Uncollected Pieces for Young Readers
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LOOKING BACK ON GIRLHOOD
Sarah Orne Jewett
In giving this brief account of my childhood, or, to speak exactly, of the surroundings which have affected the course of my work as a writer, my first thought flies back to those who taught me to observe, and to know the deep pleasures of simple things, and to be interested in the lives of people about me.
With its high hills and pine forests, and all its ponds and brooks and distant mountain views, there are few such delightful country towns in New England as the one where I was born. Being one of the oldest colonial settlements, it is full of interesting traditions and relics of the early inhabitants, both Indians and Englishmen. Two large rivers join just below the village at the head of tide-water, and these, with the great inflow from the sea, make a magnificent stream, bordered on its seaward course now by high-wooded banks of dark pines and hemlocks, and again by lovely green fields that slope gently to long lines of willows at the water's edge.
There is never-ending pleasure in making one's self familiar with such a region. One may travel at home in a most literal sense, and be always learning history, geography, botany, or biography -- whatever one chooses.
I have had a good deal of journeying in my life, and taken great delight in it, but I have never taken greater delight than in my rides and drives and tramps and voyages within the borders of my native town. There is always something fresh, something to be traced or discovered, something particularly to be remembered. One grows rich in memories and associations.
I believe that we should know our native towns much better than most of us do, and never let ourselves be strangers at home. Particularly when one's native place is so really interesting as my own!
Above tide-water the two rivers are barred by successive falls. You hear the noise of them by night in the village like the sound of the sea, and this fine water power so near the coast, beside a great salmon fishery famous among the Indians, brought the first English settlers to the town in 1627. I know some families who still live upon the lands which their ancestors bought from the Indians, and their single deed bears the queer barbaric signatures.
There are many things to remind one of these early settlers beside the old farms upon which they and their descendants have lived for six or seven generations. One is a quaint fashion of speech which survives among the long-established neighborhoods, in words and phrases common in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth [seventeeth] centuries.
One curious thing is the pronunciation of the name of the town: Berwick by the elder people has always been called Barvik, after the fashion of Danes and Northmen; never Berrik, as the word has so long been pronounced in modern England.
The descendants of the first comers to the town have often been distinguished in the affairs of their time. No village of its size in New England could boast, particularly in the early part of the present century, of a larger number of men and women who kept themselves more closely in touch with "the best that has been thought and said in the world."
As I write this, I keep in mind the truth that I have no inheritance from the ancient worth and dignity of Berwick -- or what is now North Berwick -- in Maine. My own people are comparatively late comers. I was born in a pleasant old colonial house built near 1750, and bought by my grandfather sixty or seventy years ago, when he brought his household up the river to Berwick from Portsmouth.
He was a sea-captain, and had run away to sea in his boyhood and led a most adventurous life, but was quite ready to forsake seafaring in his early manhood, and at last joined a group of acquaintances who were engaged in the flourishing West India trade of that time.
For many years he kept and extended his interests in shipping, building ships and buying large quantities of timber from the northward and eastward, and sending it down the river and so to sea.
The business was still in existence in my early childhood, and the manner of its conduct was primitive enough, the barter system still prevailing by force of necessity. Those who brought the huge sticks of oak and pine timber for masts and plank were rarely paid in money, which was of comparatively little use in remote and sparsely settled districts. When the sleds and long trains of yoked oxen returned from the river wharves to the stores, they took a lighter load in exchange of flour and rice and barrels of molasses, of sugar and salt and cotton cloth and raisins and spices and tea and coffee; in fact, all the household necessities and luxuries that the northern farms could not supply.
They liked to have a little money with which to pay their taxes and their parish dues, if they were so fortunate as to be parishioners, but they needed very little money besides.
So I came in contact with the up-country people as well as with the sailors and shipmasters of the other side of the business. I used to linger about the busy country stores, and listen to the graphic country talk. I heard the greetings of old friends, and their minute details of neighborhood affairs, their delightful jokes and Munchausen-like reports of tracts of timber-pines ever so many feet through at the butt.
