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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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8. Regional Realism   

8. Regional

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- Charles W.
- Kate Chopin
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- Sarah Orne
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Authors: Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909)

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

Sarah Orne Jewett Activities
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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.

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