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Uncollected Essays

A Lonely Worker

Sarah Orne Jewett

     We have such a fashion in modern life of working together in companies by roomfuls or shopfuls of cheerful, busy girls who, borrow and lend, and entertain each other, making the long hours shorter by companionship, that in spite of the wrong side of such a fashion it would be very hard to go back to the time when almost everybody did her work by herself. Long ago in country neighborhoods there used to be occasional gatherings of a social nature to quilt or to pare apples, or even to spin; the women and girls used to take their work and go to spend an afternoon with a friend, but the straw-braiders or shoe-binders usually sat quietly at home. Many hands make light work, even when each pair of hands is busy with its own work.

     As I have just said, there is a very dark wrong side often-times to this way of working together, which the larger demands of our increased population and the modern schemes of organization have brought about, but one of the many good effects is that women are no longer left solitary and unfriended as they often were in the old days; in the great shops everyone may come in time to know what the wisest knows, as well as the most foolish, and, best of all, it gives a chance of making friends, and of discovering at least one person who is full of sympathy for one's own hopes and aims, and so life is enlarged and made pleasant. There is nothing so dear, after all, as our best friends. I was thinking, just now, about some of the solitary workers whom I have known, the women who ply some lonely trade in their own corner, those whose pale, unsunned faces we have all learned to know at some window in a by-street, always at the same pane of glass, and bending their looks at the same angle toward their busy hands. The woman whom we know may be binding shoes or finishing for a tailor or braiding or sewing straw, but, we learn to think of her as always in that same chair, with the look of a prisoner, whether her window is open in summer or shut in winter. Persons who sit and work in this way, especially those who live alone, are almost always sure to think a great deal about the world they seem to touch so little. Often they cannot help looking at life from a strange point of view; they regard everybody whom they hear about, but do not know, with more or less suspicion, or else they weave little romances about people and things, and live in a lovely little world of their own full of joyful dreams that nobody ever suspects. But of the every-day life of the busy world they know almost nothing. Sometimes one finds these solitary-minded women set in the busy shop-families, where laughter and chatter and gossip never seem to concern them; they sit bent over their work as if they cared as little to hear as to speak, but there is usually some reason for this; they have seen trouble that has dulled them or formed a habit of silence in working for many years alone.

     One might go on writing about and remembering these lonely, these unrelated figures, and thinking what our feeling about them ought to be -- there is nothing that makes us like our neighbor so quickly as trying to please her -- and we ought always to be trying to take such friends into our little circles instead of shutting them out. If you stop some day and leave a flower on one of those window sills that we have just been thinking about and let the lonely worker look up to find it there with her scissors and spool, or on her sewing machine, you will be laying up many pleasures for yourself whenever you may be passing by and she remembers you and smiles. Sometimes such persons have a great power of aggravating those who see them every day, but this power is more often a misfortune than it is a fault. And there is such a thing as being bound in affliction and iron, which cheerful younger women, happily cannot always understand.

          As I look at a certain quaint little basket it brings back to me a spring day when I was wandering about in one of the oldest of the southern cities, adventuring with a friend through the narrow lanes which looked something like Italy, with their high, whitewashed walls, over which orange boughs and lemon boughs and locust trees leaned their heavy-laden boughs, and trails of blossoming vines hung down, as if they gave a hand to help you climb over into the gardens. Just at the corner of one of these charming by-ways was a bit of high dilapidated board fence and a shaky gate over which I read a little sign that said 'Grass-work for sale.' We had seen something of palmetto work and of the Indian baskets of the Sea Islands, but this sign was very provoking to my curiosity. I looked over into the overgrown, dark, damp little garden and at the gloomy, small house beyond. 'What can this grass-work be?' I said. 'Suppose we go in!' and so we lifted the latch and entered. We could not help laughing to ourselves as we stood waiting at the door after we had knocked, it was such a funny, uncertain way of going shopping.

     When the door was timidly opened I saw that we had happened to find one of the lonely workers. She was almost afraid of us at first, and even after we said that we had come to see the grass-work, she looked at us apprehensively and made us many little apologies about the small and unworthy stock she had on hand just then, and even spoke deprecatingly of the condition of her house, though we never had seen a cleaner, more unused and almost empty little place.