When the great teams came in sight at the head of the village street, I ran to meet them over the creaking snow, if possible to mount and ride into town in triumph; but it was not many years before I began to feel sorry at the sight of every huge lopped stem of oak or pine that came trailing along after the slow-stepping, frosted oxen. Such trees are unreplaceable. I only know of one small group now in all this part of the country of those great timber pines.
My young ears were quick to hear the news of a ship's having come into port, and I delighted in the elderly captains, with their sea-tanned faces, who came to report upon their voyages, dining cheerfully and heartily with my grandfather, who listened eagerly to their exciting tales of great storms on the Atlantic, and winds that blew them north-about, and good bargains in Havana, or Barbadoes, or Havre.
I listened as eagerly as any one; this is the charming way in which I was taught something of a fashion of life already on the wane, and of that subsistence upon sea and forest bounties which is now almost a forgotten thing in my part of New England.
Much freight still came and went by the river gundelows and packets long after the railroad had made such changes, and every village along its line lost its old feeling of self-sufficiency.
In my home the greater part of the minor furnishings had come over in the ships from Bristol and Havre. My grandfather seemed to be a citizen of the whole geography. I was always listening to stories of three wars from older people - the siege of Louisburg, the Revolution, in which my father's ancestors had been honest but mistaken Tories, and in which my mother's, the Gilmans of Exeter, had taken a nobler part.
As for the War of 1812, "the last war," as everybody called it, it was a thing of yesterday in the town. One of the famous privateer crews was gathered along our own river shore, and one member of the crew, in his old age, had been my father's patient.
The Berwick people were great patriots, and were naturally proud of the famous Sullivans, who were born in the upper part of the town, and came to be governors and judge and general.
I often heard about Lafayette, who had made an ever-to-be-remembered visit in order to see again some old friends who lived in the town. The name of a famous Colonel Hamilton, the leader in the last century of the West India trade, and the histories of the old Berwick houses of Chadbourn and Lord were delightfully familiar, and one of the traditions of the latter family is more than good enough to be told again.
There was a Berwick lad who went out on one of the privateers that sailed from Portsmouth in the Revolution. The vessel was taken by a British frigate, and the crew put in irons. One day one of the English midshipmen stood near these prisoners as they took their airing on deck, and spoke contemptuously about "the rebels."
Young Lord heard what he said, and turned himself about to say boldly, "If it were not for your rank, sir, I would make you take that back!"
"No matter about my rank," said the gallant middy. "If you can whip me, you are welcome to."
So they had a "capital good fight," standing over a tea-chest, as proud tradition tells, and the Berwick sailor was the better fighter of the two, and won.
The Englishman shook hands, and asked his name and promised not to forget him - which was certainly most handsome behavior.
When they reached an English port all the prisoners but one were sent away under guard to join the other American prisoners of war; but the admiral sent for a young man named Nathan Lord, and told him that his Grace the Duke of Clarence, son of his Majesty the King, begged for his pardon, and had left a five-pound note at his disposal.
This was not the first or last Berwick lad who proved himself of good courage in a fight, but there never was another to whip a future King of England, and moreover to be liked the better for it by that fine gentleman.
My grandfather died in my eleventh year, and presently the Civil War began.
From that time the simple village life was at an end. Its provincial character was fading out; shipping was at a disadvantage, and there were no more bronzed sea-captains coming to dine and talk about their voyages, no more bags of filberts or oranges for the children, or great red jars of olives; but in these childish years I had come in contact with many delightful men and women of real individuality and breadth of character, who had fought the battle of life to good advantage, and sometimes against great odds.
ln these days I was given to long, childish illnesses, and it must be honestly confessed, to instant drooping if ever I were shut up in school. I had apparently not the slightest desire for learning, but my father was always ready to let me be his companion in long drives about the country.
In my grandfather's business household, my father, unconscious of tonnage and timber measurements, of the markets of the Windward Islands or the Mediterranean ports, had taken to his book, as old people said, and gone to college and begun that devotion to the study of medicine which only ended with his life.
I have tried already to give some idea of my father's character in my story of "The Country Doctor," but all that is inadequate to the gifts and character of the man himself. He gave me my first and best knowledge of books by his own delight and dependence upon them, and ruled my early attempts at writing by the severity and simplicity of his own good taste.
"Don't try to write about people and things, tell them just as they are!"
