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From Granville Hicks, The Great Tradition
New York: MacMillan, 1933
New England had, indeed, produced a pioneer of the regional movement: Harriet Beecher Stowe, fresh from the triumphs of Uncle Tom's Cabin, had planned, early in the fifties, a novel about the people of the Maine coast, a novel that, after certain romantic experiments, was published a decade later. This book, The Pearl of Orr's Island, and the collection of short stories, Oldtown Folks, that followed it, anticipated the methods of Harte and Eggleston, and, though they were overshadowed by the author's great polemic, prepared the way for the sectional literature of New England. Mrs. Stowe brought apon the literary stage certain actors that were to appear again and again in the works of her successors: the eccentric, sharp-tongued, kind-hearted spinster, the retired ship captain with his tall stories, the village flirt, the saintly pastor. In certain respects, it is true, she showed that she belonged to the group of women writers who, in the period before the war, had made pious didacticism palatable by coating it with sticky romance; but her careful observation of familiar types, her use of dialect, her elaborate exposition of local customs, and her detailed description of the natural setting stamped her as a precursor of sectionalism.
She soon had her following. By the end of the seventies Rose Terry Cooke had begun her mild studies and Sarah Orne Jewett had entered upon her apprenticeship. The former, for all her sentimentality, could portray the more salient traits of the New England character, and the latter reflected with extraordinary subtlety the fragile beauties of that bleak land. Neither, however, made any effective recognition of whatever was ignoble or sordid or otherwise unpleasant in the life of New England, and it remained for Mary Wilkins Freeman, who joined their ranks in the eighties, to display the lonely spinster, the toil-bent farmer, and the worn-out workman. She at least saw that the small town had sometimes warped its inhabitants and that the intrusion of industrialism had increased the difficulties of these simple people. She could not, it is true, resist the temptation of the happy ending; her unfortunates are always compensated for their sufferings. But she had an eye for varieties of character and types of experience that her contemporaries ignored, and her stories made the record of New England life more nearly complete.
As Mrs. Stowe, Miss Cooke, Miss Jewett, and Mrs. Freeman explored New England together, as Miss Murfree discovered the Tennessee mountains and their strange inhabitants, as Alice French ventured into the Ozarks, as Kate Chopin and Grace King supplemented Cable's pictures of New Orleans, as Thomas Nelson Page set down his impressions of Virginia before the war and Joel Chandler Harris preserved the folklore of the Negro, as section after section put forth its representatives and took its place in the literary sun, the power of regionalism seemed irresistible. If what was needed for the future of American literature was a change in the geographical distribution of authors and subjects, it had been accomplished.
The accomplishment was important. Even when their literary talents were relatively slight, these novelists and short story writers were interpreters, helping the people of one section to understand those of another. And far more important of course than any such semi-sociological function of sectional literature, was the fact that it was only by beginning with the country and people he knew that an author might express whatever insight he had into the nature and destiny of man. In their essence Whitman's prophecy and Harte's challenge were right. The conditions that had made possible all that the East achieved in the years before the war had gone, never to be restored in the East, never to be reproduced anywhere else. If literature was to be possible at all, it had to be on new terms, and the only hope of discovering what those terms might be lay in each author's first of all examining the life about him.
In 1871, with his usual perspicacity in the statement of dilemmas, Henry James, after describing Howells as one who could write "solely of what his fleshly eyes have seen," went on, "For this reason I wish he were 'located' where they would rest upon richer and fairer things than this immediate landscape. Looking about for myself, I conclude that the face of nature and civilization in this our country is to a certain point a very sufficient literary field. But it will yield its secrets only to a really grasping imagination. This I think Howells lacks. (Of course I don't!) To write well and worthily of American things one need even more than elsewhere to be a master. But unfortunately one is less!"
How extraordinarily right James was, not only about Howells but also about America! We have seen why America would yield its secrets only to a really grasping imagination and have realized what mastery would involve. We have seen, too, why the nation was unlikely to produce masters: the impact of industrialism on a country only beginning to create an art and literature was necessarily more devastating than such a blow could be for nations with firmly established cultures. We can understand why flight, born of a desire to escape from a scene too unpleasant to contemplate and a situation too complicated to understand, was so common in the Gilded Age. It remains now for us to ask ourselves what, in its happiest form, flight could do for a writer.
