Authors: Sarah Orne Jewett

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American short-story writer and novelist

September 3, 1849

South Berwick, Maine

June 24, 1909

South Berwick, Maine


Born in South Berwick, Maine, on September 3, 1849, Theodora Sarah Orne Jewett lived a quiet and happy childhood distinguished by the fact that she developed a keen interest in people and an insight into culture through traveling about the countryside with her father, who was a country doctor. Her interest in the people of Maine never diminished, even though she later traveled widely. She seems to have been much more interested in the people of the coastal villages and upland farms of Maine than she was in such friends as William Dean Howells, Annie Fields, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich, famous literary personages of the time. Jewett never married, nor did she go to college, although Bowdoin College awarded her an honorary Litt.D. degree in 1901, making her the first woman to receive such a degree from that institution. {$I[AN]9810001475} {$I[A]Jewett, Sarah Orne} {$I[geo]WOMEN;Jewett, Sarah Orne} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Jewett, Sarah Orne} {$I[tim]1849;Jewett, Sarah Orne}

Sarah Orne Jewett

(Library of Congress)

Jewett attended the local academy in Berwick, but she was largely self-educated. As a young woman she began to serve a writer’s apprenticeship by writing for children’s magazines. Her first published adult story appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in December, 1869, when she was twenty years old. By 1877 she had published many stories in periodicals and collected thirteen linked stories into a volume published as Deephaven in 1877. During the following two decades Jewett continued to write many stories for magazines and collected them at intervals in volumes. The Country of the Pointed Firs, published in 1896, started as individual stories. They were formed, however, into a unified novel. Critics, scholars, and fellow authors have termed The Country of the Pointed Firs one of the great examples of American regional fiction during the period 1865-1900. Willa Cather enthusiastically compared The Country of the Pointed Firs in greatness to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850).

Jewett’s work developed within the women’s tradition of New England local color writing that also included Rose Terry Cooke, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. The work in this tradition features authentic women characters rather than conventional fictional heroines, and it explores the troubled dynamics of rural communities only partially insulated from the rapidly changing industrial world. Because Jewett traveled extensively in the United States and Europe and divided her time between Boston (where she lived with writer and reformer Annie Adams Fields) and South Berwick (her family homestead), her writing forms a bridge of understanding between the larger world and the local sphere. Jewett writes with authority and understanding about the sophisticated narrator’s encounters with rural and seafaring people and with the natural landscape, neither satirizing the worldly characters nor patronizing the rural folk. While her settings and characters are realistic, her worldview was transcendental, and her stories frequently suggest the closeness of other realms to that in which her characters live. In “Miss Tempy’s Watchers,” the presence of the deceased Tempy seems to influence her friends to understand one another better, while in “The Foreigner,” a friend witnesses the manifestation of the spirit of a dying woman’s mother. In Jewett’s world, such moments are evidence of a natural continuity between worlds, not shocking aberrations.

Technically, the fiction written by Jewett is outstanding. She studied the craft of writing more seriously than most writers, being an avid student of fiction-writing and especially the work of Émile Zola, Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, and Henry James. She appreciated their work because they gave weight in their writings to the commonplace, lending an importance to elements in everyday life which ordinarily are not seen thoroughly enough to be regarded as important. Like Henry James, Jewett sought to see beneath the surface of existence.

Critics in the latter decades of the twentieth century have been most interested in Jewett’s portrayals of strong women characters, matriarchs of large family clans or young women determined to choose their own path through the world. The Country of the Pointed Firs portrays a world in which bonds between women knit both novel and community together, and A Country Doctor draws on Jewett’s experiences as the daughter of a doctor in order to describe the childhood and young adulthood of a heroine who rejects marriage in order to pursue her vocation as a physician.

The Country of the Pointed Firs, now considered Jewett’s best work, is divided into chapters, but each “chapter” is a separate local color character sketch, with the series held together by the device of having a summer visitor to the fictional town of Dunnet Landing, Maine, narrate the fiction through her impressions. The device is a common one in Jewett’s writings, and she used it as early as Deephaven.

In addition to her stories and some juvenile fiction, Jewett made brief excursions into other areas of writing. She wrote The Story of the Normans, a work of nonfiction, and The Tory Lover, a historical novel dealing with John Paul Jones and a company of men he recruited from Jewett’s native Berwick, Maine. Jewett died in the town of her birth on June 24, 1909.

