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New York Public Library's Books of the Century
Okay, the time has finally come for me to make a horrible personal admission. I've had a secret for years now, one that strikes right to the core of my manhood : of an evening, I enjoy a nice cup of tea. Actually, it's an enormous mug and I steep the tea until it looks like coffee, but I still acknowledge how sketchy it all appears. Nor do I imagine my case will be helped if I state that I most often enjoy said beverage on Sunday nights during Booknotes on CSPAN, though as a general matter I do occasionally partake when I sit down to read, after we get the kids to bed. There--I've said it--that monkey's off my back. Why here? Why now? Because, this book may be the sine qua non of tea-sipping books.
Perhaps the central theme that we've been developing over the course of these reviews is the existence of a fundamental tension in human affairs, between the basically feminine desire for security and the basically masculine desire for freedom. We've examined many examples of the latter--everything from Huckleberry Finn to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest--but good examples of the former have been rarer, presumably because I just read fewer women authors. (Though we have found some good examples, try particularly the review of The House of Gentle Men) Now we come to Sarah Orne Jewett's lovely short novel, The Country of Pointed Firs, and the very essence of the book is the value of friendship (particularly female friendship), community, and continuity in providing an atmosphere of security and a bulwark against the encroachments of a changing world.
The semiautobiographical novel tells of a young woman writer spending a summer in the fictional town of Dunnett Landing on the coast of Maine. There she is adopted into a loose knit group of women who weave a web of stories about the town, the surrounding islands and the folks who live, or lived, there. This narrative tradition and the time spent in each others company take on the quality of ritual, and in light of their dismissal of the local pastor, a nearly religious ritual. In addition, Jewett's comparisons of the women to figures out of Greek drama and classical myth gives them a timeless quality. Most of all, there is her portrayal of the women as a phenomenon of Nature, arising organically from, and blending into, the rugged landscape.
The effect of all of this is that as the women speak they seem to be tapping into an eternal tradition. Their voices and stories summoning echoes from the past, not just of Dunnett Landing, but of similar communities across time and space. The term that has apparently been adopted to describe this kind of novel is "fiction of community," and that's a perfect description. There's something wonderfully comforting about the togetherness, shared sense of experience and the act of communal memory that Jewett's stories summon.
The flip side of this however is that the novel, not surprisingly since it is so clearly a response to classic masculine fiction, suffers from some inevitable weaknesses when judged by those standards. It is almost totally formless and plotless, being little more than a collection of reminiscences. It celebrates stasis rather than progress and at some level reflects a genuine and unhealthy fear of human development in general, and of industrialization specifically. Though relentlessly good natured, there is a marked indifference or even hostility to traditional religion. Politics and economics are completely, and unrealistically, absent from the scene.
Just as the "action" of the novel occurs at the very edge of the nation, figuratively outside the bounds of late 19th Century America, so the community it describes is a utopian one that is an alternative to our actual Western culture. Ultimately, that utopia, like most, seems like it might be a nice place to visit but like it would prove stultifying to the human spirit, the longing to discover and to achieve, the desire of the young to create their own place in the world rather than to simply assume a bequeathed place in their parent's. There's always something comforting about maternal unconditional love, but we prefer it in smaller doses; too much becomes cloying and suffocating.
The Country of the Pointed Firs is a comforting place to visit--try it with a big mug of tea by your side--but it's not a place you'd want to live.
N.B. from Stephen Judd : Sarah Orne Jewett is your Seventh Cousin, three times removed. Our lines split around 1642!
-ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "sarah orne jewett"
-Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project
-ETEXT : Country of the Pointed Firs (Bartleby)
-Sarah Orne Jewett Home Historical Site (South Berwick, ME)
-PAL: Perspectives in American Literature : A Research and Reference Guide : Chapter 6: Late Nineteenth Century - Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909)
-Domestic Goddess : Sarah Orne Jewett
-SARAH ORNE JEWETT (1849-1909)(Local Color : 19th-century Regional Writing in the United States)
-SAC LitWeb Sarah Orne Jewett Page
-American Literature Online: Sarah Orne Jewett
-LINKS : Sarah Orne Jewett (About.com)
-LINKS: Resources on Sarah Orne Jewett, American author, and Annie Adams Field. (About.com)
-ESSAY : A REVISITATION OF TRANSCENDENTALISM : WITHIN SARAH ORNE JEWETT'S THE COUNTRY OF THE POINTED FIRS (Melissa Richardson, 1998)
-ESSAY : Journeys in Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs
-ESSAY : Sarah Orne Jewett & the Ghost Story with a note on her influence on H. P. Lovecraft (Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Violet Books)
-ESSAY : HIRED GIRLS AND COUNTRY DOCTORS: WORKING WOMEN IN THE DOMESTIC FICTION OF SARAH ORNE JEWETT AND WILLA CATHER ( Kim Wells, 1998)
-ESSAY : SARAH ORNE JEWETT AND ANNIE ADAMS FIELDS: Boston Marriage and Cultural Nexus
-ESSAY : Maine Women Authors and the Atlantic: The Voice of Local Color (Melanie Law)
-ARCHIVES: "sarah orne jewett" (NY Review of Books)
-Book Group Review : of The Country of the Pointed Firs
-ANNOTATED REVIEW: Jewett, Sarah Orne A Country Doctor (Coulehan, Jack, Medical Humanities)
-REVIEW : of SARAH ORNE JEWETT Her World and Her Work. By Paula Blanchard. (Lisa Alther, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of SARAH ORNE JEWETT A Writer's Life. By Elizabeth Silverthorne (Doris Grumbach, NY Times Book Review)