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A WRITER OF NEW ENGLAND
PAUL ELMER MORE
SARAH ORNE JEWETT’S tales and novels have been issued in seven peculiarly neat little volumes,* which seem to reflect the delicate charm of the writer’s work. These collected editions of an author that one has been reading for years in the magazines have sometimes a pleasant way of confirming and clarifying an opinion that has been floating vaguely in the mind. What was before ephemeral in the very nature of things, now appears to the eye as if dressed for an age of endurance. In external form at least it is not different from the eternal books, and one looks into it a little more seriously for its meaning.
Now, one has always felt that Miss Jewett’s characteristic note was the spirit of Cranford, modified a little by New England weather, and the reading together of five of these new volumes (so far, good type has lured us over old paths) has strengthened this feeling, and added certain questions. Why is this Cranfordian manner so much more successfully followed in the two longish novels, Deephaven and The Country of the Pointed Firs, than in the short tales? And why is the third novel, A Country Doctor, so much less interesting than the other two? A half-way answer to both questions has come to us with the questions themselves as we have read these volumes. It is the curious inability shared by Miss Jewett with the Brahmin writers of New England fiction generally to make passion or action real and vital.States of mind they can describe; the conscience of an individual or of a people they can analyze; characters petrified into some tragic or exquisitely pathetic or tender reminiscence they can make real; an aspect of nature they can portray as delicately as the human mood of which it seems a shadow; but in passion and action they have almost always failed. So one thinks of the twilight of passive reflection that broods over Whittier’s Leaves from Margaret Smith’s Journal; of the mistiness of grief in Longfellow’s European tales and the remoteness, as of a holiday remembered from boyhood, of Kavanagh; of the amateurishness of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s novels; of the magical glamour of Hawthorne, which to some readers conveys his world of people into a land where morality is only a sombre reminiscence and to others seems only inhumanity and bloodlessness; of the idyllic beauty of the first chapters of Donald G. Mitchell’s Doctor Johns and the sad inefficiency of the closing chapters when a breath of the rude, passionate world breaks into the pastor’s life.Always we have the idyllic beauty of a scene that is petrified into motionlessness, and human moods in which the active passions remain as an echo from a remote distance.
And so in Deephaven and The Country of the Pointed Firs, which attempt no story in the proper sense of the word, but portray the very soul of fading villages on the sea and the life of people who move as if the motive fire of their hearts had long ago been covered over with ashes, Miss Jewett has almost rivalled the charm of Cranford, would quite have rivalled that charm, one feels, if she had only Mrs. Gaskell’s constructive genius. On the other hand, in A Country Doctor, as soon as we get beyond first idyllic chapters and enter into the struggles and ambitions of the heroine, there is a flagging of interest and a sense of half-life; the passion and the action are unreal, almost as if imagined in the study of a school-girl. And this same lack mars many of the short stories.Even when these attempt to convey only a mood or a glimpse into dream-life, they are less successful than the longer idylls.They lack at once the point and dramatic situation needed in the short story and the cumulative friendliness, so to speak, of long association.
Why should this be? New England in actual life has certainly not been wanting in efficiency, from the days when the settlers hewed the forests and subdued the Indians. Whittier, whose novel is the least vital, the grayest, of all, was himself an actor in one of the great dramas of the world, and played no ignoble dreamer’s part. Even Hawthorne showed himself, when he tried, capable of filling the office of counsul in a busy port and of plotting to make out of the place all there was in it.There is some curious psychological point here, a question in answer to our questions, in good Yankee fashion, which other readers may find less tantalizing than we have found it.Some philosopher may tell us the meaning of these things.
Meanwhile, in her own world, what rare and exquisite entertainment Miss Jewett has provided.Perhaps only one who has himself been baptized in the still waters of New England faith can feel the perfect fascination of these people that move about so pathetically and speak with so subtle a humor in the village of Deephaven and in the towns and fields and islands of The Country of the Pointed Firs.Who is so immersed in the passionate game of life that he cannot for a while give his heart to Mrs. Todd, the quaint herb-woman and philosopher of the flowers, and to her mother and brother, the brave and beautiful hermits of Green Island?
— Cras amet qui nunquam amavit.
If the lives of these people seem very still, they are able somehow to arouse a strange warmth of friendship.
* In 1910 Houghton Mifflin Company issued a set of Miss Jewett’s books in uniform binding which included: Deephaven, A Country Doctor, Tales of New England, A Native of Winby and Other Tales, The Life of Nancy, The Country of the Pointed Firs, The Queen’s Twin and Other Stories.
This essay originally appeared in Nation 41 (October 27, 1910) 386-7, and was reprinted by Richard Cary in Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett (1973).
Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.
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