Author Works Long Fiction: Deephaven, 1877 (linked sketches) A Country Doctor, 1884 A Marsh Island, 1885 The Country of the Pointed Firs, 1896 The Tory Lover, 1901 Short Fiction: Old Friends and New, 1879 Country By-Ways, 1881 The Mate of the Daylight, and Friends Ashore, 1884 A White Heron, and Other Stories, 1886 The King of Folly Island and Other People, 1888 Tales of New England, 1890 Strangers and Wayfarers, 1890 A Native of Winby, and Other Tales, 1893 The Life of Nancy, 1895 The Queen’s Twin, and Other Stories, 1899 Poetry: Verses: Printed for Her Friends, 1916 Nonfiction: The Story of the Normans, Told Chiefly in Relation to Their Conquest of England, 1887 (The Normans; Told Chiefly in Relation to Their Conquest of England, 1898) Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett, 1911 (Annie Fields, editor) Sarah Orne Jewett Letters, 1956 (Richard Cary, editor) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Play Days: A Book of Stories for Children, 1878 Katy’s Birthday, 1883 (with other contributors) Betty Leicester: A Story for Girls, 1890 Betty Leicester’s Christmas, 1899 Bibliography Auten, Janet Gebhart. “‘Nothing Much Happens in This Story’: Teaching Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron.’” In Short Stories in the Classroom, edited by Carole L. Hamilton and Peter Kratzke. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1999. Recounts several experiences in teaching the story to high school students, making suggestions about the value of the story to exploring conflicts of interest and expanding the canon. Blanchard, Paula. Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1994. Offers biographical information and critical interpretation of the works. Cary, Richard. Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Twayne, 1962. This critical study of Jewett includes a chronology, a biographical sketch, and descriptive analyses of most of her published works. Cary divides Jewett’s works into thematic groups and shows how Jewett is a product of her New England background. Supplemented by annotated bibliographies of Jewett’s books and of secondary sources. Cary, Richard, ed. Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett: Twenty-nine Interpretive Essays. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1973. This book collects a good cross section of the major writing on Jewett from 1885 until 1972. Contains biographical sketches, extended reviews, examinations of her technique, interpretations of some individual works, and evaluations of her career. Church, Joseph. Transcendent Daughters in Jewett’s “Country of the Pointed Firs.” Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994. An excellent examination of Jewett’s novel. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Donovan, Josephine. Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. This critical study includes a chronology and an examination of Jewett’s literary career, following the development of her major themes through her works. Donovan is especially interested in Jewett’s feminist themes. She provides primary and secondary bibliographies. Graham, Margaret Baker. “Visions of Time in The Country of the Pointed Firs.” Studies in Short Fiction 32 (Winter, 1995): 29-37. Discusses the concept of time in Jewett’s book from Julia Kristeva’s feminist perspective; argues that Jewett presents masculine, linear time and feminine, cyclical time, yet transcends both to achieve monumental time. Contends the narrator of the stories transcends the notion of superficial change and sees that the mythical and the historical are the same. Howard, June, ed. New Essays on “The Country of the Pointed Firs.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Essays interpreting the novel. Provides bibliographical references. Joseph, Philip. “Landed and Literary: Hamlin Garland, Sarah Orne Jewett, and the Production of Regional Literatures.” Studies in American Fiction 26 (Autumn, 1998): 147-170. Compares some of Garland’s early stories with the stories in Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs to examine ideological conflict within literary regionalism. Argues that while Garland’s support for social reform leads him to challenge some of the conventions of late nineteenth century realism, Jewett does not see class differences as a hindrance to U.S. destiny. Matthiessen, F. O. Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929. This short biographical study may be the most readily available in libraries. Matthiessen surveys Jewett’s life without going into great detail. Mobley, Marilyn Sanders. Folk Roots and Mythic Wings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991. A critical study that asserts the importance of myth and folklore in the work of two women of different races and generations who draw on the cultural roots of their people. Nagel, Gwen L., ed. Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. This collection includes sixteen contemporary reviews of Jewett’s books, reprints of eight critical essays from 1955 to 1983, and eight original essays. These deal with biography as well as interpretation. The introduction surveys the history of critical writing on Jewett. Nagel, Gwen L., and James Nagel. Sarah Orne Jewett: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. Introduced with a survey of criticism on Jewett, this reference guide lists and annotates writing about Jewett from 1873 to 1976. It is invaluable as a source for secondary writing and for forming impressions of how Jewett’s reputation has developed. For discussions of criticism since 1976, see American Literary Scholarship: An Annual. Roman, Margaret. Sarah Orne Jewett: Reconstructing Gender. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992. A survey of Jewett’s life and art, focusing on her rejection of the limited role of woman in the nineteenth century. Argues that “The White Heron” presents doubts that men and women can join together and suggests hope for a symbolic androgyny instead. Argues that Jewett rejects male/female sexual categories in her fiction. Sherman, Sarah Way. Sarah Orne Jewett: An American Persephone. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1989. A full-length, in-depth study of Jewett that discusses the source of the mythic quality in her work. Sherman tells how Jewett came to terms with the culture that defined her womanhood, and sees the myth of Demeter and Persephone as a central symbol. Silverthorne, Elizabeth. Sarah Orne Jewett: A Writer’s Life. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1993. Silverthorne describes the increasing interest in Jewett’s treatment of women, ecology, and regional life. Silverthorne had access to letters and manuscripts unavailable to previous biographers, and she takes full advantage of Jewett scholarship.

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