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THE NEW ENGLAND OF SARAH ORNE JEWETT
EDWARD M. CHAPMAN
THERE is room for an essay upon the doctrine of local color and the part which it has played in the development of the Scribes and Pharisees of modern literature. Local color is in itself, of course, a harmless, necessary thing. Like a man's complexion and the changes which pass upon it under excitement, it is one of the accidents which serve to reveal essential realities. It is a normal means of recognition, and it may become upon occasion a key to secrets of the heart. Nothing is easier, however, than to exaggerate its significance, and the tendency to such exaggeration of late must have been noted by every observant reader. In general it may be said that the moment when local color becomes an end in itself, when a writer begins to study it as a really determinative factor in his final product, then he foredooms his work to pettiness. To advertise, as some publishers do, an author's conscious and purposeful mastery of local color is to proclaim another bore; and to boast of journeys taken and adventures undergone in its pursuit is to foretell the return of one more voyager laden with glittering pyrites instead of gold.
Of course Henry Esmond and Romola will be quoted against me; and it is true that Henry Esmond has for nearly two generations stood out as the classic illustration of what a master may accomplish in painting an age before his own. Yet there are devout Thackerayans who never read it without a feeling that the play is a little subordinated to the stage, and who go back to Vanity Fair or Pendennis with a sigh of relief, -- politely muffled, of course. Their admiration is sincere. Esmond is a tour de force of extraordinary power; but none the less they love Thackeray better at home than in lodgings, however completely furnished in the Queen Anne or early Georgian manner. Nothing again could be more conscientious than the reproduction of Savonarola's Florence upon the pages of Romola; but a faint odor of midnight oil clings to it, and between the lines one seems to trace a diary of Italian travel. Adam Bede lived and the river Floss flowed through a world that belonged by divine right to Marian Evans; Tito and the Arno were rather acquisitions of George Eliot. Or to phrase it differently, she wrote Adam Bede under a sort of spiritual compulsion. By the time Romola was reached she had begun to ask, "What shall I write about?" Although her creative genius may conceivably be more manifest in the later than in the earlier work, what must be called the native quality is lacking; and it is this native quality which differentiates the local color of the scene painter, however clever he may be, from genuine atmosphere appealing in all its indefinable charm to home-loving eyes.
Opinions still differ as to whether New England is to be regarded as a spatial and social term or as a state of mind. In the cases of Heaven and Hell, the judgment of sophistication appears to incline to the latter view; and multitudes of the sophisticated have done what they could to thrust New England into the same category. The average writer in newspaper or magazine whose worldly wisdom is his dearest possession, usually represents New England men, women, and things as "bleak." Both materially and spiritually he sees them under the aspect of November -- and a conventional November at that. He forgets not only that there are eleven other months each capable of an incredible variety of weather, but that even November likes nothing better than to belie itself and put its critics to confusion by Indian Summer mellowness.
It was the great good fortune of Sarah Orne Jewett to perceive this. She had as clear and brave an eye as any contemporary wherewith to regard New England sub specie Novembris; but she insisted that it be a genuine November, quite as capable of quietness and peace as of grimness, a month by no means without capacity for mirth, and with a Thanksgiving marked by family loyalty and neighborly good cheer at its close. By something much more than a happy chance she has explicitly noticed this both at the beginning and at the end of the most autobiographical of her books, A Country Doctor. "It had been," the first chapter begins, "one of the warm and almost sultry days which sometimes come in November; a maligned month, which is really an epitome of the other eleven, or a sort of index to the whole year's changes of storm and sunshine." Again, in the last chapter, she recurs, unconsciously perhaps, to the same theme. "It was a most lovely day of our heroine's favorite weather. It has been said that November is an epitome of all the months of the year, but for all that, no other season can show anything so beautiful as the best and brightest November days."
The lover of what may be called the autumn school of fiction will compare these references to the most maligned of months with Mr. Hardy's presentation of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native. It is a rainy Saturday afternoon in November when he shows us in his first chapter, "A Face on which Time makes but little Impression" (the Face of the Heath); then "Humanity appears upon the Scene, Hand in Hand with Trouble"; after which we are introduced to "The Custom of the Country." These are the first three chapter headings, and like three keys they unlock the treasuries of Mr. Hardy's materials and methods. He would not be himself without this sense of the grave, quiet face of Nature, the trouble, to which man is born as the sparks fly upward, and the established ways and fashions of a countryside. This is local color of a most genuine sort, for it represents experience in which the author has been himself dyed like his own reddleman of the Heath.
