Posted by: zhiv | February 9, 2010

Maine Novels: Empire Falls #2, Olive Kitteridge, and Sarah Orne Jewett

Last year I did some reading and study of literary Boston, which probably started with Henry James’s The Bostonians, although Sarah Orne Jewett was out in front of that, as I read Country of the Pointed Firs before we went on our 07 College Tour. I would still highly recommend the Blithedale Romance/Bostonians combo to anybody out there reading 19th century American Lit and looking for interesting books that are just slightly off the beaten path. Right now I’m remembering The Rise of Silas Lapham and thinking I should read another Howells novel this year, but my plate is already so full it’s scary.

But the Boston-New England subcategory of Maine Novels is a good topic for me now, after finishing Empire Falls and Olive Kitteridge before that. I made the connection between Elizabeth Strout and OK and Sarah Orne Jewett and Pointed Firs when I was writing up OK, though I’d like to see some one else make more of it, and I’d love to hear Strout herself discuss Jewett. And Jewett has been in the background recently when I have been studying Kate Chopin and The Awakening. Part of the equation in looking at the nexus of feminism and modernism, and apropos of the topic at hand, are the qualities of a work that enable it to transcend the “local color” category. Per Seyersted notes an important distinction between Jewett and Chopin in his careful analysis of Kate Chopin and the American Realists:

Mrs. Chopin was at least a decade ahead of her time. During the years following America’s silencing of her, “Edith Wharton’s genteel satire and Ellen Glasgow’s moral searchings were the strongest fare that it could take,” as Robert Spiller has observed (1948). Kate Chopin can be seen not only as one of the American Realists of the 1890s, but also as a link in the tradition formed by such distinguished American women authors as Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Willa Cather, and the two just mentioned. One factor uniting these writers is the emphasis on female characters. Another is their concern with values, but here we see a difference between the St. Louisian and the others in that she is less interested than they are in preserving these values. As exemplified in Mrs. Todd in Country of the Pointed Firs, for instance, woman is a rock guarding the old qualities, the men being either weak or dead. To Mrs. Chopin, woman is no more of a rock than is man, being neither better nor worse than he. Mrs. Wharton and Miss Glasgow may have attacked certain aspects of the aristocracies they sprang from, but they also wanted to preserve some of their values. Kate Chopin, on the other hand, was no celebrant of the aristocratic qualities of her own distinguished background. (pg. 192)

“…woman is a rock guarding the old qualities, the men being either weak or dead” is a statement that could certainly be applied to Olive Kitteridge, no?

At any rate, the reason I picked Empire Falls as my next Russo book was because it is a Maine Novel. Or perhaps I should say it is a Maine Novel of sorts. Sarah Orne Jewett writes one type of Maine Novel, although by my count she wrote three of them, and maybe more, and the connection between Jewett and Strout is evident and strong. Before moving on to Russo I’ll mention that the three Jewett novels I’m noting are Deephaven, A Country Doctor, and Country of the Pointed Firs, all of which qualify as Maine Novels. I’ve been thinking lately that my appreciation of A Country Doctor has been growing, and it’s a great place to turn if you’ve read Pointed Firs (and Olive Kitteridge, I guess) and want to read more Jewett. And it’s a very strong, interesting Maine Novel on its own. With Deephaven I’ve been threatening to finish reading the final chapter/story and to write about it for over a year, and let’s hope that the desire to add another notch on the Maine Novels category belt finally puts me over the top.

Richard Russo’s Empire Falls is a completely different type of Maine Novel. It seems at first glance to be more of a Russo novel which happens to be set in Maine This isn’t fair, of course, because there are all sorts of specific details in the town of Empire Falls that identify it with Maine, with the river running through the once-thriving mill town, the church that Miles Roby and his father are painting, the diner he runs, the woods where his brother David lost his arm, and the high school and the football game. The natural world around the town isn’t much explored, but the town itself is well-defined. We get a great sense of the geography and evolution of the specific area in the first part of the book. It’s a view of the growth of industry and moderate prosperity in the heartland of Maine, cut off from the sea, and the distance from the sea is probably what makes it so different from Jewett and Strout. Russo’s characters are always trying to get to the sea, as Miles is dreaming about or escaping to Martha’s Vineyard, and Russo’s new novel is even called “That Old Cape Magic,” and he seems to be engaged in a long term struggle to find a home there, one that he doesn’t seem to feel he quite deserves, not just yet. Let’s just say it was a whole different concept to own a “beach house,” an oceanside home, in Jewett and Mrs. Todd’s day, than it is at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, although Elizabeth Strout seems to make it work easily enough.

