Knowing the World So Well - A Profile of Sarah Orne Jewett

Article excerpt

Linda Simon is associate professor of English at Skidmore College.

Those familiar with nineteenth-century women writers are more likely to have read works by Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Harriet Beecher Stowe than the novels and stories of Sarah Orne Jewett. Yet from 1868, when she published her first story in the Boston weekly The Flag of Our Union, until her death in 1909, she was impossible to ignore. Jewett was a productive and prolific writer; her fiction appeared regularly in periodicals including Atlantic and Harper's and in twenty volumes that included stories for children, novels, short stories, and plays. These works, set largely in her native Maine, both celebrated rural New England and transcended its boundaries. She brought to her portraits of people and places a wisdom and sensitivity to human experience that came from her own acute abilities of observation and reflection, honed during wide-ranging and frequent travels in America and abroad. As she once advised Willa Cather, for whom she served as a mentor, "Of course, one day you will write about your own country. In the meantime, get all you can. One must know the world so well before one can know the parish."

Theodora Sarah Orne Jewett was born on September 3, 1849, in the village of South Berwick, Maine, near the New Hampshire border, the second child of Theodore Jewett and his wife, Caroline. Her father, a physician trained at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, was himself a native of South Berwick and had attended the prestigious Berwick Academy and Bowdoin College. Biographers have turned up little about Caroline Jewett: She was the daughter of a physician, a gracious hostess, a loving mother, but intermittently ill most of her adult life. Although she outlived her husband, her health was so precarious that the family needed to take great care to protect her. We know more about Theodore Jewett, especially about his close and nurturing relationship with Sarah.

Similar in temperament, the two spent more time together than most nineteenth-century fathers and daughters, largely because of Sarah's childhood illness. Suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, she often could not attend school but instead accompanied her father on his calls throughout the village and outlying farms. "The best of my education was received in my father's buggy and the places to which it carried me," Jewett once admitted. That education included meeting men and women far different from her family and their social circle; it included, moreover, her father's discourses about nature: wildflowers and herbs, pines and streams, fish and birds--all of which, someday, would find their way into her fiction.

Jewett did manage to complete four years at Berwick Academy, but in 1865 her formal education was over and her future uncertain. In the two years after graduation, she took painting lessons and spent an increasing amount of time writing stories; several were published in young people's magazines. Her ambition to become a writer was sparked, she said later, by having read Harriet Beecher Stowe's The Pearl of Orr's Island when it was published in 1862. Young Sarah was impressed by Stowe's ability to write "about people of rustic life just as they were" and attempted to do the same in her own stories.

Even if Jewett hoped to become a professional writer, she still might have fulfilled a culturally prescribed destiny: to marry. As it happened, she did not. Whether she acknowledged an attraction to women rather than men, or whether she believed that a husband and children would have compromised her time and creativity, we know only that by the time she was in her late twenties, she had firmly decided not to marry. By then, in any case, she felt optimistic that she could succeed as a writer.

Although biographers make much of Theodore Jewett's encouragement of his daughter's talents, they also document Sarah's timidity toward him, her sense of privacy, and her tacit understanding that by becoming a writer she was transgressing society's expectations. …