Miss Jewett's color is as legitimate and as peculiarly her own. She had, to be sure, like Lowell,
A nature sloping to the southern side,
while Mr. Hardy can only bear a northern light. He does not see the bright days of November; while she is perhaps somewhat inclined to multiply them; but each is so true to the heart within and the world without, that the native, whether of Wessex or New England, feels at home. Mr. Hardy is, however, a great prophet of Fate who not only pictures life, but at times expounds and applies the doctrine of Fate's indifference or malignity with something very like a thumping of the pulpit cushions; while Miss Jewett contents herself with the humbler rôle of depicting, without much reference to philosophy, the lights and shadows that enter her experience through the medium of an understanding heart. Many New England communities know to their sorrow the smart reporter bent upon a "story," the student of sociology zealous in research, the sentimental visitor from town hot on the trail of the "quaint," and the serious but generally superior literary person expectant of "types." Let the most honest of these people describe a village or relate a neighborhood incident that the reader knows, and who has not shuddered at the resultant parody? The fact that the thing may have been conscientiously done and that the likeness to reality is entirely recognizable, only accentuates its ghastliness. It is like the effigy of a dead native sometimes suspended outside a South Sea Island hut, bad enough as a thing of cocoanut fibre and straw matting, but rendered vastly worse when crowned by the veritable head of the deceased.
From all this description-at-a-distance, mental, moral, or physical, Miss Jewett was beautifully free. She was of New England ancestry, birth, and training. Her home was in a New England village and she always kept it there. The "atmosphere" of her books was the atmosphere she breathed. Her "types" were not so much the result of study and abstraction from observed subjects as the transcription of direct appeals which the life of her neighbors made to her own heart. Born thus through contact of life with life, they not only embody various human qualities, but they really possess souls. The reader can rarely speak of them as "quaint" or "bleak" or anything else that merely accords with literary convention. They are too personal to submit themselves to easy definition; so human, indeed, as generally to be humane.
This intimacy with her material -- an intimacy that sometimes approaches identity in the Wordsworthian manner -- is shown at once as the reader looks out through Miss Jewett's eyes upon the face of the country. She never bores us with mere description for description's sake; nor does she seem to care very much about imparting information concerning New Hampshire hamlets and the coast of Maine. Least of all does she deem it necessary to catalogue beast, bird, and flower in its appropriate season. These things are all there. New Hampshire hillsides and Maine islands with their appropriate flora and fauna are as clear to see as though one had lived among them; but the grace of Miss Jewett's art appears in the fact that her references to them come to the reader almost as reminders of past experience. Instead of bald description, she chooses the gentler way of reminiscence. In A Marsh Island, for instance, she shows us the icebound "salt-meadows" after a fashion at once so realistic and yet incidental that any man who has carried a gun over them in winter finds himself wondering that a woman, however sturdy a walker, could possibly have come to know them so intimately. But Miss Jewett's happy gifts enabled her so to catch the spirit of a world like this as to bring back old and veritable experiences of winter, not so much by description as by implication. Nor can any one look upon these same scenes with her under the oppression of an August sun without a sense of dog-day languor, teased by the buzzing of insects. It was on such an afternoon that, in the tale called "Marsh Rosemary," Ann Floyd's tragedy began as Jerry Lane walked down the long road across the marshes, while the air quivered and flickered with the heat, the tide inlets exhaled their muddy odors, and the big green-headed flies basked securely on the back of his Sunday waistcoat.