But it’s fascinating to apply the “woman is a rock guarding the old qualities, the men being either weak or dead” statement to Empire Falls. That very much seems to be what the novel is about, Russo’s hero Miles challenging himself to overcome his weakness, which he can only do by finally dislodging the malevolent old rock, his nemesis Mrs. Whiting. Empire Falls has a contemporary program not unlike Chopin’s, who is “no celebrant of the aristocratic qualities.” Jewett’s Mrs. Todd and Dunnet Landing are connected to female myth and mysteries and oceanic timelessness, and Firs notes change, but even though it was written in the 1890’s as a proto-modernist text (with no plot), it has a pre-industrial setting (so does To The Lighthouse, by the way). Empire Falls has a post-industrial setting, of course, and it’s one in which the vestiges of aristocracy are tightly grasped by the lone woman survivor, who is still obsessed by “power and control,” trying to give the narrative of the century its final, twisted shape. The men are weak or dead. Comparing Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Whiting goes a long way, and it shows the difference between the 19th century and the 20th century.

I keep settling comfortably into intertextuality, perhaps too much so, where all sorts of books are talking to each other. A major part of Russo’s accomplishment is his conversation with Dickens, which is no small feat. Honoring the dark realism of Richard Yates is one thing, but using Dickens as an effective model works on a whole different level of ambition. Russo bravely poses the question of what would happen if Mrs. Todd were to be replaced by a 20th century Miss Havisham. Great Expectations is easily read into Empire Falls, and it’s a fascinating reflection. In my most recent Dickens studies, which I haven’t finished, typed up, or posted, I noted that I’ve never read Nicholas Nickleby and now might be a good time, and I found a squib saying that the character of Tite Barnacle in Little Dorrit was based on James Stephen, grandfather of Virginia Woolf, causing a disaffection for Dickens in the Stephen family of critics. In the meantime my daughter read Great Expectations not once but twice last year, at the end of the summer on her own, and then in her “study of literature” course introducing the English major at her college. I remember kind of liking Great Expectations, loving Dickens, but GE wasn’t my favorite, not the first time I tried to read it, nor the second, when I made it all the way through. My point of view started changing recently when I read this passage in J. Hillis Miller’s 1958 book on Dickens:

What it took Dickens in 1850 the first hundred pages of David Copperfield to say is presented far more powerfully in the first few pages of Great Expectations, the lonely boy becoming aware of his desolation on the dark marshes in the midst of a hostile universe, standing by the graves of his mother, father, and brothers, aware that he will be beaten by his foster mother when he returns home, and suddenly terrified by the apparition of the “fearful man” “starting up from among the graves.” What had been presented seriatim in the earlier novels is here said with poetic compression. And in following Pip’s adventures we perhaps come closest to the intimate center of Dickens’ apprehension of the world and of his mode of existence within it. Great Expectations makes available, as does no other of Dickens’ novels, the central experiences of the universal Dickensian hero. (pg. 250)

The evolution from David Copperfield to the “poetic” compression of Great Expectations is something I feel like I once knew, but had forgotten. And so, if I’m delving back into Dickens, reading Great Expecations again with new eyes would have to go on that list.

