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The Jewett Journal

SARAH ORNE JEWETT, THE APOSTLE OF NEW ENGLAND
ESTHER FORBES

     ALTHOUGH Mrs. Stowe, when she wrote The Pearl of Orr's Island, started the impetus of the New England genre story, it was not until the next generation, and the greater artistic genius of Sarah Orne Jewett, that this indigenous form of American literature came into full bearing. She was an exquisite and skillful craftsman, who in her best stories made the English language flow with limpid and distinguished clarity of the best French tradition. Now, sixteen years after her death, and with the rise of a new generation of critics, there is heard a rustle of old books and papers, and a low but persistent reiteration among those who know her work, that here, if anywhere, is the writer of the New World comparable with Chekhov, Flaubert, and de Maupassant.

     But Sarah Orne Jewett, the well-bred New England lady, although artistically the sister of these great continentals, and their admirer, was cut from another piece of cloth and in another pattern. Can you imagine, for instance, Madame Bovary stealing out, not in guilt, to meet her lover, but to enjoy one of the thousand-odd fascinating and guileless adventures of daily country life? Many writers today admit the power of Miss Jewett's simple narratives. In fact, until this spring, she seemed likely to become for our generation an "author's author." Miss Willa Cather, who as an artist finds herself deeply indebted to Miss Jewett, has edited a two-volume series of her Best Stories. Undoubtedly the appearance of this timely set will bring something of a Jewett revival among "average readers." They stand now, two volumes of American classics.

     In her introduction, Miss Cather says that she can think of no American book that confronts time and change so serenely as The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, and certain of Miss Jewett's stories. They are stories which, to Miss Cather, seem "to fairly shine with the reflection of its long, joyous future…. I like to think with what pleasure, with what a sense of rich discovery, the young student of American literature in far distant years to come will take up this book and say 'A masterpiece!' as proudly as if he himself had made it."

     Miss Jewett's stories are to a remarkable degree the outgrowth of her own rocky New England soil, and an expression of her rich, delicately adjusted personality. Her sketches, to quote Miss Cather again, "are living things caught in the open, with light and freedom and air-spaces about them. They melt into the land and the life of the land until they are not stories at all, but life itself."

     We know through her stories the woman that Sarah Orne Jewett was, but what were the influences that so shaped her? What was her world's attitude towards her, and what is more important, what was hers towards the people, the things, the country, the thoughts, the books that made up her world?

     There is a temptation to describe perhaps in too great detail that "country of the pointed firs" in southern Maine where she was born and which her art made famous. "The country out of which I grew, and where every bush and tree seems like my cousin." Her stories and letters constantly reflect her ardent love for her locality. In winter the grey cloud bank hangs over the sea, "all along the eastern horizon, and I think it is going to snow again, or rain. The wood-sheds are creeping out of the woods into the village, and there are oxen, like rocks from the pasture, or the tops of ledges, they look so hard, so tough and frosted over." As a woman grown she recalled her childhood and how she would run over the creaking snow to meet the team and ride to town in triumph, "but it was not many years before I began to feel sorry at the sight of the huge lopped stems of oak or pine that came trailing along after the slow-stepping oxen … such trees are irreplaceable."

     This was winter. But there was spring with "hepaticas like people with cold hands and faces" and anemones in their unseasonable summer frocks, and the spring wind buffeting in a companionable manner the house; upland pasture in summertime, humming with insects and sweet herbs and berries, and the faraway smell of the sea; fall, the season of all for which she seemed to feel the deepest passion -- ice forming in the salt marshes, birds streaming across the southern sky. I do not recall another writer who in so effortless and masterful a manner, catches the fluctuations of the active New England seasons. "Weather," as Edward M. Chapman once pointed out in the Yale Review, "plays so large a part in New England life; there is so much of it to the square mile that genuine love of weather for its own sake is needful for any sympathetic acquaintance with the face of the country." This seasonal and climatic change Miss Jewett felt in a high degree. Then, too, 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.

