The publication in the same season of the latest collection of Miss Jewett's stories1 and an illustrated edition of her earliest book2 gives opportunity for a glance at the growth in artistic skill of one of our most happily endowed writers. Twenty years have elapsed since the first of the sketches appeared which, with others strung upon a light thread of personal narrative, formed the little volume now gracefully illustrated. The drawings which Mr. and Mrs. Woodbury have made for its decoration, it is not unfair to say, present in their variety and choice of subject the salient features of Miss Jewett's art with the delicacy of touch and the firmness of line which she is to-day disclosing in her maturer work. Figures, landscapes, interiors, all are delightfully expressive of Miss Jewett; but their fine drawing, vividness of portraiture, and reserve of force belong to the Deephaven which Miss Jewett might write to-day. The feeling is the same; it is the art which has become more definite and clear. The designs are pictures where the text is a sketch. As an example, how thoroughly satisfactory is the picture of Miss Brandon at her Piano, in which Mrs. Woodbury has caught Miss Jewett's sketch capitally, and filled it out! One exception should be made. Good as is the portrait of Mrs. Dockum, and admirably as Mrs. Woodbury has reproduced Miss Jewett's idea, the author's own portrait of Mrs. Dockum, as delineated in that excellent woman's address when introduced, is a bit of characterization as good as anything she is doing to-day. There are other passages in Deephaven which the reader will recall, equally humorous in conception and true in drawing. Such are those that portray the figures in the chapter The Captains, the sketch of Mrs. Bonny in her search for a tumbler, the meek widow with the appearance of a thin black beetle and a voice like the wail of the banshee, the funeral procession, and, in her various appearances, the carefully wrought Mrs. Kew. From time to time, and very often at that, the reader is surprised by the success with which a girl scarcely out of her teens caught the likenesses of these shore folk, and gave to her sketches a breadth as well as a refinement which seemed to come from careful training, yet really, we must believe, were the unerring product of a genuine gift of literary art illumined and warmed by an affectionate sympathy.
Miss Jewett tells us in her interesting preface -- or rather reminds us, for she had been obliged to say it before -- that her village and its people were not the simple result of camera work. The truthfulness, the fidelity to nature, and the frank, winning manner of the narrative easily persuaded readers that this young writer was innocently recording personal experience, and varying but slightly from actual fact. Much of this illusion was no doubt produced by the assumption of a sort of dual autobiographic character, but more, we think, by that frequent expression of delicate charity which was so refined and thoughtful, so instantaneous in its action when occasion arose, that the reader at once identified the writer with her creation, and, by a singular suppression of logic, believed her capable of doing what the character of the story-teller as delineated would have made impossible. Here was a most unconscious tribute to Miss Jewett's art; for art it is, of a high order, which shines clearly in Deephaven, and reconciles one readily to that immaturity which Miss Jewett herself, in her preface, half humorously deprecates.
It is perhaps not far out of the way to say that Deephaven accurately embodies creative girlhood, as Andersen's stories, for instance, embody creative childhood. The book reproduces the angle of vision of that most elusive creature, the young girl, not as she is made by novelists, but as she is by nature, with all her capacity for enjoyment of life and her latent sense of responsibility, which turns into ready sympathy at a touch, and always discloses itself in a charity which is as sensitive as her delicately balanced nature can make it. Kitty Lancaster and Helen Denis look on this decayed gentility and sea-blown human life with laughing eyes, but they draw back at the least suspicion of laughing at the spectacle. For this reason the book is likely to have a long life, for it will appeal successively to generations that repeat the period for which it stands; and it will do this all the more surely because it reflects the vision of the young girl turned upon the outer world, and not turned in on herself.
It is natural for an author, when she is speaking of her work, to dwell upon those ethical considerations which underlie her purpose, and Miss Jewett speaks with a gentle earnestness of the impelling motive which sent Deephaven into the world; but we know well that in this instance, as in others, it was the delight in a beautiful art which made the book in its form possible. However critically the reader may intend to read it, as the early production of a writer with an assured position, he yields very soon to the charm of the narrative and the characterization, and recognizes through all the apparent naturalness the ease of the true artist. In the books which have followed Deephaven there have been at times expressions of a more conscious purpose of construction, and it has been apparent that Miss Jewett, aware of the somewhat fragmentary and sketchy character of her writing, has aimed at a more deliberate structure; but the naturalness, the direct look at life, the clear sense of the value of the moment, have always been her protection against an artificial method; and with an increase of experience has come also an access of strength, though this strength has been shown rather in a firmer conception of the contrasting pathos and humor of life than in any outburst of passion or kindling emotion.
