Friday, May 2, 2014
May 2, 2014: Reading New England Women: Sarah Orne Jewett
[Many of the writers and works that have been “re-discovered” in the academy over the last few decades remain largely and unfortunately unread in our broader society. That’s definitely true for a great many of the wonderful New England women writers we’ve brought back into the canon. So this week, I’ll highlight an exemplary work by five such New England women writers. Check ‘em out!]
On why even an author we do know could use some more collective attention.
If there’s one 19th century New England woman writer with whom 21st century Americans have some familiarity—well, I guess it’d be Emily Dickinson. But not far below the Belle of Amherst in our collective consciousness can be found Sarah Orne Jewett, whose short story cycle The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) is certainly the most famous work of New England regionalist writing, and whose story “A White Heron” (1886) was part of my middle school reading list back in the day (and showed up again as a passage on, as I remember it, the SAT II English reading analysis section). Given that those two relatively well-known works are two more than the other four authors I’ve highlighted in this week’s series have, combined, in our current collective canon, it would seem greedy of me to ask for us to read more Jewett as well.
But I am asking, and for a specific work: Jewett’s novel A Country Doctor (1884). I wrote about Doctor previously in this space, as part of a post on the striking spate of “woman doctor” works and characters within the five years between 1881 and 1886. Jewett’s Doctor Nan Prince is very much in conversation with those other works and characters (likely overtly so, as Henry James named his woman doctor character Dr. Prance in a book published two years after Jewett’s novel), but I would also argue that Jewett’s novel stands out for one particular (and very salient to this week’s series) reason: it represents, from its title on, a unique combination of New England local color and feminism, of tradition and progress, the past and the future. That is, Dr. Nan Prince achieves her personal and professional dreams not by leaving her small New England local community (one in which her dying mother had abandoned her as an infant) but indeed by returning to it, and becoming at the novel’s end a practicing country doctor within that space.
While those qualities make Jewett’s novel unique, impressive, and well worth our reading on its own terms, they also reflect another way to look at New England women’s writing and regionalism more generally. It’s easy, and not inaccurate, to see such writing as deeply rooted in the past, in the traditions and histories that constitute local communities and limit (or at least delineate) the lives and identities of those who live within them. But such a view minimizes, if it does not miss entirely, the ways in which change and growth occur at least as much for such individuals and communities as they do for more obviously modern ones like the 19th century’s rapidly evolving cities. Indeed, what links all of the authors and works I’ve highlighted this week is precisely such intersections of history and future, of tradition and progress, of heritage and change, for all of their focal characters and for the communities—theirs and ours—with which they engage.
April Recap this weekend,
BenPS. What do you think? Other under-read writers or works you’d share?