Though not as well-known as the writers she influenced, Sarah Orne Jewett nevertheless remains one of the most important American novelists of the late nineteenth century. Published in 1884, Jewett’s first novel, A Country Doctor, is a luminous portrayal of rural Maine and a semiautobiographical look at her world. In it, Nan’s struggle to choose between marriage and a career as a doctor, between the confining life of a small town and a self-directed one as a professional, mirrors Jewett’s own conflicts as well as eloquently giving voice to the leading women’s issues of her time. Perhaps even more important, Jewett’s perfect details about wild flowers and seaside wharfs, farm women knitting by the fireside and sailors going upriver to meet the moonlight, convey a realism that has seldom been surpassed and stamp her writing with her signature style. A contemporary and friend of Willa Cather, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Julia Ward Howe, Sarah Orne Jewett is widely recognized as a pathfinder in American literary history, courageously pursuing a road less traveled that led the way for other women to follow.
The Last Mile
It had been one of the warm and almost sultry days which sometimes come in November; a maligned month, which is really an epitome of the other eleven, or a sort of index to the whole year's changes of storm and sunshine. The afternoon was like spring, the air was soft and damp, and the buds of the willows had been beguiled into swelling a little, so that there was a bloom over them, and the grass looked as if it had been growing green of late instead of fading steadily. It seemed like a reprieve from the doom of winter, or from even November itself.
The dense and early darkness which usually follows such unseasonable mildness had already begun to cut short the pleasures of this springlike day, when a young woman, who carried a child in her arms, turned from a main road of Oldfields into a foot-path which led southward across the fields and pastures. She seemed sure of her way, and kept the path without difficulty, though a stranger might easily have lost it here and there, where it led among the patches of sweet-fern or bayberry bushes, or through shadowy tracts of small white-pines. She stopped sometimes to rest, and walked more and more wearily, with increasing effort; but she kept on her way desperately, as if it would not do to arrive much later at the place which she was seeking. The child seemed to be asleep; it looked too heavy for so slight a woman to carry.
The path led after a while to a more open country, there was a low hill to be climbed, and at its top the slender figure stopped and seemed to be panting for breath. A follower might have noticed that it bent its head over the child's for a moment as it stood, dark against the darkening sky. There had formerly been a defense against the Indians on this hill, which in the daytime commanded a fine view of the surrounding country, and the low earthworks or foundations of the garrison were still plainly to be seen. The woman seated herself on the sunken wall in spite of the dampness and increasing chill, still holding the child, and rocking to and fro like one in despair. The child waked and began to whine and cry a little in that strange, lonely place, and after a few minutes, perhaps to quiet it, they went on their way. Near the foot of the hill was a brook, swollen by the autumn rains; it made a loud noise in the quiet pastures, as if it were crying out against a wrong or some sad memory. The woman went toward it at first, following a slight ridge which was all that remained of a covered path which had led down from the garrison to the spring below at the brookside. If she had meant to quench her thirst here, she changed her mind, and suddenly turned to the right, following the brook a short distance, and then going straight toward the river itself and the high uplands, which by daylight were smooth pastures with here and there a tangled apple-tree or the grassy cellar of a long vanished farm-house.
It was night now; it was too late in the year for the chirp of any insects; the moving air, which could hardly be called wind, swept over in slow waves, and a few dry leaves rustled on an old hawthorn tree which grew beside the hollow where a house had been, and a low sound came from the river. The whole country side seemed asleep in the darkness, but the lonely woman felt no lack of companionship; it was well suited to her own mood that the world slept and said nothing to her,—it seemed as if she were the only creature alive.
A little this side of the river shore there was an old burial place, a primitive spot enough, where the graves were only marked by rough stones, and the short, sheep-cropped grass was spread over departed generations of the farmers and their wives and children. By day it was in sight of the pine woods and the moving water, and nothing hid it from the great sky overhead, but now it was like a prison walled about by the barriers of night. However eagerly the woman had hurried to this place, and with what purpose she may have sought the river bank, when she recognized her surroundings she stopped for a moment, swaying and irresolute. "No, no!" sighed the child plaintively, and she shuddered, and started forward; then, as her feet stumbled among the graves, she turned and fled. It no longer seemed solitary, but as if a legion of ghosts which had been wandering under cover of the dark had discovered this intruder, and were chasing her and flocking around her and oppressing her from every side. And as she caught sight of a light in a far-away farmhouse window, a light which had been shining after her all the way down to the river, she tried to hurry toward it. The unnatural strength of terror urged her on; she retraced her steps like some pursued animal; she remembered, one after another, the fearful stories she had known of that ancient neighborhood; the child cried, but she could not answer it. She fell again and again, and at last all her strength seemed to fail her, her feet refused to carry her farther and she crept painfully, a few yards at a time, slowly along the ground. The fear of her superhuman enemies had forsaken her, and her only desire was to reach the light that shone from the looming shadow of the house.
