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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Sarah Orne Jewett

Named for her paternal grandfather and grandmother, Theodora Sarah Orne Jewett was the second of three girls born to Theodore Herman and Caroline Frances Perry Jewett in the New England village of South Berwick, Maine. Descending on both sides from pre-Revolutionary families that had built up comfortable incomes from shipbuilding and seafaring, she was the daughter and granddaughter of physicians. As a child Jewett wished to become a doctor herself. Poor health thwarted that ambition even as it encouraged her close relationship with her father, who took her with him on medical calls to build up her strength. These trips through rural and small-town Maine provided her, by her own account, with material for her writing throughout her career.

Upon graduation from Berwick Academy in 1865, Jewett began writing short fiction. She also published poetry, literature for children, and two novels, one of which, A Country Doctor, shows a young woman choosing to become a physician rather than marry. But her true gift was short narrative. As she wrote to Horace Scudder, the assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly, in 1873: "But I don't believe I could write a long story as you and Mr. Howells advise me in this last letter....The story would have no plot." She explained: "I could write you entertaining letters perhaps, from some desirable house where I was in most charming company, but I couldn't make a story about it," and she ended by lamenting: "What shall be done with such a girl? For I wish to keep on writing, and to do the very best I can."

Partly a pose (many of Jewett's stories would have expertly crafted conventional plots), this protest probably reflects resistance to the kind of conventional plotting found in most high-culture, white, Western, masculine fiction. She often experimented with narrative forms that do not follow predictable linear patterns. For example, the sketch, a genre developed primarily though not exclusively by women during the nineteenth century, provided a short flexible structure that encourages realistic depiction of specific environments, moods, relationships, customs, and characters without requiring pronounced protagonist/antagonist plotting and closure.

Fascinated throughout her career with relationships among women, Jewett grounded her personal life in close friendships with women, the most important of which was her long relationship with Annie Fields, a woman prominent and powerful in her own right in the Boston literary and publishing world. The two women's commitment to each other began in the early 1880s, shortly after the death of Fields's husband, the publisher James Fields, and became the strongest bond in the author's adult life. Fields and Jewett traveled widely in Europe and the eastern United States and lived a large part of every year together, dividing their time between Boston and the New England shore (the remainder of the year Jewett lived in her family home in South Berwick). The Fields/Jewett household on Charles Street in the Back Bay in Boston served as an important literary center where well-known figures in the publishing world, from Howells in the 1880s to Cather in the early 1900s, visited and gathered.

Jewett connected two generations of women writers. She counted among her influences Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose New England fiction she greatly admired, and she figured prominently in the tradition of women realists and regionalists active in the second half of the nineteenth century: Rose Terry Cooke, Celia Thaxter, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Alice Brown, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. At the turn of the century writers as different as Kate Chopin and Willa Cather, and probably Alice Dunbar-Nelson, looked to Jewett as a model. (Edith Wharton did as well, though she chose to call attention to her independence from Jewett rather than her affinity with her.) Cather acknowledged a strong debt to Jewett, who told her to devote herself full-time to writing fiction. Cather gratefully dedicated her first novel about a heroine, O Pioneers! (1913), to Jewett and said in 1925 that The Country of the Pointed Firs ranked with The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn as an American classic.

Toward the end of her career, Jewett fused brilliantly her interests in rural community, female friendship, the making of art, and the structure of narrative in The Country of the Pointed Firs. These concerns also shape "A White Heron" (1881), probably Jewett's best-known individual story, and "The Foreigner," whose main character, Almira Todd, is central in The Country of the Pointed Firs as well.

"A White Heron" dramatizes the clash of competing sets of values in late-nineteenth-century industrial America: urban/rural, scientific/empathic, masculine/feminine. A story of female initiation (or, actually, anti-initiation), it offers a highly critical perspective on heterosexual romantic love and attraction in modern Western culture. "The Foreigner," written after The Country of the Pointed Firs, comes out of Jewett's lifelong interest in the occult and extra-sensory communication. Played out against a violent "natural" backdrop, its themes of mother-daughter love and sororal bonds suggest her faith in the healing power of female friendship and her vision of an alternative world—woman-centered, enduring, cooperative—outside and removed from mainstream, masculine America. In both these stories, race is a covert but key issue, as evidenced by the obsession with whiteness in the former and the West Indies connection in the latter.

In 1901 Bowdoin College conferred on Sarah Orne Jewett the degree of Litt.D., making her the first woman to receive that honor from the college. Eight years later, following a stroke, she died in South Berwick in the house in which she had been born.

Elizabeth Ammons
Tufts University

In the Heath Anthology
A White Heron (1886)
The Foreigner (1900)

Other Works
Deephaven (1877)
A Country Doctor (1884)
A White Heron and Other Stories (1886)
The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896)
The Tory Lover (1901)

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White Heron site
University of Texas site with text and student criticism.

Electronic Edition of The Country of the Pointed Firs
Graduate student collaborative project at UNC created this hypertext, interactive version of Jewett's story.

Local Color: 19th-century Regional Writing in the United States
Brief bio, criticism, list of primary works, and a page about Jewett's "romantic friendship" with Annie Fields.

The Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project
Biographical sketch, project description, critical essays on Jewett's work, and research suggestions.

Women Writers Net
Brief biography, criticism, and selected bibliography.

Secondary Sources

Paula Blanchard, Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work, 1994

Colby Library Quarterly Special Issue on Jewett, Vol. 22 (March 1986)

Robert L. Gale, A Sarah Orne Jewett Companion, 1999

June Howard, ed., New Essays on "The Country of the Pointed Firs," 1993

Marilyn Sanders Mobley, Folk Roots and Mythic Wings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison: The Cultural Function of Narrative, 1991

Gwen L. Nagel, Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett, 1984

Louis A. Renza, "A White Heron" and the Question of Minor Literature, 1984