Sarah Orne Jewett: A Famous Maine Author

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Sarah Orne Jewett

Born in South Berwick, Maine in 1849, Sarah Orne Jewett is famous for her contributions to American classic literature.

Sarah Orne Jewett is considered to be one of the most important female authors of American classic literature. Born in South Berwick Maine, her literature is replete with characters and scenes influenced by childhood experiences and by her keen powers of observation. David Godine states in his introduction to The Country of the Pointed Firs that, “She did not so much invent her characters as flesh them out from overheard conversations and long-remembered impressions.” Sarah Orne Jewett would spend much of her life in Boston among the literati of the day, but her works of literature reflect her deep attachment to her home in South Berwick and to her appreciation of country people and sensibilities.

Sarah Orne Jewett’s Early Years

Theodora Sarah Orne Jewett was born on September 3, 1849 in South Berwick, Maine. Her father, Dr. Theodore Jewett, was from an old seafaring family and her mother, Caroline Perry Jewett, was from a New Hampshire family with rich ties to New Hampshire politics. Along with her sisters Mary Rice (born 1847) and Caroline Augusta (born 1855) Sarah enjoyed a comfortable childhood surrounded by a large extended family. Her grandfather, Captain Jewett, lived next door, and days were spent back and forth between the two houses.

Sarah was not a healthy child and suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. She was often absent from school and would take long, solitary rambles through the woods. She was fond of solitude, and the peace and quiet of nature soothed her and would later influence her writing. She became very close with her father whom Sarah called, “the best and wisest man I ever knew”. He would often take her with him on his visits to patients and she acquired a knowledge of herbal remedies, folklore, and the plight of the poor and the elderly. The stories she heard and the people she met would one day find their way into the vignettes of country life for which she would become famous.

South Berwick and Beyond

Sarah Orne Jewett graduated from Berwick Academy in 1865. It was at this time that she began to expand her horizons and she travelled to places such as Boston, Newport, RI, and Cincinnati. She was a voracious reader and kept a book of extracts from the books she read. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Greenleaf Whittier, Julia Ward Howe, and Harriet Beacher Stowe were some of her early influences and some of them would later become her dear friends. It was at this time that she chose writing as her vocation and celibacy as her lifestyle choice. Unmarried women had always played an important part in Sarah’s upbringing and “in general women who made useful lives for themselves were respected”. Sarah’s sister Mary remained a spinster as well, and spinsterhood was an accepted situation.

She began writing short stories and in 1869 she had her first story published in the Atlantic Monthly. Her longterm friendship with editor William Dean Howells began at this time and would last many years.

Sarah joined the Episcopalian church in 1871 and through Harvard professor Theophilus Parsons, she began to study the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg’s ideas of loving interdependence and the belief in the transmigration of consciousness were to become themes in her work.

From Deephaven to the Country of Pointed Firs

Her circle of acquaintances began to grow and she travelled even further afield to places such as Philadelphia, Wisconsin, and Chicago. In 1877, William Dean Howells suggested that she collect several of her individual sketches and publish them in one volume. The result was Deephaven and it was her first piece of work that highlighted the mature Jewett.

In 1880, Sarah began a life-long friendship with Annie Fields, the wife of James T. Fields. It was to become one of the most famous “Boston marriages” and Sarah spent part of each spring at Annie’s home in Boston and part of each summer at Manchester-by-the-Sea. She also spent a considerable amount of time in South Berwick helping to care for her mother who died in 1891. In 1882, Sarah and Annie went to Europe and in 1884, A Country Doctor was published. Sarah continued to suffer from arthritis and went to Henry Flagler’s new hotel in St. Augustine, Florida in 1888 for treatments.

After a second trip to Europe and a cruise of the Caribbean islands with Annie Fields, The Country of Pointed Firs was published in 1896. This was Sarah Orne Jewett at her best and Willa Cather said of the book, “It is so tightly, yet so lightly built, so little encumbered with the heavy materialism that deteriorates and grows old-fashioned. It will be a message to the future, a message in a universal language.”

Sarah Orne Jewett’s Final Years

In 1901, Sarah Orne Jewett became the first woman to receive an honorary Litt.D. Degree from Bowdoin College. In 1902, she was in a serious carriage accident and never fully recovered. She died on June 24, 1909 in South Berwick of complications from a stroke. Before she died she said, “I was born here and I hope to die here leaving the lilac bushes still green and all the chairs in their place.”

Sources:

  1. Blanchard, Paula, Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Massachusetts, 1994.
  2. The Country of the Pointed Firs, David R. Godine Publisher, Inc., Jaffrey, NH, 2006, ISBN: 1-56792-140-X.