characters which form their basis.  Miss Jewett is a writer to be admire without reservation." -- Boston Gazette.

    "Eight pen-pictures of New England rural life and character." -- Providence Journal.

    The Nation (December 15, 1881) 479.

     To have known these sketches already in the pages of the Atlantic seems to make them only the more welcome for their delicate discrimination, their gentle appreciation of the old New England character. Miss Jewett not only makes us intimate with the roads and lanes, the wide woods and the old farms beyond the Piscataqua, but the sketches read like a loving memorial of a generation that is just passing out of our sight. Such a memorial is needed, for it is so easy to outline in the rough the stern and homely traits of New England life that too many will never know its tenderness and its beauty. That reflex wave from beyond the Hudson River whence comes, as Miss Hewett shows, the typical "American," will soon sweep away the old traditions and the old characteristics. The style of the book befits the subject. Perfectly plain and without pretension, it still never falls from simplicité and simplesse. If we are sometimes conscious, as in 'River Driftwood,' that the description is something long, for all that we are won to read on with the same restful feeling with which one listens to a strain of sweet music repeating itself again and again.


     from "Literature," The Independent 34 (March 30, 1882) 11.

     . . . .Sarah Orne Jewett has achieved for her self an enviable reputation in American literature, and each new book that comes to us from her leaves with us the impression that she has not yet touched the high level of her capacity. Country By-Ways (Houghton, Mifflin & Co.) is certainly a very delicious book to read. It deals with very simple life, but looks at it with the eye of a poet and a humorist. These sketches are pictures of a grand old life, now passing from the earth, by one who knew and loved it and has the power to describe it. Much has she seen of it, too, in her Berwick home, and as she drove over the highways and by-ways, with the honored physician, her father, to whom this book is dedicated. Many of these sketches must be portraits. Had we lived in Berwick, we could tell who the grand old lady was that entertained a child with stately kindness, sweetened with cakes in "hearts and rounds," on a silver tray, and with a small glass of wine. The grace of saying things is in the book, with a plenty of humor and a power of seeing in whatever comes up at least one thing and perhaps many things more than others. What have we had lately more delicious than the story of the poor, crazy Captain Gunn, who was right enough in the morning, but after dinner went "off the hooks" entirely and imagined himself his deceased sister. After all, the charming thing in the book is its New England flavor and the love and reverence with which Miss Jewett lays her dainty hand on the old homesteads, half-abandoned in the country, and makes the very stones of the tumbled-down walls eloquent and poetic. Nothing escapes her eye and nothing fails to get its value in her subtile weighing, not even the little, cold cider-apples in the grass, "with one side knurly and one shiny bright red or yellow cheek, . . . . wet with dew and a black ant running anxiously over them as you turn them round and round, to see where to bite." Who has drawn a finer picture than this? "The house was low and long and unpainted, with a great many frost-bitten flowers about it. Some hollyhocks were bowed down despairingly, and the morning glory vines were more miserable still. Some of the smaller plants had been covered to keep them from freezing, and were braving out a few more days; but no shelter would avail them much longer, and already nobody minded whether the gate was shut or not, and part of the great flock of hens were marching proudly about among the wilted posies, which had stretched their necks wistfully through the fence for all Summer."

    Atlantic Monthly 49 (March 1882) 420-21.

     It is perhaps a little forced to call Miss Jewett's sketches a book of travel, yet the reader will find their value to lie chiefly in the skill with which the writer has applied a traveler's art to scenes which lay within easy reach of her own home. Here are the observations of minor incidents, the catching of effects produced by side lights, the rediscovery of the familiar, the looking at a landscape from under one's arm. One is not sure that the sketch which he is reading may not glide gently into a story, or that the story may not forget itself in a sketch. Miss Jewett herself seems sure only of catching and holding some flitting movement of life, some fragment of experience which has demanded her sympathy. One of the stories, indeed, Andrew's Fortune, has a more deliberate intention, and we are led on with some interest to pursue the slight turns of the narrative; yet in this the best work is in the successive pictures of the village groups in the kitchen and at the funeral. It would be difficult to find a formal story which made less draught upon one's curiosity than Miss Becky's Pilgrimage, yet one easily acquires a personal regard for Miss Becky herself. Miss Jewett's sketches have all the value and interest of delicacy executed watercolor landscapes; they are restful, they are truthful, and one is never asked to expend criticism upon them, but to take them with their necessary limitations as household pleasures .

     Nevertheless, though we cannot persuade ourselves to criticize this work, we are impelled to ask for something more. Miss Jewett has now given us three volumes, besides the one for children, and has shown us how well she can do a certain thing. The sketches and stories which make up these volumes vary in value, but they are all marked by grace and fine feeling; they are thoroughly wholesome; they have a gentle frankness and reverence which are inexpressibly winning, when one thinks of the knowingness and self-consciousness and restlessness which by turns characterize so many of the contributions by women to our literature. It is only when we come to compare Miss Jewett with herself that we become exacting. She has transformed the dull New England landscape into a mossy rural neighborhood; she has brought us into the friendliest acquaintance with people whom we thought we knew and did not know; and now we want her help in knowing other and fuller lives; we are eager to have her interpretation of people who impress us at once as well worth knowing. We are sure that she will bring out what we could not discover by ourselves; but in our impatience we begin to fear that we are to meet the same people and visit the same houses when a new book is offered. Has not Miss Jewett visited all her neighbors, and would not a longer flight of travel give her new types?

     That is the way with us. No sooner do we get these charming village scenes, for which we have been asking our writers, than we want something else. Well, our discontent is of Miss Jewett's making. She has opened the eyes of the summer boarder, and when the summer boarder goes back to town it is with a wish to take the friendly Miss Jewett in company. We wish that this light traveler would plume herself for a braver excursion. Possible we are asking too much, and the skill which executes these short sketches is conditioned upon their very limitations. Yet we heartily wish that this delightful writer would reserve her strength, and essay a larger work. To fail in a long journey may even give one an access of power and dignity when resuming a stroll, and we value the fine moral sense and delicate sympathy of Miss Jewett so highly that we are reluctant to see her gifts possibly diminish in efficacy by too close a confinement and too narrow a range.

Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College, with assistance from Linda Heller
January 2010


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Contents: Country By-Ways