Sarah Orne Jewett, a native of Maine, was one of the first and most skilled members of the local color movement in literature. She was a novelist, poet, essayist, and short story writer. A country doctor’s daughter, Jewett’s experiences in accompanying her father on his calls had an important impressionable effect on the sensibility that later led her to write meaningful stories of New England character and experience. Anyone from another part of the United States, anyone from another part of the world who wants to understand New England would do well to read the stories of Sarah Orne Jewett.
Sarah Orne Jewett was born on September 3, 1849 in a small town called South Berwick, Maine. Her father was a distinguished country doctor who taught at Bowdoin College. Sarah’s real education came from her father’s library and even more from the trips she took with him to see his patients in the country. “These trips resulted in an intimate knowledge of the Maine countryside and its people, and an attachment to her father which was so strong that it precluded any emotional relationship to any other man,” (Kunitz 418). Although she was a beautiful woman, she never fell in love or inspired love.
She never realized how much of her life had been taken away by the father she adored. Sarah’s older sister encouraged her to send in her first story to a magazine, Riverside, under the pen name Alice C. Elliot. In 1869, at the age of nineteen, the Atlantic Monthly published the first of a series that later was called Deephaven. The book was an immediate success. As the result of the success, she became a friend and companion of Annie Fields, a Boston hostess. Through Annie, she made many literary acquaintances and admirers.
These connections, as well as her travels to Europe and her wide reading, broadened her horizons beyond the borders of Maine. In 1878 her beloved father died. Her grief could only be imagined. In 1901 she was granted an honorary Litt. D. degree, the first ever given to a woman. Her life, like her talent, was at a peak. Little did she know a few months later she was to be condemned semi-invalidism for the rest of her life and would never again have the strength to write more than a letter. A fall from a carriage had caused spinal injuries from which she would never recover.
She gradually faded away over the next eight years, and sadly nothing more of hers was published. Sarah Orne Jewett’s influences include Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, Leo Tolstoy, and Henry James. Her love of the seaport town in which she was born provided most of the source material she used for her stories. Her stories depict not only a love for Maine, but also a high level of admiration for that particular part of the country. She learned to love her country for what it was. Most importantly, she saw it as it was. Sarah Orne Jewett injects a great deal of realism into her stories.
She was compelled to write by a longing to share her beloved countryside and its people to the world. Her writing style of “romanticized realism”is considered to be of the same class as that of Willa Cather and Harriet Beecher Stowe. “[In] some of Miss Jewett’s early writings we feel that a certain faint charm is struggling unavailingly with an artistic method too monotonous; and in some of her later stories she has also her uninspired hours, where her subjects of common daily life have their uninteresting reaches and stretches which defy the delicacy of her touch,” (Compton’s CD-ROM 1).
Her work exhales a spirituality which is inseparable from her precise perception of her country-people’s native outlook and attitude toward life. Her gift for characterization is remarkably subtle, but neither rich nor profound. The gift of indicating character by a few short simple strokes is the gift of the masters. “Her gift therefore is the gift of drawing from nature, with an exquisite fidelity to what appeals to her feminine imagination-such a s the infinite variety of women’s perceptions in the personal relations; but the feminine insight only moves along the plane of her sympathetic appreciation,” (Garnett 360).
We may grant that she is only a minor writer, that the kind of pleasure her work offers only remotely resembles the effect of great literature, that the insight she gives us into men and women is fragmentary,” (Hicks 363). To the regional story, Sarah Orne Jewett brought understanding, knowledge, humor, and a thoroughly disciplined talent. At the time of her writing, the former way of life in Maine was coming to an end. She described this world realistically but leisurely and with sympathy. Sarah Orne Jewett in turn influenced Willa Cather, who was later to edit a collection of Jewett’s stories.
The regional sketches that William Dean Howell, editor of Atlantic Monthly, published his magazine were to become the bare bones of her finest novel, The Country of the Pointed Firs. In The Country of the Pointed Firs we find a revelation of how men play second fiddle in women’s eyes. In The Country of the Pointed Firs. she pictures the Maine coast, the Maine summer, and he people of the islands and harbor towns. The people in The Country of the Pointed Firs are eccentrics, a little gnarled by the American weather and twisted by American loneliness, “… t it is not for display of these deformities that Miss Jewett presents them,” (Howe 364).
Miss Jewett was interested in reaching some human core beneath the surface, and like so many other American writers, she knows the values and feelings of the buried life. Like other books dealing with a simple society, The Country of the Pointed Firs gains natural structure from its relaxed loyalty to the rhythms of natural life. The world it commemorates is small and shrinking, and the images of the book serve only to bound this world more stringently- “… ages of the ranked firs and the water, which together suggest the enclosing of force of everything beyond the social perimeter,” (Howe 364).
Meanwhile, a community survives, bestowed with rare powers of implicit communication: to say in this world that someone has “real feelins” is to say everything. Finally, the book is a triumph of style; a precise and delicate style such as we rarely find in nineteenth century American prose. The break down of differences between prose and verse occurs under romanticism and for a variety of reasons is extreme in America.
This breakdown hardly affected Miss Jewett. This is probably why she remained a minor figure. At the moment, there is much to be gained from a study of her finely softened prose, which never strains for effects beyond its reach and always achieves a secure pattern of rhythm. ” Miss Jewett was no universal genius; she was intensely of her own time and place. She was ideally the person for just exactly the work she had to do. Born in exactly the right place for doing it,” (Kunitz 418-420).
According to Edward Garnett, “Miss Jewett’s talent at its best is so quietly delicate, its spiritual aroma so subtle, that to come to it is like coming to one of the quiet beaches or woody hill-sides in Maine she so tenderly describes for us… ” (Garnett 359). ” Miss Jewett’s work has often been criticized as nothing more than ‘sketches,’ with very little plot and therefore, not worthy of much critical study. Jewett herself realized this about her work, writing to her editor, ” It seems to me I can furnish the theatre, and show you the actors, and the scenery, and the audience, but there never is a play!… I seem to get very bewildered while I try to make these come in for secondary parts… I am certain I could not write one of the usual magazines stories.
If the editors will take the sketchy kind and people like to read them, is not it as well to do that and do it successfully as to make hopeless efforts to achieve something in another line which runs much higher? ” (Wells 1). “Her sensitive understanding of both her birthplace and its citizens is considered a major contribution to American literature,” ( Dunalt 1).