Not Under Forty, by Willa Cather

Miss Jewett

I

In reading over a package of letters from Sarah Orne Jewett, I find this observation: “The thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down lightly on paper — whether little or great, it belongs to Literature.” Miss Jewett was very conscious of the fact that when a writer makes anything that belongs to Literature (limiting the term here to imaginative literature, which she of course meant), his material goes through a process very different from that by which he makes merely a good story. No one can define this process exactly; but certainly persistence, survival, recurrence in the writer’s mind, are highly characteristic of it. The shapes and scenes that have “teased” the mind for years, when they do at last get themselves rightly put down, make a much higher order of writing, and a much more costly, than the most vivid and vigorous transfer of immediate impressions.

In some of Miss Jewett’s earlier books, Deephaven, Country Byways, Old Friends and New, one can find first sketches, first impressions, which later crystallized into almost flawless examples of literary art. One can, as it were, watch in process the two kinds of making: the first, which is full of perception and feeling but rather fluid and formless; the second, which is tightly built and significant in design. The design is, indeed, so happy, so right, that it seems inevitable; the design is the story and the story is the design. The “Pointed Fir” sketches are living things caught in the open, with light and freedom and airspaces about them. They melt into the land and the life of the land until they are not stories at all, but life itself.

A great many stories were being written upon New England themes at the same time that Miss Jewett was writing; stories that to many contemporary readers may have seemed more interesting than hers, because they dealt with more definite “situations” and were more heavily accented. But they are not very interesting to reread today; they have not the one thing that survives all arresting situations, all good writing and clever story-making — inherent, individual beauty.

Walter Pater said that every truly great drama must, in the end, linger in the reader’s mind as a sort of ballad. One might say that every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure; a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer’s own, individual, unique. A quality which one can remember without the volume at hand, can experience over and over again in the mind but can never absolutely define, as one can experience in memory a melody, or the summer perfume of a garden. The magnitude of the subject-matter is not of primary importance, seemingly. An idyll of Theocritus, concerned with sheep and goats and shade and pastures, is today as much alive as the most dramatic passages of the Iliad — stirs the reader’s feeling quite as much, perhaps.

It is a common fallacy that a writer, if he is talented enough, can achieve this poignant quality by improving upon his subject-matter, by using his “imagination” upon it and twisting it to suit his purpose. The truth is that by such a process (which is not imaginative at all!) he can at best produce only a brilliant sham, which, like a badly built and pretentious house, looks poor and shabby after a few years. If he achieves anything noble, anything enduring, it must be by giving himself absolutely to his material. And this gift of sympathy is his great gift; is the fine thing in him that alone can make his work fine.

The artist spends a lifetime in pursuing the things that haunt him, in having his mind “teased” by them, in trying to get these conceptions down on paper exactly as they are to him and not in conventional poses supposed to reveal their character; trying this method and that, as a painter tries different lightings and different attitudes with his subject to catch the one that presents it more suggestively than any other. And at the end of a lifetime he emerges with much that is more or less happy experimenting, and comparatively little that is the very flower of himself and his genius.

The best of Miss Jewett’s work, read by a student fifty years from now, will give him the characteristic flavour, the spirit, the cadence, of an American writer of the first order, — and of a New England which will then be a thing of the past.

Even in the stories which fall short of being Miss Jewett’s best, one has the pleasure of her society and companionship — if one likes that sort of companionship. I remember she herself had a fondness for “The Hiltons’ Holiday,” — the slightest of stories: a hard-worked New England farmer takes his two little girls to town, some seventeen miles away (a long drive by wagon), for a treat. That is all, yet the story is a little miracle. It simply IS THE LOOK— shy, kind, a little wistful — which shines out at one from good country faces on remote farms; it is the look ITSELF. To have got it down upon the printed page is like bringing the tenderest of early spring flowers from the deep wood into the hot light of noon without bruising its petals.

To note an artist’s limitations is but to define his talent. A reporter can write equally well about everything that is presented to his view, but a creative writer can do his best only with what lies within the range and character of his deepest sympathies. These stories of Miss Jewett’s have much to do with fisher-folk and seaside villages; with juniper pastures and lonely farms, neat grey country houses and delightful, well-seasoned old men and women. That, when one thinks of it in a flash, is New England. I remember hearing an English actor say that until he made a motor trip through the New England country he had supposed that the Americans killed their aged in some merciful fashion, for he saw none in the cities where he played.

There are many kinds of people in the State of Maine, and neighbouring States, who are not found in Miss Jewett’s books. There may be Othellos and Iagos and Don Juans; but they are not highly characteristic of the country, they do not come up spontaneously in the juniper pastures as the everlasting does. Miss Jewett wrote of everyday people who grew out of the soil, not about exceptional individuals at war with their environment. This was not a creed with her, but an instinctive preference.

Born within the scent of the sea but not within sight of it, in a beautiful old house full of strange and lovely things brought home from all over the globe by seafaring ancestors, she spent much of her childhood driving about the country with her doctor father on his professional rounds among the farms. She early learned to love her country for what it was. What is quite as important, she saw it as it was. She happened to have the right nature, the right temperament, to see it so — and to understand by intuition the deeper meaning of what she saw.

