Jewett's Jewel | Essay | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Essay

Jewett's Jewel

Returning to a neglected classic of American literature.

by

comment

"It is immense. It is the very life," Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1896 to a softspoken horsewoman from southern Maine after reading her offbeat tale published serially in the Atlantic Monthly. "I believe not even you know how good that work is." But the publishing firm of Houghton Mifflin did, and it issued the collected episodes under a single cover before the year was out. Sarah Orne Jewett's classic The Country of the Pointed Firs is the affectionate fictional memoir of an author who retreats to an old New England seaport to complete "a long piece of writing," only to be drawn into an eccentric but strangely appealing homespun culture on the edge of extinction.

"It is a book made to defy the praise ordinarily given to details," the Book Buyer commended in review. "It must be regarded au large. For it takes hold of the very centre of things....A new region unrolls before you like a living map."

In 1925 Willa Cather wrote a moving preface to a new edition of the work, exclaiming, "I like to think with what pleasure, with what a sense of rich discovery, the young student of American literature in far distant years to come will take up this book and say 'A masterpiece!' as proudly as if he himself had made it."

Yet history would fail to satisfy her prophecy. An almost unbroken silence marked last year's centennial of Jewett's acclaimed gem, which Cather classed with The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a literary feat sure to enjoy a long shelf life. With the exception of a sculpture commissioned in the author's hometown and a conference of Jewett scholars held in Waterville, Maine, the milestone was greeted with no particular hoopla. Not a single editorial note graced the pages of America's premier literary magazines, not even the Atlantic, where her pithy and resonant tales appeared for over three decades. Perhaps The Country of the Pointed Firs was forgotten for lack of a carefully devised plot, or, as scholars have long argued, because it has no plot at all. There is no smoking gun, no race against time--not an immediate one anyway--and no antagonist. Fortunately for the discerning reader, the University of New England Press reissued the book this spring in a facsimile edition of the original publication.

Shy in demeanor but as comfortable as a lark in the outdoors, Sarah Orne Jewett counted herself among the simple country people she wrote about all her life. She was born in 1849 in the village of South Berwick, Maine, about 12 miles north of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, along the Salmon Falls River. The Georgian house in which she lived her first and last years is today a national historic landmark. Built in 1774, the mansion was later purchased by her grandfather, a prosperous sea captain who operated a lucrative shipping route to the West Indies. His uncle Henry Dearborn served as a secretary of war under Jefferson, which connection proved especially lucrative during the great shipping embargo of 1807.

Jewett's father, by contrast, earned a more modest living as a simple country doctor. As a girl Jewett would accompany him on his rounds among the remote farms along the coast and farther inland. She learned to ride and drive horses as well as handle a boat, and made a point of steering clear of the local schoolhouse, within whose restrictive clutches she was sure she would fast begin to droop, like a flower without light.

The frequent excursions and visits to neighbors shaped Jewett's artistry more than any grammar lesson ever could. She early acquired a sharp ear for dialect and captured intact legends and yarns that had been handed down for generations. She became the intimate of retired shipmasters, fisher-folk, and lonely old women confined by infirmity.

Of some of her early sketches the Overland Monthly would note, "They constitute the only record for the future of the real motive and temper of life among the latest and possibly the last distinct representatives of the English Puritan colonization." In a similar vein, the Nation proclaimed Jewett's semiautobiographical Country By-Ways (1881) "a loving memorial to a generation that is just passing out of sight."

Jewett's first novel, Deephaven, began as a series of sketches of village life in the Atlantic in 1873. At the time, Ohio-born editor William Dean Howells subscribed to the flourishing school of local color, to which Jewett belonged by natural impulse. Enamored with her off-the-map locales and juicy dialogue, Howells nevertheless criticized the absence of structure and plot from her stories. "Here is a sketch, but where is the picture?" he once quipped in a rejection letter. Still, the eccentrics who populated Jewett's decaying ports and impoverished homesteads went over like gangbusters with the public, and the firm of James R. Osgood published the book a few years later.

