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Sarah Orne Jewett's Critical Theory: Notes toward a Feminine Literary Mode
Two central problems of the scholarship on Sarah Orne Jewett have been whether she is a realist and how to explain the "plotless" structure of her short stories and such longer works as Deephaven and The Country of the Pointed Firs. An examination of Jewett's critical theory sheds considerable light on these problems, even though Jewett never formally articulated her critical ideas; they are found scattered through her correspondence, mainly in the form of advice to such younger writers as Willa Cather, John Thaxter, and Andress S. Floyd. Comments she made on works she was reading and on her own work appear primarily in letters to Annie Adams Fields. Early letters to editors and early diary notations, still unpublished, are further sources of her critical theory.1
One of the central elements in Jewett's literary credo was that the artist should transmit reality with as little interference and doctoring up as possible. This idea, at the heart of the realist doctrine of mimesis, Jewett apparently learned from her father. On numerous occasions when giving counsel to other writers she stated: "My dear father used to say to me very often, 'Tell things just as they are!…'The great messages and discoveries of literature come to us, they write us, and we do not control them in a certain sense:"2 One of two aphorisms of Flaubert she had tacked up on her secretary read: "Écrire la vie ordinaire comme on écrit l'histoire."3 The artist's job is to "write" ordinary life as if writing history. Similar to her father's injunction the implication in Flaubert's statement is that the writer neutrally or objectively recounts events with minimal comment, arrangement, or literary artifice.
Jewett reacted strongly against any writing that seemed to be pretentiously "arty" -- that is, that revealed a self-conscious effort on the part of the author to be "literary," to use established literary devices and forms. She once convicted Nathaniel Hawthorne of just this failing in his American Notebooks (1868), deploring the author's "conscious effort after material." The sketches, she said, "lack any reality or imagination, rootless little things that could never open seed in their turn . . . so 'delicate' in their fancy as to be far-fetched and oddly feeble and sophomorish" (Fields, Letters, 73).
By contrast Jewett prefers Charles W. Brewster's Rambles About Portsmouth (first series, 1859; second series, 1869), a completely unliterary collection of sketches which she finds "a mine of wealth." As an example she notes a "description of the marketwomen coming down the river, -- their quaintness and picturesqueness at once seems to be so great, and the mere hints of description so full of flavor, that it all gave me much keener pleasure than anything I found in the other much more famous book [by Hawthorne]." She recognizes that such a view is "high literary treason" but predicts that Brewster's work will outlive Hawthorne's because of the veracity of its realism. "Such genuine books always live, they get filled so full of life" (Fields, Letters, 72). The artist must not only transmit reality as faithfully as possible, but the images that are selected must "in their turn" "open seed." This thesis, issued in 1890, became during the 1890s Jewett's central artistic theory.
On various occasions Jewett enjoined younger writers against self-consciously following established literary norms. She told John Thaxter not to "write a `story' but just tell the thing!" (Cary, Letters, 120). In other words, the artist should try to eliminate the artificial construct, "story," from mind in order to directly transmit the reality in question. Implicit in this thesis is the idea that form follows function (that is, content and purpose), rather than the other way around.
Similar counsel to that given Thaxter was offered to Willa Cather. In a newspaper interview published in 1913 after Jewett's death Cather recalled that Jewett had advised, "Don't try to write the kind of short story that this or that magazine wants -- write the truth, and let them take it or leave it": "Write it as it is, don't try to make it like this or that. You can't do it in anybody else's way -- you will have to make a way of your own. If the way happens to be new, don't let that frighten you."4 "Story-writing," Jewett once noted, "is always experimental . . . and that something which does itself is the vitality of it" (Fields, Letters, 118).
Jewett, therefore, proposes a theory of the artist as one who is a relatively passive transmitter of "things as they are," who ideally imposes as little artifice as possible upon the material, and who does not consciously follow literary precedents but evolves formal devices appropriate to her own purpose.