How often my young ears heard these words without comprehending them! But while I was too young and thoughtless to share in an enthusiasm for Sterne or Fielding, and Smollett or Don Quixote, my mother and grandmother were leading me into the pleasant ways of "Pride and Prejudice," and "The Scenes of Clerical Life," and the delightful stories of Mrs. Oliphant.
The old house was well provided with leather-bound books of a deeply serious nature, but in my youthful appetite for knowledge, I could even in the driest find something vital, and in the more entertaining I was completely lost.
My father had inherited from his father an amazing knowledge of human nature, and from his mother's French ancestry, that peculiarly French trait, called gaieté de cur. Through all the heavy responsibilities and anxieties of his busy professional life, this kept him young at heart and cheerful. His visits to his patients were often made perfectly delightful and refreshing to them by his kind heart, and the charm of his personality.
I knew many of the patients whom he used to visit in lonely inland farms, or on the seacoast in York and Wells. I used to follow him about silently, like an undemanding little dog, content to follow at his heels.
I had no consciousness of watching or listening, or indeed of any special interest in the country interiors. In fact, when the time came that my own world of imagination was more real to me than any other, I was sometimes perplexed at my father's directing my attention to certain points of interest in the character or surroundings of our acquaintances.
I cannot help believing that he recognized, long before I did myself, in what direction the current of purpose in my life was setting. Now, as I write my sketches of country life, I remember again and again the wise things he said, and the sights he made me see. He was only impatient with affectation and insincerity.
I may have inherited something of my father's and grandfather's knowledge of human nature, but my father never lost a chance of trying to teach me to observe. I owe a great deal to his patience with a heedless little girl given far more to dreams than to accuracy, and with perhaps too little natural sympathy for the dreams of others.
The quiet village life, the dull routine of farming or mill life, early became interesting to me. I was taught to find everything that an imaginative child could ask, in the simple scenes close at hand.
I say these things eagerly, because I long to impress upon every boy and girl this truth: that it is not one's surroundings that can help or hinder - it is having a growing purpose in one's life to make the most of whatever is in one's reach.
If you have but a few good books, learn those to the very heart of them. Don't for one moment believe that if you had different surroundings and opportunities you would find the upward path any easier to climb. One condition is like another, if you have not the determination and the power to grow in yourself.
I was still a child when I began to write down the things I was thinking about, but at first I always made rhymes and found prose so difficult that a school composition was a terror to me, and I do not remember ever writing one that was worth anything. But in course of time rhymes themselves became difficult and prose more and more enticing, and I began my work in life, most happy in finding that I was to write of those country characters and rural landscapes to which I myself belonged, and which I had been taught to love with all my heart.
I was between nineteen and twenty when my first sketch was accepted by Mr. Howells for the Atlantic. I already counted myself as by no means a new contributor to one or two other magazines - Young Folks and The Riverside - but I had no literary friends "at court."
I was very shy about speaking of my work at home, and even sent it to the magazine under an assumed name, and then was timid about asking the post-mistress for those mysterious and exciting editorial letters which she announced upon the post-office list as if I were a stranger in the town.
On 3 September, 1897, Jewett wrote from South Berwick to Sara Norton of her wish--that had to be delayed--to meet in Ashfield: "I wish that Berwick were on the way to Ashfield; but then one might as well wish for things that can come true. This is my birthday and I am always nine years old" (Fields, Letters, 125). She then goes on to contrast herself to Madame de Sévigné, who began her letters by announcing that she was born a thousand years ago.
This autobiographical sketch appeared in Youth's Companion, January 7, 1892; this text is from that publication. Typographical errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets.
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two large rivers: Salmon Falls & the Great Works rivers meet to form the Piscataqua at South Berwick. See Paula Blanchard, Sarah Orne Jewett, Chapter 1 for details. See also Jewett's essay, "The Old Town of Berwick."
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one may travel at home: This passage echoes sentiments expressed by Henry David Thoreau in Walden (1846), where he often says that knowing one's own neighborhood is travelling at home and is to be recommended.
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Berwick: Jewett's family home is in South Berwick, Maine, about 12 miles (20 k) north of Portsmouth, NH.
the best that has been thought and said in the world: See Matthew Arnold's preface to Literature and Dogma.
