Sarah Orne Jewett wrote about the things that made America great – not the heroes, but the households.
She was part of the late 19th-century literary circle that included expatriate Henry James and former ambassador William Dean Howells, but she wrote about the rural people of Southern Maine.
Critics consider her masterpiece to be her short novel The Country of the Pointed Firs, a sympathetic portrayal of the residents of a dying Maine fishing village.
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 and the other half traveling in Europe and in Boston’s literary circles, notably at the salon of James T. Fields and his wife Annie Fields. She was sophisticated and worldly, but never lost touch with her village or her roots as a country doctor’s daughter.
She is credited with introducing 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, who supported themselves by the means available to them in the 19th century countryside.
“What has made this nation great?” she wrote. “Not its heroes but its households.”
Howells thought she captured dialogue brilliantly. “I hear your people,” he said.
Her people were often funny. One character from The Country of Pointed Firs said, “I couldn’t help thinkin’ if she was as far out o’ town as she was out o’ tune, she wouldn’t get back in a day.”
Paula Blanchard, her biographer, wrote:
Jewett did not celebrate old people because they were quaint, nor try to capture them on paper solely as representatives of a disappearing era. She saw them as irreplaceable links in the continuous, fragile structure of civilization, and her central concern was that the connection be maintained.
She never married. When James Fields died in 1881, her close friend Annie Fields moved in with her. “The process of falling in love at first sight is as final as it is swift in such a case,“ wrote Jewett, “but the growth of true friendship may be a lifelong affair.”
Sarah Orne Jewett died June 24, 1909 at the age of 59 in South Berwick. Her home, the Sarah Orne Jewett House, is a National Historic Landmark and Historic New England museum.
With thanks to Sarah Orne Jewett, Her World and Her Work, by Paula Blanchard.