Such a theory may be particularly congenial to the female talent. In her second preface to Pilgrimage (1938) Dorothy Richardson, a pioneer of literary modernism (and in particular of the anti-authorial "stream of consciousness" technique), explained that she had proposed in her fiction to produce "a feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism." What she particularly disliked in the masculine style, according to Leon Edel, was the presence of the male author intruding upon the subject matter: "Bang, bang, bang," she wrote, "on they go, these men's books, like an L. C. C. tram, yet unable to make you forget them, the authors, for a moment." She also deplored what she saw as the "self-satisfied, complacent, know-all condescendingness" of the masculine narrator in Conrad and James.5
Margaret Fuller suggested decades earlier that women are more inclined toward the kind of process Jewett advocates than toward the rigidly controlling authorial process that Richardson condemns in "masculine realism." "[Woman] excels . . . in . . . a simple breathing out of what she receives, that has the singleness of life, rather than the selecting and energizing of art."6
A considerable body of contemporary theory has recently developed that suggests that women's historical experience may have inclined them toward "a mode of thinking" that is, as Carol Gilligan recently put it, "contextual and inductive rather than formal and abstract."7 Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi, in The Sacred and the Feminine: Towards a Theology of Housework (1982), has proposed that out of their housebound experience women have developed a "mode of being" that is quite different from the masculine mode of questing, conquering, and imposing one's will. The feminine mode is one of waiting; it involves a kind of passive responsiveness to the environment: "Responding in this way . . . is markedly different from imposing your own will . . . . The passivity so induced is that of a light object thrown into the water; it is not the object that determines its direction, but the movement of the water.8 Such a response contrasts to the "assertive striving more typical of the masculine temporal mode, questing."9
Rabuzzi suggests that traditional literary modes have been evolved to convey the typical masculine activity of the quest. Yet, "both history and story, traditionally so full of quests as to be virtually synonymous with them, may not be formally appropriate to express traditional feminine experience. In fact, both forms may so consistently have obscured women's experiences in the waiting mode as to have rendered women largely invisible not just to men, but to themselves."10 Jewett fashioned a formal structure that expresses the kind of serendipitously passive mode that Rabuzzi sees as characteristic of the feminine experience. Jewett's critical theory -- both her notion of the passive artist and her concept of "imaginative realism" -- provided the rationale for the formal structure she developed in her fiction.
Jewett did not, of course, view the artist as a completely passive machine that simply records surrounding reality. Her injunctions about the noninterfering artist must be seen as relative statements; the artist must be comparatively restrained in the transposition of the material. But Jewett was aware that the material is filtered through a selecting mind. Indeed, a second major component of her critical theory is that the artist must develop a point of view, an authentic vision, a clear sustaining design or telos.
One of the more pointed criticisms that Jewett made in this regard was of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862), a work that she had much admired in her youth.11 As an adult, however, she found the work lacked integrity, an overall design. "Alas, that she couldn't finish it in the same noble key of simplicity and harmony .... [The result is] a divine touch here and there in an incomplete piece of work" (Fields, Letters, 47). Here Jewett is expressing an Aristotelian precept, that of dianoia, or unity of thought: a work of art must evince a consistency, an underlying unity.12 A work like the Pearl, which Stowe had composed on and off over a period of a decade, provides a profusion of somewhat haphazardly related events that are not properly integrated.
Jewett believed that the author must develop a personal point of view, an authentic perspective through which the material is selected and according to which it is weighed and arranged. "The trouble with most realism," Jewett complained in an 1890 letter to Thomas Bailey Aldrich, "is that it isn't seen from any point of view at all, and so its shadows fall in every direction and it fails of being art" (Fields, Letters, 79). Jewett explicitly rejected the naturalist theory offered by Emile Zola, who carried the notion of artistic objectivity much further than Jewett found acceptable. In Le Roman expérimental (1880) Zola urged an analogy between the writer and the scientist; each retains objective neutrality toward his or her "experimental" matter. Jewett rejected the lack of moral perspective that such a thesis seemed to entail. Speaking with enthusiasm in 1889 of Thackeray's Vanity Fair (one of her favorite works) Jewett noted how "full [it is] of splendid scorn for meanness and wickedness, which the Zola school seems to lack" (Fields, Letters, 55-56). Many of Jewett's early works are, indeed, imbued with strong moral messages, despite her early self-remonstrance to follow Charles Lamb's advice not to be too preachy. In her 1872 diary she resolved to confine herself to "silent scripture" in future work.13
It was not, however, just a moral perspective, but a personal viewpoint gleaned from experience that she believed a writer must bring to the material. In much-cited counsel she told the novice Willa Cather that she must first see the "world" before she could describe the "parish."14 In 1908 she urged Cather to step back in order to develop perspective on her material. "You don't see [it] yet quite enough from the outside, -- you stand right in the middle . . . without having the standpoint of the looker-on . . ." (Fields, Letters, 248). It takes time for such a process to occur: "The thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper -- whether little or great, it belongs to Literature."15
Yet the process is essentially one that happens to the artist, rather than the artist consciously arranging it:Good heavens! What a wonderful kind of chemistry it is that evolves all the details of a story and writes them presently in one flash of time!The process is nevertheless personal, and the product is imbued with the personality of the creator: "It is, after all, Miss Thackeray herself in Old Kensington who gives the book its charm" (Cary, Letters, 52).16 And, she concluded in advice given to Rose Lamb: "one must have one's own method: it is the personal contribution that makes true value in any form of art or work of any sort" (Fields, Letters, 118).
