Withdrawing from the Nation: Regionalist Literature as Ascetic Practice in Jewett's the Country of the Pointed Firs

Article excerpt

Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs is punctuated by a pattern of withdrawals during which the narrator repeatedly retreats to the fringes of community. Rather than expressing a harmonious consolidation of community, Jewett's text focuses on the isolation of the citizen from his/her community. (1) During one of the many withdrawals to the margins of Dunnet Landing, Captain Littlepage, an old widowed sailor, visits the narrator and relates a secondhand tale of a mysterious arctic community. Journeying "'way up beyond the ice" into a "strange sort of country ... that wasn't laid down or charted," the sailors discover "something that looked like a great town" (21). Approaching from the sea, "they could see the place ... pretty near like any town, and thick with habitations" (21). When they landed, however, "they lost sight of it completely" and were unable to "see the town when they were ashore" (21-22). In its place "they could only see the shapes of folks, but they could never get near them" (21). In close proximity, the vision of the town dissipates into a collection of "fog-shaped" ghostly figures; from a distance, "some condition o' the light and magnetic currents" causes the collection of individuals huddled close together to appear as a single entity (22). The Scottish seaman named Gaffett who relates the tale to Littlepage imagines the town as "a kind of waiting place between this world an' the next" (22), but one might ask what purpose Littlepage's arctic community serves in Jewett's text of a rural fishing village. (2)

Later in the text, while explaining the history of Poor Joanna's home on Shell-Heap Island, Mrs. Todd refers to Littlepage's arctic community. Mrs. Fosdick describes the island as a sort of holding station, explaining that natives "from up country ... left a captive there without any bo't, an' 'twas too far to swim across to Black Island" (51). Interestingly, Mrs. Todd responds by characterizing the abandoned captive as one of the ghostly figures of Littlepage's tale: "I've heard say he walked the island after [he perished], and sharp-sighted folks could see him an'lose him like one o'them citizens Cap'n Littlepage was acquainted with up at the north pole" (51). In linking the ghostly figure of the deceased captive with the arctic inhabitants, the text stresses the importance of narrative distance in relating the individual to community. As the de facto successor to the captive, Poor Joanna assumes a similar relationship to those who observe her, one predicated upon a withdrawn yet strangely connected relation to Dunnet Landing. Significantly, while Littlepage describes the arctic inhabitants simply as "folks," Mrs. Todd characterizes the "fog-shaped" figures as "citizens." In so doing, she relates the arctic individuals to their community (and, by extension, the captive to the observing townspeople) at the level of political or civic membership. Depicting inclusion and exclusion from community in terms of citizenship emphasizes the connection between descriptions of community in Country and the text's larger critique of the region's place in national community.

This essay seeks to understand the contribution Country makes to larger debates about literary regionalism (manifest generically through both local color and regionalist literature) as a process of isolation and ascetic withdrawal from community. This process of isolation and withdrawal mirrors the narrator's own movement (alongside Poor Joanna) toward the margins of Dunnet Landing. In conceiving of literary regionalism as ascetic practice, this essay considers how the apparently unconnected stories of Littlepage's arctic community and Poor Joanna's life on Shell-Heap Island are linked by a common concern with literary regionalism's ability to textualize community. This essay pays close attention to the narratological processes of both local color and regionalist literature--processes that announce, on the one hand, the limitations of local color as a genre seeking to sustain the region as an idealized American space and, on the other hand, the limitations of regionalist literature as a mode for critiquing nationalist assumptions. …