The Jewett Journal
TWO NEW ENGLAND WRITERS
IN RELATION TO THEIR ART AND TO EACH OTHER
JULIA R. TUTWILER
SARAH ORNE JEWETT and Mary E. Wilkins are New England writers in the color, atmosphere, and spirit of their work as distinctively as in their birthplace. They have both chosen to depict New England village and country life and character, they are both realists, both have failed in the historical novel, and both have done their finest work, not on the large canvas that demands a broad brush and bold modeling, but against a background limited to effects produced by low relief in line and color.
And yet these broad and easy parallels only emphasize the oblique divergence of their gifts and ideals of expression, their definition of the art of the short story, and what they have read in and into the face that life has turned upon them. Miss Jewett's inspiration is Greek in its love of beauty, its serene optimism, and its copious simplicity; while Mary E. Wilkins' art is essentially Gothic in the sombre rigidity of its moral ideals, and in a union of childlike directness and reticence that embroider economy of phrase with delicate and intricate suggestion.
Their very realism roots in alien soils and bears flowers that blow to opposite points of the compass. Mary E. Wilkins' is purely objective. Her detachment reminds one of Bastien Lepage; she has no personal feeling, but she has immense personal insight. Miss Jewett is a realist in the sense that Millet is a realist. She is concerned with the people and happenings of life's little days, and with nature's unobtrusive moments, and she makes them as distinct and complete to the reader's vision as they are to hers, but she puts her own spirit into whatever she sees and romance is the native air of this spirit. This sympathetic subjectivity imbues everything she writes with the charm of personality and is the redeeming virtue of her earliest sketches; for, unlike the author of A New England Nun and A Humble Romance, whose first published work reached the high water mark of achievement in the short story, there is a meagreness in Miss Jewett's first stories which fills one with admiration for the discernment that perceived in them the promise fulfilled by "A Dunnet Shepherdess," "Martha's Lady," A Marsh Island, and more than one other piece of delicate and finished workmanship. Writing done almost from childhood, and apparently with the spontaneity of a child, has developed out of inherited culture grafted upon a rarely beautiful nature the intellectual and spiritual distinction which removes The Tory Lover from the plane of ignoble failure and makes Sarah Orne Jewett's best work exquisitely inimitable. Any tyro might catch her phrase of expression, but no amount of copy could reproduce the soul that makes the phrase individual.
Again, this sympathetic subjectivity narrows her creative horizon to what she has felt in seeing and enlarges her vision within the limits of this horizon. Although she has traveled and observed in many countries, it is of her own that she writes, deliberately or unconsciously substituting depth of feeling for breadth of scene and character. She discerns and describes what escapes Mary E. Wilkins' perception or interest, and gives a sense of space composition and full, quiet breathing to the most restricted life and situation. This may be because her vision is colored by the large and tender spirit that sees beauty and matter for rejoicing in people and lives unconscious of either; and because she explicitly portrays character and situation where Mary E. Wilkins leaves them to utter their own speech. With the younger writer, the flesh is the obstacle through which the soul stutters half articulate; with the other, it is merely the medium, the accident, as it were, of the soul's expression.
For Miss Jewett is not so much an observer as she is an interpreter of nature's and life's spiritual potencies. She is sensitively alive to nature's kinship with the human soul; but she sees the one apart from the other, each is dear to her as an individual existence, and from each she receives a message which the other could not deliver. Mary E. Wilkins, on the contrary, with all her power of vivid and delicate description, sees nature always in its relation to human passion. It is what the cinnamon roses symbolize to Elsie Mills, the elm tree to David Ransom, the balsam fir to Martha Elder, that appeals to her imagination, not the entity of the rose or tree.
The large, beneficent independence of nature that Miss Jewett delights in and rests upon, is for Mary E. Wilkins absorbed into its point of contact with human inclination. One secret of the unity and concentration of her work is that nature is only the background of the drama which moves, compact and complete, across the stage of her imagination. She herself remains always the spectator whose interest in the play and the players eliminates her own personality. You know her quality of mind, her poignant realization of the tragedy of life -- there is a saturnine flavor even in her humor -- her interest in certain social problems; but the woman is as great a stranger to you when you have read all her stories as before you turned their first page. While with Miss Jewett, the woman speaks uninterruptedly through the author. You catch the loveliest glimpses of her when you least expect it; you know her religion, her personal tastes, her little prejudices; you are tenderly aware of her lack of humor, of what she feels as well as what she thinks; upon every page a loving and trustful nature throws wide its delicate doors of companionship.
And partly because of this irresistible personality, her comradeship with nature, her responsiveness to all the sweet and dear humanities of life, her instinctive rejection of the repulsive and the harsh, and in spite of distinction rare in its quality and gifts of insight and description, she is not in the modern sense either a novel or a short story writer. She lacks two essentials of both -- concentration and constructive power. Her novels are moving pictures rather than one coherent, unified presentation of life; her shorter stories are impressions taken upon her imaginative sympathy, chapters out of her own life of emotion quite as much as out of the lives of her characters. The limitation of her gift -- which is also its nobility -- makes The Tory Lover flat and inconsecutive, and proves for the thousandth time that no amount of preparation or culture will take the place of historic imagination. Paul Jones is a feeble and ineffective shadow of the Paul Jones who lives "a man of like passions as ourselves" in Mr. Buell's admirable biography.
