A writer's debt to her father
Sarah Orne Jewett first met the quaint and colorful characters of her novels and short stories as a child, when she accompanied her father to the lonely inland farms and fishermen's cottages of southeastern Maine. And for the rest of her life she thanked him for these early introductions. Miss Jewett's writings were critically acclaimed in the late 1800s as ``perfect finished pictures'' of New England country life, noted for their rich, detailed characterizations and natural settings. Her best-known work, ``The Country of the Pointed Firs,'' is considered a small classic by some, alongside Hawthorne's ``The Scarlet Letter'' and Twain's ``Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.''
Theodore Herman Jewett was a rural doctor in the mid-1800s, whose patients were retired sea captains, fishermen, sailors' widows, and sturdy New England farmers. He was also a naturalist, an enthusiastic reader, and a compassionate observer of human nature. ``To T.H.J., my dear father; my dear friend,'' his daughter dedicated an early novel, ``the best and wisest man I ever knew; who taught me many lessons and showed me many things as we went together along the country by-ways.''
Born in 1849 in South Berwick, Maine, Miss Jewett was frail as a child and often unable to attend school, so her father lifted her to the high seat of his buggy and took her along on his rounds. The trips were all-day affairs, with a picnic lunch of fresh fruit and homemade bread filling a basket placed on the seat between them. In humble homes - seaside cottages or weather-worn shacks - they called on ``many delightful men and women of real individuality and breadth of character.'' The young Sarah met gaunt, self-contained fishermen, who knew more about the habits of ``haddick'' and codfish than about local affairs; sailors' widows - lonely, yet self-sufficient and cheerful; and hard-working, reticent farmers. The visits were also lessons in observation for the child.
``I had no consciousness of watching or listening, or indeed of any special interest in the country interiors.... I was sometimes perplexed at my father's directing my attention to certain points of interest in the character or surroundings of our acquaintances. I cannot help believing that he recognized, long before I did myself, in which direction the current of purpose in my life was setting,'' Miss Jewett later wrote.
As they rode along, Dr. Jewett pointed out the roadside shrubs and wildflowers: juniper, bayberry, golden rod, asters, and sweet fern. They listened to the songs of the wood thrush and the meadowlark. Young Sarah knew the maples, oaks, and silver poplars, the pines, hemlocks, and tall, straight firs. Later in life, one of her favorite places to write was a pine board placed across the intersection of two fences, where she could sit and look out on the spring meadows.
Father and daughter also talked about books and poems: Milton's ``L'Allegro'' and Arnold's ``The Scholar-Gypsy,'' and about writers - Smollett, Fielding, and Cervantes, among others. Dr. Jewett was a perceptive reader who shared with his daughter his own insights into good writing skills. ``My dear father used to say to me very often, `Tell things just as they are!' and used to show me what he meant in Laurence Sterne's `A Sentimental Journey.'
``Father said this one day,'' the daughter once penciled on the inside cover of her diary, ``A story should be managed so that it should suggest interesting things to the reader, instead of the author's doing all the thinking for him, and setting it before him in black and white. The best compliment is for the reader to say, `Why didn't he put in this or that?'''
Later, as a successful author, Miss Jewett answered letters from young, aspiring writers and often included bits of wisdom her father taught her. ``The best of my education was received in my father's buggy and the places to which it carried me,'' she said.
There were many opportunities for observing human nature in the child's life. Grandfather Jewett was a retired sea captain, who had run away from home as a boy to ship out on a whaler bound for the Pacific. He owned a store in South Berwick where sea captains, sailors, and lumbermen gathered. ``... I delighted in the elderly captains, with their sea-tanned faces, who came to report their voyages ... (and) listened eagerly to their exciting tales of great storms on the Atlantic, and winds that blew them north-about ...,'' she wrote.
In the small town, life was full for the doctor's daughter: ``The quiet village life, the dull routine of farming or mill life, early became interesting to me. I was taught to find everything an imaginative child could ask, in the simple scenes close at hand.''
Miss Jewett's first literary efforts were romances, written mostly for young women, and submitted to popular youth magazines of the day. In 1869 The Atlantic Monthly, the leading literary magazine of New England at that time, published her short story, ``Mr. Bruce.'' Although a favorite book was Harriet Beecher Stowe's ``The Pearl of Orr's Island,'' a local-color narrative about Maine fisher-folk, she did not try her hand at this type of writing until later. Occasionally, however, she jotted down firsthand impressions and bits of dialect.
In 1872 she submitted ``The Shore House,'' a story about a bustling Maine village similar to South Berwick, to The Atlantic Monthly. It was accepted, and the editor, William Dean Howells, encouraged her to write more. Into sketch after sketch she poured her love of the simple country people, drawing upon remembrances of people, events, dialects, and numerous details she had unwittingly stored away. These sketches were published over a two to three year period and, in 1877, collected into her first novel, ``Deephaven,'' which was an immediate success.
To the young author, country people led ``grand, simple lives.'' She hoped to ``help people to look at `commonplace' lives from the inside instead of the outside, to see that there is so deep and true a sentiment and loyalty and tenderness and courtesy and patience where at first sight there is only roughness and coarseness....''
She was remembering early lessons in observation, learned from a devoted teacher. ``Now, as I write my sketches of country life, I remember again and again the wise things [my father] said, and the sights he made me see,'' she wrote.
The year after ``Deephaven'' was published, Dr. Jewett suddenly died. Although the buggy rides had ended long before, father and daughter had remained best friends. In verses written shortly after his passing, the daughter recalled how, after short encounters with him during their separate schedules, ``light were the tasks the busy day had set.'' She wrote:
I heard to-day the first sweet song of spring - ...
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....''
The character of towns like South Berwick was rapidly changing, as manufacturing replaced seafaring and ship building and farmers left their farms for work in the mills. The wharves rotted. The shipyards, just four blocks north of her home, were abandoned; sailors no longer visited the town to spin their tales of adventure.
``Nobody has mourned more than I over the forsaken farmhouses which I see everywhere as I drive about the country out of which I grew, and where every bush and tree seem like my cousins,'' she wrote in a letter to a friend. ``Berwick is growing and flourishing in a way that breaks my heart.''
Miss Jewett kept in touch with the past through her writing. In ``The Country of the Pointed Firs'' and her best short stories, she writes with gentle respect of people such as Almira Todd, a gatherer and dispenser of healing herbs, Mrs. Blackett, an octogenarian with childlike enthusiasm, William, the industrious farmer/fisherman who avoids people and Elijah Tilley, the fisherman who knits and keeps a spotless house in remembrance of his departed wife.
She modeled her characters after people she had once met, and remembered. Elijah Tilley was ``old D.B. who can't go out fishing any more, so that he sits at home and knits stockings and thinks on his early days as an able seaman in foreign parts,'' she explained to a friend.
``What a wonderful kind of chemistry it is that evolves all the details of a story and writes them presently in one flash of time!'' she wrote. ``Who does it? For I grow more and more sure that I don't!''
Miss Jewett died in 1909 in the house in which she was born. Although she had traveled far - to Boston, Bar Harbor, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Europe - she always returned to South Berwick. She remained friends with some of her father's patients whom she had met in her childhood, visiting them and performing small kindnesses. Through stories as timeless as the seashore she fondly portrayed the ``very dear old days when I used to drive about with Father over the hills and down the river roads.''