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. Sarah Orne Jewett
Sarah Orne Jewett
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.