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Introduction to the Correspondence of Sarah Orne Jewett

Topics

The Importance of Letters for Jewett
Collecting Jewett's Correspondence
Annotation
Index and Searching
The Problems of Dates
Originals, Archives, and Transcriptions
Correcting Transcriptions





"I wish that I could see you": the Importance of Letters for Jewett

On her 53rd birthday, 3 September 1902, a horse stumbled near South Berwick, ME, throwing Sarah Orne Jewett from her carriage. Never fully recovering from her head and neck injuries and plagued by headaches, she felt incapable thereafter of the sustained concentration required to continue her profession as a fiction writer. Still, she continued to exchange letters, hundreds of them, composed by hand, most with a pen dipped in an ink bottle.

Some of her 1902-1909 letters indicate that this writing also was difficult, but still she wrote multiple letters almost daily. At that time, her closest friends were her older sister, Mary Rice Jewett (1847-1930) and her companion since the early 1880s, Annie Adams Fields (1834-1915), widow of the publisher and Atlantic editor, James T. Fields (1817-1881). When she was apart from either, she sent daily reports. With these two and a large circle of close friends and family, she had corresponded regularly all her adult life.

Critics and biographers have noticed that friendship is a main theme for Jewett. Among her most-loved short stories are "Miss Tempy's Watchers" (1888) and "Martha's Lady" (1897): both trace the power of affection to connect separated friends. My personal favorite, "The Queen's Twin" (1899), turns on an imaginary intimacy between a solitary New England country widow and Queen Victoria.

At the opening of Jewett's best-known work, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), a narrator says of the village that is the book's setting: "The process of falling in love at first sight is as final as it is swift in such a case, but the growth of true friendship may be a lifelong affair." Two especially interesting essays examine friendship in this novel: Marcia Folsom's "'Tact Is a Kind of Mind-Reading': Empathic Style in Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs." Colby Library Quarterly 18.1 (Mar. 1982): 66-78, and Laurie Shannon's "'The Country of Our Friendship': Jewett's Intimist Art." American Literature 71.2 (June 1999): 27-62. They argue that the narrative focuses upon the growth of friendship that follows upon the mysterious, initial attraction, showing that Jewett's main characters illustrate the fulfilling labor of cultivating intimacy. Shannon contends that the book may be read as a devotional manual, in which to foster caring becomes a spiritual discipline.

Probably in 1897, on Jewett's 48th birthday, she wrote to another close friend, Sara Norton (1864-1922), oldest daughter of Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1908) :
One feels how easy it is for friends to slip away out of this world and leave us lonely…. There is something transfiguring in the best of friendship. One remembers the story of the transfiguration in the New Testament, and sees over and over in life what the great shining hours can do, and how one goes down from the mountain where they are, into the fret of everyday life again, but strong in remembrance. I once heard Mr. [Phillips] Brooks preach a great sermon about this: nobody could stay on the mount, but every one knew it, and went his way with courage by reason of such moments.
Here Jewett finds religious significance in the shining moments of friendship, when the spiritual identities of companions show forth, as Jesus' divinity was manifested to his disciples in Matthew 17. Moments of intimacy unveil the souls of friends, and such revelations sustain them when apart, whether temporarily or permanently.

During her final two years, Jewett and Willa Cather (1873-1947) became close friends. Many believe this relationship led to Cather abandoning her successful journalism career to become a Pulitzer-winning novelist. What we have of Cather's side of their correspondence recently appeared in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (2013) by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. Critics have thoroughly discussed Jewett's advice to Cather; here I will take note of their personal relationship in letters of 1908.

While Cather's 10 May account of a day in southern Italy may seem overly literary, in fact, she offers a vicarious journey of the kind Jewett loved, though her health prevented her return to Europe. Cather recalls a landscape she knew Jewett had visited: "Do you, I wonder, remember what an extravagantly beautiful place this is?" That Jewett appreciates such gifts shows in the affection she expresses for Cather in a 17 August letter: "I wish that I could see you and that something might bring you to Boston …. Send me one word on office paper to say that you are getting on well. I envy you your work, even with all its difficulties. I wish that I could take a handful for my own hand, and to help you."

