Read an Excerpt
From Ted Olson’s Introduction to The Country of the Pointed Firs and Selected Short Fiction
Jewett’s representation of Maine in her fictional works does not fully reflect that she was well aware her childhood home place had been dramatically changed by economic and social forces wrought by the post–Civil War prosperity. By the late 1870s, while Jewett was gaining national attention through her publications, South Berwick was, as the author stated in a letter, “growing and flourishing in a way that breaks my heart” (Blanchard, Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work, p. 43). The changes in South Berwick were the result of several factors: the reduced role of the sea-related trades in a rapidly industrializing nation; dramatic postwar population growth in the United States, which led to a rise in tourism and second-home development along the Maine coast; the construction of new houses that were architecturally incompatible with the town’s older buildings; and the cutting down of trees and the plowing up of fields to accommodate that growth. In 1894, Jewett looked back on the changes in Maine since the Civil War, and lamented that
tradition and time-honored custom were to be swept away together by the irresistible current. Character and architecture seemed to lose individuality and distinction. The new riches of the country were seldom very well spent in those days; the money that the tourist or summer citizen left behind him was apt to be used to sweep away the quaint houses, the roadside thicket, the shady woodland, that had lured him first. . . . It will remain for later generations to make amends for the sad use of riches after the war, for our injury of what we inherited, for the irreparable loss of certain ancient buildings which would have been twice as interesting in the next century as we are just beginning to be wise enough to think them in this (quoted in Blanchard, p. 82).
That in her fiction Jewett tended to overlook—and to condemn in her letters and diaries—this “progress” suggests that the author possessed a powerful psychological connection to her own childhood—manifested in her fascination with preindustrial Maine and its traditional culture. According to biographer Paula Blanchard, Jewett retained her sense of wonder well into her adulthood:
The sense of seeing everyone and everything with a fresh eye, the playfulness, the absolute honesty and lack of pretense that we associate with the characteristic Jewett style, all belong to her childhood self and are typical of the voice heard in the earliest available letters and diaries. Simplicity is the very essence of the Jewett persona; and while she matured intellectually and deepened emotionally in the normal course of events, her ability always to remain surprised by the world around her was inseparable from her ability to re-create it (Blanchard, p. 45).
One possible biographical explanation for Jewett’s idealization of her childhood world during her early adulthood is that her beloved father was ill through much of the 1870s (he died in 1878). In all probability, her memory of her father was integrally associated with the less chaotic (if economically marginal) prewar era when “poor but proud” rural Maine folk—from her romanticized perspective—maintained a hardscrabble yet affirming existence in an ongoing communion with the land and with the sea. Such an attitude, of course, reflected the literary and philosophical influence of early-nineteenth-century English Romantics as reinterpreted by mid-nineteenth-century New England Transcendentalists. Certainly, some of Jewett’s work (most memorably in The Country of the Pointed Firs) evinces a mystical bond between humans and nature—a bond that Jewett herself deeply felt.