The volume of short stories which stands latest in the honorable series is delightful by reason of the freshness of the several situations and the delicacy with which they are expressed. As we have intimated, it is situations rather than dramatic action with which Miss Jewett concerns herself, and situations especially which illustrate character. Thus, in the volume before us, A Native of Winby sets forth the return to his old village home of a man who has won fame; his appearance, large as life, in the little schoolhouse which knew his boyish inconspicuousness; and his encounter with a woman who, as a girl, had known the boy. It is indicative of the reserve of Miss Jewett, her nice sense of the limits of her art, that she does not resort to any conventional device of rounding out her story, and Mr. Laneway does not pair off with Abby Hender as an effective conclusion. Miss Jewett cares more for the real interest of the situation, for the working of such a nature as Mr. Laneway's in this half-egotistic, half-shamefaced return. Decoration Day, again, as a story, could be told in a few lines, but as a reflection of a half-buried patriotic emotion it is of moving power. Rarely, we think, has this writer shown so well the fine reserve of her art. By the low tone in which all the scenes of this homely revival of patriotism are painted, she has touched the quiet, responsive passion. The Passing of Sister Barsett has a witty climax, but, after all, it is the inimitable humor and pathos of the conversation between the two women which make the story a patch of New England life; and if there had been no witty turn, the reader still would have had his half-hour's worth. The Flight of Betsey Lane is the most complete story in the book, but it is a tale of adventure illustrative of character, and never does the reader lose his interest in the quaint figure who has the delightful escapade from any strong attraction to the issue of the story. In The Failure of David Berry, the absence of any plot is made more conspicuous by the presence of a little shadowy personage who, in the hands of an artist intent on a story, would have emerged out of the shadow into some sort of fairy godmother's sunshine. As it is, she goes back weeping into the obscurity from which she came, and, with scarcely a lineament for the reader to decipher, remains in his mind as one of the most real, most lifelike, of the few dramatis personae of the story. It would be hard to find a better illustration of the power of Miss Jewett's imaginative sympathy to call into being and give endurance to a fleeting image of human life.
The last two sketches in the book have a special interest by their intimation, which we have pointed out before, of a direction which Miss Jewett's art may take in the way of subjects. In her previous collection of short stories, The Luck of the Bogans was an excursion into the field of Irish New England, and wholly successful, as it seemed to us; a little surprising, also, as showing how, when the writer left more familiar ground, she disclosed a vigor of handling which the material seemed to require. So here, in the graphic story Between Mass and Vespers, where the persons are all American Irish, with true instinct she apprehends the nature of her material, and again uses her pen in the delineation of a rougher, ruder life; yet her inborn charity and refinement find a congenial subject in the fatherly priest. The last story in the book, A Little Captive Maid, is a still greater success. Here she has made the central figure a young Irish girl, and has woven her fortunes with those of an invalid, willful New England sea-captain. This latter personage is one whom we could trust confidently in Miss Jewett's hands, as we remember the gallery of his companions painted by her; but if any one fancies that Miss Jewett is indebted for her success to a mere concentration of her art on a few types among which she had grown up, let him observe the speech and manner, and further still the nature, of Nora Connelly, and he will see that the artist who drew her might be trusted with any subject where her sympathy and insight had clear opportunity. This story, with its blending of the native and foreign, is as delicate and winning a study of life as any in which the New England character alone is depicted, and it invites the hope that Miss Jewett's art will include hereafter more of such suggestive contrasts.
Thus, our examination of these two books not only discloses a genuineness of gift, which has been developed by conscientious practice into an assurance of artistic power, the more confident in that it recognizes the scope of its effectiveness, but intimates also a widening of the field of vision. It is scarcely to be expected that Miss Jewett will ever attain the constructive power which holds in the grasp a variety of complex activities and controls their energy, directing it to some conclusive end; but her imagination is strong to conceive a genuine situation, to illustrate it through varied character, to illuminate it with humor and dewy pathos; and as she extends the range of her characters, so she is likely to display even more invention in the choice of situations which shall give opportunity to those delightful characters who spring at her bidding from no one class, and even from no one nation. Especially do we hope that she will mark in the art of literature that elusive period of New England life through which we are passing, when so many streams of race are now opposing, now blending, now flowing side by side. She has caught and held firmly some phases of that life which are already historical. Let her record with equal art some phases of that life still in formation, and she will lay the foundations of a fresh fame.
Notes from the original publication.
1. A Native of Winby, and Other Tales. By SARAH ORNE JEWETT. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1893.
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2. Deephaven. By SARAH ORNE JEWETT. Illustrated by CHARLES and MARCIA WOODBURY. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1894.
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"Miss Jewett" first appeared without a by-line in Atlantic Monthly 73 (Jan. 1894): 130-133. It was reprinted in Richard Cary, Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett (1973), where he identified the author as Horace Scudder.
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Mr. and Mrs. Woodbury: Marcia Oakes Woodbury (1865-1913), like Jewett was born in South Berwick, Maine. Woodbury studied painting in New York and Paris. Her paintings, "Triptych" and "Mother and Daughter," belong to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She and her husband, Charles H. Woodbury (1864-1940), also an artist, were friends of Jewett (Cary, Sarah Orne Jewett Letters, p. 85).
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wail of the banshee: In Irish and Scottish folklore, the crying of this spirit in the form of an old woman outside one's home foretold one's death.
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Andersen's stories: Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) was a popular Danish writer of novels, stories, and fairy-tales.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College