The final letter we have from Cather to Jewett (19 December) responds to Jewett's career advice. It concludes:
Of all these things … I long to talk to you. In lieu of so doing I have been reading again this evening "Martha's Lady." I do think it is almost the saddest and loveliest of stories. It humbles and desolates me every time I read it -- and somehow makes me willing to begin all over and try to be good; like a whipping used to do when I was little. Perhaps after Christmas I can slip up to Boston for a day. Until then a world of love to you and all the well wishes of this season, an hundred fold warmer and more heartfelt than they are wont to be. I shall think of you and of Mrs. Fields often on Christmas Day.
Jewett's pain obliged her to abandon writing fiction after her 1902 accident, but she would not cease corresponding, because to cherish intimacy was "the bread of life"; it was communion. As Cather suggests in her comment on "Martha's Lady," Jewett's stories can touch strangers in the way her letters often spoke to her friends, creating epiphanies in which readers learn to recall and to treasure the shining moments of the best of friendship.


Collecting Jewett's Correspondence

Collecting the letters of Sarah Orne Jewett may be impossible.  She wrote and received thousands of letters.  Some must not have survived.  Those that survive are scattered throughout the United States in archives and private collections.  As her correspondence was international, some must remain outside the U.S.  The title of this section of the Sarah Orne Jewett text project, therefore, must be aspirational.  What really is being attempted here is to establish and develop a repository of transcriptions of Jewett's correspondence.  Ideally, over time, the repository will grow into a dense and rich record of the lives of Jewett, her friends and acquaintances.
    While this collection focuses upon letters Jewett wrote, when it is practical and interesting, letters she received also are included.  The other main features one hopes contributing scholars will attempt to sustain are the annotations and, perhaps someday, an index.
   
Annotation

 The first letters to be gathered have been helpfully annotated by a number of scholars, notably Richard Cary, whose collection Sarah Orne Jewett Letters (1967) has been its starting point.  Those who build on this work,one hopes, will continue the annotation process Cary established.
    To make the letters reasonably accessible to readers who sample them, there is considerable redundancy in the annotations.  Repetition has been reduced by maintaining a list of correspondents and persons frequently mentioned.


Index and Searching

One of the most valuable features of this collection would be an index.  This could allow readers to locate any letter that mentions an indexed item.  This being a massive undertaking, for the time being, readers are recommended to use Google search for this purpose.  Here are instructions for limiting such searches to the letters in this collection.

Search the Correspondence of Sarah Orne Jewett

Instructions
    1.  Click on this link: Google Advanced Search
                This opens in a new tab.   

    2.  Copy and paste the following string into the "site or domain" box under
            "Then narrow your results by":
       
            http://www.public.coe.edu/~theller/soj/let/let-cont.html
 
   3.  Search as you would with Google.

 
The Problems of Dates

Jewett often did not date her letters.  Annie Fields's first collection, Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett (1911), for example, is notorious for many incorrectly dated letters.  Fields seems clearly to have relied upon memory for the letters she dated, and some are organized thematically, though they appear as grouped with dated letters.  The result, for those who desire chronological clarity, is unfortunate, though the collection remains rich and useful.
    Because dates often must be inferred or established by internal evidence, there are many letters in this collection that are placed speculatively. These are carefully labeled, and one hopes that over time, most will be more accurately located.

Originals, Archives, and Transcriptions

When this information is available, each letter is identified by the archive that holds the original.  When this information is not yet known, this is clearly indicated, in the hope that eventually the location of the original may be added.

Jewett's letters in public archives are, it is generally agreed, in the public domain.  This fact makes such a  collection possible.  However, this collection consists of transcriptions, which are the property of the transcribers or of the publications in which they appeared.  Therefore, not every transcription in print may be reproduced here without permission. 
    In general, it may be assumed that the relevant permission has been secured, but there are carefully identified cases in which the presumed owner could not be reached.  Interested parties who find such letters should contact the site administrator. 
    Before entering into discussion, such parties should be aware that this project is the work of volunteers, who labor with little or no financial support.  If the owner of a transcript seeks credit for his or her work at the site, that will be done as appropriate, but if remuneration is the price for inclusion in the collection, such letters likely will be removed.

Correcting Transcriptions

Transcriptions will contain errors.  Each pair of eyes that looks at problematic hand-writing is likely to decipher what has puzzled another.  We who work on these materials may take advantage of Internet publication to correct transcriptions when we find errors.  Please contact the site administrator with your corrections.

Site administrator:  theller at coe dot edu.



Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.




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