For two weeks I have been noticing a certain string of things and having hints of character, etc., and day before yesterday the plan of the story comes into my mind, and in half an hour I have put all the little words and ways into their places and can read it off to myself like print. Who does it? For I grow more and more sure that I don't! (Fields, Letters, 51-52)
The reality that Jewett was interested in was, of course, life "in its everyday aspects" (Cary, Letters, 51-52). "A dull little village," she found, "is just the place to find the real drama of life."17 But the reason such commonplace material had interest was because there she found intuitions of a transcendent order."18 In this theoretical perception, a third major aspect of her theory, she came close to symbolist literary poetics.
Shortly before she published her masterwork, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), Jewett used the phrase "imaginative realism" to explain her artistic ideal to another aspiring writer, Andress S. Floyd (Cary, Letters, 91). Although she does not elaborate in the letter, written in 1894, it is clear from other comments what the concept means. In her 1871 diary Jewett wrote:Father said this one day "A story should be managed so that it should suggest interesting things to the reader instead of the author's doing all the thinking for him, and setting it before him in black and white. The best compliment is for the reader to say `Why didn't he put in "this" or "that."'"19The implications of this statement lead away from realist doctrine and point in the direction of symbolism, especially as it developed in late nineteenth-century France. Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, for example, urged that the poet's job was to "suggest" rather than to "name."20 The other statement of Flaubert's that Jewett had before her when she wrote offered counsel similar to her father's. "Ce n'est pas de faire rire, ni de faire pleurer, ni de vous mettre à fureur, mais d'agir à la façon de la nature, c'est à dire de faire rêver" (Fields, Letters, 165).21 The writer's job is to make one dream; that is, to make one aware of another realm, a transcendent realm by means of images drawn from earthly, everyday reality. This is what Jewett meant by "imaginative realism."
Jewett's symbolist inclinations may have been encouraged by her readings in Emmanuel Swedenborg, in particular his theosophical doctrine of correspondences. This theory, so fundamental to symbolist poetics,22 claimed a correlation between the "microcosm" and the "macrocosm;" that is, between this world "here below" and a realm beyond. As a young writer, Jewett had been introduced to Swedenborgianism by a mentor, Theophilus Parsons, a Harvard professor. She once stated that she felt "a sense of it under everything else" (Fields, Letters, 21-22).
Especially in her later work Jewett was interested in depicting intuitions of a realm beyond this, but she never erred in the direction of a didactic Swedenborgianism (as did Elizabeth Stuart Phelps in Beyond the Gates  and The Gates Between ). The narrative of Captain Littlepage in The Country of the Pointed Firs about the Arctic limbo with its "fog-shaped" shades is a good example of the kind of intimations Jewett sought. The land "between this world and the next" described in the narrative is at such a remove, and the narrators' reliability so dubious, that its reality remains problematic. Thus, Jewett allows for only a suggestion of things beyond.
When her friend poet Celia Thaxter died, Jewett wondered "where imagination stops and consciousness of the unseen begins, who can settle that even to one's self?" (Fields, Letters, 110-11). It was not a literal "heaven" that concerned her, but the hints of such transcendence that are intuited within this world -- and the moral effects that such intuitions have upon people. She once noted that she found "something transfiguring in the best of friendship" (Fields, Letters, 126). Her real concern was with this kind of transcendence, and in this sense she was more of a humanist than a symbolist, for she remained primarily concerned with the moral dimension of human experiences of the transcendent.
