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Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1908)

Sarah Orne Jewett

Sarah Orne Jewett

“You must throw everything and everybody aside at times,” advised this author who was born in 1849 in Berwyn, Maine.

Although she became a lively participant in the invigorating Boston literary scene, Sarah Jewett’s own writing focused on the colorful natural surroundings and people in and around Berwyn. Of frail health as a child, she was largely self-educated, though she did graduate from Berwyn Academy. Jewett often accompanied her ever-instructive physician father on his rounds by horse. His family had arrived with the Bay Colony settlers in the 1630s. She adored her father and was devastated by his death in 1878. Her stories continued what he taught her in their travels visiting patients. Her mother’s father, also a physician, was an esteemed surgeon who practiced in the surrounding seaside towns and farmlands.

Jewett’s writing career began in earnest when the Atlantic Monthly published her story, “The Shore House.” Deephaven (1877), the first of her almost annual twenty books, presented her distinctive tales of country people. Her novel, A Country Doctor (1884), portrayed her father. What is known as her masterpiece is The Country of the Pointed Firs (1876). A volume of her Verses was published posthumously in 1916.

Her writing was praised by no less than Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, and James Russell Lowell. Indeed, in 1901 Bowdoin College awarded her an Litt.D. degree, the first such honor awarded to a woman. In 1902, the carriage in which Jewett was riding was wrecked when the horse slipped. Her writing career ended. She died, after a stroke, at the age of sixty in the handsome, still-standing house where she was born in Berwyn.

In 1911 the Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett were edited by Annie Adams Fields, the wife of the publisher, James T. Fields. Their Boston home at 148 Charles Street was a strong social center of the New England literary elite. Jewett was a prominent member and a dear friend of Mrs. Fields. Indeed, when Mr. Fields died, the two women united in a “Boston marriage.” They lived together for several months each year in Boston, and they often traveled abroad. An essay by Josephine Donovan—now available online—helps to reveal their relationship: “The Unpublished Love Poems of Sarah Orne Jewett.” I do not have permission to publish any of these, but here are two examples of her published poems.

I heard to-day the first sweet song of spring
A blue-bird’s eager note, so faint and far,
Across the fields; and first I was so glad.
I thought of summer, and the flowers that are
Waiting for that glad day when they can bloom.
But quick again my heart was sorrowing:
It was mistaken in its winters end.
I think I never was so grieved and sad,
And in my mind there was no longer room
For any thought but of that dearest friend
Who taught me first the beauty of these days
To watch the young leaves start, the birds return,
And how the brooks rush down their rocky ways,
The new life everywhere, the stars that burn
Bright in the mild, clear nights. Oh! he has gone,
And I must watch the spring this year, alone.

High on the lichened ledges, like
A lonely sea-fowl on its perch,
Blown by the cold sea winds, it stands,
Old Gosport’s quaint forsaken church.

No sign is left of all the town
Except a few forgotten graves;
But to and fro the white sails go
Slowly across the glittering waves;

And summer idlers stray about
With curious questions of the lost
And vanished village, and its men,
Whose boats by these same waves were tossed.

I wonder if the old church dreams
About its parish, and the days
The fisher people came to hear
The preaching and the songs of praise?

Rough-handed, browned by sun and wind,
Heedless of fashion or of creed,
They listened to the parson’s words—
Their pilot heavenward indeed.

Their eyes on week-days sought the church,
Their surest landmark, and the guide
That led them in from far at sea,
Until they anchored safe beside

The harbor wall that braved the storm
With its resistless strength of stone.
Those busy fishers all are gone—
The church is standing here alone.

But still I hear their voices strange,
And still I see the people go
Over the ledges to their homes:
The bent old women s footsteps slow

The faithful parson stop to give
Some timely word to one astray;
The little children hurrying on
Together, chattering of their play.

I know the blue sea covered some,
And others in the rocky ground
Found narrow lodgings for their bones-
God grant their rest is sweet and sound!

I saw the worn rope idle hang
Beside me in the belfry brown.
I gave the bell a solemn toll—
I rang the knell for Gosport town.

Click here to view supplemental reading to Sarah Orne Jewett on Amazon.

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