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SARAH ORNE JEWETT
C. HARTLEY GRATTAN
from Bookman, LXXIX (May 1929), 296-298.
Reprinted in Richard Cary, editor. Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett. 1973, pp. 81-84.
SARAH ORNE JEWETT'S art is so quiet and unassuming that it escapes the attention of all but those few who can take pleasure even today in the quiet and unassuming. It is altogether natural that it appeals to but few, for the social situation which Miss Jewett essayed to portray is so far from that which most American readers know. It requires a wrench of the imagination even to comprehend Miss Jewett's world; and with her mode of seeing the world and her literary methods we have but a distant sympathy. She is, in a few words, the sort of artist that can be appreciated only historically. Yet her work is not mere documentation of a vanished epoch. It is art of a true and delicate sort.
She lived from 1849 to 1909 but her imaginative life was largely concentrated in the life on the coast of Maine before the Civil War. Her memories were her own, but sharpened and pointed by the intelligent and sympathetic tutoring in perception that her father gave her. If she had chosen to advance with the world as she lived her life there is plenty of evidence in her letters that she would have seen as deeply and transmuted her findings into just as delicate stories as those she did write. Mentally she was of the last half of the nineteenth century, admiring Tennyson, Arnold, Thackeray, Grant and Queen Victoria. Yet she read with intelligent insight Flaubert and Zola. Indeed she took as mottoes for her work-desk two thoughts of Flaubert: Ecrire la vie ordinaire comme on écrit l'histoire and Ce n'est pas de faire rire mais d'agir à la façon de la nature, c'est à dire de faire réver.* In a way they sum up her ideals as an artist.
A discerning historian of American literature has treated her work under the title, "Recorders of the New England Decline."** Miss Jewett epitomized, in letters, aspects of life in the era between the passing of the epoch that gave the world the art of the clipper slip and the fine houses such as are found in Salem and the rise of manufacturing in New England. She did not go back so far as Hawthorne usually did for her subject matter; nor did she bring to fine flower an intellectual tradition of this self-contained area, as did Emerson. She took for her field a narrower and more restricted section of life, but one that offered as rich material to an artist whose sweep was not broad. The era of great adventure was over; the adventurous spirit exhausted; there remained a group of old ladies and frost-bitten men who lived at a quiet even pace, self-contained and self-respecting. They carried memories of long journeys in the days of their youth, but now they lived ordered lives "as faultless as the miniature landscape of a Japanese garden, and as easily kept in order."*** In their curiously circumscribed existences there was a point of rest, a summing up of generations of experience in social living, which gave the artist a situation that was fairly waiting for its portrait to be painted.
Miss Jewett was the painter. She approached her subject with deep seriousness and profound understanding. Her own childhood, never cramped by severe discipline, was made rich by constant association with her father, whose appreciation of his patients (he was a doctor) was sincere and discerning. He saw the country people with a nice balance of mind that he passed on to his daughter. She came to storytelling deliberately enough but avoided a pitfall of the self-conscious artist: the necessity of seeking out a field in which to exercise his talents. She had no desire to report life; she sought to render life itself; and she succeeded. Necessarily her early efforts suffered from awkwardness, but she was of an enquiring turn of mind and absorbed easily the wisdom of artists of greater esthetic perception. In its final expression her art was a neat balance of life and literature. The curious thing is that her own life is so much like one of her stories that, to be satisfactory, it should be told in the spirit that informs them. Professor Matthiessen has done the task very successfully. His Life of Sarah Orne Jewett is to my rnind completely satisfactory, neither over nor underdrawn. It is told with as great delicacy as one of Miss Jewett's stories.
The land was not sufficient for the human beings who settled on the Maine coast. Of necessity they turned to the sea. From early days of trading with Europe and the West Indies they ventured farthest afield when they turned to the India trade. It was their highest and final expression of commercial adventure. When that urge was spent there was nothing to do but rest and wait -- not consciously of course -- for a new urge. The women waited; the men went elsewhere. Widows of long standing and maiden ladies (old maids is too violent a term for them) form a large part of Miss Jewett's world. Some of them had been with their menfolks to the far corners of the earth. Every house has a tangible reminder of the great days in the form of objects-of-art and other plunder of distant countries. Economically they live on the remnants of the prosperity of those dead days. They are trying to live on the land that was not sufficient for them in more adventurous days. Nevertheless they have a quiet wisdom that has come down to them and they live with a beauty of tolerance and neighborliness that cannot now be recaptured.