She had not only the eye, she had the ear. From her early years she must have treasured up those pithy bits of local speech, of native idiom, which enrich and enliven her pages. The language her people speak to each other is a native tongue. No writer can invent it. It is made in the hard school of experience, in communities where language has been undisturbed long enough to take on colour and character from the nature and experiences of the people. The “sayings” of a community, its proverbs, are its characteristic comment upon life; they imply its history, suggest its attitude toward the world and its way of accepting life. Such an idiom makes the finest language any writer can have; and he can never get it with a notebook. He himself must be able to think and feel in that speech — it is a gift from heart to heart.

Much of Miss Jewett’s delightful humour comes from her delicate and tactful handling of this native language of the waterside and countryside, never overdone, never pushed a shade too far; from this, and from her own fine attitude toward her subject-matter. This attitude in itself, though unspoken, is everywhere felt, and constitutes one of the most potent elements of grace and charm in her stories. She had with her own stories and her own characters a very charming relation; spirited, gay, tactful, noble in its essence and a little arch in its expression. In this particular relationship many of our most gifted writers are unfortunate. If a writer’s attitude toward his characters and his scene is as vulgar as a showman’s, as mercenary as an auctioneer’s, vulgar and meretricious will his product for ever remain.

II

“The distinguished outward stamp” — it was that one felt immediately upon meeting Miss Jewett: a lady, in the old high sense. It was in her face and figure, in her carriage, her smile, her voice, her way of greeting one. There was an ease, a graciousness, a light touch in conversation, a delicate unobtrusive wit. You quickly recognized that her gift with the pen was one of many charming personal attributes. In the short period when I knew her, 1908 and 1909, she was not writing at all, and found life full enough without it. Some six years before, she had been thrown from a carriage on a country road (sad fate for an enthusiastic horsewoman) and suffered a slight concussion. She recovered, after a long illness, but she did not write again — felt that her best working power was spent.

She had never been one of those who “live to write.” She lived for a great many things, and the stories by which we know her were one of many preoccupations. After the carriage accident she was not strong enough to go out into the world a great deal; before that occurred her friendships occupied perhaps the first place in her life. She had friends among the most interesting and gifted people of her time, and scores of friends among the village and country people of her own State — people who knew her as Doctor Jewett’s daughter and regarded “Sarah’s writing” as a ladylike accomplishment. These country friends, she used to say, were the wisest of all, because they could never be fooled about fundamentals. Even after her long illness she was at home to a few visitors almost every afternoon; friends from England and France were always coming and going. Small dinner-parties and luncheons were part of the regular routine when she was with Mrs. Fields on Charles Street or at Manchester-by-the-Sea. When she was at home, in South Berwick, there were the old friends of her childhood to whom she must be always accessible. At the time I knew her she had, as she said, forgone all customary exercises — except a little gardening in spring and summer. But as a young woman she devoted her mornings to horseback riding in fine weather, and was skilful with a sailboat. Every day, in every season of the year, she enjoyed the beautiful country in which she had the good fortune to be born. Her love of the Maine country and seacoast was the supreme happiness of her life. Her stories were but reflections, quite incidental, of that peculiar and intensely personal pleasure. Take, for instance, that clear, daybreak paragraph which begins “By the Morning Boat”:

“On the coast of Maine, where many green islands and salt inlets fringe the deep-cut shore line; where balsam firs and bayberry bushes send their fragrance far seaward, and song-sparrows sing all day, and the tide runs plashing in and out among the weedy ledges; where cowbells tinkle on the hills and herons stand in the shady coves — on the lonely coast of Maine stood a small gray house facing the morning light.”

Wherever Miss Jewett might be in the world, in the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Apennines, she carried the Maine shore-country with her. She loved it by instinct, and in the light of wide experience, from near and from afar.

“You must know the world before you can know the village,” she once said to me. Quoted out of its context this remark sounds like a wise pronouncement, but Miss Jewett never made wise pronouncements. Her personal opinions she voiced lightly, half-humorously; any expression of them was spontaneous, the outgrowth of the immediate conversation. This remark was a supplementary comment, apropos of a story we had both happened to read: a story about a mule, introduced by the magazine which published it with an editorial note to the effect that (besides being “fresh” and “promising”) it was authentic, as the young man who wrote it was a mule-driver and had never been anything else. When I asked Miss Jewett if she had seen it, she gave no affirmative but a soft laugh, rather characteristic of her, something between amusement and forbearance, and exclaimed:

“Poor lad! But his mule could have done better! A mule, by God’s grace, is a mule, with the mettle of his kind. Besides, the mule would be grammatical. It’s not in his sure-footed nature to slight syntax. A horse might tangle himself up in his sentences or his picket rope, but never a mule.”

