Posted by: zhiv | December 19, 2009

Today’s Stray Thought (ST): Sarah Orne Jewett, Annie Fields, and the Modern Novel

Happy enough with the last stray thought (ST), and now that I’m checking in here I thought I might do another one. The topic is something that I’ve been working on a little bit, stumbling towards is more like it, for a while now.

Verbivore read Country of the Pointed Firs recently, and did an excellent review of it. I started writing something about my own blogging sequence and how I have a slight regret about some of the books I read just before I started the blog, as there are echoes from that rather active period in some of the earlier posts from the beginning, last year (jan 08). I had gone on a South Africa binge, specifically JM Coetzee, and I wrote about Africa and wanted to do an African Lit challenge, but bailed out. So one of my first posts, on Coetzee’s then newly-published Diary of a Bad Year, was the last gasp of Coetzee reading, after Michael K, Barbarians, Disgrace, and more, and I wish I had blogposts on those books. That fall (07) I also read A Dry White Season by Andre Brink, and started another one of his books. But most importantly, I read The Story of an African Farm, by Olive Schreiner, and it’s unfortunate that I have no post to show for it. I went on to read and post on Schreiner’s biography and followed up my original thought with an extended essay on Schreiner and Virginia Woolf, and the comparison of African Farm to To The Lighthouse. I didn’t quite finish it and it didn’t turn out exactly as I hoped, but I got through the gist of it and set out the basic points, even if it’s in a rather rough state. I still haven’t found any one else making a connection between these two books and writers, but I haven’t looked all that hard. It seems like there must be people who specialize in literature by women who would encounter these things rather routinely in reading through that canon. Maybe I’ll try to look around more carefully through Woolf studies at some point. But if anybody knows a good place to find something on this, please let me know. I could read more Cather, and reading Lee’s books on Cather and Wharton, both of which I have, wouldn’t be a bad way to go.

I was impressed by African Farm as a strong feminist and modernist precursor. For a while now I’ve been thinking of Country of the Pointed Firs in the same way. So that’s my actual topic and stray thought here. Without doing the hard part and figuring it all out and doing the research and writing about it, I thought I’d use my new format to chat about the general thought behind it, and what I’m groping towards.

SOJ’s feminist credentials are firmly established, of course. One note on Jewett (and Annie Fields) is that she’s tied, seemingly, to Willa Cather in a rather direct link. Cather knew Jewett and Fields and wrote about them (142 Charles Street, in “Not Under Forty”) and the influence is clear enough. My general and presumably misguided sense of Cather these days is that she’s a bit of a stealth American contender against the dominant, undisputed feminist modernist champ VWoolf. I guess I’m wondering if the direct link between Jewett and Cather, with Cather actually serving to edit and introduce her work, hasn’t obscured Jewett just slightly. I don’t know Cather well enough, having only read a couple of books (My Antonia, The Professor’s House), to know if she can even be categorized as a modernist. Throw the less-stealthy Edith Wharton in there and look at the Jewett-Wharton-Cather timeline and it’s even more confusing. Perhaps I should mention Hermione Lee as I go through this, as I just noticed that Dorothy acquired her “Biography: a brief introduction,” and I’m a big fan of Ms. Lee. Her biography of Virginia Woolf is extraordinary, and before that she wrote a biography of Cather, and her most recent book is a biography of Wharton. If she somehow starts moving on Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields, I would be a very happy man.

But I’m intrigued by the way in which Country of the Pointed Firs has achieved a sort of classic status, and how it’s a plotless novel. Again, its feminism is obvious. It’s easy to find stuff about the way that mythology works in the book, which is part of its modernism. But I’ve been having trouble finding anybody saying “hey–look here!–doesn’t this Firs book look a whole like a modern novel?” And wouldn’t that discussion start with the fact that it doesn’t have any plot to speak of?

I think I know the reasons why people have approached Firs differently. It’s probably just a late chapter in the slow-growing development of the book and Jewett’s reputation, which was minimized and slighted for a long time. She was categorized as a local color writer and regionalist, and her work started out with that bent. On top of this, she herself said that she wasn’t good at creating plots. Her more traditional female bildungsroman, A Country Doctor, is good and has a solid reputation, but Firs is clearly a superior work. So the lack of plot has been generally viewed as a shortcoming, and something that she was able to overcome. It seems like the fuller, more recent and developing sense of Jewett and Firs is that it was a positive creative choice, and she knew exactly what she was doing, rather than the idea that her practice was a product of her limitations.

