Posted by: zhiv | August 11, 2008

A leisurely read through Sarah Orne Jewett

This is a mid-July post that I didn’t quite finish. 

I’m almost done with Sarah Orne Jewett’s Deephaven, which I’m enjoying.  Since I’m trying to make a comeback and am looking for notes and thoughts and little stories to tell, I’ll go through some of the details of my SOJ sequence.

I read Country of the Pointed Firs last spring, when my daughter and I went to Maine looking at colleges.  One of her friends is actually going to Colby, which seems to be a SOJ hotbed of sorts, in a couple of weeks (although she’s going to do the fall semester in France, and start in January).   It’s funny because that some one else’s significant life choice is the result of my eccentric enthusiasm for checking out schools in Maine, but that’s the way things go sometimes.  I really wanted my daughter to apply to Bowdoin, for a number of reasons.  A grad school colleague has the perfect life of a professor there, specializing in the 18th century novel, and on the first day of our tour we went to her freshman seminar on Jane Austen, in cozy good-sized room in the oldest hall on the woodsy campus, where Hawthorne, Longellow, and my grandmother Gertrude Pierce’s presidential forebear, Handsome Frank, attended classes.  In the seminar there were 15 girls exactly like my daughter (the GD), and a quiet guy in a sweatshirt, but women didn’t go there back in Jewett’s day, and it turned out to be a relatively macho, ice hockey campus, Ann Kibbie, Samuel Richardson and Jane Austen aside.  After we toured a bunch of schools the GD stuck to her early decision choice of the NESSAC DFH champ, in Connecticut.  Also, a one-time fledgling screenwriter friend who has written some very nice books, Peter Nichols, was a teacher at Bowdoin a few years ago.  I should write something about Peter and his books–his novel Voyage to the North Star is just extraordinary, and his non-fiction books are great, Evolution’s Captain, Sea Change, and A Voyage Around the World.  In case it’s not obvious, Peter is a bit of a salty dog, almost a character out of Deephaven, and in North Star he combines his knack for sea storytelling with Arctic exploration, which is an extremely tight fit for Bowdoin.   SOJ’s doctor father, the model for the character in A Country Doctor, went to Bowdoin.

So CotPF was an important 2007 book for me, a nice complement to Cather’s My Antonia and The Professor’s House and Wharton’s House of Mirth, which I had read in 06-07, and then even better The Story of an African Farm which I read in the fall.  And then I read A Country Doctor and wrote about it in April.  I just reread it and no comments, which should probably give me pause here; but it’s a little hard to find.  In the Reading Notes from the day before that post I wrote this:

“I’ve had my eye out for Jewett stuff, not really searching too hard, but I saw a nice paperback of A Country Doctor about a month ago.  I was a little surprised to see it, but I grabbed it.  I would say that it was up next on my vacation reading list at the end of last month, but I shoved Mary McCarthy’s TCSK in there.  After I finish this long rambling post I plan to go up and head towards the finish of Country Doctor, so I’ll be writing about it soon.”

After I finished ACD I continued to have my eye out for Jewett stuff, and it wasn’t long afterwards that I struck a bonanza, at one of my favorite local bookstores.  But first I had ordered a copy of Deephaven from, which turned out to be a very pleasing 1993 facsimile from the Old Berwick Historical Society of the 1893 gift edition illustrated by Charles Herbert and Marcia Oakes Woodbury.  The original “was published in a large paper edition (250 numbered copies) and in a smaller format, both with white cloth spines and green cloth backs with gilt lettering and decorations.  How happy (SOJ) would be to know that on its Centennial, the Old Berwick Historical Society is proudly reprinting this now rare edition.”  I might have mentioned elsewhere that one day at Borders I saw that there were not one but two new mass literary editions of ACD, both with introductions that are probably worth reading, which suggests that it’s being taught at colleges, and thus despite the lack of comments on my post, there are probably more readers of ACD than one might think.

As I was saying, the out-turned eye was at one of my favorite bookstores, when I hit a rich vein of Jewett.  This store is the kind of place, with lots of scholarly books, that you might find a tidy collection of an author like SOJ.  It had probably been there for a decent while, because I have been eyeing a copy of Annie Fields’ biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe for a long time, and it seems like Fields’ book might have been part of the same collection.  Fields was the widow of publisher James Fields and had an important Boston literary salon, and she became SOJ’s partner, although who knows what they would have called each other.

So there, up on a high shelf, were a bunch of Jewett books.  I bought a first edition of Jewett’s last book, the historical novel “The Tory Lover,” which cost 20 bucks.  But I also bought one of those “smaller format” copies of the 1893 Houghton Mifflin edition of Deephaven, “with white cloth spines and green cloth backs with gilt lettering and decorations.”  That one, not in perfect, bright white spine condition, but pretty close, cost $25, which seemed reasonable.  On my first trip I took those two away and went off to dive into my “reader’s copy” of Deephaven.

I’ve been back to the store, where there are just a few more Jewett books, not to mention the Fields’ biography of Stowe.  The last time I bought a copy of “Strangers and Wayfarers,” which happens to be volume 65 in “The American Short Story Series,” published by the MSS Information Corporation.  This seems to be an odd, bare bones reprint volume, a 1969 reprint from the 1890 original ($15).  My next target is the “Uncollected Stories of SOJ,” which is sitting on the shelf at the bookstore.

I’ve been stalled on reading that last chapter of Deephaven for some time, but this sketches the ins and outs of my meandering path through Jewett and her work.  I’ll try to write a scattered post on Deephaven soon enough, and the next step will be to take a shot at “The Tory Lover.”  I’m not sure that it will be readable at all, but I had the same misgivings about A Country Doctor, and that one turned out to be very much to my taste.  And I didn’t have very high expectations for Deephaven either, and despite having stalled, it’s not the fault of the book.

What can I say?  I like reading SOJewett’s work.  More to come.


  1. Wow, you have given me lots of leads here for my reading list (and possible ebook publications for my site). I hadn’t heard of many of these authors except SOJ. I read The Country of Pointed Firs last year and loved it. Thank you!

  2. Hi, your blog comes highly recommended. I’m so looking forward reading SOJ. I’ve read quite a bit of Willa Cather and, as you say, I’m sure SOJ will comlement this. Regards, Nicola

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