Yet Jewett wished to go beyond the limits of realism. In an early comment on Jane Austen's meticulous attention to detail Jewett complained, "all the reasoning is done for you and all the thinking . . . . It seems to me like hearing somebody talk on and on and on, while you have no part in the conversation and merely listen" (Cary, Letters, 21). Later, in complimenting her friend Sarah Wyman Whitman on her interpretation of "Martha's Lady" (1897), Jewett noted, "You bring something to the reading of a story that [it] would go very lame without .… It is," she asserted, "those unwritable things that the story holds in its heart, if it has any, that make the true soul of it, and these must be understood, and yet how many a story goes lame for lack of that understanding" (Fields, Letters, 112). Jewett, therefore, extended her conception of authorial restraint to the point where she allowed the reader a creative role in the process. The author should not attempt to exert complete control over the reader's thoughts, but rather attempt to communicate images that "open seed" in the reader's mind, that allow the reader to intuit meanings beyond the literal. Jewett's theory thus provides for the feminine realism that Richardson envisaged -- one in which the author is a relatively passive transmitter who delegates, as it were, some of her authority and control to the reader.
Jewett's "plotless" structure is appropriate to this purpose. It is an essentially feminine literary mode expressing a contextual, inductive sensitivity, one that "gives in" to the events in question, rather than imposing upon them an artificial, prefabricated "plot."
Jewett was not unaware, however, of the dangers of an inductive, associative and relatively undirected narrative style. In "Miss Debby's Neighbors" (1883) she offers a complaint that the narrator's method "of going around Robin Hood's barn between the beginning of her story and its end can hardly be followed at all . . . ."23 An earlier American woman writer, Caroline Kirkland, once apologized for having used a similarly feminine, gossipy style in A New Home -- Who'll Follow? (1839): "This going back to take up dropped stitches, is not the orthodox way of telling one's story; and if I thought I could do any better, I would certainly go back and begin at the very beginning; but I feel conscious that the truly feminine sin of talking `about it and about it,' the unconquerable partiality for wandering wordiness would cleave to me still . . . ."24 At its worst a "feminine" style of undirected meandering lacks the controlling design -- the unity of thought -- necessary to significant art, as Jewett herself noted. But this is not the case with Kirkland's work, despite her fears. Nor is it the case with Jewett's.
As a young writer Jewett worried about her tendency toward plotlessness. In an early letter to her editor, Horace Scudder, she noted,I don't believe I could write a long story . . . . In the first place, I have no dramatic talent. The story would have no plot. I should have to fill it out with descriptions of character and meditations. It seems to me I can furnish the theatre, and show you the actors, and the scenery, and the audience, but there never is any play! I could write you entertaining letters perhaps, from some desirable house where I was in most charming company, but I couldn't make a story about it. (Cary, Letters, 29).By the end of her career, as indicated in her advice to John Thaxter, Jewett had come to the conclusion, however, that the compulsion to "make a story" like stories done in the past interfered with the genuine artistic process. By then she knew that the form she had developed did not require a conventional plot. This was because the conventional plot followed the typical masculine activity of questing. As Rabuzzi notes, "it is plot that strongly militates against story as an appropriate vehicle for traditional women's experience." "By and large," she urges, "most women have known a nonstoried existence. . . ." Jewett needed a form appropriate to that existence.25
Rabuzzi's basic contention is that the traditional female experience, that of being confined to the domestic sphere and charged with the repetitive labor of housework, created a sense of time that was markedly different than the characteristically Western (and masculine) linear, historical time of the quest -- the basis for traditional "story." Rather, the housewife's time was closer to the sacred time of myth, what Mircea Eliade called "illo tempore," or Henri Bergson, "la durée." It is the "timeless" time of cyclic ritual, the time of the "eternal return" (Eliade). The woman's experience appears, therefore, static, and in a mode of waiting. It is not progressive, or oriented toward events happening sequentially or climactically, as in the traditional masculine story plot. The feminine experience most essentially becomes that of the sacredness of space, of time frozen into stasis.26
If we consider Jewett's characteristic plot patterns we will see that they are reflective of such an experience: they are designed to reveal the sacredness that is inherent in the everyday, and they express a static, or, at most, a cyclical sense of movement. An early story, "Beyond the Toll-Gate," which appears in Play Days (1878), clearly establishes this pattern: a young girl ventures out of her house, beyond her domestic confines only to discover two kindly older women who treat her with beneficence; she returns home then with this knowledge. It is a cyclical plot in which the central figure returns home, having learned of the existence of benign female space.
