The Magazine

A Place of Her Own

Rediscovering Sarah Orne Jewett.

Aug 26, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 47 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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THE NAME Sarah Orne Jewett, for those to whom it means anything at all, evokes principally the landscape of southern Maine and the particular serenity of her 1896 novel "The Country of the Pointed Firs." Because she captured there the harmonies of undramatic lives lived out in their native place, Jewett deserves the attention of modern readers too prone to overlook so pallid a thing as contentment. And she remains worth reading for another reason: her role as mentor to a better-remembered and greater artist, Willa Cather.

Early classified (and nowadays mostly dismissed) as a "local colorist"--doing for Maine what the likes of John Fox Jr. had done for Kentucky, Thomas Nelson Page for Virginia, and Edward Eggleston for Indiana--Jewett was rooted in a way almost no American is anymore. She was born in 1849 in the inland port of South Berwick, upriver from Portland, the daughter of a prosperous and cultivated doctor. As a girl, she accompanied her father on his visits to patients, taking in the ways and speech of the local people. Her first story was published when she was nineteen, and soon her work was appearing regularly in the Atlantic Monthly, edited by the young William Dean Howells. With his encouragement, she produced three novels: "Deephaven" in 1877, "A Country Doctor" in 1884, and her masterpiece, "The Country of the Pointed Firs." She died a few years after suffering injuries in a carriage accident, in 1909.

Jewett's writing enjoyed immediate success. Before she was thirty, she was "a fully arrived celebrity," as an early biographer put it, and she was swept into the literary circles of nearby Boston. Upon reading "Deephaven"--a youthful precursor to "The Country of the Pointed Firs"--for the third time, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote her a fan letter. Two years later, she was a guest at the seventieth birthday party of the literary lion Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Along the way, Jewett became friends with the publisher of the Atlantic, James T. Fields, and his wife, Annie, and after Fields's death, Annie and Sarah were companions. For some years, they kept a Boston salon at 146 Charles Street, where they hosted the literati of the day--meeting, there and on trips to Europe, such luminaries as Henry James, Kipling, Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, and the Dickens family.

Through all this exposure to high culture, Jewett never deviated from her own vocation as a chronicler of simple country life. Her characters live close to nature, in isolated homesteads and small seaports. Above her desk she kept a line from Flaubert: "To write about ordinary life as one would write history."

Her most famous story, "A White Heron," is emblematic. In the story, a little girl walking her cow home through the woods encounters a young man with a gun. He is an ornithologist, come in search of a white heron. He spends the night at the girl's house and offers the dazzling sum of $10 to any who will lead him to the great bird's nest. He is kind and attractive. Wanting to please him, she slips away to climb the tallest tree at dawn, to see the white heron's first flight and so discover its nest. Her plan works perfectly--until the moment comes to tell. Remembering how she had seen the great bird "flying through the golden air and how they [had] watched the sea and the morning together," the child realizes "she cannot tell the heron's secret and give its life away."

Her decision involves sacrifice, for the stranger has awakened intimations of adventure in a wider world. But her loyalty to the woods and its creatures is decisive. The story ends: "Whatever treasures were lost to her, woodlands and summer-time remember! Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child!"

FIDELITY, this time not to nature but to vocation, is also the theme of "A Country Doctor." Anna Prince, an orphan, is raised in the town of Oldfields by a kind widower, Dr. Leslie, who recognizes her aptitude for his profession. Eventually, Anna herself comes to see medicine as her God-given calling. Like the girl in "A White Heron," she is fleetingly tempted by romance but hews to her chosen path and finishes medical school. She quietly disregards the "fettering conventionalities" upheld by some disapproving townsfolk and relatives, and earns their respect for her healing art. She finds joy in serving the people of Oldfields and environs, not only by relieving their bodily pains, but also by acting as their comforter, confessor, and "interpreter of the outside world."