It is often forgotten that Miss Jewett dealt with small-town life; but nothing could he further from small-town life as we have come to conceive it. Instead of meanness of spirit, of warped mentalities and vulgar ambitions, we have a synthesis of provincialism that is tenuous but appealing. It is impossible to be toplofty about these people. They have mastered secrets which we are vainly seeking. Their houses were rooted in the soil. They fitted into the landscape. Their ways of life were narrow, precise and formalized, but guided by a wisdom that had its roots in the widest sort of experience. They were not conscious of the world and its ways; they resisted change like pointed firs and relinquished hold on their ways only when death cut them down; they were not the fine flower of a tradition, but rather the last rose on a withered and hopelessly aged bush.
To bring these people into literature required an art as delicate as their hold on life. Miss Jewett's art is precisely that kind. Its finest expression was recently isolated by Miss Willa Cather in two small volumes. In style Miss Jewett may profitably be compared to Hawthorne. There is the same apparently effortless grace that gives no evidence of the tremendous amount of revision and care that is behind it. Structurally she was unable to write a short story. All of her stories are easily flowing chronicles or episodes in a chronicle. A novel was outside her scope. The Country of the Pointed Firs, her greatest piece of sustained work, is a chronicle; its high lights are episodes. She had the gift of characterization to a high degree. She lacked, however, a sense of the truly dramatic and above all a sense of tragedy. Her world is too placid; too much a world where a walk down the street is an adventure to seem quite comprehensive. She either did not perceive the tragedy in the world she was recording, or did not choose to recognize it. She never got within shouting distance of such work as Mrs. Wharton's Ethan Frome.
Mention of The Country of the Pointed Firs brings to mind both the genesis of her art and the point of view which she, as an artist, assumed. Miss Jewett once wrote that she had been moved to write about these people she knew so well because she was angered by the lack of comprehension of them shown by the earliest of the city people who came to board for the summer. Yet The Country of the Pointed Firs is written as though by one who came as a summer boarder! Miss Jewett differed from the boarders only in sympathy and comprehension, but she was not one of the country people either. By inheritance she was one of the local aristocracy. Her father, as a doctor, was a man marked off from the common people by training and by the tacit social differentiations that characterized New England villages. Consequently Miss Jewett never identified herself with her subjects. She was a visitor to their world whose background was wider. She did not see with them, but all round them. Even in The Country of the Pointed Firs she mentions a prospective trip to France. Trips to France were things of the past with the people she was writing about dim and distant in their memories, confused with trips to China and England and part of the general memory of the great days that were gone forever.
Yet however she may have been divorced from them, she still understood them and did not intrude false notes through lack of understanding. And her delicately tempered sympathy, combined with her fine art, gave to them a place in American literature that will be more and more secure as time goes on. We may well regret that she was prevented by a personal deficiency of vision from giving us the violence and tragedy that the social situation contained, but we cannot because such aspects are lacking reject her contribution altogether.
Miss Jewett's contact with modern literature is more extensive than one would think off-hand. We may say without fear of contradiction that she exercised a profound influence on Willa Cather. Miss Cather's style undoubtedly stems from that of Miss Jewett. And the people with whom she dealt are seen at a later stage of their development in the poems of Robert Frost. We are still waiting for a really satisfactory literature expressing New England of the period from the close of the Civil War to the present when manufacturing established itself and alien peoples flocked in. That movement is seen on the fringes of Miss Jewett's world, but she avoided it. And we are just beginning to get occasional reports of the alien peoples on the abandoned farms of New England that the hardier spirits from Miss Jewett's world left for a more adventurous life elsewhere.
*"To write ordinary life as one writes history" and "It is not to evoke laughter, but to act in the manner of nature, which is to say, to cause to dream." (Translations by Carla Zecher). Further information about the sources of these quotations would be welcome.
** See F. O. Mathiessen, Sarah Orne Jewett (1929), Chapter 1.
*** Quoted from Jewett's "Martha's Lady."
Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.
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