Sarah Orne Jewett

The American Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) was a regional novelist whose work depicted Maine settings and personalities.

Sarah Orne Jewett was born in the village of South Berwick, Maine, on Sept. 3, 1849. Because she suffered from arthritis and could not attend school regularly, her formal education at Berwick Academy was intermittent. Her father, a distinguished obstetrician, encouraged her to read widely in his library, and she accompanied him on his visits to patients in the countryside. She read the major English and European writers and also important American authors, such as Emerson, Lowell, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Talks with her father about the country and the seacoast and about his patients' lives and characters, and talks with the patients in their homes saturated the budding author with firsthand information. Her adoration of her father was so strong, apparently, that it prevented her from ever falling in love.

Jewett's first story was published in 1868, when she was 19, and the next year another story initiated her long association with the Atlantic Monthly and other prestigious magazines. William Dean Howells, an editor of the Atlantic, encouraged her to collect several sketches and connect them with a fictional framework. These became the novel Deephaven (1877). Outstanding collections of stories and sketches followed: Old Friends and New (1879), Country By-ways (1881), A White Heron and Other Stories (1886), and A Native of Winby and Other Tales (1893). At intervals Jewett wrote successful books for children, including Play Days (1878), The Story of the Normans (1887), and Betty Leicester (1890). Her novels included A Country Doctor (1884), A Marsh Island (1885), and the book generally considered to be her masterpiece, The Country of Pointed Firs (1896).

Jewett's best fiction portrayed the area surrounding and including the town of her birth and childhood, a home to which she always returned after her wide-ranging travels and where she died on June 24, 1909. "My local attachments," she wrote, "are stronger than any cat's that ever mewed." In the state of Maine the end of the importance of clipper ships had led to the abandonment of shipyards and wharves. Villages much like South Berwick were almost deserted by the men and by the young of both sexes, leaving as inhabitants mostly older women. Jewett wrote about this dying world and the isolated or the elderly who find deep meanings in local customs and private experiences. She wrote realistically but gently, creating what many critics regard as the best fictional narratives to come out of New England during a period when regional writing flourished there.

Further Reading on Sarah Orne Jewett

Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett was edited by Annie Fields, a close friend (1911), and Sarah Orne Jewett Letters by Richard Cary (1956). There are two illuminating critical studies: Francis Otto Matthiessen, Sarah Orne Jewett (1929), and Richard Cary, Sarah Orne Jewett (1962).

Additional Biography Sources

Blanchard, Paula, Sarah Orne Jewett: her world and her work, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1994.

Keyworth, C. L. (Cynthia L.), Master smart woman: a portrait of Sarah Orne Jewett: based on the film by Jane Morrison in collaboration with Peter Namuth, Unity, Me.: North Country Press, 1988.

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