Sarah Orne Jewett, 1849-1909

Portrait

Biographical note

SARAH ORNE JEWETT (1849–1909) was born and died in South Berwick, Maine. Her father was the region’s most distinguished doctor and, as a child, Jewett often accompanied him on his round of patient visits. She began writing poetry at an early age and when she was only 19 her short story “Mr. Bruce” was accepted by the Atlantic Monthly. Her association with that magazine continued, and William Dean Howells, who was editor at that time, encouraged her to publish her first book, Deephaven (1877), a collection of sketches published earlier in the Atlantic Monthly. Through her friendship with Howells, Jewett became acquainted with Boston’s literary elite, including Annie Fields, with whom she developed one of the most intimate and lasting relationships of her life.

The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) is considered Jewett’s finest work, described by Henry James as her “beautiful little quantum of achievement.” Despite James’s diminutives, the novel remains a classic. Because it is loosely structured, many critics view the book not as a novel, but a series of sketches; however, its structure is unified through both setting and theme. Jewett herself felt that her strengths as a writer lay not in plot development or dramatic tension, but in character development. Indeed, she determined early in her career to preserve a disappearing way of life, and her novel can be read as a study of the effects of isolation and hardship on the inhabitants who lived in the decaying fishing villages along the Maine coast.

Jewett died in 1909, eight years after an accident that effectively ended her writing career. Her reputation had grown during her lifetime, extending far beyond the bounds of the New England she loved.

Works

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