Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Sarah Orne Jewett's "The Foreigner" and the Transamerican Routes of New England Regionalism

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Sarah Orne Jewett's "The Foreigner" and the Transamerican Routes of New England Regionalism

Article excerpt

Winner of the Best Paper Contest, 2009 SSAWW Conference, Graduate Student Category

In January 1896, just as the first installments of The Country of the Pointed Firs were appearing in the Atlantic Monthly, Sarah Orne Jewett traveled by cruise ship throughout the Caribbean. Writing home to Louisa Dresel, Jewett expressed her fascination with the islands of Haiti and Jamaica, articulating her touristic view of the local population in racialized terms that echo the nostalgic plantation literature of the 185os: "Then we went to Hayti, which was oh, so funny with its pomp of darkeys. Port au Prince was quite an awful scene of thriftlessness and silly pretense__but one or two little Haytian harbours and the high green coast were most lovely. And then Jamaica, with all its new trees and flowers, and its coolies, Loulie! with their bangles and turbans and strange eyes. You would like Jamaica immensely" (Letters 163). Jewett eventually returned to the exoticized and eroticized Jamaica that she thought her friend would love in a ghost story that told the history of Dunnet Landing, Maine, prior to that community's presentation in her most critically acclaimed work, The Country of the Pointed Firs. "The Foreigner," written in the fall of 1899 and published in the Atlantic in August 190o, would, in fact, bring Jamaica__and the complex maritime interconnections of the Atlantic slave trade__home to Maine.

"The Foreigner" reveals the secrets behind Mrs. Todd's herbalist powers and empathic connections to the women of Dunnet Landing. When read alongside a series of letters Jewett wrote during her many travels to Europe and the Caribbean between 1898 and 1900 that contain her most consistent and developed thoughts on American imperialism, the story depicts these secrets as emerging from a history of racial exclusion and sexual threats to the homogeneity of that small maritime community. Jewett's deliberate ambiguity in describing the racial and national background of Mrs. Tolland, the title character of "The Foreigner," marks that figure as unstable, unable to be synthesized fully into the regionalist reshaping of local and national communities. That which is marked as foreign in this story is precisely what haunts the imagined space of the pure and homogeneous communal history suggested in The Country of the Pointed Firs. In trying to situate Dunnet Landing in the context of the global, Jewett instead highlights both the regional barriers to the promises of assimilation and the nostalgic dream of a benevolent American empire at the turn of the century. Unable to assimilate the racialized figure of Mrs. Tolland into the Dunnet Landing community, Jewett attempts to subordinate race to gender and, in the process, to elicit sympathy from white readers for a victimized woman whose racialized body must be erased by the story's conclusion.

Further, the secret history of Dunnet Landing that Jewett reveals in "The Foreigner" essentially rewrites the earlier The Country of the Pointed Firs, problematizing critical interpretations that disavow the importance of race, slavery, and empire in the novel in favor of gender- and class-centered readings. In fact, Jewett's simultaneous evocation and erasure of race in "The Foreigner" demonstrate how the story's shared bonds of female empathy, familial belonging, and nostalgia are constructed through the intersection of imperial nostalgia and amnesia.


Jewett's frequent travels between her introduction to the Boston Brahmin class in 1879 and her final extended trip in 190o included trips to Europe for reasons of cultural enlightenment, many trips to health spas in New England and the American South for reasons of convalescence, and a two-month cruise to the Caribbean on a private yacht for reasons of both health (primarily to escape the bitter New England winters) and elite cultural tourism to places imagined to be exotic. …

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