Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Jewett at the Fair: Seeing Citizens in "The Flight of Betsey Lane"

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Jewett at the Fair: Seeing Citizens in "The Flight of Betsey Lane"

Article excerpt

Twice in 1876, when she was 26 years old, Sarah Orne Jewett traveled with family members from her home in South Berwick, Maine, to Philadelphia for the Centennial Exhibition. Seventeen years later, despite mounting physical infirmities, she made the long, westward excursion to Chicago to take in the Columbian Exposition of 1893. This should not surprise us. Like many well-educated people of her time, class, and race, Jewett was a dutiful student and celebrant of her nation, its history, its "development," and its presumed shining future in the world. Her regional identity deepened and refined these impulses, growing up, as she did, in the midst of New England's colonial revival movement, when the region's elite labored, in the face of increased industrialization and demographic disruptions, to restore or create old farmhouses, village centers, and a semi-fictional historiography that enshrined this group's foundational position in the country's growth and identity. (1) By 1893, this form of identification reached a kind of inevitable expression for Jewett when Exposition organizers hung a portrait of her in the State of Maine building. (2) Her professional commitment to regionalism, we might say, over-determined her fair-going. Her literary representations of New England had become definitive enough that an emblem of her career, the portrait, could signify that region in a national framework, replicating through curatorial context the mutually constituting relation between "region" and "nation" that helped enable regional fiction in the first place. She went to Chicago because, in some real way, she was already there.

In complement to the metonymic promise of the two fairs--their invitation to fairgoers to know whole regions, nations, and the world through their exhibited emblems--was a way of seeing the world more generally that biographers ascribe to Jewett's personality and which her own work suggests is central to her sense of authorial aptitude: a faith in the expressive power of objects and what Paula Blanchard calls her "nearly inexhaustible ... capacity for wonder." (3) "Never mind people who tell you there is nothing to see in the places where people lived who interest you," Jewett writes from England to her artist friend Sarah Wyman Whitman in 1892, after a visit to the Brontes' home at Haworth. "Nothing you can ever read about [the Brontes] can make you know them until you go there." (4) Nine months later she stands in Chicago "with tears in [her] eyes before the Statue of Lincoln in Lincoln Park." As she writes to an old Berwick friend and editor, "nobody can see the great sights of that Exposition ... without being proud of his country, which is in itself one of the best things in the world." (5) This is the same writer, the same extractor of patriotic "wonder" and pride, who hopes the story she would be most remembered for is "Decoration Day" (1892), a tale about old, down-on-their-luck Civil War veterans reviving their small town's parade and the nearly extinct patriotism that goes with it (Letters, Cary, 95, n. 2).

In a confined historical sense, then, Jewett's enthusiasm for American fairs and other nationalizing events is deeply predictable. As a figure of future importance in U.S. literary history, though, she would have been wiser to stay away--and to have kept such enthusiasm off her literary pages as well. Canonical twentieth-century literary sensibilities and the historical and cultural forces that helped produce them have left very Little approbation for unironic patriotic writing. (That the last working title for Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was "Under the Red, White, and Blue" may say enough for us on this subject. (6)) And the patriotism these world's fairs bespoke was of course something more than the commemorative variety invoked by local parades. As many cultural historians now recognize, the fairs, especially the Columbian Exposition, constituted early signal expressions of this country's new imperial self-regard. …

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