When Sarah Orne Jewett was a girl, New England was changing. Cities were developing; huge, ugly buildings housed hundreds of employees; smoke blotted out the sky and soot mingled with the daily bread. Slowly industrialism pushed its way into the farming country, capturing the little towns, planting factories by every waterfall. The newly rich sought the beautiful mountains and lakes of New Hampshire and Maine, and their urban ways were discords. Many of the village people went away to the cities; others, touched by prosperity, abandoned the ways of their fathers. "It was easy," Miss Jewett later wrote, "to be much disturbed by the sad discovery that certain phases of provincial life were fast waning in New England. . . . While it was impossible to estimate the value of that wider life that was flowing in from the great springs, many a mournful villager felt the anxiety that came with these years of change." She felt that anxiety and, while still in her twenties, wrote Deephaven so that, in literature if not in fact, the life she loved might be preserved.
Fully conscious of what she was doing, she carefully represented in the book those aspects of life in a Maine village that she wished could endure. Because she sympathized with that life so instinctively and had participated in it so gladly, she wrote of it in Deephaven with a vividness that even now lights up the commonplaceness of Miss Carew, Captain Sands, and the other inhabitants of the little seaport town. Her knowledge of Maine customs, Maine people, Maine scenery, and Maine ways of speech was always, of course, a source of strength. From the days when her father took her about with him on his trips to his patients in the vicinity of South Berwick to her last visits to the little town, she watched and listened to and loved its people. Like Nan in A Country Doctor, she felt from the first a kind of vocation, but where Nan's call was to medicine hers was to literature. She began writing when she was in her teens and had contributed a story to the Atlantic by the time she was twenty. And she wrote, after one or two false starts, quite simply, out of the fullness of her knowledge. For her there was no problem of investigation such as had confronted Howells; the world she wrote of was her own world.
If she had a problem, it was, at first, that of putting a certain distance between herself and her material, in order to acquire literary poise. But that problem, too, was easily solved. There were no financial barriers to keep her from knowing the world outside of South Berwick. Boston was open to her, and, with Annie Fields as companion, she could soon count Longfellow, Lowell, Aldrich, and Howells among her friends. There was travel also: England, with visits to Arnold and Tennyson, Paris, Italy, Greece, the West Indies. And there were books, not merely the classics of her own country and England, not merely her beloved Thackery, the Brontë sisters, Donne and Herbert, but the French and Russians also, Tolstoy and Turgenev, Zola, Daudet, Maupassant, Bourget, and Flaubert. If she knew South Berwick, that was not all she knew, and if she was provincial, she was provincial by choice.
With this equipment—the close, sensitive knowledge of the people she wrote about, and the awareness of a larger world of culture and refinement—she went tranquilly about her work, carefully selecting whatever served her personal needs and her literary purposes. "Écrire la vie ordinaire comme on écrit l'histoire," she copied out of Flaubert and pinned on her secretary. That is what she tried to do. But to write about ordinary lives as if one were describing the great pageant of history one must see in ordinary lives something of the grandeur and significance of historical events. That gift, so far as a certain limited kind of ordinary life was concerned, Miss Jewett had. In a story called "By the Morning Boat" the departure of a boy for Boston is so presented to us that we find it as exciting as he and as moving as his parents. The trip to Topham Corners in "The Hiltons' Holiday" makes itself felt as something epochal, the equivalent, let us say, of a trip to Europe, as indeed it was to the little girls. All that Helena Vernon means to the poor servant girl in "Martha's Lady" is communicated to us with the poignancy of Martha's own emotion. That sense of importance, which Miss Jewett so successfully conveys, is the product of insight based on sympathy. She understood and respected the tranquil dignity of Eliza in "Miss Peck's Promotion," the happiness of the self-sacrificing invalid in "The Life of Nancy," the simple mysticism of Sylvia in "A White Heron." It is because she knew how much these virtues meant to her, and could arouse in the reader a kindred response, that she rose so far above the merely nostalgic, sentimental regionalists. The Country of the Pointed Firs, a kind of miracle in pastel shades, varying between a delicate humor and a delicate pathos, is, within its limits, the finest American achievement in its genre and a work of which we can be permanently proud.