     Charles Miner Thompson has said that he always thinks of her "as one who, hearing New England accused of being a bleak land without beauty, passes confidently over the snow, and by the gray rock, and past the dark fir trees, to a southern bank, and there, brushing away the decayed leaves, triumphantly shows to the fault-finder a spray of the trailing arbutus. And I should like, for my own part, to add this: that the fragrant, retiring, exquisite flower, which I think she would say is the symbol of New England virtue, is the symbol also of her own modest and delightful art."

     South Berwick, the town of her birth, lies within earshot of the tumult of Salmon Falls. It is a white and very New England village, obviously clean, Godfearing and industrious. I was lucky in seeing it while the snow was still deep enough on the ground to keep the automobile in partial hibernation and bring out tinkling sleighs drawn by shaggy horses -- versatile country horses, not too delicate in mind or body for plowing, nor too ungainly for staid pleasure driving. But occasionally a veritable brontosaurus of a bus bound for Dover, or returning from Berwick, would remind one that the village has not stood so still during the last forty years as you would like to believe. But the ox teams which delighted the little girl do not come from the northern forests, and the stanch sea-captains who were so often the guests of her grandfather, no longer came up from Portsmouth in the east. The house where she was born and where she died still stands, a gracious and friendly presence at the end of the village street. Much has been written about this ancient and aristocratic mansion of more than a hundred and fifty years. It is rich not only with its own architectural beauty, and in the treasury of glass, china and rare exotic things brought by world voyagers from France or the Far East, but in its memories. Miss Jewett loved the house and enjoyed its associations. "It is a great pleasure to have had her in the old house," she once wrote of a friend's visit. "Such guests never really go away -- which makes an old house very different from a new one." Nor will Sarah Orne Jewett herself ever quite go away from the old house.

     Her grandfather Jewett bought the house some time prior to Miss Jewett's birth in 1849. He had run away to sea as a boy, risen early with the precocity of his generation to the rank of captain, and retired thus far inland while still a young man. He devoted himself to the East India Trade and ship building. Of Miss Jewett's immediate family, her father, the merchant's son, seems to have been of the most dynamic and far-reaching influence. We know less of her mother, a "delicate gentlewoman with lovely manners," -- "a typical New England lady" is Sarah Orne Jewett's sister Miss Mary Jewett's description. I think, however, in the many charming older women with which Miss Jewett graces her stories, there must be the reflection of her mother's personality. The father's influence began very early, and lasted as long as life. Sarah Orne Jewett, like so many other gifted men and women, was a delicate child. There are in existence sweet and piquant old-fashioned photographs of her in the odd little caps and capes of the period. School seemed to give her headaches, and she went but little. She wrote once that she "must honestly confess to instant drooping if ever I were shut up in school. I had not the slightest desire for learning." She became the constant companion of her father, a doctor, on his long professional drives about the country. In the merchant's household Dr. Jewett had early "taken to his book" and shown no interest in tonnage and lumber measurements. By the time he was in college, he began his life-long devotion to medicine. His daughter has painted his portrait in her novel A Country Doctor. He was a wise, spirited and kindly man, with a deep sense of service, and a love for humanity. If Miss Jewett had been strong, so she herself has said, she would probably have been a doctor. In her letters there are references to books on anatomy that she is reading, and no one can doubt that her understanding of the body helped to understand the spirit. As a little girl she worshipped her father, nor did she ever outgrow this devotion. Her dedication to him of Country By-Ways published soon after his death, is a moving memorial to this devotion:

     To
     T. H. J.
     MY DEAR FATHER; MY DEAR FRIEND
     THE BEST AND WISEST MAN I EVER KNEW;
     WHO TAUGHT ME MANY LESSONS AND SHOWED ME MANY THINGS
     AS WE WENT TOGETHER ALONG THE
     COUNTRY BY-WAYS

     And of him she once wrote, "He gave me my first and best knowledge of books by his own delight and dependence on them, and ruled my early attempts at writing by the severity and simplicity of his own good taste. `Don't try to write about people and things, tell them just as they are!" How often my young ears heard these words without comprehending them!"