Who that knows New England has not seen it all -- seen it, some of us think, at its debilitating and sultry worst, -- this lean, sinewy, virile, and generally wholesome land aping the tropics? Who cannot remember too, when they are pointed out, the elements of beauty so often overlooked by languid dog-day eyes? The dark brown pods of the "blackgrass," the soft pussy clover of the highway side, the bronze gold of the "red-salt," the green of the lesser sedges, and the mingled green and scarlet of the "mutton-sass," are all there for the yellow butterflies to flutter over; and there too is the Marsh Rosemary. Few seem to know this brave and cheerful little plant of the marshes and almost none have sung it. It stands sturdily upright amid the lassitudes of August bearing upon its tree-like stems a cloud of lavender flowers; and in late October under the pelting of a great storm, it may be seen just as sturdy as in summer and almost as cheerful, not only by contrast with the low estate of its neighbors, but because after its petals have gone the little whitish grey residuum of each flower preserves the spray-like appearance of the plant and almost persuades the onlooker that it is still in bloom. Now Miss Jewett is sometimes charged with taking too sentimental a view of New England life and character. In her recently published letters there appears a tendency to overwork the adjective "dear," and it is said that love for the land of her birth reacting upon a thoroughly feminine nature, left her with a keener vision for the pathetic than for the really tragic elements in the world about her. It may be admitted that she loved best the peaceful pastures and quiet weather of humdrum and half-humorous prosperity; yet the fact remains that she could not only picture the rigor of January and the languor of August as relentlessly as Mr. Hardy, but she could quite as readily introduce Humanity hand in hand with Trouble -- and poignant trouble too.
To illustrate this we have only to recur to her Marsh Rosemary and the chapter in a woman's life which it symbolizes. Ann Floyd was brave, honest, independent, kindly, and in outward aspect perhaps a little hard. To her, busy despite the heat upon that August afternoon, came Jerry Lane, an old acquaintance, shiftless, self-confident, and scheming. She was lonely; he good-natured and with as many tales as Othello,
Of moving accidents by flood and field.
Her hungry heart was at last too much for her judgment and she took him for better, for worse; for better, as it seemed at first, and then for worse, as the old shiftlessness came back. Finally, after long dependence upon her, he drifted off to sea again. Upon his going, Ann grew old as though an autumn frost had fallen upon her suddenly; so that when, instead of his promised return, news came that the SusanBarnes was lost, her elderly widowed estate seemed almost as natural to herself as to her neighbors. Yet in a sense her life was richer and more useful than ever. Still a little grim of aspect, the innate kindness of her heart flowed out in a hundred channels of friendly and neighborly service. Then, after some interval, it was revealed to her that her ne'er-do-well had deserted his schooner before the wreck and was living with another woman in the Provinces. The shock was overwhelming, but there was no hysteria; only a grim resolve to go to Schediac and expose the man's faithlessness. She went and found his residence, but before knocking looked in by the early evening lamplight to see him, care-free as ever, sitting with wife and child in a comfortable home. The sight of the other woman, young, innocent, and competent, strangely touched Ann Floyd's heart. She could not wreck the happiness of innocence even for the sake of punishing a wrong-doer. As well as she could see through her tears and the rain that fell in sympathy with them, her path lay back to her home and her old work again. She followed it and the story leaves her in her own house resolutely though tearfully putting cup and saucer upon the table for her solitary meal -- Ann Floyd, tailoress, once more.
"Who can laugh at my Marsh Rosemary," asks Miss Jewett, "or who can cry for that matter? The grey primness of the plant is made up from a hundred colors if you look close enough to find them. This Marsh Rosemary stands in her own place, and holds her…tiny blossoms towards the same sun that the pink lotus blooms for, and the white rose." The note of tragedy here is as clearly sounded and as nobly restrained as in the close of George Gissing's The Nether World; while Miss Jewett's vision of her Marsh Rosemary is that of Wordsworth singing "The Primrose of the Rock" or "The Small Celandine."
She shows a like intimate acquaintance with the fickleness of the New. England spring, whose promises are so certainly and repeatedly contradicted by recurrent cold. The Connecticut saying that the frogs must be frozen up three times before spring can be finally trusted, was very likely unknown to her, though her knowledge was so wide and unaffected that any word spoken out of native experience might seem at home upon her pages. She never grieves over the baffling variety of our weather or rails at its frequent harshness. Frances Thompson's whimsical complaint about "the snivel of our catarrhal May and the worthless I O U which a sharping English spring annually presents to its confiding creditors" finds no echo from this candid friend of New England. She knew, however, that there is little lushness or softness in spring's advent, and the April night in "Miss Ternpy's Watchers" when Sarah Ann Binson and Mrs. Crowe care for that good woman's home and person preparatory to her funeral, is perfect in its kind. It was upon the whole a quiet night, and yet "the spring wind whistled in the window crack, now and then, and buffeted the little house in a gusty way that had a sort of companionable effect." No one but a true child of New England could have written that sentence. The "literary person," however sympathetic, would have called the whistling in the window "eerie" and told us of the wind's "moaning" as it sighed about the house. Not so Miss Jewett. She knew April winds well enough to read June's promise in them, and even when they whispered around a house of mourning at midnight, their message was only half sad, because they blew the fire within into a brighter flame and heartened those who watched beside it into speaking of Miss Tempy Dent's good deeds to man and nature alike.
