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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909)

NO part of the United States has been treated in literature more frequently than New England. Yet Miss Jewett found in its familiar scenes a beauty that no one else had been able to express. Many writers have since paid her art the tribute of imitation.

Sarah Orne Jewett was born in South Berwick, Maine, in 1849; a product of the best New England birth and breeding. Besides the usual school training, she received a deeper culture from her father, a physician and a man of wide attainments and keen observation. A country doctor, he had to make excursions inland and alongshore to visit his scattered patients; and the young girl sitting beside him learned to know the characters she was to immortalize in literature, as she knew the landscape and the sky. She was a girl not past her youth when her first book, ‘Deephaven,’ was published in 1877. This was a story of New England life, told in the form of an autobiography; and slight as it was in incident, betrayed a breadth and a refinement which seemed to come from careful training, but which were really the unerring product of a genuine gift for literature, kindled by the observation of a fresh mind and an affectionate sympathy.

The effect upon her many readers was like the gift of sight to the blind. Frequenters of the town—for ‘Deephaven’ stands for any fisher village on the Maine coast—recollected having seen “Mrs. Bonny” searching for a tumbler, the meek widow with the appearance of a black beetle and the wail of a banshee, the funeral procession on its sad journey, the Captains, the interesting ladies “Mrs. Kew” and “Mrs. Dockum.” ‘Deephaven’ was followed by a series of stories, all breathing forth an air of calm leisure that in its avoidance of hurry or catastrophe suggests the almost forgotten note of Goldsmith and Irving.

Miss Jewett’s portrayal of character, habits, traits, speech, was all perfectly true, although drawn from that very rural and village New England life which other writers, clever and merciless, had convinced the world to be wholly sordid and melancholy. With wider comprehension, she showed that there are differing points of view of any given conditions, and that a life in these pinched and narrow surroundings may be as complex an affair as one passed in the heart of London. Her patriotic and kindly part was to portray it with a good deal of horizon, a clear sky, and vital human interest.

Her gift has been exercised, for the most part, in the field in which America has only France as her rival,—that of the short story. Although she produced several successful novels, her ‘Deephaven’ is a series of figures, landscapes, and interiors, rather than a woven scheme. Perhaps the rare intuition which taught her the secrets of her shy reserved characters, revealed to her that her strength does not lie in the constructive power which holds in its grasp varied and complex interests, terminating in an inevitable conclusion.

A simple incident suffices for her machinery; her local color was a part of the substance of her creation, not imposed upon it, and no more than Hawthorne did she seem to be conscious of the necessity of making it a setting for her figures. She wrote of that into which she was born; and her creations—even when they were in such foreign settings as Irish-American life, in the inimitable stories ‘The Brogans,’ ‘Between Mass and Vespers,’ and ‘A Little Captive Maid’—glowed with that internal personality which is never counterfeited, as has been said of Hawthorne’s ‘Marble Faun.’

The emotion of love as a passion, the essential of a novel, is almost absent from her sketches; or, treated as one of many other emotions and principles, has a certain originality due to its abstemiousness. Life indeed, as portrayed by her, proceeds so exactly as it would naturally proceed, that when the incident has been told, and the quiet, veracious talk has been retailed, the story comes to an end because it could not go on without being a different story. This method would not do for a novel: and yet, little composition as there seems to be about them, Miss Jewett’s stories are as delicately constructed, with as true a method and as perfect a knowledge of technique, as Guy de Maupassant’s; and they are permeated with a humor he never knew. “It is not only the delightful mood in which these little masterpieces are written,” says Mr. Howells of ‘The King of Folly Island,’ “but the perfect artistic restraint, the truly Greek temperance without one touch too much, which render them exquisite, make them perfect in their way.”

Her lovely spirit, sweet and compassionate, is a tacit appeal for the characters at which her humor bids us smile. Her people are introduced sitting in their quiet New England homes, going about their small affairs: housewives, captains unseaworthy through time or stress of weather, the village schoolmistress or seamstress, the old soldier, the heroine with blue eyes and rosy cheeks, walking through the scene without one fluttering ribbon of coquetry,—all these appear with as little grouping as if we had walked into “Deephaven” or “Winby” itself. With perfect sympathy she takes under her protection all those whom irreverence or thoughtlessness has flouted, or whom personal peculiarities have made ridiculous. With her we are amused by their quaintness; but human nature, even forlorn and fallen human nature, is dignified into its true likeness under her serene and compassionate touch. Her charm is the charm which Richard Dole found in “A Marsh Island,” where he was so willingly a prisoner; and is that which comes from the view of a landscape, broad, unaccented, lying under a summer sky, breathing the fragrance of grass and wild flowers. It does not invite criticism any more than it deprecates close scrutiny.

If artist may be compared with artist, Miss Jewett might be described as a water-colorist; her sketches resting for their value not upon dramatic qualities or strong color, but upon their pure tone and singleness of effort. And she was not sensibly in her story, any more than a painter is in his picture. It was in this that her engaging modesty and admirable self-restraint lay.

Miss Jewett is the author of a dozen volumes of fiction, among the more important of which are—‘A Marsh Island’ (1885); ‘A White Heron and Other Stories’ (1886); ‘The King of Folly Island, and Other People’ (1888); ‘Strangers and Wayfarers’ (1890); ‘A Native of Winby, and Other Tales’ (1893); ‘The Life of Nancy’ (1895); ‘The Country of the Pointed Firs’ (1896); and ‘The Tory Lover.’ She died in 1909.