In her other stories, Miss Jewett strays into lovely byways of reflection and meditation, and we go with her gladly, hand in hand, companioned in spirit and example by Irving and Hawthorne, Thackeray and Charlotte Bronté, and a score of other illustrious artists. It is only when we have momentarily escaped from the influence of her grace and charm that we ask ourselves, Is her art the art of the short story of her own day and generation? Certainly "Andrew's Fortune" -- and many others on her varied list -- is the story that is short, a very different thing from the form of art technically classified as the short story; and even those exquisite etchings, "A Dunnet Shepherdess" and "The Queen's Twin" are linked psychologically with the hour that precedes their own moment of existence. The last touches are put to William Blackett's portrait in "A Dunnet Shepherdess," but the first careful studies were made in The Country of the Pointed Firs; and it is our long established intimacy with Mrs. Todd which makes the hour with the queen's twin a sympathetic unit. Strictly speaking, much of Miss Jewett's most charming composition has neither beginning nor end -- no skilfully ascending series of incident or emotion to a consistent and inevitable climax. Indeed, the very word "climax" is too emphatic, too sharply insistent for association with the tonal quality of her work, a work that stands apart from that of every other American writer of our time.
In curious contrast with the twentieth century unorthodoxy of her fervent creedless religion is the old-fashioned aroma permeating her style and thought -- an aroma in no way dependent upon periods of time. In The Tory Lover --the only one of her stories which seems to have been made, not to have grown by itself -- this aërial quality of suggestion is noticeably absent, while it lends a quiet distinction to her stories of modern and familiar setting. Reading The Country of the Pointed Firs is like opening one's grandmother's chest of spotless, lavendered linen, or spending a day in a deep forest glade within sight and sound of clear, softly flowing water, the sky blue above the pines and the air shot through and through with Indian summer sunshine.
There is no clinging sweetness of past fashions or ideals in Mary E. Wilkins' work. Lavender and thyme, however much she may choose to write about them, are not the flowers that grow in her garden of achievement. She is identified with the literary form of her own generation. Her theme is the interdictions of New England life and character, but it is the strenuous passion of the human filtered through the medium of the New England type that constrains her imagination. Her stories are about old-fashioned, provincial people, narrow conditions, the bleak dogma of isolated thought, and standards transmitted through tenacious, instinctive reproduction; but they are also finished examples of that form of literary art in which America ranks inferior to France alone, and inferior to France in bulk, not in the individual instance. Objectivity, the condensed phrase that suggests without explaining, ruthless excision of every word or incident not indivisible from the organic life of the unit, unswerving rapidity of movement to a climax psychologically and coherently ordained from the first tentative breath of conception, identify Mary E. Wilkins as a great twentieth century short story writer, and set as impassable a gulf between the form and spirit of her art and the art of Sarah Orne Jewett as her lack of distinction does. There is scarcely a story in A New England Nun orA Humble Romance which is not perfect or nearly perfect in form, and not one in which a happy ending is not the price of rending anguish, or the happiness itself a tragic commentary upon life's denials and tyrannies. The rounded completeness of old Hetty Fifield's Christmas opens out a terrifying vista of pinching monotony, and the consummation of Nancy Pingree's* ambition hardens the lump in your throat that her renunciation has put there.
Though The Portion of Labor has the strength characteristic of her first volume of short stories, it is upon these stories that Mary E. Wilkins' claim to a permanent place in American Literature is based. The Revolt of Mother has the qualities of the classic, and deserves the rank in American fiction awarded to two of Hawthorne's most inferior stories, "The Ambitious Guest" and "The Stone Face." Understudies is an example of the author's impassioned interest in the human to the exclusion of animal life, as Six Trees is an illustration of her subordination of nature to psychology. In The Heart's Highway, she has made a cheap, if conscientious effort to conform to the commercial demands of her profession, with the result that her historical novel, lacking the redeeming sincerity and distinction of Miss Jewett's ineffective story, falls without the pale of literary breeding that elevates even the inferior work of the older writer. Mary E. Wilkins' dramatic work is so far tentative, and no more enters into a serious consideration of her art than Sarah Orne Jewett's stories for children and girls and the verse written with the fluency of immature self-confidence form a coherent part of her contribution to literature. As to the charge of hackneyed types so often brought against both of these writers, it is the surface impression of readers who can not learn that to write about the same class and environment is not equivalent to writing about the same individual.
To sum up the relation of these New England writers to each other or to fiction is not easy. Where Miss Jewett suffuses you with a delightful melancholy, Mary E. Wilkins makes your eyes smart with tears that refuse to fall. The one tells you that life itself is the reward of living; the other sends you freshly girded to the contest, but she never deceives you with the promise of extraneous victory; the guerdon of the battle is the way you bear yourself in it. Mary E. Wilkins has never done anything as exquisite as Mrs. Blackett, William, or old Elijah Willett's unconscious dedication to love's spiritual constancies; but Sarah Orne Jewett is incapable of writing any one of the short stories in A New England Nun or A Humble Romance; while at the same time her power to portray happy stillness, seclusion lovely and withdrawn, but not remote, the living that robs life of sordidness, is offset by Mary E. Wilkins' competent and coherent grasp upon the unities of incident, character, and emotion, just as her discovery, in literature, of old maidenhood as distinct from old maidism, is balanced by Miss Jewett's interpretation of old age. The inherent difference of their art makes invidious comparison of it impossible and places them side by side at the head of New England imaginative writers.
This essay first appeared in Gunton's Magazine, XXV (November 1903), 419-425. It was reprinted in Richard Cary, Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett (1973).
*Richard Cary identifies these two stories by Mary Wilkins Freeman as "A Church Mouse" and "Old Lady Pingree."
Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.
The Jewett Journal