SARAH ORNE JEWETT (1849-1909) set her books in the fictional towns of Deephaven and Dunnet Landing; Dunnet Landing is based clearly on South Berwick, Jewett’s birthplace. She wrote sympathetic portraits of life in her locality – the small seaports and inland terrain of the southern sea-coast of Maine – its hardship and isolation, and was certainly not sentimental. Much of Jewett’s writing is autobiographical and incorporates her childhood experiences. She would accompany her father, a local doctor, on his rounds when he visited the local fishermen and farmers.
Her first short story was published when she was 19 in 1869; her first book, Deephaven, was published in 1877 when she was 28. Critics have suggested that she wrote sequences of related short stories, a patchwork of tales stitched together tentatively as novels; they rely little on plotting and concentrate far more on a sense of place. She is considered to be a leading light in the development of color writing. From the late 1870s Jewett’s writing had been reviewed widely and favourably; William Dean Howells, for instance, remarking that she possessed “an uncommon feeling for talk – I hear your people.” An early successful novel was A Country Doctor (1884); a volume of short stories, A White Heron, (1886) was well received and frequently anthologised. Some of her stories were translated by Thérèse Bentzon into French. Her last published work, The Tory Lover (1901), although not praised critically, was her bestselling book. Her writing career had gained some momentum when it was cut short suddenly in 1902: she sustained serious injury whilst travelling in a carriage.
The Country of the Pointed Firs was published in November 1896 by Houghton, Mifflin and Company, and had been expanded and revised from its first printing earlier in that year in The Atlantic Monthly. Editions tend now to follow the order of sequence used in the book’s 1923 edition, prepared by Willa Cather. It is considered to be Jewett’s finest book. Cather thought it to be a masterpiece that would stand the test of time; Henry James thought it was a “beautiful little quantum of achievement.”
Sarah One Jewett’s family were longstanding and highly regarded residents of New England; the family home, built in 1774 and owned by the family from 1819, faced the Central Square in South Berwick; her writing desk was sited on the second floor where she would gaze at town life. Her father was a doctor. As a child she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and was made to recuperate by going for lengthy walks; often she accompanied her father on his rounds. She developed a love of nature and of the countryside which saturates her prose. Her family had an impressive library, and she read widely as a child; she graduated from school in 1865. Jewett developed an interest in nonconformist religious ideas and even joined the Episcopal Church in her early twenties; she was influenced greatly by the Swedish theologian and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg.
Her writing attracted notice throughout the 1870s and 1880s; The Country of the Pointed Firs was the best received of all her books. As well as short fiction, Jewett wrote poetry and three children’s books.
Jewett’s father died in 1878 and although she never married, from 1881 she lived in Massachusetts and travelled in Europe for lengthy periods of time with the writer Annie Adams Fields, the widow of James T. Fields who had been the publisher and editor of The Atlantic Monthly. At the time this was referred to as a ‘Boston Marriage’, although there is no proof that the two were lovers. Although Jewett travelled elsewhere frequently, particularly to Boston, she felt most comfortable perhaps in her home environment. John Greenleaf Whittier was a close friend and she enjoyed many other literary friendships, particularly through Annie Fields; George Washington Cable noted memorably that “Miss Jewett is not picturesque, like Mrs Fields, but it’s a sweet short sermon just to look at her.” Willa Cather came across her writing through seeing her face on the “Authors” card deck of the time and met her in 1908. Jewett became a brief and inspirational mentor. Cather dedicated O Pioneers! to her and later edited Jewett’s works.
After her accident in 1902, Jewett suffered from forgetfulness and found concentration impossible. She had several strokes and died in June 1909.
Jewett's book covers
SARAH W. WHITMAN (1842-1904), born in Massachusetts where she was socially well placed, married a wealthy wool merchant when 24. She started her artistic studies two years later in Boston. She travelled to Paris twice, the first time when aged 35 to study with Thomas Couture, who taught Manet and many other aspiring artists of the period; she visited Spain, Italy and England also for research. With no formal training or qualification, she had managed to establish herself as a prominent glass window designer – she set up her own studio, the Lily Glass Works, in Boston – and painter.
