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The Country of the Pointed Firs
Sarah Orne Jewett

£6.00

NOT YET PRINTED March 2021

The Country of the Pointed Firs is a sequence of vignettes and sketches, short stories loosely grouped as a novel. Its setting is Dunnet Landing on the coast of Maine, a fictitious town based on he autthor’s birthplace. The theme of its locality is more prominent than its use of plot or character. It is a prime example of American local color writing.

This novel, the highpoint of Sarah Orne Jewett’s work, was published in 1896, just six years before her writing career was cut short by a riding accident when aged only 53. Willa Cather, who met Jewett in 1908 and who later edited this book, considered Jewett to be a great influence on her own writing, and held that The Country of the Pointed Firs, alongside Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, was one of “three American books which have the possibility of a long, long life.” Henry James considered the book to be a “beautiful little quantum of achievement.”

AMERICAN RETRO SERIES : AR01

C format paperback (216mm x 135mm), 116pp
cover design by Alexandra Andries

Biography

SARAH ORNE JEWETT (1849 – 1909) set many of her stories in the fictional towns of Deephaven and Dunnet Landing; Dunnet Landing is clearly modelled on South Berwick, Jewett’s birthplace. These stories are sympathetic portraits of life in this locality – the small seaports and inland terrain of the southern sea coast of Maine – tell of its hardships and isolation, and avoid any sentimentality. Jewett’s family were longstanding residents of New England and well-regarded; her father was a doctor.

As a child Jewett suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and her treatment included going for lengthy walks or accompanying her father on his rounds of the fishing and farming communities of the area. Memories of this perambulatory ritual made their way into her writing. Much of Jewett’s writing is autobiographical and incorporates much of her childhood experience of the area, her love of its countryside and of thenatural world in general.

Jewett’s parental home had an impressive library, and she read widely as a child. She developed an interest in nonconformist religious ideas and had even joined the Episcopal Church in her early twenties; she was influenced greatly by the Swedish theologian and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg.

Jewett’s father died in 1878. From 1881 she lived sporadically in Boston but travelled in Europe for lengthy periods of time; but Maine remained the place she felt most at ease. Jewettnevermarried. She shared a house most of her adult life with the writer Annie Adams Fields, the widow of James T. Fields, the publisher and editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Such domestic arrangement was common at this time and was referred to often as a Boston Marriage; there is no evidence that the two were lovers.

Sarah Orne Jewett’s first short story was published in 1869 when she was nineteen. Her first book, Deephaven, was published in 1877. Jewett’s writing thereafter was reviewed widely and favourably; William Dean Howells declared 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 became her most anthologized story. As well as short fiction, Jewett wrote poetry and three children’s books. Some of her stories were translated by Thérèse Bentzon into French. Her last published work, The Tory Lover (1901) was not received well by critics but was her bestselling book. This suggests that her career had trajectory when it was cut suddenly short, for in 1902 Jewett sustained serious injury whilst travelling in a carriage. After this accident she suffered from forgetfulness and found concentration mostly impossible; she was able to write “nothing of consequence” in herlastyears. She had several strokes and died in June 1909.

Many critics have suggested that Jewett was not suited to longer literary form, that she was at her best composing sequences of related shorter stories. The Country of the Pointed Firs is indeed such a patchwork of parallel tales, stitched together yet often only casually incidental, bleeding into each other and bound tentatively as a novel. A sequence of storylines evolves with no dramatic arc or even of resolution; their format can be seen perhaps as a model for today’s TV soap operas. If her books include notable characters, then none are crucial to the story; rather these characters are foils to chronicle the world in which they move, and serve as ornaments to the panoramic social landscape of the narrative. It would have been no accident that Jewett’s writing desk was placed on the second floor of the family home and faced the Central Square in South Berwick. From there she could gaze at the random pedestrian recital of her town’s life, a panoramic view not dissimilar to that found in her fiction. The main setting of The Country of the Pointed Firs is the long street that runs through Dunnet Landing.

If The Country of the Pointed Firs has a main character, then it is Dunnet Landing itself. The book in many ways can be seen as a forerunner of Edgar Lee Masters’ poetry collection The Spoon River Anthology or of Sherwood Anderson’s modernist masterpiece Winnesburg, Ohio. Both authors took their childhood towns as their imaginative starting point. Coincidentally James Joyce had in 1905 begun to submit to publishers the early drafts of Dubliners, a literary psychogeography akin to Jewett’s.

Many significant contemporary writers and critics championed The Country of the Pointed Firs; Henry James considered it to be a “beautiful little quantum of achievement.” Willa Cather, who read Jewett keenly and met her eventually in 1908, thought this book to be a masterpiece. Jewett became Cather’s inspirational mentor, albeit briefly before her death the next year. Cather dedicated O Pioneers! to Jewett and went on to edit Jewett’s work in the 1920s.