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West India trade: In "The Old Town of Berwick," Jewett describes this trade: "The northern country was covered then, for the most part, with heavy pine growth; and the chief business at Berwick was buying this from the lumbermen, and sending it to Portsmouth, there to be reshipped, or direct to the West Indies, where the usual course of the ships was to load with rum, tobacco and molasses, and then to Russia where this second cargo was exchanged for iron, duck and cordage, then back to Liverpool for another trade, and so home. The little ships made money fast enough, and in the winter time the Berwick streets were crowded with ox teams and huge timber pines and piles of plank and boards."
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Munchausen-like reports: absurdly exaggerated. Rudolph Erich Raspe wrote Baron Munchausen, Narrative of his Marvellous Travels (1785), based on the fanciful exaggerated narratives of the original Baron. The Oxford Companion to English Literature says, "The original Baron Münchhausen is said to have lived in 1720-97, to have served in the Russian army against the Turks, and to have been in the habit of grossly exaggerating his experiences."
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Havana, or Barbadoes, or Havre: Havana is in Cuba. Barbadoes is another Caribbean island. Le Havre is the second largest French seaport, located on the English Channel at the mouth of the Seine.
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gundelows: "Gundalow" is a localization of "gondola," referring in American usage to a flat-bottomed boat used for freight. In "The Old Town of Berwick," part 4, Jewett says, "When you see the last of the gundalows coming up the river, you will like to remember that its ancestor was copied from a Nile boat, from which a sensible old sea captain once took his lesson in shipbuilding. The high peaked sail looks like a great bird's wing, and catches the flawy wind well in the river reaches." This essay includes a photograph of a gundalow. See also, Jewett's "River Driftwood" in Country By-Ways.
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the siege of Louisburg, the Revolution ...: The seige of Louisbourg took place in the French and Indian Wars of the 1740s. The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia says: "New England's relative security ended in 1744 when France entered the war as an ally of Spain in what was to become known as King George's War. After their loss of Nova Scotia in 1713, the French had constructed the large fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island at the southern entrance to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. From Louisbourg, French sea raiders could prey upon New England shipping. In 1745, Gov. William Shirley of Massachusetts decided to capture Louisbourg; he appointed William Pepperrell of Maine to command a New England army in that venture. Pepperrell also gained the invaluable assistance of a squadron from the Royal Navy. Cooperation between these ships and Pepperrell's army of relatively inexperienced New Englanders resulted in the surrender of Louisbourg in June 1745 after a 7-week siege." Jewett discusses Pepperrell and some of the history of this siege in "The Old Town of Berwick."
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War of 1812: The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia says, "The War of 1812 was fought between the United States and Great Britain from June 1812 to the spring of 1815, although the peace treaty ending the war was signed in Europe in December 1814. The main land fighting of the war occurred along the Canadian border, in the Chesapeake Bay region, and along the Gulf of Mexico; extensive action also took place at sea."
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a famous privateer: Privateers were privately own ships licensed by a national navy to capture and take enemy commercial ships during wartime. The United States employed privateers against the British in the War of 1812. In "The Old Town of Berwick," Jewett says, "This region bore its part in all the wars with generosity and bravery. The famous crew of John Paul Jones and the "Ranger" was mainly gathered from the shores of the river. One of the last of his sailors was, in his extreme old age, my father's patient." See also, "River Driftwood" in Country By-Ways.
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the famous Sullivans: Jewett gives a summary of this family's history at the end of part 2 of "The Old Town of Berwick." Master John Sullivan and his wife are important characters in Jewett's novel, The Tory Lover (1901).
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Lafayette: The Marquis and Marquise de Lafayette visited Berwick in 1825. Jewett mentions his visit to Mrs. Cushing in "The Old Town of Berwick." See also two accounts of the 1825 visit by General Lafayette to Madam Cushing in South Berwick and the Charles Cushing Hobbs Talk.
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Colonel Hamilton ... Chadbourn ... Lord: These all are prominent families in South Berwick. Jewett recounts portions of their family histories in "The Old Town of Berwick," and Hamilton figures as a character in The Tory Lover.
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the Duke of Clarence, son of his Majesty the King: George III (1738-1820) was King of England during the American Revolutionary War; he was succeeded by George IV, Prince of Wales.
