JEWETT, SARAH ORNE - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

JEWETT, SARAH ORNE (1849-1909). Sarah Orne Jewett was born and raised in South Berwick, Maine, a dwindling shipping and manufacturing center. As a girl she listened to her paternal grandfather’s tales of life as a sea captain, skirting the embargo of 1807; some fifty years later South Berwick still reviled the embargo and the war it preceded as the genesis of its economic and social decline. As a teen Jewett felt the literary influence of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s* The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862), which inspired her to introduce her regional culture to the world. Jewett sought, without Stowe’s penchant for sentimentality, to acquaint present with past and urban with rural.

She first reached the pages of a major literary journal with “Mr. Bruce,” published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1869. The piece engendered a productive relationship with editor James T. Fields and, later, William Dean Howells.* In 1877 Howells encouraged her to arrange a number of her vignettes for publication as a larger work. The result was her first book, Deephaven (1877), in which two young, city-bred women explore life in a seaside village in Maine during their summer visit. She followed with Country By-Ways (1881) and A Country Doctor (1884), possibly modeled on Jewett’s father and focusing on a young woman’s ambitions to become a doctor despite cultural obstacles.

Considered her finest work, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) fast became popular. The narrator, a middle-aged writer, spends her summer observing the ebb and flow of Dunnet Landing, Maine, a fictional fishing village. Now well past its glory days, Dunnet has lost its sea trade, and the hamlet sits beyond the last stop of the new railroad, fated to a slow decline. Jewett examines the sea in contrast to the land, as one of two elements that constitute the shoreline rather than an environment of its own; her seafarers relate tales of landfalls, not of blue-water adventures. She quarters her narrators within easy view of both land and water, and from their vantage points we learn of the commingled life of mariner and farmer.

While not the focus of her tales, the sea lingers powerfully in the background of Jewett’s work, and the inhabitants of her ocean-weathered villages seem spellbound by its legacy. Unlike the squalor of her much-affected inland settings, her shore communities more often display traces of the wealth of the now-past booming sea trade, and their citizens still show vestiges of robust, sea-tutored constitutions, yet, for all its entrancing power, the sea proves an outdated source of bounty. As its provision of economic sustenance and its primers in hearty character fade into the past, Jewett’s sea captains lament their society’s decay.

Jewett’s women outnumber and outdo her men. While the adventuresome legacy of seafaring dies, leaving the men with limited options and direction, the women press productively on, used to self-sufficiency and perhaps prepared by the years of sea trade for the lack of an active male presence. The Country of the Pointed Firs’ Almira Todd perhaps best embodies Jewett’s resourceful widow. Having lost her husband to the sea, she perseveres, proving equally deft at harvesting her medicinal herbs and at handling a dory’s tiller.

Toward the end of her career, Jewett attempted to join the flood of late nineteenth-century historical fiction with The Tory Lover (1901), which chronicles the wartime adventures of a loosely veiled John Paul Jones.* Her final book, it is considered an unfortunate departure from her earlier work, as the genre fails to exploit her strengths of contemplative characterization and observation in repose. In addition to her novels, Jewett published poetry, juvenile* fiction, and over 100 short stories, many of them in collected volumes, most notably A White Heron (1886) and Strangers and Wayfarers (1890).

Jewett was well traveled, making numerous excursions through Europe and the United States, often in the company of her friend Annie Fields, wife of The Atlantic Monthly editor. In 1901 Bowdoin College bestowed an honorary Litt.D. degree upon her, making her the first woman thus honored. In 1902 she sustained head and neck injuries when thrown from a carriage, restricting her activities and hampering her creativity; she published only two short pieces thereafter. In March 1909 she suffered a stroke while visiting Annie Fields’ home in Boston. Three months later, having withstood the journey to South Berwick, she died in the house in which she had been born.

FURTHER READING: Blanchard, Paula. Sarah Orne Jewett; Her World and Her Work. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Longman, 1994; Jewett, Sarah Orne. Best Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1990.

John F. Hussey