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 natural surroundings of her native South Berwick, Maine, often the fictionalized setting for her novels and short stories.

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. 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.


Genteel beginnings

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. 


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. 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 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 workds 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 parnership

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.

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.


Sarah Orne Jewett at her desk

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Later years and legacy

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.

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

Sarah Orne Jewett page on Amazon


More about Sarah Orne Jewett on this site

Major Works (selected)

Biographies about Sarah Orne Jewett

More Information

Read and listen online

Visit Sarah Orne Jewett’s Home


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