In This Article Sarah Orne Jewett

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Critical Collections
  • Correspondence
  • Biographies
  • Jewett and Annie Fields
  • Jewett and Willa Cather
  • Theory and Craft
  • Gender Studies and Feminist Criticism
  • Regionalism and Nationalism
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Class and Community
  • Ecocriticism
  • Deephaven
  • Jewett’s Other Novels
  • “A White Heron”
  • Other Short Stories and Story Collections

American Literature Sarah Orne Jewett
by
Terry Heller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0082

Introduction

Theodora Sarah Orne Jewett (b. 1849–d. 1909) grew up in South Berwick, Maine, the middle daughter of a respected physician, Theodore F. Jewett, and Caroline Perry Jewett, both of distinguished and prosperous local families. Though her locale was provincial, her family connections often took her to Boston, as well as to New York City, Cincinnati, Chicago, and to other parts of the East and Midwest. Graduating in 1865 from the Berwick Academy, Jewett began writing professionally at a young age, appearing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1869. She continued a successful career, writing short fiction and sketches for major magazines and, at regular intervals, publishing collections. She also began to produce more didactic work for adults, as well as stories and poems for children in popular newspapers and magazines, such as The Independent and St. Nicholas. Jewett’s first book, Deephaven (1877), a series of Atlantic sketches worked into a novel, attracted many readers, among them John Greenleaf Whittier, who became a close friend. Her most important friendship was with Annie Fields, wife of the influential publisher, James T. Fields. When Annie was widowed in 1881, not long after Sarah’s father’s death in 1878, the two became lifelong companions, spending about half of each year together at Fields’s two homes in Massachusetts and traveling together in Europe and North America. Fields shared with Jewett her wide acquaintance among contemporary writers and artists. Jewett’s novels and collections sold well during her life; but today, most are in print only as e-books. A Country Doctor (1884) has tended to remain in print and to draw critical interest. “A White Heron” (1886) has remained her best-known short story, frequently anthologized and the focus of many critical studies. Among her longer works, only The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) has had a truly vigorous and continuous following of readers and scholars. Jewett’s fiction-writing career was cut short after a serious injury in a 1902 carriage accident made it impossible to adequately concentrate on writing fiction. However, she continued an extensive correspondence until her death in 1909. In 1908 she began one of the more important mentoring relationships in American literary history: her meetings and letter exchanges with Willa Cather, which critics believe led Cather to give up her successful editing and journalistic career to write the fiction for which she is best remembered. Jewett’s novels and magazine stories were identified from the beginning with local color and regionalist writing. Criticism continues to explore these facets, showing particular interest in how her work participates in the discourses of gender, race, nationalism, and class during the post–Civil War period.

General Overviews

Cary 1962 was the first full-length consideration of Jewett’s literary career. This book helped provide a foundation for the work that followed, as interest in Jewett as a woman writer blossomed in the 1970s, leading to Donovan 2001 (revised from 1980). Cary 1962 and Donovan 2001 reflect a fundamental controversy over Jewett’s work, one that is present from her earliest reviews: Is she a minor writer who managed, despite her limitations, to produce a few fine works? Or is she a major artist of the status of Nathaniel Hawthorne or Henry James? Sherman 1989, Mobley 1991, and Roman 1992 show continuing interest in what Jewett has to offer for gender studies (see Gender Studies and Feminist Criticism), but the works also are concerned with placing Jewett centrally within the canon of American literature.

  • Cary, Richard. Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Twayne, 1962.

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    Considers virtually all of Jewett’s published work. While her output is limited in subject and narrative ability, The Country of the Pointed Firs and a few stories are among the best produced in America. Cary notes that she is “without peer . . . in the reliable depiction of her chosen time, place, and personalities.”

  • Donovan, Josephine. Sarah Orne Jewett. Rev. ed. Christchurch, New Zealand: Cybereditions, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    A survey emphasizing feminist themes, such as female-centric social life, struggles of the female artist, and the redemptive power of matriarchal communities. Attends to Jewett’s aesthetic theory: particularly that one of the purposes of art is to suggest a dimension of meaning beyond material reality. Originally published in 1980.

  • Mobley, Marilyn Sanders. Folk Roots and Mythic Wings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison: The Cultural Function of Narrative. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.

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    Sees both authors using narrative to serve “a cultural function meant to validate people and places that have been devalued and to offer affirmation of these people and places as a prescription for healing and transforming American culture.”

  • Roman, Margaret. Sarah Orne Jewett: Reconstructing Gender. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    Presents Jewett as actively feminist in her fiction, determined to show ways of “breaking free from patriarchal society with its dual norms for men and for women in order that a person of any sex might grow freely.”

  • Sherman, Sarah W. Sarah Orne Jewett: An American Persephone. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    Examines the Demeter/Persephone story as a means by which 19th-century writers expressed an understanding of how women achieve identity in a patriarchal culture. Studies Jewett’s life and major works to show how she imagined women of power and independence in a feminine community.

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