     Dr. Jewett inherited from his father, the East India merchant, his amazing knowledge of human nature, and from his French maternal ancestry that gaieté de coeur that never deserted him. Miss Jewett herself had much of his spiritual nature and his warm sympathy. Her attitude towards the men and women of her books always seems to me much that of an understanding physician, although added to it is that quite feminine archness that supplies the friendly humor. There is also in her to a marked degree the Gaelic lucidity of thought and style that characterizes so many of the French masters. Like most young people, Miss Jewett at the beginning of her teens had the usual desire to write highly imaginative romances, but her father constantly pressed upon her the necessity -- almost the moral obligation -- to write only what she saw.

     Before she was twenty she had found her particular literary field. No matter how widely she travelled in later life, nor what the fluctuating styles in fiction might be, she never changed her line of endeavor nor her ideals for her art. Her work grew magnificently in beauty and vitality as time went on, but it never overflowed its original channel. She constantly cut a deeper course but never a wider. She was a writer who early set herself limits and kept within their bounds. Her first limitation was of locality -- she wrote only of a comparatively few miles of the north New England coast; and her second of personnel -- she felt a conscious desire to show the true Yankee, not the caricatured Yankee of the earlier fiction. Even when she was a young girl a certain number of city people went to the Maine coast for holidays. Timid city ladies sometimes mistook a selectman for a tramp because he happened to be crossing a field in his shirt-sleeves, and in their turn these well meaning visitors were often regarded with suspicion by the country people. She hoped by her stories in some way to bridge the gap. Next she further limited herself by a rather fastidious rejection of all violence, all passion, anger, hatred. Miss Cather, in her preface to the new selection of her stories, speaks of the many kinds of people in the State of Maine: "There may be Othellos and Iagos and Don Juans, but they are not highly characteristic of the country, they do not come up spontaneously in the juniper pastures as the everlasting does. Miss Jewett wrote of the people who grew out of the soil and the life of the country near her heart, not about exceptional individuals at war with their environment. This was not a creed with her, but an instinctive preference. She once laughingly told me that her head was full of dear old houses and dear old women, and that when an old house and an old woman came together in her brain with a click, she knew that a story was under way."

          Her gentle and dear old country people were not the only inevitable florescence of her native soil. There was in her an instinctive gentility that rejected the ugly and sordid, although she delighted in the simple. "Nothing so beautiful to me as manners," one of her characters exclaims, and this, too, seems to be Miss Jewett's point of view. So many of her characters are well-bred -- from Kate Lancaster to Miss Bellamy, "looking like some exiled queen in a peasant's lodging." Old Mrs. Blackett on her very lonely island farm could teach one more than many encyclopedias of etiquette. She knows there is "an awful sight of poor material walking about that ain't worth the ground it steps on," as one of her characters exclaims, then adds with charity, "misshaped by nature." From them, however, Miss Jewett preferred to remain aloof as she did from violent passions and angry quarreling. The love between man and woman that she portrays is usually a thing remembered, already lavender-scented, passed beyond the power to hurt or delight.

          Miss Jewett wrote, besides her few novels, almost a hundred published short stories. The fact that there are so many of them makes approach difficult. Miss Cather, by selecting the thirty-five stories which in her excellent judgment are the best and most representative, has made the access easy to Miss Jewett's lovely art. In a letter, Miss Jewett once wrote to Miss Cather: "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." Certain subjects recurrently attracted or 'teased' her mind. She tried again and again to get a certain definite effect. In her earlier books such as Deephaven, Country By-Ways, we can often recognize in a brief sketch the germ which later grew into a complete and flawless expression of her mature skill. They are for the most part concerned with what are usually considered the milder of human relations.

