I’ve written about the first story before. Annie Fields is young and beautiful. At 20 she marries James T. Fields, 17 years older, smart, literary, industrious, affable. They’re a glittering “It couple,” entertaining in a new, American style, and shaping American Literature. William D. Howells, Annie’s age, comes on the scene as a leader of the next literary generation, and he takes over from Fields as editor of The Atlantic. Annie has a poetic spirit, she’s steeped in the classics, and she writes a novel based loosely on the romantic tribulations of James R. Lowell’s life. She sends it to her friend Sophia Hawthorne as a blind submission, and Sophia snubs it. Nathaniel Hawthorne, close to Fields, dies, and relations with Sophia and her children are never the same. Annie despairs of being a poet or a novelist. She tries to concentrate on her journal, but she’s caught up in being a hostess and working with Fields.
And then Charles Dickens arrives for his reading tour. Dickens is a bit sickly and needs rest, but he captivates the Fields, who believe they’re in the presence of a Shakespeare. They live full tilt, all of their senses and experience heightened by the great man. His health is declining, however, as Dickens drives himself and is exhausted by his performances. The Fields are crushed when Dickens has to leave to return to England. Within a year they go to visit him, and see that he is dying. But Dickens gives Annie a new purpose, when he shows her the conditions of the London poor. She determines to return to Boston and to use her energy, influence, and organizational skill to create a unified association of Boston charities and social work. Her relationship with Dickens shows her what she must do with her life. And that’s the first story.
The second story begins with Annie Fields as we left her, a grown woman in her late 30’s, childless, at the height of literary fashion and power, her management of charity work a success. The older generation, the great antebellum writers that she befriended as a young hostess-poet, Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Lowell, is dying off. Her contemporary Howells, along with Henry James, leads the generation reaching literary maturity, and the American Renaissance authors are giving way to realism. And then Fields, in his late 50’s, gets sick. He recovers, but he seems vulnerable for the first time. Along with Fields and Howells, Annie has built her own network of new writers and literary folk, a community she maintains through her correspondence. Howells introduces Annie to a new, young writer from Maine, Sarah Orne Jewett. Sarah has published stories and a successful “local color” novel, Deephaven. She’s working on a novel, based on the life of her father and her own interest in medical studies and pursing a profession. The book will be called “A Country Doctor,” and Sarah’s experience reminds Annie of her own doctor father, who died right at the time she was married.
Fields has a heart attack and makes another slow recovery. Over the course of a difficult year, Annie grows closer to Sarah. Fields is fragile, but they can still expect a quiet retirement, although Annie is a vital, busy woman of 42. And then Fields dies.
Annie is a grieving Boston widow, supported by friends and family. She writes the Life and Letters of JTFields in this first year. As she begins to recover from her loss, she is bonded with young Sarah Jewett. Sarah is both a loving young woman, and a gifted writer who is very serious about her caraft. Sarah becomes Annie’s companion, and as the year following Fields’ death comes to a close, Annie plans to get away, to travel to Europe with Sarah, in much the same way that Fields took her on her own first trip, 20 years before.
Annie and Sarah return and create a routine of writing and living together on Charles Street, with time at the Fields’ beach house, and Sarah’s regular extended visits to her family in Maine. Annie takes a new path with her writing, with her poetic and novelistic ambition long abandoned. She starts to mine her diaries and begins composing biographical pieces on the great writers she has known.
At the same time Sarah’s writing achieves a new depth and maturity. Jewett is now in close relations with Howells and living at the center of the American literary world with Annie. Deephaven was a successful collection of local color sketchwork, and A Country Doctor marked a significant accomplishment, with a more traditional novel structure, but with the heroine’s fate and choices anything but conventional, as she rejects marriage to become a doctor herself. Jewett felt confined, however, by traditional novelistic structure, and realism of the city and society, which Howells was exploring, wasn’t to her taste either. She liked her sketches and characters, the way that her narrator had entered a traditional, changing community in Deephaven. She was good at that, and it felt more honest and real. At the same time she was under the new influence of Annie’s classical education and tastes, and the world of myth and the timeless rhythms of human life. Her relationship with Annie as an older, mature, knowing woman provided her with a central relationship to her new story, one that was much more dynamic than the girlish friendship in Deephaven. Changes in the art world, as Impressionism was gaining a firm footing, showed the vitality of new modes of representation, very similar to Jewett’s tastes.
Under these influences and following her own instincts, SOJewett wrote The Country of the Pointed Firs and composed a masterpiece of proto-modernist fiction. Yes, it is “small and quiet,” but that doesn’t diminish its aims and accomplishments. Like Virginia Woolf’s modern artist Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, Jewett “had her vision,” and it had a non-traditional shape and form, one that spoke to her in the deepest personal ways, while also being pure and timeless and universal. She tapped into the power of nature and myth to create modern art, creating a story that is completely free of traditional narrative constraints. Its similarity to loose sketching and local color is quite deceptive, and the wholeness of the composition is highlighted by the relative disunity of the sketches in Deephaven. Everything in TCotPF serves the purpose of showing contemporary characters pursing the old, interconnected ways in the narrow band of himan life between the forest and the sea, all of it with persistent and powerful mythic undertones. The good folk still move and walk and live in the way of the Greeks, and the pastoral remains the truest literary and painterly window into elemental experience. Simple ways abide, and art can grow organically out of their strength.
The great book was well-received, probably more deeply felt than it was understood. The book expresses the depth of understanding and sympathy that was felt between Annie and Sarah, and they lived their mutual lives with something of the rhythmic simplicity of Jewett’s characters. Jewett next tried a historical novel, The Tory Lover, a new experiement, while Annie’s memoir writing seemed to improve with age. They celebrated 20 years together, and Annie became somewhat elderly, but she retained all of her vitality.
And then Sarah was struck down by a coach, suffering injury to brain and body. Annie grieved all over again, at the pain and suffering of her younger partner. Sarah recovered enough to be comfortable, but she could no longer write. She was ill, and her span would be the same as JT Fields. So the conclusion to the second part is Sarah’s accident, followed quickly in narrative time by her death. At the end another character enters the scene, Willa Cather, the young writer of the new generation, inspired by the accomplishment of Jewett, and in awe of the rich history and life of Annie Fields. Cather is a part of Annie’s small circle after Sarah’s death. It also includes her fellow relics Howells and Henry James. They had all lived as children and teenagers and ambitious young adults in the old days before the Civil War, and now they all saw a corresponding span of 15-20 years in the new century. Annie Fields’ life can be broken into 4 distinct parts: her first 20 years; her 22 years with Fields; her 25 years with Jewett; and her final decade of old age.