"What excellent preserves she did make!" mourned Mrs. Crowe. "None of us has got her light hand at doin' things tasty. She made the most o' everything, too. Now, she only had that one old quince tree down in the far corner of the piece, and she'd go out in the spring and tend to it, and look at it so pleasant, and kind of expect the old thorny thing into bloomin'."
"She was just the same with folks," said Sarah Ann. "And she'd never git more'n a little apernful o' quinces but she'd have every mite o' goodness out o' those, and set the glasses up onto her best room closet shelf, so pleased. Twa'n't but a week ago to-morrow mornin' I fetched her a little taste o' jelly in a teaspoon; and she says `Thank ye,' and took it, and the minute she tasted it she looked up at me as worried as could be. `Oh, I don't want to eat that,' says she. `I always keep that in case o' sickness.' 'You're going to have the good o' one tumbler yourself,' says I, 'I'd like to know whose sick now, if you ain't!' An' she couldn't help laughin', I spoke up so smart. Oh, dear me, how I shall miss talkin' over things with her! She aways sensed things, and got just the pint you meant."
A deal of New England's best efficiency is suggested by the gift of this lonely woman to "sense" things, to see the point, to nurse a reluctant quince tree into blooming, and then, when it has borne its "apernful" of quinces, most austere of fruits, to extract their last atom of goodness and preserve it -- for others rather than herself.
I have dealt thus at length with Miss Jewett's treatment of the revolving year for two reasons. Weather plays so large a part in New England life; there is so much of it to the square mile that a genuine love of weather for its own sake is needful to any sympathetic acquaintance with the face of the country. This Miss Jewett felt in high degree. Then too, this weather, largely interpreted, has played no inconsiderable part in the development of New England character. It has represented an ever present condition -- generally a hard condition -- which must needs be patiently endured or ingeniously turned to account. This also she has realized and made much of; indeed she has gone so far as to develop an almost mystic sense for the symbolic nature of the seasons. Her characters may come upon the scene, hand in hand with trouble, like Mr. Hardy's, or humorously rejoicing in modest success. But whether pinched by the cold of winter and poverty like the two gently bred sisters in "The Town Poor," or lying dead in the lonely April night like Miss Tempy, these creatures of her brain seem to rule their fate and to retain the mastery of their souls. So in general the occasional tragedy and the frequent comedy of these New England tales are normal and wholesome, because, whatever the philosophers may say, men live and act in them as though their wills were free. This makes the poignancy of "The Failure of David Berry" endurable; it adds a note of grace to the dominant idea of "The Queen's Twin"; and it fills such farce as "The Courting of Sister Wisby" full of honest laughter.
It remains to say something of Miss Jewett's acquaintance with what Mr. Hardy calls "The Custom of the Country." In her later books, notably The Country of the Pointed Firs, she pictures the Maine coast, the Maine summer, and the people of the islands and harbor towns. Again her eye is keen for the characteristics of the weather. She notes the beauty of such August days as at once complete the summer and suggest autumn. "There was something shining in the air, and a kind of lustre on the water and the pasture grass -- a northern look that except at this moment of the year, one must go far to seek."
