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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Regional Realism Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909)

[9066] Joseph John Kirkbride, Panorama of Mooseriver Village (c. 1884-91), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-61485].

Sarah Orne Jewett’s evocative sketches of village life in nineteenth-century Maine have earned her a place among the most important practitioners of American regional writing. Born in South Berwick, Maine, Jewett grew up steeped in the idioms and atmosphere of coastal New England. Her early experiences accompanying her father, a rural doctor, on house calls provided her with insight into the daily lives of the people who would eventually populate her fiction. Jewett’s father encouraged her writing aspirations and instilled in her his taste for realistic description and restrained narration–qualities that characterized Jewett’s best work.

As early as her teens, Jewett began writing and publishing fiction and poetry, placing one of her stories in the influential literary magazine the Atlantic Monthly. In 1877 she published Deephaven, her first book-length collection, and followed up on its success with several other collections of stories, four novels, and some children’s literature. While Jewett’s novels were well received, critics generally agree that her short fiction represents her most important literary accomplishment. In The White Heron (a collection of stories published in 1886) and especially in The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), Jewett employed the flexible narrative structure of the “sketch” and the short story to create sensitive, realistic depictions of specific characters, customs, and places. The genre of the sketch–less formal than a novel and less dependent on traditional conventions of plotting and structure–enabled her to experiment with narrative form to compelling effect. Her masterpiece, The Country of the Pointed Firs, is a loosely linked collection of sketches unified by its narrator, a somewhat detached, cultured summer visitor to rural Maine.

Beginning in the late 1870s, Jewett found support and inspiration from an influential circle of New England women writers and artists. Her most important bond was with Annie Fields, the wife of prominent publisher James T. Fields. After her husband’s death, Annie Fields began an intense, exclusive relationship with Jewett that endured until Jewett’s death. In the nineteenth century, this kind of long-term union between two women who lived together was referred to as a Boston marriage. The two women regularly traveled together and spent much of every year living together in Fields’s homes in Boston and on the New England shore. In recent years, literary critics and historians have become very interested in the nature of Jewett’s and Fields’s deep commitment to one another. While the question of whether or not their relationship was a sexual one has never been resolved, it is clear that the two women drew companionship and support from their mutual bond.

In 1901, Jewett received an honorary doctorate from Bowdoin College, her father’s alma mater. The next year, she was seriously hurt in a carriage accident, sustaining injuries to her head and spine that left her unable to write. Eight years later she died in South Berwick, in the home in which she was born.

Teaching Tips

  • Sarah Orne Jewett had a deep interest in the occult, a theme that arises in “The Foreigner.” Ask students to think about the role of the “other-worldly” in this story. Why does Jewett include the ending she does? How does it affect Mrs. Todd? How does it affect the narrator? How does the occult event serve to bind together women in the story? What is the relationship between Jewett’s commitment to realistic depiction and her interest in the occult? Refer students to the contextual material featured in “The Spirit Is Willing: The Occult and Women in the Nineteenth Century” in Unit 6. Ask them to think about how this story relates to the experiences of the Fox sisters.
  • Jewett once told an editor who urged her to write a novel that she did not think she was capable of managing the narrative structure of a long work: “But I don’t believe I could write a long story as you… advise me in this last letter. The story would have no plot. I could write you entertaining letters perhaps, from some desirable house where I was in most charming company, but I couldn’t make a story about it.” After you give students this background information, ask them how fair Jewett’s self-deprecating analysis is to her ability to structure narrative. How do her stories challenge conventional plot structures? Do her plots move in a linear fashion? How does information come out? How are characters developed? How does she use the short story to experiment with narrative form?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In the story “The White Heron,” how does Sylvia relate to her rural environment and to the animals–both wild and domestic–that she encounters within it? How is her relationship to wildlife different from the ornithologist’s? Why does she ultimately decide not to tell him about the white heron?
  2. Comprehension: “The Foreigner” tells the story of Mrs. Tolland, a foreign woman brought to Maine by her sea captain husband. When he dies at sea, she is left alone, living in the captain’s house, in a community that continues to treat her as an outsider. What kinds of relationships do the characters in “The Foreigner” have to the objects in the Tollands’ house? What objects are important to Mrs. Tolland? How does Mrs. Todd feel about the house? What attitude does Uncle Lorenzo take toward the house and its contents?
  3. Context: “The Foreigner” contains numerous frames and distancing devices: the narrator recounts Mrs. Todd’s story, while Mrs. Todd recounts both events that happened to her directly and events that she heard about from other people or through hearsay and gossip. What is the effect of this multiplicity of frames around the tale of Mrs. Tolland and her life and death? What links the various layers of the story together? Why do you think so many authors who wrote in the realist genre and experimented with dialect relied on frame narratives (Harris and Chesnutt, for example)?
  4. Exploration: How do Jewett’s depictions of New England characters and their values compare to other, earlier authors’ interest in the same subject matter (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, or Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example)?

Selected Archive Items

[1546] Harper’s Weekly, Eight illustrations depicting a New England farmhouse (1876),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-102852].
These illustrations depict a replica New England farmhouse that was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition of 1876.

[4440] Allen L. Hubbard, Alna Meeting House, State Rt. 218, Alna, Lincoln County, Maine (1936),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
This plain-style meetinghouse reflects the old New England emphasis on spiritual rather than material wealth. Meetinghouses were places of worship and the site of town meetings.

[5274] Arnold Genthe, Sarah Orne Jewett (n.d.),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Arnold Genthe Collection [LC-G4085-0430].
Born in 1849 in South Berwick, Maine, Sarah Orne Jewett grew up steeped in the idioms and atmosphere of coastal New England. Her evocative sketches of village life in nineteenth-century Maine have earned her a place among the most important practitioners of American regional writing.

[7111] Samuel H. Gottscho, Gate bordered by stone walls (c. 1918),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-4334].
Photograph of a rural New England setting such as those found in Jewett’s work.

[9066] Joseph John Kirkbride, Panorama of Mooseriver Village (c. 1884-91),
courtesy of the Library of Congess [LC-USZ62-61485].
Sarah Orne Jewett, the daughter of a country doctor, drew much of her inspiration from the small-town New England life with which she was intimately familiar.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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