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A Vast and Awesome World: Sarah Orne JewettÔÇÖs Maine | Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | Scene4 Magazine - February 2017

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

    Westward, the woodlands and farms reached miles and miles into the distance; here and there were church steeples, and white villages, truly it was a vast and awesome world.

So Sarah Orne Jewett writes in her celebrated story A White Heron (1886), as she describes the child Sylvia’s view from her perch high in an ancient pine. Photo-2-SOJewett-crThe poetic tale which so poignantly explores a young girl’s discovering her empathetic connection with the natural world embodied in the rare and elusive white heron whose life she protects is perhaps one of Jewett’s finest works.  Together with her 1896 novella, The Country of the Pointed Firs and A Country Doctor (1884), Jewett today rightfully claims her place as one of the finest voices in 19th century American literature. But that designation has been a hard won and uphill journey for the Maine author, who was overshadowed in her lifetime by the likes of Emily Dickinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and who, even at her death in 1909 with more than a dozen works to her credit, her obituary called her “one of the foremost women writers of America,” implying a different tier of literary achievement – a comment at which Jewett would likely have taken umbrage.  God would not give us the same talent if what were right for men were wrong for women, she bluntly maintained.

So what accounts for Sarah Orne Jewett’s moderate fame in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and for the resurgence of interest in her work beginning with the women’s movement in the 1960s?  Of course, gender politics played a part, but perhaps an even stronger factor was the relative remoteness and isolation of her life in the quiet little hamlets of Maine – towns and seaports whose rhythms and voices she absorbed and communicated with uncanny accuracy.


Theodora Sarah Orne Jewett was born in South Berwick, Maine, (then a part of Massachusetts) on September 3, 1849. The daughter of a country doctor with deep roots in New England, Jewett grew up initially in her grandparents’ home and then in the house her parents built next door- both of which overlooked the town’s central square. Early on she discovered a passion for the rural landscape around her and loved to accompany her father on his rounds through the countryside, gathering stories, which would form the basis of her later novel, The Country Doctor, published in 1884. Jewett received an excellent education at Berwick Academy (still in existence) and was later awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from Bowdoin College. She began her literary career at the age of nineteen when the Atlantic Monthly published her first short story. Solitary, but not reclusive, she sought quiet retreats for her writing, one of which, Tenant’s Harbor, forms the unforgettable setting for perhaps her best-known work, The Country of the Pointed Firs. Jewett never married and after the death of Atlantic Monthly publisher, James Thomas Fields in 1881, she formed a close attachment with his widow, Annie Adams Fields. The two women lived in Boston and in Maine in what was then euphemistically termed “a Boston marriage” for the rest of Jewett’s life.  Together, they traveled to Europe , shared their creative aspirations, and established a circle of literati. A serious injury in a carriage accident in 1902 ended Jewett’s writing career, and she succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of fifty-nine on June 2, 1909.


Praised by her contemporaries for her skill in portraying local color, Jewett’s work is inextricably tied to the specifics of place.  William Dean Howells said that Jewett had “an uncommon feeling for talk; I hear your people,” he commented of the characters in The Country of the Pointed Firs. And, indeed, anyone reading these loosely connected short stories has such a vivid visual picture of “Dunnet Landing,” and an aural soundtrack for the folksy vernacular of the village’s inhabitants, that when he visits Tenant’s Harbor itself, it is like a homecoming. The tiny village on the St. Georges Peninsula appears today virtually unchanged from Jewett’s description.  The single road (Route 131) that winds its way from Route One to the picturesque Marshall Point Lighthouse in the fishing village of Port Clyde passes through the hamlet on a hill overlooking the harbor.  On rocky ledges protruding from sea, tall, spindly pines alongside spiky fir trees stretch upward to poke at the vast sky. The tiny fishing vessels and sailboats which dot the blue waters below seem like miniature playthings; the scale is snug and quiet and strangely serene. One can easily recognize Almira Todd’s neat clapboard, weather beaten house with its miraculous herb garden in any number of sober frame cottages along the way. In the distance the Tenant’s Harbor Light, now owned by Jamie Wyeth as a studio, marks the entrance to the cove – a proud, independent sentinel separating port and open sea.  Like so many places and things in Maine, there is a feeling of tenacity, of hardy rootedness and of a respectful relationship between man and nature.


And, indeed, it is this very theme that actually dominates all of Jewett’s work. As the heroine of A White Heron discovers when she comes to see the world through the eyes of the majestic bird, all living creatures share a common bond that bears respecting, preserving, and protecting from the encroachments of industrialization and mankind’s often thoughtless behavior.