What child of New England does not remember that "northern look," in no sense bleak or forbidding, but the aspect of a country, cool, ripe, and clean, stripped of the lushness of June, yet far from the bareness of winter? It is in this book too that she brings us into closest intimacy with two people who exactly correspond to such a setting -- Mrs. Blackett of the Island, and her middle-aged son, William. They are mother and brother to Mrs. Todd, who serves Miss Jewett in the Dunnet Landing stories as the chorus did the Greek dramatists, with her comment upon life's passing show and her ready philosophy. William and his mother are among the great figures of New England fiction in their delicacy and fidelity. They are unskilled in the ways of the world and their simplicity follows the pleasant path between the fields of humor and pathos with frequent though rarely forced excursions into both. It is, however, a simplicity that enhances rather than compromises their native dignity and purity of soul. Every true country minister or doctor in New England knows their type and counts the knowledge a chief reward of his profession. William is tall, lean, bronzed, and of that reticent shyness which often characterizes men of fine quality who do all their work alone and some of it in peril of their lives. At heart the mother is like him, but brisk, cheerful, and frank in manner; while beneath the surface there are great depths of reverence, tenderness, and such an experience of life's realities as makes knowledge of the ways of the world quite a negligible thing. No reader who knows the New England coast and has had natural access to its homes will forget the chapter in which mother and son sing together for their two visitors.
Such glimpses as she gives us of the Blacketts on their island and such a memorial as President Eliot provided for a Maine friend and neighbor in his essay on John Gilley, are the better worth preserving because the day of the old-time farmer-fisherman is passing. The influx of summer visitors, the failure of some fisheries and the changed character of others, the advent of truck and dairy farming, and the influences exerted by increased facilities of communication and travel, have doubtless done much to raise the general standard of comfort; they probably have improved the average of intelligence, and possibly have bettered rural morals; but it is also true that the rare, fine, William Blackett type has retired before them. He will live long in the memory of any who may have seen him in the flesh, and longer yet in The Country of the Pointed Firs. So true is Miss Jewett to New England manners and customs in such tales as these that even the occasional note of exaggeration is likely to put the critic to confusion by unexpectedly justifying itself. Most discriminating readers have probably thought 'Lijah Tilley, the old farmer-fisherman who solaced his widowed estate by knitting, and habitually referred to his late wife as "poor dear," to be rather sadly overdrawn. "'Lijah's worthy enough," says Mrs. Todd. "I do esteem 'Lijah, but he's a ploddin' man." "So do I esteem him," comments the critical reader; "but the knitting needles and the 'poor dear' are not quite in character"; when, lo, the recent publication of Miss Jewett's letters shows this knitting and mourning widower to have been a man of veritable flesh and blood. Her insight was so keen and her touch so sure that this type of sketch represents her real métier and she rarely departed from it without loss of distinction. Indeed when she brought a character to Boston for a visit, as in "The Life of Nancy," the story at once took on too "improving" a complexion to represent her best work. The Irish tales were well enough in their way and their dialect was managed with rather notable skill, but they might have been written by another than Miss Jewett. Her novels are of course little more than a series of sketches strung upon the slenderest thread of plot, and there are occasional passages in them which in their treatment of the village folk barely escape sounding the fatal note of patronage. This note was, however, quite foreign to her best work and only comes in here and there when for the moment she is betrayed by literary convention.
On the contrary, "The Hiltons' Holiday," a tale which merely recounts the visit of a poor man with his two little girls to the neighboring county town, is perfect in its kind. Its adventure is the least imaginable. The anxious wife and mother cleans and dresses her children, sees them sedately seated in the farm wagon with their father and watches them drive off. They depart, arrive, return; -- and that is all there is to it; yet each trivial incident by the way is told with such truth to human nature in general and to New England's best human nature in particular that their author writes herself down ðïßçôÞò -- creator. She breathes upon these humble folk and they become living souls. On their way up the town street they stop that the children may see the home of a prominent and highly respected citizen who had been a schoolmate of John Hilton's mother. As they linger, Judge Masterson comes out of his gate, recognizes the father, greets him with grave politeness and a reminiscence of old days, speaks cordially to the children, and goes his way. John Hilton is a sturdy, independent son of the soil who will do obeisance to no man's wealth or presumption; but his deference to eminent learning and the honor of an upright judge is as real as his delight in the great man's personal greeting. "Now," he says to the wondering girls, "you have seen one of the first gentlemen of the country. It was worth comin' twice as far."
This self-respect which is so genuine as to permit in turn unfeigned respect for all honorable men and things, not only characterizes Miss Jewett's men and women of the better type, but marks her own work. Her treatment of the Deephaven congregation -- the eminent respectability of the Widow Ware and Miss Experience Hull, the old sea captains bronzed by sun and spindrift, the minister so often choosing his illustrations from the sea, and always praying for those who go down to it in ships -- is touched with a fine reverence. She sees the humor in it all but perceives beneath it the greater qualities of constancy, courage, and faith that give character to a people.