At last she was close to it; at last she gave one great sigh, and the child fell from her grasp; at last she clutched the edge of the worn doorstep with both hands, and lay still.
Excerpted from A Country Doctor by Sarah Orne Jewett. Copyright © 1999 by Sarah Orne Jewett. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Classics, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About Sarah Orne Jewett
Theodora Sarah Orne Jewett was born on September 3, 1849 to Caroline Frances Perry and Dr. Theodore Herman Jewett. Her father, a physician, was the son of a prosperous merchant in South Berwick, Maine, a shipbuilding and manufacturing town upriver from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Her childhood was a comfortable one, rich in the cultural and educational activities of a thriving New England town. But Sarah, as she was known, was considered a sickly child, and her father often took her on his rounds to visit patients, bringing her into contact with other rural New Englanders whose experiences and circumstances were quite different from her own. She credited her father's keen eye for natural detail—as well as human nature and its foibles— her first schooling in the art of observation. With her elder sister, Mary, and her younger sister, Caroline, Sarah attended local schools, finishing at Berwick Academy (1861-66), her father's alma mater.
In her creative writing Jewett began with short stories, first publishing 'Jenny Garrow's Lovers' in 1868 in the periodical The Flag of Our Union under the pseudonym A. C. Eliot. Though pleased by this first publication, Jewett knew she had yet to break into the real literary market. The third story she submitted to The Atlantic Monthly magazine was at last accepted by assistant editor William Dean Howells; it appeared in 1869 under the title 'Mr. Bruce' with the same pseudonym. So began a lifelong association with Howells and his successors as editors of the Atlantic, Thomas Bailey Aldrich and Horace Scudder, relationships that would help Jewett develop as a writer.
In the early 1870s Jewett was freed from financial concerns by a small legacy from her paternal grandfather. She began a peripatetic life, traveling to Cambridge and Boston where she met the literary stars of her era, including John Greenleaf Whittier, Howells, Aldrich, and the book publisher James T. Fields and his wife, Annie, herself a writer and translator. All the while, Jewett was reading works of contemporary European writers such as Gustave Flaubert and George Sand, as well as New England authors like Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—whose Maine novel, Pearl of Orr' Island, Jewett had first read as a young girl and about which she later claimed it gave her 'to see with new eyes and to follow eagerly the old shore where genius pointed the way.'
In September 1873 the Atlantic published 'The Shore House,' the first of a group of stories set in a fictional Maine seaport and the beginning of the collection that was published in April 1877 as her first full length book, Deephaven. A second collection of seven stories, Old Friends and New, was published in 1879, followed in 1881 by Country By-Ways, a book of nine pieces. That same year, upon the death of James T. Fields, Sarah came to visit his widow, Annie, and stayed to spend part of the year at her house on Charles Street in Boston. Thus began the pattern of annual visits in which Sarah would live and travel with Annie in between periods at home in South Berwick. This relationship would become the most important one in Sarah's life.
Over the next decade or so, she published five new collections of stories that contain some of her finest short fiction, especially A White Heron and Other Stories (1886). She also wrote works for children, such as Betty Leicester (1890); two novels, A Country Doctor (1884) and A Marsh Island (1885); and a semiautobiographical book about her father.
Annie and Sarah took four trips to Europe together in 1882, 1892, 1898, and 1900, visiting such luminaries as the Dickens family, Tennyson, Mrs. Humphry Ward, Henry James, and Rudyard Kipling. But their trips throughout New England had the greatest influence upon Jewett's work. During the long summer months, either together with Annie Fields, her sister Mary, or by herself, Jewett visited friends along the coast from Manchester-by-the Sea, out to the Isle of Shoals, down into Maine to Boothbay Harbor, Islesboro, and other parts of Penobscot Bay. These travels not only satisfied her apparent love of good conversation and new experiences but, in at least one instance, actually helped frame her most important work, The Country of the Pointed Firs.,
In July 1895, Jewett spent a long weekend at the summer home of T. B. Aldrich and his wife, Lilian, to see for herself the place Aldrich had described to all his friends as 'magical' and 'unlike anything else he'd known.' His house, called The Crags, was located on the St. George peninsula at the western edge of Penobscot Bay. It was a backwater place not yet fully discovered by tourists or rusticators—the wealthy visitors who descended upon coastal Maine towns for several months each summer. So well did Jewett enjoy her visit that she returned to the area two months later to rent a cottage in the hamlet of Martinsville, where she, Annie Fields, two maids from their Boston household, and later Mary Jewett, settled into the rustic life for a month. In Sarah's letters from this period, written to her sister and to several friends, she describes a lazy summer vacation, including in her descriptions small, clever portraits of local people and local life. Jewett would later tell Henry James that she did 'not exactly [visit] the locality' where she set Pointed Firs before writing the book. She was often cagey about the sources and inspiration for her work. However, the timing of the first installment of the book's publication in the January 1896 issue of the Atlantic lends some proof to more recent assertions that Dunnet Landing was—if not based on Martinsville itself—a creation of Jewett's that had its source in Aldrich's 'omagical' St. George peninsula. Ironically, from the book's publication onward, there has been a general assumption from critics and local St. George inhabitants alike, that the events in Pointed Firs actually happened to Jewett, right down to the rental of a schoolhouse in which it is said she tried to write. Such inaccurate conjectures have not only belied Jewett's artistry but may also have contributed to the postwar, critical dismissal of Pointed Firs as merely another collection of stories in the minor 'local color' genre.