In The Country of the Pointed Firs, Jewett pays tribute to the simple wisdom of country folk and to the harmonious life they carve for themselves by peacefully co-existing with the land and the sea and the birds and animals and plants which surround them.  Jewett’s characters are quirky, wizened, weathered like the architecture and the rocky landscape.  They are often terse and retiring, yet imbued with reserves of existential strength.  They do not need to talk or analyze; they simply live their lives day in and day out with a surety that eludes so many in the “outside” world and which even causes the narrator to marvel and to grapple with the secrets of the place and the people in her annual return to her writing retreat

And at the center of the novella’s cast of colorful characters is Almira Todd, a herbologist with a quasi-magical garden from which she crates remedies. Mrs. Todd is the village shaman, whose wisdom is derived from her affinity for the earth and its gifts. She is the strong willed, resilient host for Jewett’s narrator; a woman who gently introduces the bookish young writer to the people and stories which shape her narratives. Through Mrs. Todd the narrator meets William, Almira’s shy, awkward fisherman brother; Esther, the plain shepherdess whom the middle-aged William finally marries; Captain Littlepage, an old salt who quotes Milton; Mrs. Blackett, Almira’s elderly mother who seems to possess a inner radiance, or the invisible recluse Joanna, who, after being rejected in love, exiled herself to a small island offshore to live out her solitary life in a kind of unsparing penance. Not only does Jewett reproduce the rhythms of their quaint speech, but she endows the economy of their dialogue with a profound weightiness. 

And perhaps even more than in the description and dialogue, it is in Jewett’s unerring sense for metaphor and symbol that certain images are stamped indelibly on the reader’s consciousness.  The cozy scene in Mrs. Todd’s kitchen when she prevails on her frail mother and monosyllabic brother William to sing:

    And there followed the most charming surprise.  William mastered his timidity and began to sing. His voice was a little faint and frail, like the family daguerreotypes, but it was a tenor voice true and sweet. I have never heard ‘Home Sweet Home’ sung as touchingly and seriously as he sang it.


Or in one of the related stories, William’s Wedding (not published in the initial collection), the image of the patient shepherdess Esther surrounded by her charges, shyly welcoming William’s visit and proposal after a year’s absence:

William unloaded his gift of dried fish, each one chosen with perfect care, and Esther stood by, watching him, and then walked across the fields with us beside the wagon.  I believed I was the only one who knew their happy secret, and she blushed a little as we said goodbye.

And then when William comes to bring his bride home to Dunnet Landing, the wedding pair sail into the harbor and make their way up the hill to visit Mrs. Todd.  Among their possessions, a newborn lamb:

    Esther stepped quickly to the back of the wagon, and unfastening some cords returned to us carrying a little white lamb.  She gave a shy glance at William as she fondled it and held it to her heart, and then still silent, we went into the house together.  The lamb had stopped bleating. It was lovely to see Esther carry it in her arms.

The bridal couple with the baby lamb settle into William’s boat headed for his mother’s home in a scene of gentlest marital bliss that inspires a shared tranquility in the narrator and her friend, Mrs. Todd:

    I watched him [William] make a nest for the lamb out of an old sea-cloak at Esther’s feet and then he wrapped her own shawl round her shoulders, and finding a pin in the lapel of his Sunday coat he pinned it for her. She looked at him fondly while he did this, and glanced up at us, a pretty, girlish color brightening her cheeks. We stood thee together and watched them go far out into the bay. The sunshine of the May day was low now, but there was a steady breeze, and the boat moved well.,…

    ‘Mother’ll be watching for them,’ said Mrs.Todd. She’ll be so happy to have Esther come.”

    We went home together up the hill, and Mrs. Todd said nothing more, but we held hands all the way.

And while The Country of the Pointed Firs offers some exceptional visual symbols, perhaps none of Jewett’s images is more powerful and haunting than that of the white heron – the rare giant bird hidden in the treetops, whose disembodied call resonates through the salt marsh and whose soaring, majestic flight transcends all earthly bounds.  A symbol of freedom, of beauty, of otherworldliness, the heron invites the young Sylvia into his magical realm.  In the hopes of finding the heron’s nest, Sylvia climbs the giant pine tree:

    The tree seemed to lengthen itself out as she went up, and to reach farther and farther upward. It was like a great main -mast to the voyaging earth…

Jewett anthropomorphizes the tree; it smiles at her and “frowns away the winds.” It becomes the mast on a ship of discovery for the girl.  Though it lets her climb into the heavens, it remains firmly connected to the ground below. 

Like Jewett’s artistic sensibility itself, the ancient pine tree is a lone, fierce, symbol of both rootedness and flight, of vivid realistic detail and heady poetic imagination.  Like the author herself, this tree with a soul, the heron who inhabits it, and the little girl who dares to climb all bear vibrant witness to the interconnectedness of man and the natural world.

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold |

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold's new book is Coarousel and Other Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews, interviews, and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. Read her Blog.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2017 Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold
 ©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine




February 2017

Volume 17 Issue 9

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