The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

VI. The Short Story

§ 13. Sarah Orne Jewett

A transition from another source is to be found in the stories of Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909), who also stands on the border line between the real and the romantic. She was affected not at all by Harte, but by Mrs. Stowe and Rose Terry Cooke. In her Deephaven (1877) she struck the new note of the decade, concreteness, geographical locality made so definite and so minutely real that it may be reckoned with as one of the characters in the story. Rose Terry Cooke had written of New England; Miss Jewett wrote of Deephaven, which was Berwick, Maine, her native town. Mrs. Stowe and Mrs. Cooke wrote of the New England flood tide; Miss Jewett wrote of the ebb, not despairingly like Miss Wilkins and the depressed realists, but reverently and gently. Over all her work is the hint of a glory departed, that Irving-like atmosphere which is the soul of romance. She delighted in decaying old seaports with their legends of other and better days, of old sea captains mellow and reminiscent, and of dear old ladies serene in spite of the buffets of time.

Her knowledge of her materials was intimate and thorough. All through her girlhood she had ridden much with her father, a country doctor, as he went his daily round among his patients. From him she learned the soul of the region, and she sympathized with it, and later she interpreted it in story after story based accurately upon what she knew. Unlike Mrs. Cooke, she came late enough to avoid the mid-century gush of sentiment. With her it became pathos, the pathos of sympathy and understanding; there is a grip of it in each one of her tales. One does not cry over a story like A White Heron, but one feels at the end of it like finding the sturdy little heroine and calling her a good girl. No art can go farther. Her delight was in the simple and the idyllic rather than in the dramatic. A story like A Native of Winby has very little of plot; but no tale was ever more worth the telling. It is a quivering bit of human life, a section of New England, a tale as true as a soul’s record of yesterday.

There remains the element of style. She was one of the few creators of the short story after the seventies who put into her work anything like distinction. She was of the old school in this, of the school of Irving and Hawthorne and Poe. Indeed her style has often been likened to Hawthorne’s, effortless, limpid, sun-clear in its flowing sentences, and softened and mellowed into a Sleepy-Hollow atmosphere—the perfect style, it would seem, for recording the fading glories of an old régime.

Her best stories are perhaps Miss Tempy’s Watchers, The Dulham Ladies, The Queen’s Twin, A White Heron, and A Native of Winby. Lightness of touch, humour, pathos, perfect naturalness—these are the points of her strength. She was a romanticist, equipped with a camera and a fountain pen.

To touch the seventies anywhere is to touch romance. Even Howells was not fully a realist until into the eighties. The new local colour work was not primarily realism. The new writers who now sprang up to portray local peculiarities in all parts of the land sought, even as Harte had done, to throw an idealized atmosphere over their pictures. One thinks of Mrs. Jackson and Ramona and of Eggleston and The Hoosier Schoolmaster, and, in the realm of the short story, of George W. Cable and Charles Egbert Craddock.