Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Writer Recommended: Sarah Orne Jewett

One of my favorite writers is not well-known at all. I first ran across her writing in Victoria Magazine when the final page included an excerpt from her most known work, The Country of the Pointed Firs. Only a month later, the same novel was assigned in an American writers course in graduate school. And I fell for Jewett's small town in Maine, for her characters, and for her writing. Jewett is definitely comparable to another "local color" American woman writer of the same time period: Willa Cather. In fact, these contemporaries were correspondents, writing to each other for years.

After classes ended, I read more of Sarah Orne Jewett's works: the quite autobiographical A Country Doctor, the more intense Deephaven, as well as the collection of shorter works Dunnet Landing Stories and selected stories and sketches, all of which are included, with Country of the Pointed Firs in the beautiful Library of America series. This edition is available in libraries and I strongly recommend ALL of them. If you must choose just one work of Jewett's to read, stick with Pointed Firs which can also be found in paperback.

Here's a lovely descriptive passage quoted from The Country of the Pointed Firs:

Later, there was only one fault to find with this choice of a summer lodging-place, and that was the complete lack of seclusion. At first the tiny house of Mrs. Almira Todd, which stood with its end to the street, appeared to be retired and sheltered enough from the busy world, behind its bushy bit of a green garden, in which all the blooming things, two or three gay hollyhocks and some London-pride, were pushed back against the gray-shingled wall. it was a queer little garden and puzzling to a stranger, the few flowers being put at a disadvantage by so much greenery; but the discovery was soon made that Mrs. Todd was an ardent lover of herbs, both wild and tame, and the sea-breezes blew into the low end-window of the house laden not only with sweet-brier and sweet-mary, but balm and sage and borage and mint, wormwood and southernwood. If Mrs. Todd had occasion to step into the far corner of her herb plot, she trod heavily upon thyme, and made its fragrant presence known with all the rest. Being a very large person, her full skirts brushed and bent almost every slender stalk that her feet missed. You could always tell when she was stepping about there, even when you were half-awake in the morning, and learned to know, in the course of a few weeks' experience, in exactly which corner of the garden she might be. (Chapter II, Mrs. Todd)

One of the more attractive aspects of graduate school for me was to be exposed to the works of women that I hadn't read before, and Sarah Orne Jewett certainly became a favorite writer of mine through the process. A few others came up, including studying the works of French writer Collette (an entire seminar devoted to her works alone), the afore-mentioned Willa Cather, Charlotte Perkins Gilman with whom I was already familiar, Kate Chopin, and the newly-discovered works of Louisa May Alcott. Discovering the works of women, especially of women who write about more "womanly" topics, was a true benefit of further study in literature. That's as far as I go with literary feminism, however....

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