Sarah Orne Jewett

Sarah Orne Jewett

Sarah Orne Jewett (September 3, 1849 – June 24, 1909) was American author whose works embodied her love for the natural surroundings of her native South Berwick, Maine. The coastal community served as the fictionalized setting for most of her novels and short stories.

The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) is considered Jewett’s masterpiece, and as a whole, her work is credited for helping to popularize the genre of regionalism in fiction. Her work also displays a deep compassion for women, respecting their hopes and ambitions in an era that wasn’t always conducive to their realization.

Her first short story, “Mr. Bruce,” was published in The Atlantic Monthly when she was nineteen. Later, it would reappear in a collection of stories titled Deephaven, one of Jewett’s best-known works.

 

Sarah Orne Jewett biography highlights

  • Jewett grew up in South Berwick, Maine, the daughter of a country doctor who took her on his rounds and encouraged her love of the people and places they visited.
  • Though she traveled widely throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe, Jewett’s writing exemplifies regionalism in fiction.
  • Her first book, Deephaven (1877), and later, The Country of Pointed Firs (1896) made an art of loosely linked stories that were more impressionistic than plotted narratives.
  • Jewett never married, once writing to a friend that she needed a wife more than a husband. When her editor died, she lived with his wife, Annie Adams Fields, in what was termed a “Boston marriage.”
  • She associated with many literary figures of her time, and was considered by Willa Cather to be a dear friend and important mentor.

 

Genteel beginnings in rural Maine

Jewett lived and died in the same South Berwick colonial home owned by her grandfather, a prosperous ship builder. Throughout her childhood, she encountered ship captains who visited the family home to report on their voyages. Later in her life, she would observe: “You must know the whole world before you know the village.”

Growing up, she was deeply attached to her parents and two sisters, and attended Miss Olive Rayne’s school and then Berwick Academy, from which she graduating in 1866. Her father was doctor specialized in obstetrics, and what was then described as “diseases of women and children.”

This was fortuitous, as Jewett developed rheumatoid arthritis early in life, and to alleviate the disease, she was encouraged to take long walks. These inspired her lifelong love for nature.

 

A country doctor’s daughter

Jewett seemed to have gained as much knowledge of people and places by accompanying her father as he did his calls to neighboring farms and villages in the area. M.A. DeWolfe Howe offers a lovely sketch of her formative years in the 1952 book, Who Lived Here:

From her father she learned most of all. His studious tastes led him not into business but to Bowdoin College, where he cultivated that love of good books which caused him to furnish the shelves of the Jewett house with leather-bound copies of the English classics. His profession became that of a physician — a Country Doctor such as his daughter depicted in her novel of that name.

Sarah Jewett’s delicate health caused many interruptions in her schooling at Berwick Academy. Fortunately, the books at the home and the drives about the country with her father as he visited patients more than made up for any loss of scholastic training.

As father and daughter drove from fishermen’s houses along the shore to inland farms, he told her many stories of his patients, and while he was indoors with them she was making acquaintances with the up-and-about, adding directly to her own local lore …

She was only thirteen when she read Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Pearl of Orr Island, and began to see the life about her on the printed page. Before long she was making her own experiments in writing, less in prose than in verse, which she found the easier medium.

At nineteen she ventured to offer her modest wares to editors, and soon after turning twenty she saw two of her stories in print — “Mr. Bruce” in the Atlantic Monthly for December 1869, and “The Shipwrecked Buttons” in the juvenile Riverside Magazine.

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Sarah Orne Jewett at her desk

Wise Quotes by Sarah Orne Jewett

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Deephaven and 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 works.

Her first book was Deephaven (1877), a collection of stories that were more impressionistic than plotted narratives. In this book, Jewett displays her trademark respect for the elderly, especially older women, even if they seem a bit stuck in their ways. They become the keepers of the histories and memories of the communities. The narrator of the stories proclaims:

“It seems to me that it is a great privilege to have an elderly person in one’s neighborhood … who is proud, and conservative … who is intolerant of sham and of useless novelties, and clings to the old ways of living and behaving as if it were part of her religion.”

Jewett’s first novel was A Country Doctor (1884). This story was deeply influenced by the years she spent accompanying her father on his rounds, though it takes the unusual step of allowing its female protagonist to become a doctor herself, and in effect, to choose this path over conventional marriage with no regrets.

This novel was 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 is 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 portrayals 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, capturing the loneliness and hardships, as well as the quiet joys, of the people living in Maine’s coastal fishing villages.