She became also a designer of book covers, and from about 1884 until her death she designed over 220 books. She was a principal designer for Houghton Mifflin; Oliver Wendell Holmes and Celia Thaxter were, apart from Sarah One Jewett, perhaps the best known authors she designed for. She struck up a firm friendship with Sarah Orne Jewett that lasted until she died, and they corresponded tirelessly. Jewett welcomed Whitman’s critique and approval of her work. Jewett dedicated one volume of short stories, Strangers and Wayfarers (1890), to her. Fifteen of Jewett’s books have covers designed by Sarah Whitman.
Like Jewett, Whitman had, in many ways, a deep aesthetic sympathy for the romantic in real life. Both their artistic endeavours were informed by Emerson’s transcendentalism, a philosophy influenced by English Romanticism with an underlying belief that contact with nature and the natural world can only be spiritually restorative.
Whitman’s book covers, influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau, were essentially minimalist. She helped herald a more artistically self-conscious element of simplicity to book presentation in America. Her colour of choice for a binding was green, of all shades, and she used usually one other colour for the design, often a gold or deep red. She used linear drawing and silhouette to great effect, often asymmetrical; flower or plant emblems were employed frequently, including often her own ‘flaming heart’ motif.
With a background in stained glass design and manufacture, Whitman’s approach was unsurprisingly practical and utilitarian. She held that no compromise was necessary to attach her high artistic principles to the mass production of books; she saw no contradictions between her artistic purpose and financial constraint or an economy of scale. She addressed the Boston Arts Association:
“You have got to think how to apply elements of design to these cheaply sold books; to put the touch of art on this thing that is going to be produced at a level price, which allows for no handwork, the decoration to be cut with a die, the books to go out by the thousand and to be sold at a low price. . . What I feel is that under these conditions, the more necessary it is to design covers well because they are really like aesthetic tracts. They go everywhere.”
Jewett remained loyal to Whitman’s designs. In 1904,after Whitman’s death, in discussion with the publisher over a new printing of Betty Leicester, she wrote:
“But will you please give directions at the Press that the old bindings should be restored to Betty Leicester? –the scarlet and white- for it is an ugly book at present; the die does not sit well sideways on the corner and this green and red cloth are very far from the beauty of Mrs. Whitman’s charming design.”
More of Whitman’s book designs:
Sarah Orne Jewett’s Bibliography
1878: Play Days
1879: Old Friends and New
1881: Country By-Ways
1884: The Mate of the Daylight, and Friends Ashore
1884: A Country Doctor
1885: A Marsh Island
1886: A White Heron and Other Stories
1887: The Story of the Norman
1888: The King of Folly Island and Other People
1890: Betty Leicester
1890: Tales of New England
1890: Strangers and Wayfarers
1893: A Native of Winby and Other Tales
1894: Betty Leicester’s English Christmas
1895: The Life of Nancy
1896: The Country of the Pointed Firs
1899: The Queens’ Twin and Other Stories
1901: The Tory Lover
1905: An Empty Purse
1911: Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett*
*posthumously published, edited by Annie Fields
A young woman returns to Dunnet after an absence; she had made a brief visit to the town a few years previously. She is intent upon locking herself away to write her novel, and stays with Mrs Todd, a widow. Mrs Todd is the local apothecary and herbalist whose open, wise and kind-hearted ways position her as a nexus of the local community. The social to and fro frustrates the heroine, who rents a secluded school-room, but her company is sought still by members of the town. She becomes attached to each of her visitors and, against her will, becomes involved in the town’s communal life, where generations of families have forged strong, affectionate ties, although all is no longer idyllic. Some of its characters have lost touch with the mainstream of human relationship and the area’s economic well-being has declined, and there is fragility and poignancy woven into the writing, culminating in the final parting of the young narrator, clearly based on Jewett herself, and Mrs Todd. A focus of the lives of this neighbourhood of families is the sea coast and its wooded hinterland.