III

Miss Jewett had read too widely, and had too fine a literary sense, to overestimate her own performance. Every Sunday book section of the New York dailies announces half a dozen “great” books, and calls our attention to more great writers than the Elizabethan age and the nineteenth century put together could muster. Miss Jewett applied that adjective very seldom (to Tolstoi, Flaubert, and a few others), certainly never to herself or to anything of her own. She spoke of “the Pointed Fir papers” or “the Pointed Fir sketches”; I never heard her call them stories. She had, as Henry James said of her, “a sort of elegance of humility, or fine flame of modesty.” She was content to be slight, if she could be true. The closing sentences of “Marsh Rosemary” might stand as an unconscious piece of self-criticism, — or perhaps as a gentle apology for the art of all new countries, which must grow out of a thin soil and bear its fate:

“Who can laugh at my Marsh Rosemary, or who can cry, for that matter? The gray primness of the plant is made up from a hundred colors if you look close enough to find them. This Marsh Rosemary stands in her own place, and holds her dry leaves and tiny blossoms steadily toward the same sun that the pink lotus blooms for, and the white rose.”

For contemporary writers of much greater range than her own, she had the most reverent and rejoicing admiration. She was one of the first Americans to see the importance of Joseph Conrad. Indeed, she was reading a new volume of Conrad, late in the night, when the slight cerebral hæmorrhage occurred from which she died some months later.

At a time when machine-made historical novels were the literary fashion in the United States, when the magazines were full of dreary dialect stories, and the works of John Fox, Jr., were considered profound merely because they were very dull and heavy as clay, Miss Jewett quietly developed her own medium and confined herself to it. At that time Henry James was the commanding figure in American letters, and his was surely the keenest mind any American ever devoted to the art of fiction. But it was devoted almost exclusively to the study of other and older societies than ours. He was interested in his countrymen chiefly as they appeared in relation to the European scene. As an American writer he seems to claim, and richly to deserve, a sort of personal exemption. Stephen Crane came upon the scene, a young man of definite talent, brilliant and brittle, — dealing altogether with the surfaces of things, but in a manner all his own. He died young, but he had done something real. One can read him today. If we glance back over the many novels which have challenged our attention since Crane’s time, it is like taking a stroll through a World’s Fair grounds some years after the show is over. Palaces with the stucco peeling off, oriental villages stripped to beaver-board and cement, broken fountains, lakes gone to mud and weeds. We realize that whatever it is that makes a book hold together, most of these hadn’t it.

Among those glittering novelties which have now become old-fashioned Miss Jewett’s little volumes made a small showing. A taste for them must always remain a special taste, — but it will remain. She wrote for a limited audience, and she still has it, both here and abroad. To enjoy her the reader must have a sympathetic relation with the subject-matter and a sensitive ear; especially must he have a sense of “pitch” in writing. He must recognize when the quality of feeling comes inevitably out of the theme itself; when the language, the stresses, the very structure of the sentences are imposed upon the writer by the special mood of the piece.

It is easy to understand why some of the young students who have turned back from the present to glance at Miss Jewett find very little on her pages. Imagine a young man, or woman, born in New York City, educated at a New York university, violently inoculated with Freud, hurried into journalism, knowing no more about New England country people (or country folk anywhere) than he has caught from motor trips or observed from summer hotels: what is there for him in The Country of the Pointed Firs?

This hypothetical young man is perhaps of foreign descent: German, Jewish, Scandinavian. To him English is merely a means of making himself understood, of communicating his ideas. He may write and speak American English correctly, but only as an American may learn to speak French correctly. It is a surface speech: he clicks the words out as a bank clerk clicks out silver when you ask for change. For him the language has no emotional roots. How could he find the talk of the Maine country people anything but “dialect”? Moreover, the temper of the people which lies behind the language is incomprehensible to him. He can see what these Yankees HAVE NOT (hence an epidemic of “suppressed desire” plays and novels), but what they HAVE, their actual preferences and their fixed scale of values, are absolutely dark to him. When he tries to put himself in the Yankee’s place, he attempts an impossible substitution.

But the adopted American is not alone in being cut off from an instinctive understanding of “the old moral harmonies.” There is the new American, whom Mr. Santayana describes as “the untrained, pushing, cosmopolitan orphan, cocksure in manner but none too sure in his morality, to whom the old Yankee, with his sour integrity, is almost a foreigner.”*

When we find ourselves on shipboard, among hundreds of strangers, we very soon recognize those who are sympathetic to us. We find our own books in the same way. We like a writer much as we like individuals; for what he is, simply, underneath his accomplishments. Oftener than we realize, it is for some moral quality, some ideal which he himself cherishes, though it may be little discernible in his behaviour in the world. It is the light behind his books and is the living quality in his sentences.

It is this very personal quality of perception, a vivid and intensely personal experience of life, which make a “style”; Mark Twain had it, at his best, and Hawthorne. But among fifty thousand books you will find very few writers who ever achieved a style at all. The distinctive thing about Miss Jewett is that she had an individual voice; “a sense for the finest kind of truthful rendering, the sober, tender note, the temperately touched, whether in the ironic or pathetic,” as Henry James said of her. During the twenty-odd clamorous years since her death “masterpieces” have been bumping down upon us like trunks pouring down the baggage chutes from an overcrowded ocean steamer. But if you can get out from under them and go to a quiet spot and take up a volume of Miss Jewett, you will find the voice still there, with a quality which any ear trained in literature must recognize.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/cather/willa/not_under_forty/chapter4.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30