Perhaps this is nowhere better illustrated than in "An Only Son," which for more reasons than I have space to enumerate seems to me to be one of her greatest stories. Its hero is a New England Deacon. Now the Deacon may be taken as the crux of those who attempt New England tales, and rarely is the writer found who can compass him. It is the fashion to make him hypocritical, sour, puritanical, or in some other way either absurd or ridiculous. The mere smart writer, learned in literary convention but ignorant of the custom of the country, does not stop to consider that the New Englander, whatever else he may be, is rarely fool enough to choose from among the men whom he has known all his life either a simpleton, a hypocrite, or a curmudgeon to officiate in the church.
The particular Deacon who figures in "An Only Son" is selectman as well as church officer, and a farmer too in a small and not especially thrifty way. The meeting with his two colleagues on a midsummer day, the slow progress of business, the final decision by the Board to pay a town note, and all the rest of it, are perfectly told, down to the patient waiting of the three old horses for their respective masters, and the Deacon's plodding homeward in the dust, the money to make the payment in his pocket. He has one son whose soul is so wrapped up in machinery that the farm work suffers, and a bit of broken fence by the wayside reminded the father of this neglect so that he reached home rather heavy-hearted. He put the town money under his pillow, not unnoticed as it happened by the boy, and as afternoon came on found himself alone, the niece who kept his house having meanwhile gone to spend the night at a distant family reunion, while the son had disappeared in the direction of the town. Then the note of half petty sadness which has so far characterized the story deepens into that of genuine tragedy as the father discovers that the money is gone. It is in her treatment of this old and lonely man's experience under the shadow of his boy's disgrace that Miss Jewett shows her greatness as a revealer of the heart's secrets. The Deacon's impatience has vanished; the note of pettiness is silent; and instead appear the deep convictions of a heart that would have chosen death rather than dishonor, and the self-reproach of an irritable but sincere man reviewing the past and perceiving too late how he might have shown more sympathy and patience toward the son who is to bring his grey hairs with sorrow to the grave. His evening chores, done with meticulous care, and the old man's attempt to prolong them because they deaden thought, become solemn episodes in a soul's tragedy. The contrast that Browning suggested in "An Epistle" between the anxiety of Lazarus over his son's chance word as compared with his calm anticipation of the coming of the Roman armies is illustrated here by plain New England daylight.
There is no need to follow the story through; to tell how the Deacon made solemn pilgrimage to an old friend and raised the money needed to make good the defalcation; nor how his housekeeper, returning full of the gossip of adventure, found his wallet exactly where she had put it, when in her housewifely zeal to leave him with clean bed clothes, she had discovered and cared for it; nor how the boy himself came back from town half apologetic for his negligence and excusing it a little by the shyly imparted news that his long-brooded-over invention had at last found commercial acceptance and financial backing. The lifting of this incubus, like its imposition, was borne quietly so far as outward signs went; but the heart responded with a gladness which sent the old man out to the family burying ground to lift up his prayer of thanksgiving and penitence beside the grave of the boy's mother, and then brought him back to confer cheerfully with the boy himself -- about painting the farmhouse blinds. Altogether it is a memorable picture of New England character. Its humor, in which the story abounds, its seriousness, its reserve, its overanxiety and too quick premonition of evil, are all true to the elder custom of the country.
Like Jane Austen, Sarah Orne Jewett was at her best when thus painting her "two inches square of ivory." She exercised, too, an artist's privilege in choosing subjects that seemed to her worth painting. There is no realistic setting forth of rustic squalor, though degeneracy exists in New England hamlets as in most rural communities. There is nothing either of the grim fatalism which Mr. Hardy has done so much to popularize and which must finally prove to be the element in his work most vulnerable to the tooth of time. But judged by his perhaps involuntary canons, such a story as this with its delineation of New England's summer face, of people who have wrought their lives into its life, and of the established habits of a countryside will go far toward placing Miss Jewett in the front rank of those who have portrayed their native land. Buttressed by its sister tales it makes that place secure.
This essay originally appeared in Yale Review, 3 (October 1913), 157-172. Richard Cary reprinted it in Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett (1973).
Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.
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