One of the primary plot patterns in Jewett's works is that of a relatively sophisticated urban woman, usually a Jewett persona, traveling to the country where she experiences an epiphany -- where she learns something -- before returning to her urban home. The rural realm came to symbolize for Jewett the world of the traditional woman, a world of timeless ritual, of time frozen into space. In Jewett's historical circumstances it was a world of the mothers' generation, for, as I explore in New England Local Color Literature,27 the daughters' generation -- of which Jewett was a member -- in the latter part of the nineteenth century was moving away from the traditional realm. Jewett herself, as a professional woman anchored at least part of the year in the sophisticated Boston circle of Annie Fields, necessarily came to feel a certain distance from the rural matriarchal world, but it remained the place where she experienced spiritual regeneration, and it remained the spiritual fount of her art.
This typical Jewett plot pattern was established in her earliest work. Deephaven (1877) is structured upon the visit of two urban girls to a coastal town in Maine one summer. An early sketch included in that work, "My Lady Brandon and the Widow Jim" (probably written in 1873) establishes the archetypal structure that Jewett was to use over and over. The story opens with a meandering meditation by the I-narrator (Helen Denis -- a Jewett persona) about her friend, Kate Lancaster; her great-aunt, Miss Brandon; and about "gentlewomen of the old school."28 None of this is irrelevant to the story that follows or to Deephaven, if one considers that the work is about the girls' maturation. The various people they meet serve as examples of figures whom life has harrowed. From these exempla the girls gain wisdom; they achieve a measure of spiritual growth. In this story they meet a Mrs. Patton, "the Widow Jim," who in the divagitating fashion of feminine oral history tells her story. The story ends with the revelation by another neighbor, Mrs. Dockum, that Mrs. Patton had been the victim of wife abuse. The girls also discover that country people are more in tune with the transcendent realm than urban (this is especially developed in the sketch, "Cunner-Fishing"), and that single nature-women, such as Mrs. Bonny, are often towers of spiritual strength. These ideas became central to Jewett's picture of the rural world.
Another work that follows a plot structure similar to Deephaven is "A Bit of Shore Life" (1879) in which a Jewett persona journeys "up-country" where she encounters again various exempla from whom she gains wisdom before returning home. Once again the main people she meets are women. Similarly, in "An Autumn Holiday" (1881) a young woman wanders through the fields, meandering in her journey as the narrative meanders to describe the rural setting in some detail. Finally, she reaches an isolated home where two sisters sit spinning. They begin reminiscing -- again a kind of gossipy oral history commences -- finally focusing on the story of the addled transvestite sea captain. While the story is highly comic, as many of Jewett's are, there is nevertheless a moral message implied -- that of wonder at human diversity -- and a piece of wisdom gleaned -- that of the tenuous nature of gender identity, an early Jewett concern.
A similar structure obtains in "The Courting of Sister Wisby" (1887) where the urban narrator-persona, again wandering in the country, encounters Mrs. Goodsoe, an herbalist out gathering "mulleins." A lengthy conversation ensues in which the two women show themselves to be of different generations. Mrs. Goodsoe is of the older matriarchal generation: she sustains the women's culture of herb-medicine that she learned from her mother. She is opposed to technological progress and to rapid transportation systems. People should remain rooted in their home realms. Hers is the voice of the traditional woman, where the younger urban woman argues that some modern advances, such as opportunities for travel, may be to the good. The story about Sister Wisby is finally told, another in the genre of comic humanism, and another that depicts a powerful country woman.
In some early pieces Jewett did not even bother with the rudiments of plot seen in these stories. "An October Ride" (1881) and "A Winter Drive" (1881) involve excursions by the woman narrator into nature where she experiences meditational epiphanies, but where nothing per se happens -- again a static or cyclical pattern. Similarly, "The Landscape Chamber" (1887) describes the travels of a young horsewoman and the dismal exempla she encounters on her circular journey. In "The King of Folly Island" (1888) the persona is a man, but the plot structure is the same.