          In "The Only Rose," a widow who has buried three husbands tries to decide which of the worthy men deserves to wear upon his grave the only rose in her garden. But neither her first spouse, Albert, nor the subsequent Mr. Wallis or Mr. Bickford, whose name the widow now enjoys, is honored with the rose. It goes to the nephew John, a living lover who takes it for his sweetheart -- and the old lady laughs where the more intensely modern old lady of fiction would doubtless feel embittered. "Miss Tempy's Watchers" was once selected by Edward Garnett as "an epitome of Miss Jewett's talent." Two women, Mrs. Crowe and Sister Binson, sit up as watchers in the home of the dead woman, Miss Tempy, the night before the funeral. "The slightly eerie relation of the living to the dead, the manner in which the two women are constrained to draw close together in outspoken confidences, and the way the character of the dead woman creates the powerful atmosphere around them are most finely brought out." "Tender" it is, says Mr. Garnett, "grave, wholly spiritual in its essence, but subtly strong is the feeling of our human frailty lurking in these good women's private chat." And as Miss Tempy rises through the voices of her friends into a reality that makes her wraith felt through the little house, the spring night and the spring wind breathe hopefully against the window panes. In "A White Heron" Miss Jewett shows a different phase of loyalty. Sylvy, a lonely farm child, who has known almost no congenial company except among beasts and plants, meets a gallant and friendly hunter. The young man is primarily a collector of rare birds. He believes that the exotic white herons have a nest nearby. The girl's lonely heart goes out to the gracious romantic stranger. Before daybreak, in pale moonlight, she wanders far into the woods to a great pine, the last left of its generation. The birds are just awakening, and she believes that from the top of this primeval tree she can see the white herons rise to the dawn, and so betray their nest. Up and up, clinging to the rough bark and dependent on tiny twigs, the child makes the arduous ascent. From the top, triumphant, she sees the day break and the sea far to the east [west] -- a golden haze over the world, birds singing louder and louder, a wonderful pageant of the forest. Then out of it rises "like a single floating feather" the white heron from his nest in a dead hemlock. But this secret of the bird the girl keeps hidden. She is truer to nature than to the potential lover she is instinctively conscious of in the young hunter.

          Of all Miss Jewett's creations, personally I like Mrs. Todd, the vast herb-gatherer. Her determined shape bulks large throughout all of the first volume of the Best Stories and it is on her these sketches hang. We see her as a sympathetic friend, a keen botanist, a doctor of sorts, and a shrewd commentator on her neighbors. Then one day she takes a friend to a lonely place, where in the grass each pennyroyal grew as the rest of the world could not provide. The summer air is heavily perfumed with the herb crushed beneath the two women's feet. Then Mrs. Todd tells, not in words but more in the silences that come, of the man she had loved, but for some reason could not marry, and how it is pennyroyal "always would remind me of -- the other one." "She looked away from me, and presently rose and went on by herself. There was something lonely and solitary about her great determined shape. She might have been Antigone alone on the Theban plain."

          "An absolute, archaic grief possessed this country-woman." That is the way love throws its long shadows on the lives that Miss Jewett records. The processes of mating, which for the average fiction writer hold [holds] center stage, is always in retrospect or in the wings. For better or worse she has left this side of human endeavor to others.