In a 1901 article in The Potter Enterprise (PA), Jewett offered this insight into her work:

“When I was fifteen, the first ‘city boarders’ began to make their appearance near Berwick, and the way they misconstrued the country people and made game of their peculiarities fired me with indignation.

I determined to teach the world that country people were not the awkward, ignorant set those people seemed to think. I wished the world to know their grand, simple lives.”

 

Work habits and personality

The aforementioned 1901 article presented a glimpse into Sarah Orne Jewett’s work habits and personality:

“There are few authoresses in this country who can turn out a good story as rapidly as Miss Jewett. She frequently writes 10,000 words a day, and many a delightful magazine sketch has been completed at a single sitting.

She is very systematic, and her story is usually outlined in her mind before begun on paper. When she has a long story on hand she writes from 2,000 to 3,000 words a day five days a week.

In personal appearance Miss Jewett is tall and dignified, with a high bred grace and courtesy of manner which charm all with whom she comes in contact.

She has a bright, piquant face that lights up as she talks and a low, pleasing voice. In conversation she is vivacious and interesting, selecting her words with quick discrimination which shows an appreciation of the use and power of language.”

 

A perfect partnership with Annie Adams Fields

Sarah Orne Jewett never married, once wrote to a friend that she needed a wife more than a husband. She had a close friendship with Annie Adams Fields, another writer, and the wife of James T. Fields, an editor with whom she was associated. When James Fields died, Sarah and Annie, who was fifteen years her senior, lived together until the end of Jewett’s life. When Jewett first met Willa Cather in Boston in 1908, it was at the home of Annie Adams Fields. 

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 her relationship with Annie Fields, she “found friendship, humor, and literary encouragement.” They often traveled together and enjoyed the company of other literary figures.

In a December, 1994 review of Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work by Paula Blanchard, Naomi Blanchard wrote in The San Francisco Examiner:

“It is with considerable envy that a contemporary feminist reads about [Jewett and Fields’] daily salons and “intimate groups at breakfast, luncheon, tea, or dinner, or at little soirees among women for whom ‘achievement in the public sphere and personal ambition … were the normal choices.

It is also with envy that one reads of Fields’ and Jewett’s frequent European sojourns, where they communed with the likes of Henry James and Mary Garrett, among others. Jewett wrote productively during those years, returning frequently to her family in Berwick to work.”

Blanchard also observes that Fields may have been the inspiration for Jewett’s sympathetic depictions of older women characters, who she feels may be among “the most memorably maternal characters in American literature.”

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Sarah Orne Jewett

How Can a Writer Balance Solitude and Camaraderie?
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Later years and the legacy of Sarah Orne Jewett

Throughout her life, Sarah Jewett maintained the home in 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. The rheumatoid arthritis she developed while still young continued to plague her throughout her life. She often was debilitated for months at a time. 

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. Notably, Willa Cather considered her a mentor and edited some of her work after Jewett’s death. She deemed Jewett’s ear for language “a gift from heart to heart.” Some critics, like Naomi Schneider, have called her a “veritable anthropologist of the 19th century New England town … Jewett probes not only a forgotten world but the human condition.”

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.

Revisiting Jewett in a 1994 collection

In 1994, the same year that Paula Blanchard’s biography appeared, a 937-page tome amassing her best-known work (three novels and more than twenty short stories was published by Library of America. Titled Jewett: Novels and Stories, reviewer Naomi Schneider in the San Francisco Examiner (December 11, 1994) observed:

“Its publication signals Jewett’s inclusion in the pantheon of great American writers, joining the ranks of Mark Twain, Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, and Willa Cather in the Library of America series.

In story after story, Jewett etches the subtle rhythms, quiet pleasures, and stoic resilience of back-country New Englanders. Looking beneath the placid, even dull routines of small-town life, Jewett uncovers complicated interior worlds of passion and blinding loss …

Jewett particularly celebrates the rugged beauty of coastal Maine, with its harsh winters yielding to glorious summers, and the mesmerizing, relentless ocean dictating the terms of daily life. A respect for this punishing landscape and an aching appreciation of its bounty imbues her novels and stories with natural drama and force.”

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The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

Sarah Orne Jewett page on Amazon


More about Sarah Orne Jewett

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Major Works (selected)

Biographies

  • Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work by Paula Blanchard (1994)
  • Sarah Orne Jewett by Josephine Donovan

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Visit Sarah Orne Jewett’s Home

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