The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) relies on an homologous structure. The Jewett persona comes to the country from the city seeking, it appears, spiritual regeneration and artistic inspiration. In the course of her stay she discovers a land of timeless rituals, a land that seems to have escaped the processes of historical progress: it seems a place where time has frozen into space. The farther up country one goes the closer one comes to a transcendent realm: indeed, the land between the living and the dead that is described in Littlepage's story is located in the Arctic.
Mrs. Todd, the central personage, is, like Mrs. Goodsoe, a matriarch rooted in her world, the transmitter of the matrilineal traditions of herbal lore. The people the narrator meets or whom she learns about, such as Joanna, serve as exempla of diverse human experience and provide her with moral wisdom -- sometimes about the human condition, often more specifically about women's situation. Here, as throughout Jewett's works, the narrator-persona remains a kind of passive recorder, rather than an active participant in events -- though in Pointed Firs she evinces a strong desire to do so and briefly participates in the ceremonials at the Bowden family reunion. Nevertheless, she is fundamentally cut off from this world, and must return in the end to her urban, modern world.
The layers of narrative in these Jewett works suggests the remove the modern (late nineteenth-century) woman is from the transcending matriarchal realm. The meandering series of conversations serve the symbolic purpose of illustrating the psychological distance the urban woman is from the gynocentric world of the traditional woman -- the mother -- and of the sacred female space that is her world.
In "The Foreigner" (1900), for example, a late sequel to Pointed Firs, the story is structured similarly to the Joanna episode in the earlier work: Mrs. Todd, the narrator, and a visitor are sitting around a Franklin stove gossiping. Gradually in the process of reminiscing the central story, told by Mrs. Todd, emerges. It concerns a moment in which the transcendent literally erupts into the everyday: "the foreigner's" dead mother appears at her daughter's death-bed to carry her "home." This was probably Jewett's most literal depiction of a transcendent, salvific mother. It remains at a considerable remove from the everyday, urban, modern world of the narrator, buried, as it is, within layers of narrative.
Several stories involve cyclical transits within the rural world. "A Late Supper" (1878), a humorous early story, entails an inadvertent trip taken by Catherine Spring. When unexpected guests arrive for dinner she runs to a neighbor's farm for cream. On the way back her way is blocked by a train. As she steps aboard to cross over, the train starts up. She must travel to the next stop and back before she can return home for supper. On the way, however, she encounters some women who provide her with a means out of financial difficulties she had been experiencing. Thus, the plot concerns a housebound woman whose circular journey serendipitously results in a change of fortune; it is a stroke of the miraculous in the everyday.
Other stories that follow a similarly eventless cyclical pattern include "The Hiltons' Holiday" (1893), "The Flight of Betsey Lane" (1893), and "The Guests of Mrs. Timms" (1894). Betsey Lane travels all the way to Philadelphia in her adventure, but she returns home to her community in the end. Nothing has really changed, except that like other Jewett travelers her moral horizons have been broadened.
One of the most static of Jewett's stories is one of her most brilliant: "Miss Tempy's Watchers" (1888). The entire story takes place indoors one evening, in the home of a dead woman. It consists in the conversation of two woman in attendance at the wake. Through the conversation the women achieve spiritual growth and experience a connection with the transcendent through the effect of Tempy's spirit (not her literal spirit in the sense of a ghost, but the spirit of charity in which she lived her life).