But one is always conscious of Miss Jewett's limitations. She was lost the moment she stepped outside her Maine villages, whether she wrote of Boston, or Irish immigrants, or the American Revolution. More important, she was safe, even in Maine, only within her chosen emotional range. The stronger feelings, the more violent passions, the more harrowing griefs, she could not portray. Her methods, however suitable for the portrayal of pathetic situations, failed when she was confronted with tragedy. In "The King of Folly's Island," for example, a dying girl is condemned to isolation by her father's stubbornness and robbed of her one glimpse of the larger world by the departure of a summer visitor; Miss Jewett softens here and modifies there until the outlines of the situation are lost and the anguish of the girl becomes pale and meaningless. In "The Landscape Chamber" a fierce pride and an irrational fear blur out weakly into mere idiosyncrasies. The family curse that is the theme of "In Dark New England Days" would be credible only in an atmosphere of savage hatred that the author cannot create. It is well that Miss Jewett usually ignored the harshness in rural life, for all her weaknesses were revealed whenever she forced herself to contemplate it.
There is, in short, nothing that we can admire her for except those delicate powers of perception that, under favorable circumstances, she could exercise so fruitfully. In other respects she was merely a New England old maid, who had a private income, traveled abroad, read the Atlantic Monthly, and believed in piety, progress, and propriety. She may have read Turgenev and Flaubert, Voltaire and Donne, but she praised Thomas Bailey Aldrich for his "great gift and genius of verse," called Tennyson the greatest man she had ever met, and thought Pendennis superior to Anna Karenina because more Christian. Like her dear friends, Mr. Lowell and Mr. Arnold, she believed that "the mistake of our time is in being governed by the ignorant mass of opinion, instead of by thinkers and men who know something." The Spanish-American War was, for her, "like a question of surgery . . . we must not mind the things that disgust and frighten us, if only the surgery is in good hands." A few years before she died she read Mahan's Influence of Sea Power on History. "One thing is so nice," she wrote Mrs. Fields, "about the fleets that are attacked having the best chance."
Her delicate powers of perception, however, give to the best of her work a richness, an authenticity, and a dignity that are too rare to be scorned. It was precisely because she so placidly disregarded what lay outside her little world that she could concentrate so effectively upon it. It was because she instinctively rejected characters, situations, and emotions that were not congenial to her that she could let her imagination play so calmly and sympathetically over the lives she chose to record. We may grant that she is only a minor writer, that the kind of pleasure her work offers only remotely resembles the effect of great literature, that the insight she gives us into men and women is only fragmentary. We may grant that her attitude is essentially elegiac, and that she writes of a dying world of old men and old women. We may even grant that her aims were virtually those of the other regionalists. But there is a difference. For a moment her people live and breathe. For a moment, as we yield to her art, we feel that here is a master, though a master of a tiny realm. Calmly, but with both instinctive determination and conscious artistry, she selected from the decaying New England about her the elements she admired, and out of them created a little world, not merely for the purposes of her stories but also for the needs of her personality. She found her refuge.
We have attempted to view American life of the industrial age as the artist might view it. We have understood why some writers turned away in boredom, disgust, or fear, and we have walked along the paths they chose to follow. With other writers we have marched out upon the field of battle, sympathizing with their hopes and recording their defeats as well as their victories. The achievements of the first group have sometimes gratified us, but we have realized that their limitations were of the sort that must in the long run be fatal. After all, surveying the whole of literary history, one can scarcely think of any writer, commonly recognized as great, who did not immerse himself in the life of the times, who did not concern himself with the problems of his age—even when he chose some other time or place as the setting of his poem or his play. As we have seen, industrialism became more and more important in American life, the implications of capitalism grew clearer and clearer, the lines of the class struggle were drawn more and more sharply, and consequently the cost of evasion grew greater and greater. Comparing Edith Wharton with Henry James, or Willa Cather with Sarah Orne Jewett, or Robert Frost with Emily Dickinson, we have realized that it has been increasingly difficult for those who ignore industrialism to create a vital literature.
Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.
Assisted by Linda Heller, Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project
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