          It is easier to say what Miss Jewett accomplishes -- that clear radiant beauty without one line distorted or one color either disproportionate or lifeless -- than to say how she does it, or to recount the elements that go into her pictures. Having said what she does not write about, it is enough to say that one of her most characteristic themes is the devotion and loyalty of women for each other -- often daughters for their mothers, aunts for their nieces. Age is never considered a barrier for friendship. She writes also more poignantly, it seems to me, than any other writer of love of locality, that almost blind and cat-like devotion to the things of every-day usage -- the weathered farm house, the barberry pasture and the familiar ancient apple trees, staggering up the hilly orchard. What tragedy when men, or women, are uprooted from the dear and familiar and sent forth in old age to find new havens, and yet with what indomitable courage are such situations faced. Courage is, in fact, one of the dominant notes in Miss Jewett's stories. Again and again, simple and seemingly unpretentious people meet emergencies and rise to them. I do not know where they get this valiant spirit unless it is out of the touch of sterile New England soil upon which they spring. It is not the courage of religion, for considering New England traditions there is surprisingly little reference to either church or religion in Miss Jewett's stories. It is more the fortitude of philosophy and an abiding belief in the virtue of life itself.

          If you have tired of despair and weakness in more recent novels yon will find tonic in Miss Jewett's. It is an interesting commentary on the literary mind that so many of the writers of the skill and realism of Miss Jewett have been more interested in weakness than in strength, and have been overly concerned with the sex motif in life that Miss Jewett eschews. We therefore have come to associate optimism too often with the mediocre, and reticence with stupidity. She has the finesse of the author of Madame Bovary, that curiously French flavor so few Americans have achieved. The beauty of her work is its complete lack of distortion or exaggeration. After reading Miss Jewett, the merely good-enough author seems extraordinarily shoddy, pretentious, and strangely dull. You read, and are conscious of having always known these people. You have that deep and loving understanding of their problems untouched by patronage and cynicism. I asked Miss Mary Jewett, the sister of Sarah Orne Jewett, if these intimate sketches, so often based on actual fact and real people, gave offense to her neighbors, but the answer was in the negative. How many other authors have written so intensely of their own village and its environs, and have afterwards been able to live comfortably in the home town? With all her understanding and tact, she is clear, cool and unsentimental. Not only would sentimentality be repellent to her as an artist but she really cares too much about the men and women of her sketches to sugar them over.

          As may be gathered from the subject of Miss Jewett's stories, she was not especially interested, either in fiction or in fact, in love. None of her friends speak of her without commenting on her deep and unforgettable charm, her manner "that combines the height of delicate refinement and cordial artlessness which both fires your fancy and warms your heart"; and again Harriet Prescott Spofford spoke of "her lofty carriage, her dark eyes, her high head and beautiful features." We read of her "stately grace and dark beauty." Yet she was but little moved by the need of masculine society. It is recorded that Whittier once asked, "Sarah, was thee ever in love?" "No, whatever made you think that?" And Mr. Whittier said, "No, I thought not!" and again she laughingly explained she had more need of a wife than a husband. Friendship meant more to her than any other relationship. From girlhood on she always felt the necessity of the companionship of some one of her own sex. Mrs. James T. Fields, whose home on Charles Street was the nearest approach to a literary salon in Boston, was perhaps the dearest of all these friends. Celia Thaxter and Mrs. Humphry Ward were also her intimates. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Whittier, Lowell, Henry James, all delighted in her vivacious company.

          She had a deep belief in the sacredness of her profession of letters. In A Country Doctor, she shows us the common incompatibility between a career and matrimony. The old doctor, whom we know is a portrait of Dr. Jewett, wonders whether or not his pretty and gifted daughter has chosen well to choose medicine and let marriage go. "He tried to assure himself that while a man's life is strengthened by his domestic happiness, a woman's must either surrender itself wholly, or relinquish entirely the claims of such duties, if she would achieve distinction or satisfaction elsewhere. The two cannot be taken together in a woman's life as in a man's. One must be made of lesser consequence, though the very natures of both domestic and professional life need all the strength which can be brought to them. The decision between them he knew to be a most grave responsibility, and one to be governed by the gravest moral obligations, and the unmistakable leadings of the personal instincts and ambitions."
 