Occasionally a character who is not a Jewett persona comes to the rural world from the city. In this pattern the rural world remains the emotional and spiritual centrum. The structure is evident, comically, in "Miss Esther's Guest" (1893), and more seriously in "A White Heron" (1886) and "Martha's Lady" (1897). "A White Heron" involves the repudiation of an urban intruder, so that the rural world remains intact. The only events in the story are, again, a matter of moral growth. The young girl learns more about her rural environment in her ascent up the tree, and it is that knowledge that provides her with the resolve to protect the life of the white heron that the ornithologist seeks to kill. The story thus is a static one of the preservation of a female sanctuary. As a reverse Cinderella story "A White Heron" connects imagistically to the Grimm version of the fairy tale, for, in the Cinderella story a white bird emerges from the grave of the girl's mother; in "A White Heron" the white bird similarly comes to symbolize the world of the mothers.29
"Martha's Lady" is another static story that takes place in a waiting mode. After forty years an urban woman, to whom a rural servant woman has been devotedly attached, returns "home" to Martha. The reunion of the women constitutes the story's only event, but it too is a kind of revelation of the sacred; it reveals the matriarchal transcendence that emerges out of the female experience of patience and resignation -- what Rabuzzi calls the traditional woman's "via negativa."30
Jewett's "imaginative realism" thus came close to symbolism in that it attempted to suggest a world beyond the literal world of the realists, but it remained a moral humanism in that it retained roots in the everyday world of human experience. The plot structure that she developed was uniquely appropriate for the transmission of her vision. It entailed cyclical journeys of spiritual growth; in her most significant works, these moral and sometimes physical journeys are undertaken by alienated urban "daughters" seeking to reconnect with and preserve the matriarchal world of traditional rural "mothers," a realm of timeless ritual. It was an escape from the masculine time of history into transcending feminine space.
Notes by Josephine Donovan
1 This article focuses on those aspects of Jewett's theory that are relevant to interpretive problems. A more extensive discussion of her critical theory may be found in Josephine Donovan, Sarah Orne Jewett (New York: Ungar, 1980; rev. ed. Cybereditions, 2001), chap. 6, "Criticism and Influence," and in Donovan, New England Local Color Literature: A Women's Tradition (New York: Ungar, 1983), chap. 7. See also Richard Cary, "Jewett on Writing Short Stories," Colby Library Quarterly, 6 (1964), 425-40, and "Jewett's Literary Canons," Colby Library Quarterly, 7 (1965), 82-87.
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2 Richard Cary, ed., Sarah Orne Jewett Letters (Waterville: Colby College Press, 1967), p. 52; hereafter cited in the text.
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3 Annie Fields, ed., Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), p. 165; hereafter cited in the text.
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4 Willa Cather, "Willa Cather Talks of Work," Philadelphia Record, 9 Aug. 1913; rpt. in The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896, ed. Bernice Slote (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska, 1966), p. 449.
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5 The Richardson comments are cited in Leon Edel, The Psychological Novel, 1900-1950 (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1955), p. 74.
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6 Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Norton, 1971), p. 115.
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7 Carol Gilligan, "Woman's Place in Man's Life Cycle," Harvard Educational Review, 49, No. 4 (1979), 442. In her In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982), p. 19, Gilligan changed the term "inductive" to "narrative." In a recent article, "Maternal Thinking," Feminist Studies, 6 (1980), 342-67, Sara Ruddick has contrasted maternal thinking with scientific (masculine) thought patterns; the former expresses respect and "humility" before the contextual environment, while the latter impose control. A similar contrast is drawn by Evelyn Fox Keller in an article, "Feminism and Science," Signs, 7 (1982), 589-602.Keller cites a woman scientist's attitude as an example of a feminine mode; that scientist urges "letting the material speak to you" rather than "imposing" "an answer" upon it (p. 599). Contemporary psychologists have also detected a feminine tendency to "see" and respect the context of an event, rather than lifting the phenomenon out of context and rearranging it according to a prior paradigm (Joanna Rohrbach, Women, Psychology's Puzzle [New York: Basic, 1979], p. 71). All of these studies tend to suggest a feminine episteme that respects the environmental context, that hesitates before wrenching and reshaping that environment. Such a sensitivity seems to be present in Jewett's theory of the artist who does little to reshape reality. For a further discussion of this direction in modern feminist thought see my Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions, 3d. ed (New York: Continuum, 2000).
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8Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi, The Sacred and the Feminine: Towards A Theology of Housework (New York: Seabury, 1982), p. 153.
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9 Rabuzzi, p. 153.
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10 Rabuzzi, p. 153.
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11 Jewett vacillated about this novel. In a later unpublished letter she recanted her criticism, saying: "I take back [my belief] that the last half of the book was not so good .... I still think that she wrote it, most of it at her very best height . . ." (Sarah Orne Jewett to Annie Adams Fields, n.d., Houghton MS bMS 1743.1  14; cited by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University).
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12 On other Aristotelian precepts in Jewett's criticism see Donovan, Sarah Orne Jewett, pp. 123-26.
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13 Manuscript diary 1871-79, entry for 13 July 1872, Houghton MS Am 1743.1 (341); cited by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University.