Sarah Orne Jewett is presented as a leading light in the development of American local color writing – a literary category often used carelessly or with slight disparagement, sometimes even to denote nostalgia or quaintness. Her books may offer a sharp contrast to the emerging American literary themes of her day – urbanisation and industrialisation, railroads and migration – but all these social movements may be sensed in the hinterland of her writing. But if Jewett acknowledged the demands and momentum of the modern world and the effects it had on far-flung communities such as Berwick, Maine, then she was also a faithful witness to the continuation of social community. If New England’s shipping industry was struggling or its more marginalised agriculture faltering, then their adaptions to the prevailing economic trends need not disturb any link to its past or its tradition. The continuation of community is a main constituent of Jewett’s writing.

 

The Country of the Pointed Firs was published in November 1896 by Houghton, Mifflin and Company. It had been revised significantly and expanded by the author since its first outing earlier that year (in four issues of The Atlantic Monthly). Jewett included two more stories – Along Shore and A Backward Glance – in the 1896 edition, and two stories had been combined and lengthened to form The Bowden Reunion. Jewett went on to write a further three stories that were set in Dunnet Landing; a fourth was found unfinished upon her death. The completed stories were added by the publisher to the original text in reprints of 1910 and 1919, and had been encouraged to do so by Jewett’s sister. It has been argued that the book can be seen as an evolving piece of literature, a quality denied perhaps to the structure and narrative of a standard novel.

There are, then, various, competing editions of the text. Most subsequent editions have tended to follow the order of sequence determined by Willa Cather for the book’s 1925 edition, which included these additional stories. However there is no evidence that Jewett herself had blessed any of these inclusions; it is also possible that Jewett had loose plans to assemble a sequel to The Country of the Pointed Firs. It can be argued also that the expanded text upsets the balance of the original (by overly concentrating on the character of William). For these reasons, the additional three stories have been omitted from this edition.

Plot

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.

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:

Bibliography

Sarah Orne Jewett’s Bibliography

1877: Deephaven
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*
1916: Verses*

*posthumously published, edited by Annie Fields

Extract

The Return

THERE WAS SOMETHING about the coast town of Dunnet which made it seem more attractive than other maritime villages of eastern Maine. Perhaps it was the simple fact of acquaintance with that neighborhood which made it so attaching, and gave such interest to the rocky shore and dark woods, and the few houses which seemed to be securely wedged and tree-nailed in among the ledges by the Landing. These houses made the most of their seaward view, and there was a gayety and determined floweriness in their bits of garden ground; the small-paned high windows in the peaks of their steep gables were like knowing eyes that watched the harbor and the far sea-line beyond, or looked northward all along the shore and its background of spruces and balsam firs. When one really knows a village like this and its surroundings, it is like becoming acquainted with a single person. The process of falling in love at first sight is as final as it is swift in such a case, but the growth of true friendship may be a lifelong affair.

After a first brief visit made two or three summers before in the course of a yachting cruise, a lover of Dunnet Landing returned to find the unchanged shores of the pointed firs, the same quaintness of the village with its elaborate conventionalities; all that mixture of remoteness, and childish certainty of being the centre of civilization of which her affectionate dreams had told. One evening in June, a single passenger landed upon the steamboat wharf. The tide was high, there was a fine crowd of spectators, and the younger portion of the company followed her with subdued excitement up the narrow street of the salt-aired, white-clapboarded little town.

 

MRS. TODD

LATER, THERE WAS only one fault to find with this choice of a summer lodging-place, and that was its 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 with not only 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.

At one side of this herb plot were other growths of a rustic pharmacopœia, great treasures and rarities among the commoner herbs. There were some strange and pungent odors that roused a dim sense and remembrance of something in the forgotten past. Some of these might once have belonged to sacred and mystic rites, and have had some occult knowledge handed with them down the centuries; but now they pertained only to humble compounds brewed at intervals with molasses or vinegar or spirits in a small caldron on Mrs. Todd’s kitchen stove. They were dispensed to suffering neighbors, who usually came at night as if by stealth, bringing their own ancient-looking vials to be filled. One nostrum was called the Indian remedy, and its price was but fifteen cents; the whispered directions could be heard as customers passed the windows. With most remedies the purchaser was allowed to depart unadmonished from the kitchen, Mrs. Todd being a wise saver of steps; but with certain vials she gave cautions, standing in the doorway, and there were other doses which had to be accompanied on their healing way as far as the gate, while she muttered long chapters of directions, and kept up an air of secrecy and importance to the last. It may not have been only the common ails of humanity with which she tried to cope; it seemed sometimes as if love and hate and jealousy and adverse winds at sea might also find their proper remedies among the curious wild-looking plants in Mrs. Todd’s garden.