The first seven chapters of The Country of the Pointed Firs appeared in the Atlantic in January 1896, Chapters VIII through XI in March, Chapters XII through XV in July, and Chapters XVI through XIX in September. When these were published in book form in November 1896 by Houghton Mifflin, Jewett added two final chapters 'Along Shore,' and 'The Backward View' which, in addition to containing some of her loveliest writing, also clearly ended the book and brought to a fitting close the summer idyll of the young writer-narrator.
The book was an immediate success and went into numerous printings and subsequent editions. Surprisingly for a book that has never made it into the American literary canon, there has been an edition of Pointed Firs in print almost continuously for the past ninety-nine years, with a new reprint in nearly every decade since the 1890s.
Subsequent editions actually differ from the original as well as from each other. Later editors (including Mary Jewett and Willa Cather) added three of Jewett's four other stories set in Dunnet Landing that were published in the Atlantic in 1899, 1900, and 1910 (posthumously). The year after her death, Houghton Mifflin brought out a special edition of Pointed Firs that included 'A Dunnet Shepherdess' and 'William's Wedding,' inserting them between Chapter 20 'Along Shore' and the final chapter, 'The Backward View.' The 1919 'Visitor's Edition' added 'The Queen's Twin,' oddly inserted between the other two, affecting the narrative flow. These additions, with their awkward placement, were kept in later editions, including Cather's 1925 'Mayflower Edition.' Textual details clearly place 'William's Wedding' later than the narrator's original sojourn and thus disrupt the subtle closure that 'The Backward View' creates.
Not only did Jewett never authorize such additions, but there is also no evidence that she wanted them. The Atlantic published her third Dunnet Landing story, 'The Foreigner,' in 1899. This story was not collected with the Pointed Firs and the other Dunnet Landing stories or even reprinted until 1962, when David Bonnell Green published the first critical edition of Pointed Firs. As Green first suggested, Jewett had ample time in her last decade to have brought out a revised edition that could have included any of the four additional stories—but she did not.
There will be no doubt after reading them that these stories are about the same special place as the rest of the book and are populated with many of the same remarkable characters. As most critics would agree, they are as well written as anything in the book. But to graft them onto the design of the earlier book as Jewett originally conceived it is to attempt to force them into a preexisting structure that, though loose in appearance is, in fact, tightly constructed and sinuously connected. Even though Jewett did refer to the book's makeup as the 'Pointed Fir papers' or 'sketches' (as reported by Willa Cather in her essay on Jewett in Not Under Forty), according to Cather she never called them 'stories.'
The original book is, in fact, not a story collection—it is a novel with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And happily for her continuing readership, there is, now in its proper place, a four-part sequel or postscript set of 'stories.' The artistry of Jewett's creation—remarked upon by such disparate criticswriters as Henry James, Cather, and Kipling—remains as alive and fresh and accessible as the day Jewett wrote the first chapter.
In the years following Pointed Firs' publication Jewett largely wrote short stories, publishing a new collection, The Queen's Twin and Other Stories in 1899. Two years later she released her final book, The Tory Lover, a novel that now seems a rather dated historical romance not very typical of her earlier writing. In all, Jewett published twenty books and many short stories that were not collected during her lifetime. But it is The Country of the Pointed Firs that to this day remains her greatest work.
In 1901 Bowdoin College granted her an honorary doctorate in literature—she was the first woman to be so honored by this prominent Maine institution. On her fifty-third birthday in 1902 she suffered a carriage accident that affected her health and writing for the rest of her life. After the deaths in 1907 of several close friends and Annie Field's severe illness, Jewett went into semiretirement. Suffering a paralyzing stroke in March 1909, Sarah Orne Jewett died on June 24 in the South Berwick house where she had been born.