The Jewett Journal
MISS SARAH ORNE JEWETT'S TALES
IT IS TEN YEARS since a London publisher presented an admirable selection of Miss Sarah Orne Jewett's stories to that great public of ours which is, and may well be, richer in its opportunities than in its discernment. Tales of New England the neat, smooth, green volume was entitled, but though its little band of enthusiastic readers could be mustered from scattered English homes, many of the copies must have lain retired from the world, for no second edition of the Tales was issued. Some of its readers had hailed old friends among the stories, reprinted from the magazine that has always stood for the best traditions in American literature--the Atlantic Monthly, and some there were who recognised that in Miss Jewett's exquisite talent America had gained a writer who can be rated second only to Hawthorne in her interpretation of the spirit of New England soil. Since that quiet uneventful appearance of Tales of New England among us, Miss Jewett's works have made a few discreet attempts to enlarge their modest circle of English readers. The Country of the Pointed Firs, The Tory Lover, The Queen's Twin, The Life of Nancy, these books, and perhaps others, have been imported from time to time by English publishers who have placed their respected imprints on the Riverside editions. It is on the occasion of a fresh announcement by a London publisher of an English edition of The King of Folly Island that I venture to offer here a slight analysis of a talent, that has had too scanty and transitory attention paid it. No doubt the fault has not been entirely on the English public's side. Miss Jewett's talent at its best is so quietly delicate, its spiritual aroma so subtle, that to come to it is like coming to one of the quiet sea beaches or woody hillsides of Maine she so tenderly describes for us. "What is there to stay our attention?" the reader hardened by all the insistent effectiveness and unmitigated emphasis of most modern novelists may ask as they scan her unassuming pages. And in truth in some of Miss Jewett's early writings, as Old Friends and New, A Country Doctor, A Marsh Island, we feel that a certain faint charm is struggling unavailingly with an artistic method too monotonous, and in some of her later stories she has also her uninspired hours, where her subjects of common daily life have their uninteresting reaches and stretches which defy the delicacy of her hand. Moreover, in her historical novel, The Tory Lover, she has clearly stepped outside her own art, and her art has refused definitely to accompany her on this hasty excursion. It is therefore the less surprising that the English public should have failed to discover and acclaim the exquisite portion of her work--let me sum it up here as thirty little masterpieces in the short story, and one book, The Country of the Pointed Firs, by which I believe her position is permanently assured in American literature.
By what special excellence, the curious reader will ask, is the province of Miss Jewett's art marked out as a country set apart from its neighbours? By a peculiar spirituality which her work exhales, a spirituality which is inseparable from her unerring perception of her country-people's native outlook and instinctive attitude to life. It is by this exquisite spiritual gravity interpenetrating with the finest sense of humour, intensely, even maliciously discriminating, that Miss Jewett seems to speak for the feminine soul of the New England race. Her shade of humour cannot be described: it must be tasted in such delicious examples as "The Only Rose" or "The Guests of Mrs. Timms," but should my readers ask me to name a story that is an epitome of Miss Jewett's talent I will name "Miss Tempy's Watchers" as an example showing the finest shades of her quality. The story describes how two women, Mrs. Crowe and Sister Binson, are sitting up as watchers in the house 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 invisible atmosphere around them are most finely brought out. The sketch is tender, grave, wholly spiritual in its essence, but subtly strong is the feeling of our human frailty lurking in these good women's chats. It is the taint of human life's appetites and human life's necessities that is so finely indicated by contrast with the impassive silence of the dead. Here it is the fine flower of the Puritan nature that speaks in Miss Jewett's art, though the delight she takes in human nature as human nature argues perhaps that she has inherited some artistic strain foreign to the Puritan. A clearness of phrase almost French is allied indeed to her innate precision of language. Her gift for characterization is exceedingly subtle, but neither rich nor profound. Her people are sketched rather in their essential outlines than in their exact lineaments. It is puzzling to say by what hidden artistic spell she manages so craftily to indicate human character--as in the characters of William and Mrs. Hight in the story, "A Dunnet Shepherdess," but after a few subtle hints are dropped here and there, her people are felt to be living an intensely individual life, one all their own, beyond their creator's control or volition. This gift of indicating character by a few short simple strokes is the gift of the masters. Perhaps we shall touch near to the secret of Miss Jewett's power and the secret of her limitations if we say that her art is exceedingly feminine in the sense that she has that characteristically feminine patience with human nature which is intimately enrooted in a mother's feeling. Just as a woman's criticism of the people near and dear to her is modified by her instinctive understanding (shared by man in a far fainter degree) that nothing will ever change them radically, so Miss Jewett's artistic attitude shows a completely sympathetic patience with the human nature she has watched and carefully scrutinized. Her gift is therefore the gift of drawing direct from nature, with an exquisite fidelity to what appeals to her feminine imagination--such as the infinite variety of women's perceptions in their personal relations; but the feminine insight only moves along the plane of her sympathetic appreciation, and she can invent nothing outside it, neither has she a depth of creative feeling apart from her actual observation of human life. She is receptive but not constructive in her talent. It is for this reason that her historical novel, The Tory Lover, is almost a complete failure. All the men in the book are masculine ciphers, and its real hero, Paul Jones, never begins to live. On the other hand, when she is content to interpret for us the characteristic attitude to life of grimly hardworking New England spinsters, such as Miss Peck, in "Miss Peck's Promotion," or broad matronly natures such as the village wife, the herb-gatherer, in The Country of the Pointed Firs, we get a delicious revelation of how men by nature play the second fiddle in women's eyes. Man as a boy, a lover, a husband, brother, father or friend, with his somewhat obtrusive personality as an honest, well-meaning, forceful creature, is shown us as filling up woman's mental background in Miss Jewett's stories, but woman herself it is that decides, arranges and criticises her own life, and the life of her friends, enemies, relations, and of the whole parish--and the reader has a sense in her pages that should the curtain be dropped on the feminine understanding, the most interesting side of life would become a mere darkened chaos to the isolated masculine understanding.