In The History of the Town of Rollinsford, New Hampshire: 1623-1973, Alfred Catalfo writes of the Nathan Lord who married Esther Perkins of Ipswich, Massachusetts on June 30, 1748: "From this couple were born four children. Nathan Lord was the third child, and he was the builder of the Captain Nathan Lord's House.... He was only 16 years old when he entered the Revolutionary Army under General John Sullivan, and went to Fort Ticonderoga and Canada." Catalfo goes on to tell the story of Nathan's capture and escape during this campaign, because Nathan or another captive gave a Masonic sign to a British officer, leading to their being ransomed rather than executed. Catalfo continues: "In the same Revolutionary war Nathan Lord served under Captain John Paul Jones on the privateer, 'The Ranger.' He was captured by a British man of war." Catalfo then narrates the story Jewett repeats of Nathan responding to a British insult by offering to fight the officer. The officer accepting, Nathan beats him and is congratulated by the Duke of Clarence, his antagonist, who later became King William IV of England (247). Catalfo also reports that Nathan Lord eventually married Betsey Brewster in South Berwick in 1785 and built his mansion on Somersworth Hill (247). He died in 1807 (248).
Clearly, the fight story leaves something to be desired for its basis in fact. No one was captured from the Ranger while Jones was in command, and the Ranger was not a privateer, but a warship. King William IV (the Duke of Clarence, 1765-1837, reign 1830-1837) was younger than Nathan Lord, just 12 or 13 in 1778, when he might have encountered Lord on the Ranger under Jones's command; though he did begin service in the Royal Navy in 1779, he did not become Duke of Clarence until 1789.
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the Civil War: The American Civil War, 1860-1865.
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Windward Islands: According to the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, "The Windward Islands make up the southern group of tropical islands situated in the Lesser Antilles of the West Indies between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. They include from north to south the islands of Dominica, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Grenada. The Leeward Islands lie to the north."
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"The Country Doctor": Jewett's A Country Doctor, a novel in which a country doctor is a main character was published in 1884.
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Sterne or Fielding, and Smollett or Don Quixote ... "Pride and Prejudice: and "The Scenes of a Clerical Life," and ... Mrs. Oliphant: Laurence Sterne (1713-68), author of Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey. Tobias Smollett (1721-71), author of The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker. Pride and Prejudice is by Jane Austen (1775-1817). Scenes of a Clerical Life is a series of three stories by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans, 1819-80). Margaret Oliphant (1828-97) was a Scots writer of over 100 books.
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gaieté de cur: French. Lightheartedness, playfulness.
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York and Wells: seacoast villages in southern Maine.
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having a growing purpose in one's life to make the most of whatever is in one's reach: In a 1902 letter to Annie Fields, Jewett said, "Yesterday afternoon I amused myself with Miss Austen's `Persuasion.' Dear me, how like her people are to the people we knew years ago! . . . I am going to read another, `Persuasion' tasted so good!" (Fields, Letters 185). As she indicates above, Jewett began reading Austen early, and so she may well have remembered this passage from Persuasion in which Anne Eliot reflects on the life of her invalid friend, Mrs. Smith: "A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven...." (v. 2, ch. 4). Jewett characterizes Mrs. Blackett - perhaps her most admirable character - in The Country of the Pointed Firs as being particularly gifted at making the most of what is within her reach (See Chapter 10).
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Mr. Howells for the Atlantic: William Dean Howells (1837-1920) was editor of Atlantic Monthly from 1871-1881, after serving 5 years as an assistant editor. Jewett's first Atlantic publication was "Mr. Bruce," published under the pen name of A. C. Eliot in December 1869. It was collected in Old Friends and New in 1879.
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Young Folks and The Riverside: Jewett was a frequent contributor of stories to the Riverside Magazine for young readers, which published three of her pieces in 1870. However, according to Weber and Weber in their A Bibliography of the Published Writings of Sarah Orne Jewett (Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1949), Jewett had by 1870 published only a single poem in Our Young Folks, "The Baby-House Famine" in September 1868 (4:568), under the name of Alice Eliot.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College
Uncollected Pieces for Young Readers
Main Contents & Search