The critics themselves were not exactly bowled over by Deephaven. In addition to the slim story line, they chided its youthful, at times comically trivial narrative, and suspected that the manuscript had been slapped together with some pages out of order. The New York Times, for one, did not mince words, stating flatly, "It is by some mistake, doubtless, that it got into print at all."

Evidently those missed hours of classroom instruction had exacted a toll on the young author. While her short stories and sketches were earning her a reputation on par with Henry James--not to mention similar fees--her subsequent attempts at writing standard novels would inevitably produce substandard results. Both The Country Doctor (1884) and A Marsh Island (1885) crashed a few miles out of harbor, forcing the Jewett faithful to dredge the vintage material from the shipwrecks.

She had better luck with Betty Leicester: A Story for Girls, published in 1889. This tale of a young woman's travels remained a popular title in children's literature well into this century. However, like the narrator of The Country of the Pointed Firs, with her "long piece of writing" that never gets written, Jewett may have realized over time that she would never succeed as a conventional author. Her gift lay not in dramatic concoction but in distilling the flavors of a world that stood looking her right in the eye.

Far from the passionless spinster described by early biographers, Jewett appears to have had a fuller social plate than she is generally given credit for. Rejecting marriage and the domestic sphere to pursue her literary art, she was irrepressibly attracted to the company of other women. Such passionate friendships were both common and acceptable in 19th-century New England, and Jewett herself entered into a celebrated liaison with Annie Adams Fields, the widow of Boston publishing mogul James Fields.

A descendant of the presidential Adamses, this legendary hostess of American letters married Fields when she was 20. Charles Dickens later encouraged her altruistic endeavors, and she became one of Massachusetts's leading social welfare advocates, cofounding the Associated Charities of Boston, forerunner of the Family Service Bureau. She and Jewett probably met under the auspices of the Atlantic, which James Fields edited at the time of Jewett's first contribution in 1869. Either he detected some chemistry between them or admired Jewett outright, for he recommended her to his wife as a possible companion before his death in 1881. Thereafter Jewett began spending winters at the publisher's famous residence on Charles Street and summers at the Fields's house in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

After reviewing the voluminous correspondence between the two women during these years, scholar Judith Roman has concluded that their partnership stands out for "its complete reciprocity and in their ability to create for themselves a form of marriage in which all roles were interchangeable and neither partner was limited by the relationship."

Even Henry James would marvel at this unconventional union. In a 1916 memorial essay written after the death of Annie Adams Fields, he recalled their visit to him in Rye, England, in 1898, stating "that nothing could have more warmed the ancient faith of their confessingly a bit disoriented countryman than the association of the elder and the younger lady in such an emphasized susceptibility. Their reach together was of the firmest and easiest."

The "30-year affair," as Jewett biographer Josephine Donovan refers to it, lasted until Jewett's death in 1909. The Country of the Pointed Firs derives some of its inspiration and all of its setting from a monthlong vacation taken by the women to the vicinity of Tenant's Harbor, Maine, in 1895, near the summer home of fellow author Thomas Bailey Aldrich. In Jewett's novel, the unnamed narrator, a woman probably in or near her 40s, is drawn to her landlady, Mrs. Almira Todd, a stout countrywoman in her late 60s who gathers medicinal herbs along a hillside, brews them in a cauldron on her kitchen stove, and dispenses them to "suffering neighbors who usually came at night as if by stealth, bringing their own ancient-looking vials to be filled." While not a romantic attraction by any stretch, their relationship evolves into an increasingly close but unspoken bond, anchored by the strong maternal presence embodied in Mrs. Todd.

"Close at hand, Mrs. Todd seemed able and warm-hearted and quite absorbed in her bustling industries, but her distant figure looked mateless and appealing, with something about it that was strangely self-possessed and mysterious. Now and then she stooped to pick something--it might have been her favorite pennyroyal--and at last I lost sight of her as she slowly crossed an open space on one of the higher points of land, and disappeared again behind a dark clump of juniper and the pointed firs."