     When she brought us the grass-work, I could hardly keep the tears out of my eyes. There was a tiny group of little baskets and trays, made of the fine, tough, wiry grass which is hardly larger than a thread, wound round and round and sewn together with different colored silks. The exquisite shapes of the little things, the delicacy of the work -- I have forgotten how many days she said that it took her to make even the smallest -- and her touching complaint that business had fallen off sadly, all appealed to her customers in a way I cannot describe. The light in the little house all seemed to come in through the green leaves that grew against the windows outside -- one could not help wondering how the grass work maker managed to eat, drink and be merry there. She was plainly of French descent, the grace of her works as well as her ways betrayed her heritage, but it was impossible not to wish that her thin, skillful fingers had found other training and that her surroundings in life had not been such as to let the sun in and lead her to a wider place among kind and busy people.

     I could fancy her going to the parish church in the early morning, flitting quickly along close under the high walls, her thin figure bending a little -- so shy and furtive she would be out of doors -- and always with downcast eyes. As we made our choice among the little baskets, she grew less timid, and at last made a piteous confession of her poverty and of a special anxiety which it had brought, and which my kind and wise fellow-traveller was able to remedy, before we came away. This was indeed a lonely worker. With all her pride and satisfaction I have often wondered how she managed to carry on her dwindling little trade -- the old negro who for many years had brought her the curious grass had died -- and to what other employment she could turn her hand, Heaven only knows!

     This was one of 'the people who live in corners,' but there was something so determined in her way of keeping on with her work, such a reverent care and eagerness to bring it to perfection, that I believe it counted for much more than most of her prosaic neighbors thought. At any rate, the little baskets were thought to be treasures by those to whom we gave [give] them, and there is certainly something most charming about one that I see before me.

     I suppose that the reason why the life of a solitary worker appeals to us so strongly, is that in one sense we are all solitary workers. No matter how cheerful and pleasant and varied our surroundings are, we do our work alone, and there are some days when the feeling of single-handedness is not easy to bear. We take pride in the reputation of our group of associates in our business or profession, and feel the inspiration of it, but, after all, we face our duties and opportunities alone, and this makes us cherish the kind of help that companionship really can give, and makes us ready to reach out our hands to other lonely workers because dear hands have been reached out to us. I like to put the two phrases together in my thought: 'Bear ye one another's burdens' [anothers burden's']: 'For every one must bear his own burdens.'

Sarah Orne Jewett.


NOTES

"A Lonely Worker" appeared in Far and Near (3:109-110) in April 1893. Probable errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets. If you find errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
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bound in affliction and iron: See Psalms 107.
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one of the oldest of the southern cities: According to Elizabeth Silverthorne in Sarah Orne Jewett (136), Jewett and Annie Fields spent parts of several winters in southern resort areas including St. Augustine, Florida, the probable setting of this sketch.
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palmetto work and of the Indian baskets of the Sea Islands: The name palmetto refers to nearly 20 species of palms in the genus Sabal of the family Palmae. These fan-leaved palms are native to the southeastern United States, Bermuda, the West Indies, and northern South America. Palmetto leaves are used for thatching roofs, for fans, and for other plant fiber work. Jewett refers to the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida in the southeastern United States.  These islands would have been notable at the time of this story as the home of a unique culture of former African-American slaves, with its own language (Gullah), cultural traditions, and crafts.  (Source: Encarta).
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grass work: This word is usually hyphenated in this piece; I have left it as in the original.
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'the people who live in corners':  Jewett may be referring to Ralph W. Emerson, section 3 of  "Literary Ethics, An Oration delivered before the Literary Societies of Dartmouth College, July 24, 1838,” Collected in Nature; Addresses and Lectures (1849): “You will pardon me, Gentlemen, if I say, I think that we have need of a more rigorous scholastic rule; such an asceticism, I mean, as only the hardihood and devotion of the scholar himself can enforce. We live in the sun and on the surface, -- a thin, plausible, superficial existence, and talk of muse and prophet, of art and creation. But out of our shallow and frivolous way of life, how can greatness ever grow? Come now, let us go and be dumb. Let us sit with our hands on our mouths, a long, austere, Pythagorean lustrum. Let us live in corners, and do chores, and
suffer, and weep, and drudge, with eyes and hearts that love the Lord. Silence, seclusion, austerity, may pierce deep into the grandeur and secret of our being, and so diving, bring up out of secular darkness, the sublimities of the moral constitution. How mean to go blazing, a gaudy butterfly, in fashionable or political saloons, the fool of society, the fool of notoriety, a topic for newspapers, a piece of the street, and forfeiting the real prerogative of the russet coat, the privacy, and the true and warm heart of the citizen!”  (Research: Gabe Heller).
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'Bear ye one another's burdens': 'For every one must bear his own burdens': See Galations 6:2-5.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.


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Uncollected Essays