Sarah Orne Jewett

Sarah Orne Jewett

Sarah Orne Jewett (September 3, 1849 – June 24, 1909) was an American novelist and short story writer greatly influenced by her surroundings. This led to her love of the nature and atmosphere of her native South Berwick, Maine, often the setting for her novels and short stories. Her first published story, when she was 19, was “Mr. Bruce,” in The Atlantic Monthly. Later, it would reappear in a collection of stories titled Deephaven, one of Jewett’s best-known works.

Jewett attended Berwick academy, she seemed to have gained as much or more knowledge of people and places by going along with her father as he did his calls to neighboring farms and villages in the area.


A succession of respected works

Though she herself traveled widely throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe,  Jewett’s writing is a fine example of regionalism in fiction. Her descriptive stories focused on life in rural Maine. South Berwick became the “Deephaven” and “Dunnet Landing” of her fiction.

Jewett’s first novel was A Country Doctor (1884), followed by A Marsh Island (1885). A White Heron (1886) seems rather a daring tale for its time, relating the story of a young woman declining a proposal of marriage in favor of a medical career. Her best known and most widely read work might be The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), a series of sketches of a fictional Maine seaport called Dunnet Landing. Her narratives have always been praised for their vivid narratives of women and their inner lives and passions. A quietly evocative writing style conveyed everyday events and quiet emotions, the joys as well as the inevitable loss and death.

A number of her works are structured more like a series of sketches tied together through setting and theme. In that way, her work might be seen as a predecessor to the contemporary Maine author Elizabeth Strout, who used a similar device of linked tales in Olive Kitteridge. Jewett felt that her strength was in character development. She also sought to preserve a portrait of a disappearing way of life, the loneliness and hardships of the people living in Maine’s coastal fishing villages.


A perfect parnership

Sarah Orne Jewett never married. She had a close friendship with Annie Adams Fields, another writer. When Fields’ husband died, the two women lived together until the end of Jewett’s life. The exact nature of their relationship might never be known, but it was characterized as a “Boston marriage.” This was the term for when two women lived together independently, without the support of a man. In their relationship they “found friendship, humor, and literary encouragement,” often traveling together and enjoying the company of other literary figures.


Sarah Orne Jewett at her desk

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Later years and legacy

Throughout her life, she maintained a home at her beloved South Berwick, Maine, but also lived in Boston. She enjoyed being part of a wide circle of friends who were interested in literature and general culture.

As a writer, she was influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe, drawing inspiration from their detail on life in New England. In turn, she was a great influence to female writers during and after her time. Most notably, Willa Cather  considered her a mentor and edited some of her work.

In 1901, Jewett received from Bowdoin College the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters. Her writing career ended after she was in an unfortunate carriage accident in 1902, but she lived until 1909, when she suffered two strokes. She was 59 at the time of her death.


The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

The Sarah Orne Jewett page on Amazon


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Major Works (selected)

Biographies about Sarah Orne Jewett

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