Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 29, 2008

A Short Step Back in Time

Sarah Orne Jewett was a well known writer in the late 1800’s. She inspired Willa Cather, wrote The Country of the Pointed Firs, a collection of stories about rural Maine which has never gone out of print, and The White Heron, a much-anthologized story about a girl who struggles to choose between her devotion to a free-flying heron and and a dashing young fellow. Many years ago my husband and I bicycled from our first home in Dover, NH to the house where Jewett was born and died in South Berwick, Maine.

This weekend I drove with my friend, Pat, for one of the tours held on the hour over the weekend. Historic women writers are not as hot as, say, a Red Sox game, so Pat and I got our own personal tour. The beautiful house, built for a grandfather involved in shipping, was maintained by Sarah and her sisters, then the son of the one sister who married. All had a tremendous respect for keeping the past alive. While I have memories of stripping wallpaper from old houses, only to find yet another layer, than another, here the faded wallpaper is two hundred years old. Sarah kept it even when she didn’t love it. After her death, her sister, then her nephew, who willed the house to be kept as a museum to his aunt, insisted that her bedroom be maintained as she’d left it. By the bed, a cunning china pen holder is bolted the wall. It holds two pens with her teeth marks still on the chewed tops. A portrait of her best friend, Annie Fields, wife of the Atlantic publisher James Fields, is across from her bed, along with paintings of beloved mountains.

I loved the gorgeous writing desk on the second floor, with a huge window overlooking the center of town. Photographs of writers, many personal friends, are in almost every room: Longfellow, Hawthorne, Celia Thaxter, Tennyson, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose local color stories were perhaps her biggest inspiration, along with her father’s advice to write about what she saw, as opposed to fantasy or romances then more popular.

As a child, Sarah was often sick, or said she was, so missed school, which she did not like. Her understanding father, a doctor, took her along on rounds, considering that meeting families while he tended to their sick was a good education. I’m struck by this imaginative father in light of recent discussions about the dearth of fabulous fathers in children’s literature, though many writers have them in life. This caring father and daughter remained close through their lives and what Sarah saw and heard as a child taking buggy rides through the countryside formed the basis of much of her fiction. She hoped to preserve not only wallpaper, but stories from days before the railroads changed the country.

To read more about fathers, children, and writing, Susan Taylor Brown recently hosted a carnival with many fascinating links



  1. Boy, this is taking me back to a when I can’t identify. SOMEONE in my college/grad school life was studying Sarah Orne Jewett. I can’t remember if it was the good friend of undergraduate years or the insane roommate from my first year of grad school. If I could connect a feeling with the memory–interesting or crazy–I’d probably be able to pinpoint it. Hmm–guess I’d better just go read something of hers to figure it out. Any recommendations for a first dip? 🙂
    I love that she was maybe sick, maybe not. What a different take her dad had from us–better send them in so they won’t learn they can fake it! Of course, he still got his work done when she stayed home…

  2. Why does it always have to be the roommate who is the crazy one? I hope it was the friend, and as writers go, Jewett seems quite sane. Most of my crazy college/grad school friends who crazy about Faulkner and such, not Austen or Jewett, but you never know.
    The White Heron is a really evocative story. I believe that all or most of Jewett’s work is available online, as some part of saving lit project. Some years ago it came out as a book for children, and is in many anthologies.
    I do like this dad, who considered meeting a variety of people a good education. I guess she wasn’t sick enough to accompany him on rounds. Maybe was some kind of neurolgia thing. As a dr, I expect he drilled her in Latin and maybe some science along with reading along the way. Will have to find a biography at some point!
    Thanks for taking this history trip with me! I loved just seeing Cindy Lord’s photo of a church where Harriet Beecher Stowe, a contemporary (a bit older) got going with Uncle Tom’s Cabin!

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