Both endowed with an independent nature and a wanderlust spirit, the two think nothing of setting off on spur-of-the-moment, daylong excursions by land or by sea. Forget about those musty English drawing-room dramas, full of pining women waiting for their ships to come in. Jewett's characters hike down old Indian trails in search of rare herbs, pilot a grocery wagon "upcountry" for Mrs. Todd's family reunion, and sail a dory out to an island miles from the harbor. As the elderly countrywoman explains, the success of these treks often depends on the astuteness of the traveler.

"'There's an old Indian footpath leadin' over towards the Back Shore through the great heron swamp that anybody can't travel over all summer. You have to seize your time some day just now, while the low ground's summer-dried as it is to-day, and before the fall rains set in.'"

For all of Mrs. Todd's sage wisdom, the narrator learns that her elderly landlady is not the sole purveyor of the healing gospel in the village of Dunnet Landing. This revelation comes one cloudy afternoon, standing on a windswept hill overlooking the village harbor, when they notice the sun bursting down on one of the outer islands.

"'That's where mother lives,' said Mrs. Todd. 'Can't we see it plain?'...

"'Your mother!' I exclaimed, with great interest.

"'Yes, dear, cert'in; I've got her yet, old's I be....She's eighty-six an' I'm sixty-seven, and I've seen the time I've felt a good sight the oldest. "Land sakes alive!" says she, last time I was out to see her. "How you do lurch about steppin' into a bo't!" I laughed so I liked to have gone right over into the water.'"

At its heart, The Country of the Pointed Firs represents a journey back to the mother, a theme rarely explored in American fiction. In the most illuminating study of Jewett and her writings to date, University of New Hampshire professor Sarah Way Sherman traces Jewett's unusual quest back to the Homeric legend of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone in her book Sarah Orne Jewett: An American Persephone.

Predating the nationalist religion of the Greeks, Demeter represents the goddess of fertility and the earth before the cultivation of land and the invention of marriage. In the myth, her daughter Persephone is kidnapped and raped by Hades, who drags her off with him to the underworld. In her anger at the crime, Demeter cancels the seasons and goes into mourning. Zeus eventually intervenes to prevent environmental calamity, persuading Hades to let Persephone go for half of the year.

Sherman documents Jewett's frequent allusions to the myth, as well as the pastoral vision of Theocritus, which Jewett adapted with apparent ease to the New England landscape. Described in the novel as a "cousin to the ancient deities," as one who might have "walked the primeval fields of Sicily," and even as "some force of Nature personified," Mrs. Todd serves as something of a reincarnated Demeter, with the narrator cast as Persephone struggling to reunite with her long-lost mother.

Sherman's book builds on a surge of modern Jewett scholarship instigated by the late Richard Cary of Colby College in Waterville, Maine. In the process of restoring the author's legacy, scholars located an unpublished chapter of The Country of the Pointed Firs in 1962, called "The Foreigner." Lauded by literary critic Warner Berthoff as "one of the mislaid treasures of American writing," the chapter is included in all new editions of the book along with three other related stories composed after the initial volume was released.

Naturally, not everyone accepts Cather's 1925 comparison of Jewett to Hawthorne and Twain. Berthoff asserted in the New England Quarterly a quarter century later that the claim was extravagant, characterizing The Country of the Pointed Firs as a "little masterpiece" written by a "scrupulous minor artist forgivably overpraised by personal admirers."

On the other hand, there are those like Sherman, who, citing the book's lyrical quality and primordial themes, suggest that it may fit more appropriately on the shelf beside such titles as Hesiod's Works and Days and the Idylls of Theocritus.

Whichever the case, the Victorians themselves had no qualms regarding Jewett's contribution to literature. In her review in the Book Buyer's October 1897 issue, writer Alice Brown frankly--if not objectively--concluded, "No such beautiful and perfect work has been done for many years; perhaps no such beautiful work has ever been done in America." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): collage/ Rebecca Jane Gleason; photo by Corbis-Bettmann.

Add a comment