          A few biographical details may be given to make the story complete. Miss Jewett was born in 1849 and died in 1909. Her first story, entitled "Mr. Bruce," appeared in the Atlantic Monthly for December, 1869, and she was thereafter a frequent contributor to its pages. Scattered through its volumes may also be found critical commendations of her work by such writers as George Parsons Lathrop, Horace E. Scudder and William Dean Howells. Her first novel, A Country Doctor, was published in 1884, and her other volumes include A Marsh Island, Deephaven, Old Friends and New, Country By-Ways, The Mate of the Daylight and Friends Ashore, A White Heron and Other Stories, The King of Folly Island and Other People, Betty Leicester, Strangers and Wayfarers. A Native of Winby and Other Tales, The Life of Nancy, The Country of the Pointed Firs, The Queen's Twin and The Tory Lover. Her letters, edited by Mrs. Fields and published in 1911, two years after her death, covered the period of thirty [twenty] years between 1880 and 1909 [1900], and they reveal a wide range of the friendly correspondence of a woman to whom "strangers were not real strangers when they are of the world of letters."' Among the best known names among them were Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Mrs. Humphry Ward, Willa Cather, Alice Meynell, Sara Norton, Harriet Prescott Spofford, and Mrs. Fields. As has well been said of these letters, "they will be loved no less because they are haunted by the odors of the coast of Maine and are full of home affections." Edward Garnett, who has already been quoted, sums up the rare qualities of Miss Jewett's art when he says: "Now this rare poetic breath that emanates from Miss Jewett's homely realism is her artistic reward for caring above all things for the essential spiritual reality of her scenes, and for departing not a hair's-breadth from its prosaic actualities."

          Because her sketches are so intensely rooted in the soil of one small part of the world, there is a tendency to overlook the wide culture and extensive travels of the author. Miss Jewett was a very serious literary woman. She read exhaustively from the past, and kept herself well posted on contemporary books. She knew most of the outstanding writers of her day, and many of the younger ones who were but beginning to try their wings. In the old house in South Berwick today, is the blue Egyptian ring which a very young May Sinclair gave her as a mark of her admiration. Willa Cather, during the formative years of her life, turned to her as a master of her craft. Her charming and distinguished manner and her social gifts made her a delightful addition to any company. Tennyson was her host on several occasions. The last time was shortly before his death. Miss Jewett wore a crystal ball hung about her neck. The old laureate leaned forward and taking it in his hand, asked in a great voice if it was by looking into it that she found her stories. Usually while in England she visited various friends, many of them literary, but she also travelled upon the Continent and in the Near East merely for the joy of travel. She knew America, North, South, East and West. In reading her stories of provincial life it is well to remember this wide background. She was in no way a provincial writer. Nor was she a writer for one generation. We have seen a tradition of New England literature rise along the lines that Sarah Orne Jewett inaugurated, but none of the subsequent writers have had the same humor, grace and exquisite reality.


Note

     This essay appeared originally in the Boston Evening Transcript 6 (May 16, 1925) 1. Richard Cary reprinted it in Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett (1973). Cary notes that Forbes misquoted a number of items. He corrects the quotations, and those corrections are incorporated in this text, which is based on Cary's. Cary also notes a number of factual errors in the essay: that in her introduction to the Jewett collection, Cather names The Country of the Pointed Firs as the single work that compares with The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn, that Jewett's subjects were more extensive than New England, that she published about 150 short stories, that the Cather collection contains only The Country of the Pointed Firs and eleven other stories, and that "Mr. Bruce" was the first Jewett story to appear in The Atlantic, but not her first published story. Describing the contents of Cather's selection is complicated by the fact that Cather interpolates three of Jewett's sequels into the first-published text of The Country of the Pointed Firs: "The Queen's Twin," "A Dunnet Shepherdess," and "William's Wedding." Other errors, some noted by Cary, have been corrected in the text and noted in brackets. Forbes also exaggerates a little the extent of Jewett's travels. The closest Jewett came to visiting the Near East was touring in Italy, and the furthest extent of her western travels in the United States appears to have been Wisconsin.

Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.


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The Jewett Journal