Another factor is the similarity of Jewett’s earlier novel Deephaven to Firs. Deephaven is certainly easily seen as a warm up for the later work. My own sense is that Deephaven is the provisional and experimental book that occupies the gray area between local color, regional sketches and novel. Instead I think it is considered the naive and less self-conscious predecessor, a charming, readable, and successful effort by a young writer finding her way. It isn’t thought to be experimental, and is simply impressionistic, and an aggregation of characters and scenes. And yet, it’s still a novel, sort of, and it worked. Jewett followed it up by writing a more traditional novel (if a female bildungsroman can be called traditional), which worked well enough in its own way. And thus Firs is seen as taking a more mature and self-conscious sensibility and depth to the same form as Deephaven, its success as much a matter of ripening as anything else.

But what if Jewett was more knowing and daring when she wrote Deephaven, and she was thinking, ahead of time, that there might be such a thing as a truly satisfying “novel” that lacked a plot, that plotting itself gets in the way of describing human life and relationships as we experience them? Again, these are the steps that lead to the idea that Firs is a work of fulfillment, rather than limitation, and Jewett knew what she was doing and her accomplishment was not just one of mastery, but also one of ambition, that the lasting power and slowly emerging classic status of her book is directly related to its form, which was both nontraditional and rendered successfully. As Woolf and Lily Briscoe would say, she achieved her vision.

I’m less interested in making the argument about the protomodernism of the book, which may not be emphasized, but which seems rather obvious, than I am in trying to trace the sources of Jewett’s bold program. Specifically, I find her relationship with Annie Fields fascinating and wonder about Fields’ influence on the writing and specifically the form of Firs. Firs was conceived and written when the Fields-Jewett relationship was in full bloom, when they had lived and worked together for a number of years. Jewett was known as a talented, established writer and novelist. If A Country Doctor wasn’t a breakthrough book, and didn’t leave the same strong impression as Deephaven, Jewett was still a popular, thoughtful, and serious writer, with substantial literary standing. Jewett seems to be an artist and writer first, generally portrayed as less of an intellectual and experimentalist. Annie Fields, at the same time, is a figure of great literary sophistication, a minor poet and something of a classicist, the hostess of America’s preeminent 19th century literary salon. She was the near contemporary and close associate of W. D. Howells and Henry James. She found and sponsored new writers, like Jewett herself originally (along with Howells), and she had a keen critical sense. While Jewett and Fields together followed closely the development of Howells and James through the 1880s, and Jewett wrote A Country Doctor in 1884 in a similar mode, I wonder if at the end of that decade they weren’t collaborating somehow on the possibility that Jewett might do something different, that Deephaven wasn’t a charming, limited misdirection, but instead pointed the way to something new and bold and worthy.

In my last ST I talked about the Victorian Leslie Stephen laying the groundwork for his daughter’s accomplishment as a modernist not just by his massive literary sophistication, but by his identity and habits of mind as a philosopher, which Woolf immortalized in her portrait of him as Mr. Ramsay. With Jewett I’m trying to grasp a rather similar influence and portrayal in her relationship with Annie Fields. Jewett was of course close to her own father and celebrated him in loving detail in A Country Doctor. Another commonplace in reading Firs, I believe, is some kind of connection between Mrs. Todd in the book and Annie Fields and the nature of the Fields-Jewett relationship. Jewett, perhaps, simplifies the middle-aged widow Annie Fields down to her essence, trying to capture something spiritual and timeless about her character and their relationship.

The relationship forms and grows in an idyllic, traditional green world beside the sea. If I’m connecting Stephen, Ramsay, and To The Lighthouse along with Fields, Mrs. Todd, and Firs, and including their similar settings, I would want to include a comparison of Mrs. Ramsay to Mrs. Todd, who have similar characters, along with Lily Briscoe and the narrator of Firs, both artists. I don’t see a direct connection between Firs and To The Lighthouse, as there was between the latter and African Farm. But I’d be curious to know if Woolf was aware of Jewett. It’s hard to imagine she wouldn’t have been. Annie Fields was friends with Leslie Stephen, and she and Jewett would probably have seen him on their trips to England and Europe. That would be worth tracking down, and I doubt any one has done it: people tend to neglect the Leslie Stephen path to his daughter Virginia. I don’t think it can be said that Jewett has been neglected at all at this point, but it does seem as if her classic book might be more readily categorized as a precursor of modernism, and the creative influence of her partner Annie Fields could be highlighted and analyzed more carefully.



  1. Some interesting discussions of the narrative structure of Country of the Pointed Firs are done by Elizabeth Ammons in her book “Conflicting Stories” and by Paul Petrie in his book “Conscience and Purpose.” I, too, would love to know if Woolf knew of Jewett. Pointed Firs seems almost aleatory in its movements. It is a wonderful book that deserves more attention for its difference from the realist tradition it is usually lumped into.

  2. […] in 1884. Esther, seen as such, is a valuable companion text to The Story of an African Farm, Country of the Pointed Firs, and The Awakening, the story of an independent woman, written by one–except that it […]

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