The village doctor and this learned herbalist were upon the best of terms. The good man may have counted upon the unfavorable effect of certain potions which he should find his opportunity in counteracting; at any rate, he now and then stopped and exchanged greetings with Mrs. Todd over the picket fence. The conversation became at once professional after the briefest preliminaries, and he would stand twirling a sweet-scented sprig in his fingers, and make suggestive jokes, perhaps about her faith in a too persistent course of thoroughwort elixir, in which my landlady professed such firm belief as sometimes to endanger the life and usefulness of worthy neighbors.

To arrive at this quietest of seaside villages late in June, when the busy herb-gathering season was just beginning, was also to arrive in the early prime of Mrs. Todd’s activity in the brewing of old-fashioned spruce beer. This cooling and refreshing drink had been brought to wonderful perfection through a long series of experiments; it had won immense local fame, and the supplies for its manufacture were always giving out and having to be replenished. For various reasons, the seclusion and uninterrupted days which had been looked forward to proved to be very rare in this otherwise delightful corner of the world. My hostess and I had made our shrewd business agreement on the basis of a simple cold luncheon at noon, and liberal restitution in the matter of hot suppers, to provide for which the lodger might sometimes be seen hurrying down the road, late in the day, with cunner line in hand. It was soon found that this arrangement made large allowance for Mrs. Todd’s slow herb-gathering progresses through woods and pas-tures. The spruce-beer customers were pretty steady in hot weather, and there were many demands for different soothing syrups and elixirs with which the unwise curiosity of my early residence had made me acquainted. Knowing Mrs. Todd to be a widow, who had little beside this slender business and the income from one hungry lodger to maintain her, one’s energies and even interest were quickly bestowed, until it became a matter of course that she should go afield every pleasant day, and that the lodger should answer all peremptory knocks at the side door.

In taking an occasional wisdom-giving stroll in Mrs. Todd’s company, and in acting as business partner during her frequent absences, I found the July days fly fast, and it was not until I felt myself confronted with too great pride and pleasure in the display, one night, of two dollars and twenty-seven cents which I had taken in during the day, that I remembered a long piece of writing, sadly belated now, which I was bound to do. To have been patted kindly on the shoulder and called “darlin’,” to have been offered a surprise of early mushrooms for supper, to have had all the glory of making two dollars and twenty-seven cents in a single day, and then to renounce it all and withdraw from these pleasant successes, needed much resolution. Literary employments are so vexed with uncertainties at best, and it was not until the voice of conscience sounded louder in my ears than the sea on the nearest pebble beach that I said unkind words of withdrawal to Mrs. Todd. She only became more wistfully affectionate than ever in her expressions, and looked as disappointed as I expected when I frankly told her that I could no longer enjoy the pleasure of what we called “seein’ folks.” I felt that I was cruel to a whole neighborhood in curtailing her liberty in this most important season for harvesting the different wild herbs that were so much counted upon to ease their winter ails.

“Well, dear,” she said sorrowfully, “I’ve took great advantage o’ your bein’ here. I ain’t had such a season for years, but I have never had nobody I could so trust. All you lack is a few qualities, but with time you’d gain judgment an’ experience, an’ be very able in the business. I’d stand right here an’ say it to anybody.”

Mrs. Todd and I were not separated or estranged by the change in our business relations; on the contrary, a deeper intimacy seemed to begin. I do not know what herb of the night it was that used sometimes to send out a penetrating odor late in the evening, after the dew had fallen, and the moon was high, and the cool air came up from the sea. Then Mrs. Todd would feel that she must talk to somebody, and I was only too glad to listen. We both fell under the spell, and she either stood outside the window, or made an errand to my sitting-room, and told, it might be very commonplace news of the day, or, as happened one misty summer night, all that lay deepest in her heart. It was in this way that I came to know that she had loved one who was far above her.

“No, dear, him I speak of could never think of me,” she said. “When we was young together his mother didn’t favor the match, an’ done everything she could to part us; and folks thought we both married well, but ‘t wa’n’t what either one of us wanted most; an’ now we’re left alone again, an’ might have had each other all the time. He was above bein’ a seafarin’ man, an’ prospered more than most; he come of a high family, an’ my lot was plain an’ hard-workin’. I ain’t seen him for some years; he’s forgot our youthful feelin’s, I expect, but a woman’s heart is different; them feelin’s comes back when you think you’ve done with ‘em, as sure as spring comes with the year. An’ I’ve always had ways of hearin’ about him.”

She stood in the centre of a braided rug, and its rings of black and gray seemed to circle about her feet in the dim light. Her height and massiveness in the low room gave her the look of a huge sibyl, while the strange fragrance of the mysterious herb blew in from the little garden.