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14 This advice is cited variously by Cather herself. See her 1922 preface to Alexander's Bridge and also her essay, "Miss Jewett," in Not Under Forty, (New York: Knopf, 1953), p. 88.
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15 As cited in Cather's 1925 preface to The Best Short Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett.
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16 Jewett is citing an unnamed literary critic in her comment on Thackeray.
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17 LaSalle Corbell Pickett, Across My Path: Memories of People I Have Known (New York: Brentano's, 1916), p. 145.
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18 While Jewett admired Wordsworth and shared many of his critical ideas -- especially the essentially democratic ideal of poetry found in the preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (see Donovan, Sarah Orne Jewett, pp. 133-34), her concept of nature and of the rural world as a source of spiritual knowledge is different from his. A thorough comparison of the two perceptions would require another article; suffice to note here that Wordsworth's "intimations of immorality" are rooted within the poet's soul, where for Jewett such intimations come from beyond the self. Wordsworth and the romantics pose a heroically egocentric artist that contrasts quite markedly with Jewett's view. For a further discussion of Jewett's ideas about transcendence, see Josephine Donovan, "A Woman's Vision of Transcendence: A New Interpretation of the Works of Sarah Orne Jewett," Massachusetts Review, 21, No. 2 (1980), 365-80 and "Ecofeminist Literary Criticism: Reading the Orange." Hypatia 11, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 947-80.
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19 Manuscript diary 1871-79, Houghton MS Am 1743.1 (341), inside front cover. Cited by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University.
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20 The complete phrase is: "Nommer un objet, c'est supprimer . . . le suggérer, voilà le rêve" (Mallarmé, Oeuvres Complètes [Paris: Pléiade, 1945], p. 869).
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21 The version given here is more complete than Jewett's; it comes from F. O. Matthiessen, Sarah Orne Jewett (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929), p. 67.
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22 See William York Tindall, The Literary Symbol (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1955), pp. 53 ff.
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23 Jewett, "Miss Debby's Neighbors," The Mate of the Daylight, and Friends Ashore (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884), p. 191.
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24 Caroline Kirkland [Mrs. Mary Clavers], A New Home -- Who'll Follow? Or, Glimpses of Western Life (1839; rpt. New York: Garrett Press, 1969), p. 140.
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25 Rabuzzi, pp. 163, 173.
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26 See especially Rabuzzi, pp. 143-51. I have paraphrased and condensed her thesis somewhat, but I trust I have remained faithful to it. Another recent article that draws somewhat similar distinctions is Julia Kristeva, "Women's Time," Signs, 7, No. 1 (1981), 13-35.
The transformation of time into space is another formal and thematic concern of the modernists that seems to express a fundamentally feminine sensibility. On this direction see Joseph Frank, "Spatial Form in Modern Literature," Sewanee Review, 13, No. 2 (Apr.-June 1945), 221-40; No. 3 (July-Sept. 1945), 433-56, and No. 4 (Oct.-Dec. 1945), 643-61, and Nathan A. Scott, Jr., The Broken Center, Studies in the Theological Horizon of Modern Literature (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1966), chap. 2, "Mimesis and Time in Modern Literature."
Probably their "feminine" tendencies are due to the fact that the modernists were rebelling against a rigidly patriarchal literary tradition. In any event, Jewett anticipated some of their directions.
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27 See especially Donovan, New England Local Color Literature, pp. 99-138.
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28 Jewett, Deephaven and Other Stories, ed. Richard Cary (New Haven: College & University Press, 1966), p. 56.
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29 This thesis is developed more extensively in Donovan, New England Local Color Literature, pp.107-10.
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30 Rabuzzi, p. 181.
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Editor's notes for this edition.
Josephine Donovan is the author of Sarah Orne Jewett (1980; rev. ed., 2001), New England Local Color Literature (1983), and other books and articles. A complete list of her publications is available on her web site: http://nasa.umeres.maine.edu/~Josephine.Donovan. She is Emerita Professor of English, University of Maine.
This essay was written especially for Gwen Nagel, Editor, Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984 (pp. 212-225). Copyright (c) 1984 by Josephine Donovan. Reprinted by permission. This essay may not be reprinted without permission of the author. Josephine Donovan made a few minor corrections and additions for the online publication of this text.
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Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.
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