Sarah Orne Jewett traveled in 19th-century international literary circles, but it was the White Mountains, the ocean and the people of her native New England that inspired her. She was an early feminist writer whose masterpiece, The Country of the Pointed Firs, described provincial life in southern Maine.
Jewett viewed the world through the lens of Romanticism, which celebrated the picturesque life of common folk and the sublimity of nature. Awe was an emotion to be cultivated, especially in the presence of majestic landscapes. Her description of her trip to the mountains reveals her visionary union with nature.
In the summer of 1872, she was 22 years old and had already been published in The Atlantic Monthly. She wrote about the otherworldly experience of climbing Mount Washington in New Hampshire in her Aug. 8, 1872 journal entry.
“I may travel to the ends of the earth and see more wonderful things than I have ever dreamed of now, but one thing is certain: I never shall be standing on the top of a mountain for the first time again!” she wrote. She had just come home from her first visit to the “White Hills,” and spent one night and part of the next day on Mount Washington.
Sarah Orne Jewett
Sarah Orne Jewett was born in South Berwick, Maine on Sept. 3, 1849, the granddaughter of a sea captain and the daughter of a well-to-do country doctor. She spent about half of her adult life in South Berwick. The other half she spent traveling in Europe and in Boston’s literary circles, notably at the salon of James T. Fields and his wife Annie Fields.
Sophisticated and worldly, but never lost touch with her village, her roots as a country doctor’s daughter or her natural surroundings.
She introduced her readers to the traditions of Southern Maine. Critics more recently recognized her as a feminist chronicler of women’s lives. She wrote about independent women, mostly single like herself. They supported themselves by the means available to them in the 19th-century countryside.
Jewett wrote short stories, poems, novels and children’s books during her lifetime. She made her reputation in her mid-40s with The Country of Pointed Firs.
The White Mountains
Her account of her visit to the mountains reveals an adventurous spirit and a romantic sensibility.
“I can understand people’s being afraid of the mountains and imagining them gods themselves, or peopled with creatures not of this earth,” she wrote. “It did not seem as if I were in the world I had been born and brought up in.”
What had become of all the houses and the people and the climbing and pushing and falling and laughing and crying? It had all been taken away for a while, there were rocks and clouds — and the hills were alive.
She then compared the mountains to huge giants crouching there asleep. They waited “for the day when they are to rise up and march away with their bowed heads lifted, chanting with their great voices, with Mt Washington for the captain, a grand and solemn and stately procession.”
A Religious Experience
She wondered if the mountains meant as much to everyone else as they did to her. “Their strength teaches me what God’s strength is like,” she wrote. “[A]nd the wonderfulness of them grows greater and greater to me.”
As they climbed the mountain, she kept thinking of the Psalms. “It was so good to “lift my eyes unto the hills,” she wrote. “I thought most of the Psalm which begins “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”
Then she wrote of her fear to “ascend into the hill of the Lord.” Her hands, she wrote, were soiled with the wicked things she had done. Her heart was far from pure.
“Somehow I could not help taking it literally, for there was the hill of the Lords and there was I — And when I said it over and over again to myself and came to the last verses, I could not believe anything else but that these were the very gates and that the King of Glory was coming very soon.”
This story was updated in 2021.