That’s all background to the topic, which is Richard Russo (and Maine Novels), and wondering if Miles Roby is a Dickensian hero in Empire Falls. The primary link is the similarity between Mrs. Whiting and Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham, crystalizing the moment of her betrayal and building Estella as the agent of her revenge, stands as a dangerous “rock guarding the old qualities,” and there’s an easy correspondence to Mrs. Whiting. She has no Estella, however, as her daughter Cyndi goes through life broken and sad and hopelessly in love with Miles, a crippled figuration of the conflict and fracture between C.B. Whiting and his wife Francine, between the Whiting men and the women they marry and subsequently want to kill (paging Disability Studies; Disability Studies, line one). Mrs. Whiting tries to wreak her revenge by freezing Miles in time, by crushing his spirit and boxing him into the small circle of the diner and the town, holding him in place.

My question is about the dark view of overcivilized, conservative womankind oppressing male agency and virility. Again, I don’t know the Dickens text well enough to work it out correctly, but is it suggesting a post-industrial view of culture and capital eventually embodied and aggregated in the feminine, seeking to render the men “weak or dead”? And is this the same dynamic that russo is exploring? Perhaps this is the source of the recent shot at Russo as an anti-feminist, and maybe we shouldn’t blame it on him: let’s blame Dickens, shall we?

But it’s probably best to go back to the beginning, to Maine. The trick, I think, might be to read backwards through Jewett. The loud echo of Great Expectations and mid-19th century Victorian realism to be found in Jewett is in A Country Doctor, not Pointed Firs. Country Doctor is that rare bird, the female bildungsroman, and it works along lines that can be seen as closer to Great Expectations and Empire Falls, rather than Pointed Firs. In this context, Country Doctor is an impressive work and Maine Novel, worth considering carefully. It asks the question gently, saying okay, what if the hero is a woman, what would that do? And that question is formed quite differently than it is in Firs, Olive Kitteridge, or Deephaven for that matter. Nan Prince is a 19th century orphan forced into self definition, just like Pip, and she has a benevolent sponsor in Dr. Leslie. She develops her own expectations, planning to be a doctor herself. She runs into her own Miss Havisham of sorts in her Aunt, who shares her name. Nan Prince the elder can be tied to Mrs. Whiting, a more negative representation of the “rock guarding the old qualities,” a rock against which Nan the Younger is forced to define herself. Nan the elder is single, frustrated, and bitter, seeking power and control through her money and station, just like Mrs. Whiting. In A Country Doctor Nan the Younger grows up near the shore, in a pastoral world akin to Pointed Firs, or so it seems. Let’s just say it’s a lot like South Berwick, Jewett’s home, and Dr. Leslie’s medical practice is more or less the same as her father, Theodore Jewett’s. But when Nan goes off to study medicine and moves to town and lives with her Aunt, if I remember correctly the location is a Maine that is defined by a river, rather than the sea, and it’s a lot more like Empire Falls, though set in the 19th century, before the Whiting saga begins. Considering all this, my point, I guess, is that A Country Doctor, rather surprisingly, provides the best example of a Maine Novel to use as a means of creating a context for the way Empire Falls functions and updates this category. It seems hard enough, at times, to encourage people to read Pointed Firs, and A Country Doctor seems like it must be a bridge too far. But it does have contemporary Bantam and Penguin editions (not to mention Kindle), and it can’t hurt to give it a plug. If you like Olive Kitteridge, you’d like Country of the Pointed Firs. And if you like Empire Falls but are worrying that Richard Russo might be anti-feminist, A Country Doctor might provide some interesting contrasts.


  1. I’m sorry. I know this is supposed to be a great collection of short stories, as it’s recognized well, but the shorts are boring. I think I might have just picked this one up at the wrong time. I’m going through this thing, where I don’t really like fiction in the third person. I’m finding the third person narrative to be irritating, corny, trite. The leaves did this, and the sun did this to the building. It’s trite. It’s exhausted. We all don’t have very much time these days, and save for the awful reason to just stop and smell the shitty roses, I really am finding that fiction has to say something; come out with it already. I’m impatient. I’ll try it again in a month.

  2. Perhaps you, and those who have come upon this blog post, would be interested in knowing about my novel Monhegan Windows. It is set entirely in Maine, almost entirely on Monhegan Island.

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