I have spoken of Miss Jewett's art as coming second only to Hawthorne's in its spiritual interpretation of New England character. In originality of vision, and in intense and passionate creative force she is, of course, not to be compared to him. The range of her insight is undeniably restricted. Nevertheless, it makes the cosmopolitan appeal, that all art of high quality makes, and her work at its best, no less than Hawthorne's, conveys to us a mysterious sense of her country people's mental and moral life, seen as a whole in relation to their environment and to their past, and reveals it as the natural growth of the very definite history of the many Puritan generations that have gone before them. In stories such as "Decoration Day," "The Hiltons' Holiday," "A Dunnet Shepherdess," and in scenes in The Country of the Pointed Firs, such as "The Bowden Reunion," and "On Shell-heap Island," her art attains to that highest perfection of literature when the fleeting passage of life presented is felt in its invisible relations to immense reaches of human lie around it, in which as in an ocean it blends, merges, and is lost. "The Hiltons' Holiday," a sketch describing how a countryman drives his two little girls on a summer's day to the neighbouring town of Topham Corners, is an amazing instance of how widely a homely record of family life in the true artist's hands can suggest the great horizons of the human life which it typifies. There is "nothing" in the tale and yet there is everything--fatherhood, motherhood, the spirit of childhood--it is an extraordinarily fine performance, an epitome of universal family life.
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. A word wrong, a note untrue, the slightest straining after effect, and the natural atmosphere of scene and place would be destroyed, and the whole illusion of the life presented would be shattered. Often, of course, this rare poetic breath is not found enveloping Miss Jewett's stories: sometimes her keen sense of humour, as it were, keeps it at a natural distance, as in "The Passing of Sister Barsett," a delicious little comedy of the feminine soul, and occasionally as in "The King of Folly Island," we feel that though it is floating around the unobtrusive spiritual drama of the misanthropic George Quint, and his poor daughter Phebe, self-exiled on their barren island, that it fades away a little soon, when the author, shown by some hesitation in her technique, has not quite arrived at the point of absolute unity in treating her subject. It is indeed by the extreme rarity of artists having that complete spiritual possession of their subjects, shown by an entire creative sympathy with it, that we must explain the fact that out of the thousands of imaginative writers each generation produces, not a dozen achieve any subtle perfection in the quality of their work. To discover intimately the subtle laws by which individual character works, to catch the shifting shades of tone by which a man reveals to the onlooker how life is affecting him, is not a common gift, but to reproduce by written words a perfect illusion, a perfect mirage of life, with each character seen in its proper perspective in a just relation to the exterior world around it, with everybody breathing their natural atmosphere and a general sense of life's inevitable flux and flow diffused through the whole--this is such an artistic feat that we need not wonder that Miss Jewett has succeeded only when she is writing as a close and humble student of nature. Almost anybody can produce an arbitrary, concocted picture of life in which every line is a little false, and every tone is exaggerated. Such pictures of life are often as plausibly interesting as the scenes of a spirited panorama. They serve their purpose. But in relation to the rare art which synthesizes for us the living delicacy of nature they are what most modern popular fiction is to the poetic realism of The Country of the Pointed Firs. So delicate is the artistic lesson of this little masterpiece that it will probably be left for generations of readers less hurried than ours to assimilate.
This essay originally appeared in Academy and Literature 65 (July 11, 1903) 40-41. Richard Cary reprinted it in Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett (1973). Cary notes in his reprinting that Garnett revised the essay for his collection, Friday Nights (London, 1922) and added this footnote: "In a charming letter received by the writer in response to this criticism, Miss Jewett declared that she was descended from English cavalier, not from Puritan stock."
Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.
The Jewett Journal